My carbon offset piggybank: Thoughts on sustainability and professional conference-going (Part 1)

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fruit at market

Even where local food is abundant (as at the Monterey Farmers Market, shown here) sourcing conference meals locally can be a logistical challenge. Photo credit: Flickr user Peter Andersson.

November 1 was the deadline for participants in next spring’s National Council on Public History conference to register in order to secure a place in the program. I’m guessing that that has gotten many of us thinking about flight and hotel arrangements.  And I’m also guessing—or hoping—that I’m not the only one for whom this raises questions about how my cross-country journey and my stay in a nice hotel relate to this year’s conference theme of “Sustainable Public History.”  So I thought it was worth addressing that environmental elephant in the professional room.  How can we bring our collective practices more in line with the goal of using energy more thoughtfully and efficiently?

For me, becoming more aware of my energy choices and more actively involved in changing them has been a gradual process which has intensified over the past decade.  Over time, it has gotten simpler in some ways but more complicated in others.  Sometimes it just helps when you finally face up to the ugly truth of how energy-intensive and petroleum-dependent our lives really are.  But making consequential changes can be astonishingly hard.  Conference-going is a case in point.

There are many ways to “green” a professional meeting, and all of them involve a careful balancing of costs, feasibility, and demands on staff and volunteer time.  NCPH’s Program Director Stephanie Rowe will be sharing some of those behind-the-scenes decisions with us here on History@Work soon.   Suffice it to say that it’s never as simple as you might think to have all locally-sourced food at a conference or to use public transportation for all field trips.  NCPH has been working toward these kinds of changes for several years, as well as convening conversations about how the content of our work relates to concerns about energy use and climate change.  (Earlier this year, Leah Glaser wrote about some of these conversations and the NCPH Sustainability Task Force that emerged from them in 2012.)  Our 2014 conference theme will throw more of a spotlight on those concerns, but in many ways we’re still at the stage of clarifying our questions and principles, something that we hope to nudge along here in the blog in the coming months.

people at reception

There are no substitutes for the collegial encounters of a face-to-face conference. Photo credit: NCPH.

The greenest meeting of all, of course, would be a virtual one, which would still require electricity to bring people into communication but wouldn’t involve physically transporting hundreds of people hundreds or thousands of miles.  But after the first heady rush of the Web 2.0 era, which seemed to promise a whole new kind of conference-going, I think most of us have recognized that no amount of digital technology can substitute for the human energy and synergy that can happen with a face-to-face encounter.  As then-President of the American Society for Environmental History Nancy Langston wrote when the ASEH was wrestling with these same questions in 2007, “We need the warmth, stimulation, and engagement we only get in the presence of another person.”

NCPH has benefited from the experience of ASEH, a sister organization whose mission has made it particularly attentive to the environmental implications of how it does business.  In addition to having a committee and a policy on sustainability, ASEH has a space on its conference registration form for making a voluntary contribution to offsetting the carbon footprint of the conference.  Those contributions are pooled and the organization then chooses a project to support through the offset company Clear Sky Climate Solutions (here’s last year’s).  In 2011, ASEH also initiated “sustainability audits” for its conferences–that is, quantifying the carbon footprint of the meetings.

NCPH hasn’t quite taken a step yet toward collectively purchasing offsets or doing carbon audits, although those are two of the ideas currently under discussion.  But in the spirit of moving that discussion along a little further, I wanted to put out a challenge here to my fellow conference-goers:  How many people will join me in at least finding out the cost of—and perhaps also buying—individual carbon offsets to counter the greenhouse gases generated by our conference transportation?

In Part 2:  Thinking about offsets

~ Cathy Stanton is Digital Media Editor for the National Council on Public History.

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