How can we reduce conferences’ carbon footprints?

, , , ,

Editors’ Note: This is one of two posts by leaders of the National Council on Public History (NCPH)’s Committee on Environmental Sustainability. You can get involved by attending the Green Meetings Working Group Session on Saturday, March 21, at the annual meeting in Atlanta, Georgia.

In what ways do you think your travel to the upcoming National Council on Public History (NCPH) Annual Meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, affects the environment? For most of us, the biggest climatological impact we have begins when we buy an airplane ticket to meet in Atlanta. That simple act sets in motion activities that result in the release of large amounts of CO2 gasses—more in most cases than the average American’s car releases in a year and at high atmospheric levels that compound the damage. What steps can the NCPH and its members take to mitigate this damage?

One of the many forms of travel that is used by conference attendees. Credit: Anugrah Lohiya via Pexels

In 2007, Environment Canada’s Environmental Affairs Division published its Green Meeting Guide which outlined a host of policy ideas to reduce a meeting’s carbon footprint. Two years later, the United Nations produced its own guide. Since then, a growing number of academic and professional societies have begun to look at their own conferences and meetings in a new light. As members fly across land and sea to attend conferences—and do so specifically for the purpose of seeing friends and colleagues and professional networking—their planes release CO2, meaning that conferences and meetings have specific and identifiable environmental impacts. That is a pretty disturbing fact, and one that has led many to throw their hands up in frustration. Meetings and conferences are facts of our lives. They are informative, socially rewarding, and often professionally necessary. They are not going anywhere, but that does not mean we are stuck with a status quo that is daily ensuring that large portions of the planet’s landmass will soon be uninhabitable for millions of people, often the least privileged among us. Something is going to change one way another—the question is will we act, or will we be acted upon?

Committee on Environmental Sustainability Report

In response to this powerful and important challenge, the NCPH Board of Directors charged the NCPH Committee on Environmental Sustainability (CoES) to draft a report looking into how we—all of us—can reduce the carbon footprints of NCPH meetings. That report exists now in draft form and has been shared with the board and revisions are underway. That report does two things. First, it reviews the state of the literature on what has come to be called “Green Meetings.” The main thrust of much of the writing has been to advocate for curbing face-to-face meetings in favor of digital ones. The argument is that if people can meet virtually, then there is no need for air travel. That move would certainly reduce a group of society’s CO2 impact and the ever-climbing cost of attending meetings (a concern with which many societies are always grappling). Reducing cost and impact seems to be a twofer on its face, but CoES members felt that the logic and value of face-to-face meetings was just too significant for digital solutions to be the exclusive answer—at least for public history. Digital approaches and enhancements are of great value, but for now, we want them to work to improve face-to-face meetings, not replace them. Going exclusively digital also really just trades one form of inequality for another. So, if we not getting on the digital bandwagon that is so much a part of the green meetings literature, we wish instead to open a high-level discussion over how and where we hold meetings, and how we attend them.

The biggest issue to consider is where large events like the annual meeting convene. NCPH already balances a complicated set of variables in selecting locations. Staff members work with a contractor who takes into consideration the many political and social issues that concern NCPH and its members and vets locations accordingly. Green practices are already on that list and picking convention centers on the better side of industry standards for recycling and energy usage has been part of the mix. But that does not address the carbon elephant in the room—travel. Is there a way to select locations that facilitate ground transportation for the maximum number of people? Are there systems that would facilitate people’s ability to coordinate their travel? Is there a way to put more energy into regional Mini-Cons to localize participation? But would doing so run the risk of fracturing NCPH and losing a national character? These are some of the factors with which the CoES’ Green Meetings draft report deals.

This post is more than an update on our work and draft report. It is also an invitation and a call to action. Want to be a part of the conversation in person? There will be a Green Meetings working group session at Atlanta and I encourage you to be part of that session. We have worked to keep this discussion and reporting process as open and collaborative as possible, knowing that these issues affect everyone and that there is an enormous amount of collective wisdom and experience among NCPH membership. The goal is to shift this whole discussion from being one primarily about logistics into being something more fully rooted in the skills and resources of public historians. In short, let’s approach this as a public history problem.

Short-Term Solutions

In the meantime, there are many small but significant actions we can all take as individuals to reduce the conference’s carbon footprint and our own as well. Rather than considering these as tiny drops in a huge ocean, I encourage you to consider them preparatory actions for a not-so-distant future of more limited resources. When planning for the conference, consider packing items like silverware, a cup, and a water bottle so as to avoid single-use plastics. While at the conference, avoid disposables and paper where possible. Also, before booking a flight to Atlanta, look into manageable travel options aside from air travel. Let us know if you come up with some particularly creative alternatives!

What it comes down to is this: the climate that structures life on the planet is permanently changed and is continuing to change. Industrialized societies are the primary cause and people living in those societies are going to see radical changes in how they have been living their lives. It is real, it is happening (faster in most cases than politically massaged warnings have suggested), and all of us have to begin changing how we enact nearly every facet of our daily lives, including our work as public historians. This Ezra Klein Show podcast interview with journalist David Wallace-Wells is a good introduction to the gravity of the matter. Reconsidering how meetings take place may seem a small, and even privileged, concern while Australia burns and as many as 500 million animals have perished. Indeed, in most respects it is. But if we can rethink—as a community—how we handle meetings, we have a chance to consider a host of related issues and begin to set in motion ways to adapt our entire professional practice to a changed world. If we harness our collective wisdom and experience, we can integrate climate realities more fully into everything we do.

~Philip Levy is a Professor of history University of South Florida. His work has focused on how American historical places and landscapes functioned and have been interpreted as historical sites. Much of his work stems from historical archaeology and has dealt extensively with the places of George Washington’s life. He is the current co-chair of the National Council on Public History’s Committee on Environmental Sustainability.

~Alena Pirok is an assistant professor in the history department at Georgia Southern University. Her work looks at the relationship between ghostlore and historical place. Her book manuscript, “Haunts in History Land: The Uncanny History of Colonial Williamsburg” explores how locals’ used casual hauntings to explain Williamsburg, Virginia’s historical identity, and the idea of haunted space.

~Carolyn Barske Crawford is the director of the Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area and an affiliated faculty member in the UNA Department of History. Dr. Barske Crawford holds a bachelor’s degree from Sewanee: The University of the South, a master’s degree from Northeastern University and a doctorate from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.