Eric Rauchway: Chides professors for contributing to global warming





[Eric Rauchway is professor of history at the University of California at Davis, and the author most recently of Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America, soon available in a Hill & Wang paperback. If you want to see him attempt the online scholarly discourse described here, you might have a look at Open University.]

Thrift, piety, and guilt conspire to give me good environmentalist habits. I bicycle to work every day. I periodically walk around our house, turning off lights and computers and the set-top satellite receiver on our television. Our tiny suburban lot has 10 trees on it, half of which we planted since moving in.

But I’m still a carbon-emissions nightmare, because last year I flew almost 50,000 miles, 40,000 of them for work. According to this carbon calculator (the only one I could find that lets you simply enter a total number of air miles), that means I produced 18.4 tons of CO2 by jet travel for my job. The site for An Inconvenient Truth says that the national average is 7.5 tons a year, so with work-related flying alone (i.e., irrespective of taxis, trains, and so forth, let alone my entire personal production of CO2), I’ve produced about two and a half times the ordinary American’s exhalations. No matter how much I also pedal and plant, I’m a global warmer.

Nor am I alone, or even the worst offender. Almost since the beginning of air travel’s commercial availability, academics have been leaving on jet planes. The opening of David Lodge’s Changing Places shows why, as well as why it’s so absurd:

“High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour. They were protected from the thin, cold air by the pressurized cabins of two Boeing 707s, and from the risk of collision by the prudent arrangement of the international air corridors. Although they had never met, the two men were known to each other by name. They were, in fact, in process of exchanging posts for the next six months....”

... we fly: to conferences, either to give papers or to do preliminary screening of job applicants; to other universities, to give invited lectures; to take up temporary appointments in distant places just so we can, however briefly, talk at speed with our closest colleagues whom we otherwise never see.

But now the upswell of concern over global warming alerts us we cannot afford so much of this evidently essential interaction. What can we do?

We can of course carry on informal intellectual exchanges by e-mail, and many of us do — as Lodge’s characters could not, in the old days. I could scarcely have pursued my scholarship during my three years living abroad without the Web.

But e-mail exchanges are private and so not in the spirit of scholarly discourse. We can therefore use more public fora, particularly blogs, for provoking higher-speed, but still substantial and somewhat prepared, academic discourse.

And we can generally publish more in electronic media, including online journals, making formal interaction more speedy. (Even so, the major hold-up in journals is often not printing, but peer review: but that’s a different hot-air-related subject that might also stand e-improvement.)

For this shift to occur, we academics need to agree that we can read digital print, too....

We need to agree that we can stand to watch either other on video through the Internets. More conferences and lectures must occur online, as the Miller Center of Public Affairs series do.

We probably can’t give up glad-handing and personal job interviews altogether: evidently we read an awful lot of each other in these interactions. But if we’re living the life of the mind, we need to do it as much as possible in our heads, and move from the mindset of “Can Blogging Derail your Career?” to “Blogging Can Save the Planet!"




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