Opening Remarks World 2050



Opening Remarks

John Foran

John Foran is Professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies at UCSB, teaching courses on climate change and climate justice, activism and movements for radical social change, and issues of alternatives to development and globalization beyond capitalism. His research and activism are now centered within the global climate justice movement.


Scroll down for talk transcript.


0:00Welcome everyone!
0:03I’m John Foran, co-organizer at
0:05this virtual conference here at UC Santa
0:09Barbara: “The World in 2050: Imagining and
0:12Creating Just Climate Futures,” with Ken
0:15Hiltner. And I do think of us as a
0:19community, or least a community in the
0:22who are involved in this wonderful
0:24experiment together. And I look forward
0:29to our interaction during the three
0:32weeks that the conference is open for
0:35comments, and beyond. Who knows what’s
0:38going to happen? I’m immensely excited
0:40about the possibilities! The virtual
0:43conference aspect is hugely important to
0:46us, and here I want to give full credit to
0:49my partner and co-organizer Ken Hiltner,
0:53who is really architect of the virtual
0:57conference in an academic setting, who
1:00conceived it and overcame many a
1:03technical issue to make it possible to
1:05do this and to open it to the world. And
1:08indeed this is the second such
1:10conference to our knowledge ever done in
1:13this way. You can think of me as the
1:17chief cheerleader of this revolutionary
1:20concept — the idea that we would actually
1:23as academics who work on issues related
1:26to climate change and environment that
1:29we would actually “walk the talk” of the
1:31realities of climate change and that we
1:34would model this and offer it freely to
1:37others. As the conference introduction
1:42says: “We believe that a conference that
1:44takes up the issue of climate change
1:46while simultaneously contributing to the
1:48problem to such a degree through airfare
1:51through aviation and airfare — because it
1:56costs a great deal of money that most
1:58people don’t have to organize such a
2:00conference — is simply unconscionable. The
2:04theme — the world in 2050: imagining and
2:07creating just climate futures — matters a
2:10lot to us.
2:11It comes from our Critical Issues
2:13America program for 2015 and
2:162016, this larger program of which
2:19this conference is the culmination. It is
2:22on the theme of “Climate Futures: This
2:25Changes Everything,” and Ken and I with
2:28many others here at UCSB — faculty,
2:31graduate students, undergraduates —
2:33undertook this about a year ago because
2:37we think there’s no more critical issue
2:39faced by the world, by humanity let alone
2:42America, than our climate future, and
2:47both Ken and I have devoted the last
2:49half decade or more to signaling this
2:52across the humanities and the social
2:54sciences and as far as possible
2:57beyond them. Again to read from the self-
3:03introduction to this conference, “The most
3:06pressing existential issue of the 21st
3:09century for humanity as a whole is the
3:12increasingly grim reality of climate
3:14change and our entry into a new era in
3:17the history of humans on the planet
3:19well signified by the term the”Anthropocene.”
3:22The changing conditions of life
3:25on Earth lie at the center of a storm of
3:28interconnected crises which include
3:31among others the precarity and the great
3:34inequality that the global economy
3:36drives, a widening deficit of political
3:40legitimacy which one need look no further
3:42than the current American election
3:45season of 2016, and cultures scarred by
3:49violence, from the most intimate
3:51interpersonal interactions to the most
3:54global realities of war-making.” But we go on
3:58to say:
3:59″Unlike either the justifiablly
4:00pessimistic critical discussions or the
4:04unrealistically optimistic policy
4:06approaches that increasingly confront, or
4:09indeed ignore each other around the
4:11climate crisis, this conference will
4:14depart from our present ground zero by
4:17asking participants to experiment with
4:20perspectives on the multiple possible
4:22states of the world in mid-century, and
4:25to work back
4:26toward the present in an attempt to
4:29imagine, envision, ultimately enable and
4:34to collaboratively find or create some
4:36of the pathways to a more just — or just
4:40less worse — outcome for humanity by 2050.
4:45So what’s going to happen at this
4:48Actually I don’t know, so much is up to
4:51you, to all of us, and to many others. You
4:54– the audience traditionally speaking — are
4:57more than that: you’re direct participants
5:00in the conversations that we hope these
5:02talks will start. So please involve
5:06yourself with all the passion and
5:08imagination and creativity and loving
5:11activism that you can bring to this,
5:13making it fun as well as serious. There
5:18are some 50 talks, organized into 17 panels,
5:22covering such topics as oceans, cli-fi
5:26(climate fiction), cities, agriculture and
5:30food, technology, climate action, climate
5:34justice, and many others, often
5:37intersecting since “this changes
5:39everything” means that everything affects
5:42everything else, and part of the
5:44challenge is to figure out how, and to use
5:47that knowledge strategically to change
5:49ways,to change things in ways that
5:52ripple outward, long and slow or sudden
5:56and “flashingly” (to create a new word).
5:59There is far from enough diversity, and
6:03no doubt that is our faul, in this
6:06conference and the early stages of doing
6:08this kind of conference in ways that
6:10permit full activation of its deeply
6:13democratic potential. And I feel this. We
6:17do, someone pointed out, have speakers
6:20from six continents and with any luck
6:24we’ll have participants from all seven,
6:26if not also from the nonhuman world
6:29which is our partner in this adventure
6:30(we do have sponsorships from all major
6:33plant and animal groups by the way). We
6:38have some great keynote speakers, and I
6:39want to thank
6:40each of them — Bill McKibben… I’m not going
6:44to try to introduce each of these people —
6:46they’re all extremely significant to me
6:49and I hope you’ll enjoy what they have
6:52to say: Bill McKibben, Margaret Klein
6:56Salamon, Eric Assadurian, Patrick Bond, Wen
7:01Stephenson — all of them have had a major
7:03impact on me as a scholar, as an activist,
7:06as a thinking and feeling
7:09person. We also have two featured panels:
7:13one that Ken is putting together on this
7:17very topic of the movement toward
7:20getting academics to fly less [note: find this at the EHI website] and one
7:24that I’ve put together on the idea that
7:26we need something akin to a wartime
7:29mobilization effort at this point in the
7:32climate crisis. So let the discussion
7:35begin and may it unfold far and wide and
7:39deeply. We look forward to hearing from
7:42you and I feel immense gratitude that
7:45you’ve joined us so that we may inspire
7:47and learn from each other and ultimately
7:50act together to imagine and create the
7:54world we want.
7:56Thank you again.

Ken Hiltner

Ken Hiltner is a Professor of the environmental humanities at UCSB. The Director of the Environmental Humanities Initiative (EHI), Hiltner has appointments in English and Environmental Studies.  He has served as Director of UCSB’s Literature & Environment Center and as the Barron Visiting Professor in the Environment and Humanities at Princeton University.


Scroll down for talk transcript.


0:00 Hi everyone. This is Ken Hiltner. First,
0:03 welcome to our conference. I hope
0:05 that you enjoy it and that you
0:07 watch as many of the talks as you can and
0:09 you take part in the Q&A sessions, which
0:12 we hope will be very exciting. I wanted
0:15 to take just a minute or two
0:17 to talk about why we’ve
0:19 undertaken a conference like this. The first
0:22 reason is environmental.
0:24 Recently UC Santa Barbara did an
0:26 assessment of the carbon footprint for
0:28 the entire campus. We looked at buildings,
0:31 gas and electricity. We looked at the labs.
0:35 We looked at the vehicle fleet. We tried to
0:37 take everything into account. The
0:40 results really surprised me because
0:44 roughly a third of the carbon footprint
0:46 for the campus came just from air travel
0:49 to conferences, talks, meetings and the like.
0:53 To put that in another frame, that’s 55
0:58 million pounds of carbon dioxide or
1:01 equivalent gases expended every year by
1:04 this one campus. Put that in human terms,
1:08 that’s the equivalent of a city of
1:12 27,500 people for an entire year for all
1:17 aspects of their lives in India. That’s
1:19 an astonishing amount of CO2. So
1:24 obviously, one of the reasons that we
1:27 wanted to do a conference like this is to
1:29 cut down on that. This is our second such
1:31 conference. When we did the math for the
1:34 first one, we discovered that its
1:37 carbon footprint was smaller than 1% of
1:40 a traditional conference. But
1:44 there are other reasons, cultural reasons,
1:46 and important ones. Most people on the
1:49 planet will never get in an airplane. In fact,
1:52 only one and twenty people on the planet
1:55 have ever been in an airplane.
1:58 This simple fact summarily excludes
2:02 scholars from all over the developing
2:04 world from taking part in conferences. What I mean by this
2:07 is that the airfare from pretty much
2:09 anywhere in the development world to
2:11 pretty much anywhere in North America,
2:13 for example, often will exceed the
2:16 per-capita income of those countries –
2:17 meaning that scholars have incredibly
2:20 difficult time coming to conferences.
2:23 We’re very pleased that this conference
2:26 has scholars from all six continents
2:29 (though non from Antarctica) and that we have quite a few of them.
2:33 We are also proud of the fact
2:36 that we worked hard to make sure that
2:38 this conference can be viewed all over
2:40 the world, even in places like China,
2:42 where they ban YouTube, which is our
2:45 streaming service. We have kind of worked a
2:47 little work-around that allow folks
2:49 there by way of our website to watch
2:52 the talks. So, I think that’s really important
2:55 open up conferences, which have
2:58 largely been closed-door affairs for a
3:00 long time – and not just to folks in
3:04 different parts of the world, but also for
3:05 different sorts of
3:08 individuals with different
3:10 capabilities and accessibility issues.
3:14 What I mean by that is that in this
3:17 conference anyone can watch it from
3:19 anywhere. You do not have to
3:21 worry about physical accessibility
3:23 hurdles, such as going through an airport.
3:26 We are very pleased for the first time
3:27 that we’ve made the conference entirely
3:31 closed captioned, and all of the talks are
3:34 closed captioned. Most of them have
3:35 been carefully
3:37 closed captioned been by being edited by
3:39 the speaker’s themselves to make sure
3:41 that they are accurate, which I think is just
3:43 wonderful for individuals who are
3:44 deaf or hard-of-hearing. So, a
3:47 conference like this also has the
3:49 ability to be far more inclusive for a
3:52 range of individuals. It is also the
3:55 case that – and this is related to accessibility – that it
3:58 creates an archive
4:00 and the fact that it is entirely open
4:03 means that anyone anywhere can watch
4:06 this talk – that’s something that
4:07 hasn’t really been possible before. So,
4:10 in the case of really terrific conferences,
4:12 where groundbreaking work is
4:15 done, very few people get to
4:17 attend those. And since there is no
4:19 archive often left from them,
4:21 they are very privileged bunch. In this
4:25 case, however, anyone can do this.
4:27 In fact, we’ve opened this
4:29 conference up so that anyone anywhere
4:31 can participate in the Q&A sessions
4:33 as well. We think that’s very important.
4:37 It is also the case that we are
4:41 advocating for this type of conference.
4:43 In fact, we created the White Paper that
4:45 explains how how we did it in case
4:47 people would like to up to follow our
4:49 example – although we would very happy
4:52 if people diverged for our example
4:55 and did something entirely different,
4:57 insofar as they would be thinking
4:59 about how to do a conference
5:01 without air travel – that’s that’s just
5:03 great. But it is the case that
5:06 an institution anywhere in the world now
5:08 has the ability to stage a conference like
5:11 this. Traditionally doing an
5:13 international conference, between
5:15 the honorarium for a keynote
5:17 speaker, or multiple keynote speakers, the travel
5:20 involved, venue, food for dinners,
5:23 and all can be an incredibly expensive
5:25 proposition that institutions
5:27 in the developing world wouldn’t
5:28 necessarily have the ability to do – or
5:31 institutions all over the place.
5:33 We hope that this format allows people
5:35 everywhere to be able to stage
5:37 conferences and not just
5:39 institutions of higher learning, but also groups
5:41 of all sorts. So our hope is that this
5:46 effort to rethink the traditional
5:48 conference for the 21st century will
5:51 have a sufficient number of
5:54 advantages that it will be appealing for
5:56 other folks to experiment with it. But
5:59 you have the opportunity to assess just
6:01 how well something like this works.
6:04 Last time we were very happy that our
6:06 Q&A sessions were very active. In fact,
6:09 one of them had a
6:10 little over 10 times more activity than
6:13 you would traditionally get at a
6:15 face-to-face Q&A session. We’ll see what
6:19 happens this time. I actually have high
6:21 hopes that this is going to be a very
6:22 active conference. It will be open for three
6:25 weeks. We hope that you keep coming back. It
6:28 can, of course, be viewed on any sort of
6:30 device – and it is noteworthy that it can be
6:32 produced on any sort of device. What
6:34 I mean by this is that speakers do
6:37 not have to have very expensive
6:38 equipment. In fact, really all you needed
6:40 was a smartphone. In fact, some people did
6:42 do their talks using just a smartphone.
6:45 So, I will not take your time further. There
6:49 are some really interesting talks that I
6:51 think you would
6:53 rather be watching than listening
6:54 to me. But do give it a chance and see
6:58 how you like this format and and let us
7:00 know and think about, if you’re really
7:04 intrigued by the concept, of maybe doing
7:07 a conference like this or your own.
7:08 Okay, thank you very much and take care.


Note that this panel has an unusual feature: to the right of the videos, below the speaker bios, are unabridged transcripts for both of the talks (scroll down to view them). These transcripts are timestamped so that they can suggest points of interest in the videos. Because they are derived from the closed captioning, they are faithful to the actual talk given, rather than notes that may have been used by the speaker. Transcripts have obvious advantages, as they can be quickly scanned to provide an overview of the talk. Moreover, as video files are huge by comparison (they can be more than ten thousand times larger than a talk transcript), reading rather than watching the talk may be a welcome option if a fast Internet connection is not available. Reading the transcript also obviously uses far less energy than viewing the talk video and consequently is responsible for fewer greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. If this feature proves popular, we will work to implement it for all talks in future NCN conferences.

Q & A

Have questions or comments? Feel free to take part in the Q&A!

Before posting, you must first register. Note that questions and comments can be intended for individual speakers, the entire panel, or anyone who has posted to the Q&A. Respond directly to a particular question/comment by way of the little “reply” below it. The vertical threadlike lines are there to make it easier to see which part of the discussion (i.e. “thread”) you are taking up. You can choose to be notified via email (see below) whenever a question, answer, or comment is posted to this particular Q&A. Because the email notification will contain the new comment in its entirety, you can both follow the discussion as it is unfolding, as well as decide whether you would like to step in at any point. You can choose to receive email notifications for as many of the conference Q&A sessions as you like, as well as stop notifications at any time. Because the Q&A sessions will close at the end of the conference, all email notifications will also end at this time. Although only registered conference participants can pose questions and make comments, Q&A sessions are visible to the public and will remain so after the conference has ended, as we hope that they will become cited resources.

25 replies
  1. Ken Hiltner (UC Santa Barbara) says:

    HI All,

    Many thanks for attending the conference and listening to our opening talks.

    I am firmly of the belief, given the significant environmental and cultural advantages that can come with such an approach, that most conferences in “the world in 2050” will largely take place online. The fact that an online approach can both reduce a conference’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by a factor of a hundred or more while also allowing a range of individuals who would not otherwise be able to attend – because of issues relating to cost, geography, time zones, accessibility, and so forth – full access to the proceedings is, as far as I am concerned, just terrific.

    However, I am less confident (though still hopeful) that the time is right for such an approach to become influential. When I teach Silent Spring, students often astutely observe that Carson’s message was well timed. Had she delivered it ten years prior, in the early 1950s, it is likely that it would have largely been ignored. In the case of an online conference approach, there is little doubt that the technology is now available to make it possible. By 2020, half of the world’s population will personally have the ability to produce and watch high-definition videos of broadcast-quality – thanks to the astonishing proliferation of smartphones. Moreover, as a broad array of social-media services have proven, desktop, laptop, and mobile devices are already facilitating online social interaction for billions of individuals.

    But is the time right for the online conference? Given the optimism surrounding the COP21 late last year, it may be the case that we are, to adapt a phrase used by Bill McKibben in his keynote address for this conference, ready to “walk the talk” and immediately do more to mitigate our global GHG emissions. Moreover, given that traditional, fly-in conferences are likely our profession’s single largest source of GHG emissions, I would like to think that academia would lead the way on this count. Still, I am not sure.

    What do you think, has the time come for the online conference? Perhaps a better and more useful question is to ask what needs to be done to make such conferences ready for widespread adoption? Or, alternately, us ready for them? Specifically, what might we do to improve this conference approach? For example, as is noted above, we have included full transcripts for the two talks on this page (feel free to quickly scroll through mine). Is this a useful inclusion? Or a distraction?

    In general, I would very much appreciate any thoughts that folks have on the subject.


    PS, if you are interested in this nearly-carbon neutral (NCN) conference model, the Q&A session for the opening remarks of our last such conference generated over 13,500 words (i.e. over 55 pages) of discussion of the approach, some of which I rolled into an even longer White Paper / Practical Guide on the NCN model. If you are considering coordinating your own NCN conference – or are simply bored and looking for something to read! – you might want to check it out.

    PPS, if you have not done so already, please consider the signing the flying less petition, which aims to limit academic flying. For more information, see the flying less website and their very helpful list of Frequently Asked Questions.

    • Jeremy Lent, Liology Institute says:

      So exciting to explore the conference! I’m honored to be a panelist.

      In answer to your question about including transcripts on the right side: I think it’s a great opportunity for people to skim talks and see what interests them much faster than experiencing the talk itself. The downside: fewer people might actually watch the video from beginning to end, so there might be a gain in breadth of coverage but a decrease in depth of the experience.

      • Christina Gerhardt, University of Hawai'i at Mānoa says:

        Very much agree with Jeremy Lent – I think it is a *great* idea to include transcripts for numerous reasons, including the ones that Jeremy mentioned. It is good to be able to read the talk, and to skim it before deciding which one to watch and hear in its entirety. In teaching (and training future educators), I constantly reiterate that different formats work better for different participants. So the greater the range offered, the greater the range engaged. —- Separate point: Ken, I really appreciated learning about the recent CO2 audit that UCSB undertook. First: what a great idea!! Second: amazing to learn that conference travel was one of the biggest sources. If I wrote a cli-fi novel, I wd. predict that within our lifetimes air travel will become winnowed to “urgent need only” or “highest price paid.” Of course, how define the former will be interesting to observe. But it is great to have this alternative format!

        • Ken Hiltner (UC Santa Barbara) says:

          Hi Christina,

          Such a great point: that “different formats work better for different participants.” As it turns out, I am dyslexic, which means that my experiences of written and spoken language are very different. That said, I definitely agree with you that offering multiple delivery systems for ideas is an important option. I am still, as I noted in my reply to Jeremy’s comment above, a little anxious over how folks will use these resources, but that strikes me as more of an issue for each individual conference participant rather than its organizers.

          Regarding your second point, I agree that “within our lifetimes air travel will become winnowed to ‘urgent need only’ or ‘highest price paid.'” The interesting thing, of which many of us in the developed world are blissfully unaware, is that it is already a practice limited to the most entitled human beings on the planet. When, in talking to friends, I note that the cost of a roundtrip airline ticket from California to Europe should be closer to $10,000 than to its current $2,000 if we factored in its impact on climate change, the most common retort is that such a correction would result in only the most privileged and wealthy being able to fly. However, as only 5% of the world’s population have ever stepped into an airplane, this is already the case. As frequent flyers – an apt moniker for many academics, given the demands of conference travel – we just don’t like to think about it. But, if we have any hope at all of coming close to (let alone meeting) the ambitious goals of the COP21, we need to, now.


          • Jeremy Lent, Liology Institute says:

            I wonder if it would be possible to test the “breadth vs. depth” hypothesis in a future online conference? One suggestion: randomly select half the talks for transcripts. At the end of the conference, measure how much time was spent on the transcripted videos vs. non-transcripted, and how many different views there were for each type. This should give good information as to whether people used the transcripts to avoid watching the videos or not.

            • Ken Hiltner (UC Santa Barbara) says:

              Hi Jeremy,

              Interesting idea. One definitely worth considering, as we do in fact have the ability to look at how long the talks were viewed.

              It is, of course, possible that the presence of the transcripts might actually encourage folks to watch the videoed talks. At a typical conference (and this goes for this conference as well), we usually decide whether we want to attend a talk based largely on what we know about the speaker, the talk’s title, and a brief abstract. A quick look to the transcripts would give us a much better indicator of talk’s worth to us than any of these. Consequently, skimming a transcript might encourage us to listen to a talk rather than the converse.

              The best way to ascertain this would indeed be to, as you suggest, studying the viewing data.


      • Ken Hiltner (UC Santa Barbara) says:

        Hi Jeremy,

        You have hit on one of my anxieties regarding the inclusion of the transcripts. Namely, as you aptly note, that “there might be a gain in breadth of coverage but a decrease in depth of the experience.”

        On the one hand, I very much like that transcripts are, as I noted in the above header, tiny when compared to video files, therefore both resulting in an even smaller carbon footprint for the NCN conference while also making the talks accessible to those individuals who do not have the benefit of a fast Internet connection.

        However, as you rightly note, this raises a question of just how such transcripts will be used. Initially, I envisioned folks quickly scanning through them for points of interest as a way of deciding whether to view the talk or not. Given that most of us have sat through entire conference panels for the sake of just one talk, only to discover that it was not as relevant to us as we initially imagined, this strikes me as a real timesaver and improvement on the traditional conference format. Including the full talk transcript would also make it easier to cite from it. Incidentally, as they are timestamped, it makes it possible (in fact, requires us) to cite the videoed talk itself.

        A danger stems from the fact that the transcript will fail to capture some of the talk. This is especially obvious with PowerPoint-based presentations, where graphs and images are essential in conveying ideas. In such a case, in just skimming a transcript you would do yourself a real disservice.

        In the end, perhaps, this might be something that should be left to each conference participant.

        What do folks think?


  2. Christina Gerhardt, University of Hawai'i at Mānoa says:

    Dear John and Ken, I am very honored to be a participant in this new forum of a nearly carbon neutral (NCN) conference model. And I very much look forward to the discussion and conversation that emerges from the Q&A sessions. Thank you and all the keynote speakers and fellow conference participants for the papers. Looking forward to engaging. Happy conference!

  3. John Mustol, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, CA. says:

    John and Ken,

    Thank you so very much for your courage and leadership in organizing this conference. It’s wonderful to see people who “walk-the-talk” as you say. And thank you for letting me participate.

  4. Sue Lovell, Griffith University (Qld., Australia) says:

    Thanks for the warm welcome and for the work you’ve put in to significantly address such an important issue. The transcript idea is a wonderful one, too. Often, when listening to speakers and taking notes, it is difficult to spell the names of unfamiliar sources, particularly non-Anglo sources. A transcript provides a way to check on the accuracy of spelling and enables a follow up process.

    • Ken Hiltner (UC Santa Barbara) says:

      Hi Sue,

      Many thanks for your kind words.

      Your point regarding the transcript providing accurate spelling of “unfamiliar sources, particularly non-Anglo sources,” is a great one.

      The inclusion of transcripts is not without controversy, as it creates a permanent archive of all the written talks – which raises a number of interesting questions, as it results in the complete conference proceedings being published online.

      This issue came up in the Q&A for my opening remarks for our last nearly carbon-neutral (NCN) conference. It was perceptively raised in a comment by Molly Hall of the University of Rhode Island:

      “Is there, I wonder, a possible danger that goes with the permanently archived nature of a digital conference platform? Whereas some young graduate student or not as yet tenured junior faculty member may want to test out some riskier ideas without standing permanently behind them (as one would in a publication), they may shy away from possibilities for innovation if the lasting risk of a recorded presentation seems too high. What if the future hiring committee or that colleague that is already gunning to shoot down your application for tenure googles you and finds your less than polished argument on merging quantum physics, cyberpunk fan lit, and Byron’s poetics?”

      If you go to that comment, you will see that a lively discussion ensured, some of which I rolled into the White Paper / Practical Guide to our NCN approach.

      I am curious to hear what other folks think about the inclusion of transcripts, given the interesting issues that it raises.


  5. Sue Lovell, Griffith University (Qld., Australia) says:

    Does anyone know how to access the profile site? I notice my affiliation is missing

    • Ken Hiltner (UC Santa Barbara) says:

      Hi Sue,

      Apologies to anyone else not seeing their affiliation. More than anything else, this conference (and the one that came before it) was imagined as a proof of concept of an idea, as we really wanted to see if an approach like this would work. I mention this as we consequently cobbled the conference together using a range of off-the-shelf software solutions. Unfortunately, not all of these are as intuitive as we would have liked. An example is the registration system.

      In any event, for the benefit of anyone else having this problem, here are the instructions from the registration page: “Once you are logged in (and prior to making your first comment), please select ‘Edit My Profile’ in the upper right of your screen, confirm that ‘Display name publicly as’ is set to your name and institution, and select ‘Update Profile.’ If your name and institution do not appear above your comments, please login and edit your profile.”

      This does, however, point to a larger issue, as what is really needed is a unified software solution that would both make a nearly carbon-neutral (NCN) conference experience like this more intuitive, as well as easier to stage. Our goal is either to create such a package ourselves or, by proving that there is something to this approach, entice a software company to bring such a product to market. Putting together the package ourselves would, to my way of thinking, be preferable, as we could ensure that it remained entirely free of cost and open content. Unfortunately, we have not yet been successful securing funding for the project.


      PS, Sue, no worries; I just revised your profile to include your affiliation!

  6. Erik Assadourian, Worldwatch Institute says:

    Hi Ken,

    A few quick points listening to/reading your introduction talk and comments above. I find the idea of a transcript useful–not sure if it’ll increase or decrease time watching the video. Possibly a mix as has already been suggested–with some talks just being ‘read’ instead. But I find myself going to abstracts anyway before committing to a whole talk so a transcript might even be better. But is this automatically generated or does someone have to craft it? If it adds more work, perhaps the abstract has to play that role.

    Second: I’m amazed (and a bit sad) that these two conferences are the only virtual conferences but I’m glad you’re breaking the path and providing guidance on others who follow. I agree that true costs of flying should be far higher or find some other major barriers to flying. Right now 1st and business class subsidize the airline industry–keeping flights profitable. Perhaps taxing (at 30-50%) these upper level fares would lead to more people flying coach (while also preventing concerted resistance to the measure) and make the airlines less profitable. Of course, that’ll mean fewer airline companies, poorer paid pilots and a downward spiral in comfort and safety probably, but perhaps some of the taxes go to increasing safety oversight and rebuilding more sustainable alternative transport options. All utopian brainstorming of course–I imagine the real scenario is that in the next decades real incomes fall dramatically as climate change derails the consumer economy so airline prices don’t necessarily go up but the number of people who can still afford flying falls from 5% to something more like 1-2%.

    But either way, providing a model now for information sharing across the Internet is a great contribution. The one challenge still is figuring out how to replicate the informal networking opportunities at an in-person conference. Perhaps setting up a few Google Hangout-based ‘Happy Hours’ over the next few weeks (BYOB)? Or if there are major hubs of activity (i.e. cities where there are many registered participants), perhaps some ‘viewing parties’ to watch some of the talks together could be set up? Did you try either of those last year?


    • Ken Hiltner (UC Santa Barbara) says:

      Hi Erik,

      The talk transcripts are derived from the closed captioning, which is initially automatically generated by YouTube using voice recognition technology. Given that one of the advantages of this conference format is that talks can be made more accessible in a variety of ways, it is terrific to have them closed captioned for individuals who are either deaf or hard of hearing. All of our conference talks are closed captioned. Unfortunately, YouTube’s software leaves something to be desired in terms of efficiency. Fortunately, however, YouTube makes their closed captioning editable, so it is easy to correct errors that creep in. Most of the conference speakers either personally edited their talk’s closed captioning or entrusted the job to someone else. In the case of the transcripts on this page, we simply used YouTube’s edited closed captioning file. Since these files exist for all of the talks at the conference (as they are all closed captioned), it would require very little work to convert them to transcripts for every conference talk. An advantage of this approach is, as I noted in the above header, that these transcripts “are faithful to the actual talk given, rather than notes that may have been used by the speaker.” Since many speakers, especially those that use PowerPoints and similar presentations, are no longer reading verbatim from prepared talks, this approach automatically creates an accurate transcript.

      Yes, while teleconferencing and webinars (using Skype,, WebEx, GoToMeeting, Google Hangouts, and similar approaches) are becoming more common, it is surprising that approaches like ours – which uses prerecorded talks and asynchronous Q&A sessions that allow anyone anywhere (irrespective of time zone, financial resources, accessibility issues, etc.) to equally take in the conference – are receiving little or no attention. Hopefully, this will change sooner rather than later.

      Regarding “how to replicate the informal networking opportunities at an in-person conference…[perhaps by]…setting up a few Google Hangout-based ‘Happy Hours,’” I have in fact been giving this very issue some thought since our last NCN conference, although we have not had time to implement it for this conference yet. Since we have participants from all over the globe, time zones present the biggest challenge. Here is my current thinking on the subject from our continually evolving White Paper / Practical Guide on our NCN model:

      When asked for suggestions on how to improve this NCN model after the May 2016 UCSB conference, one of the speakers noted that “I think more focus should be made on having regional/national hubs.” Another asked, “What if there were a 24-hour video café feature, where people could hang out (and schedule times to hangout together as they’d like) to talk in real time?”

      Because the May 2016 UCSB event was imagined as primarily asynchronous in nature, real-time interaction was not a major focus (with the exception of a real-time closing event). However, at future events such interaction could certainly play a role.

      Most of the world can be divided into three blocks comprising six or seven time-zones. An example would be the Americas, as 3 p.m. in most of Brazil (the most eastern part of the two continents) is 9 a.m. in Alaska. Consequently, a two-hour video café that would be open from 9-11 a.m. in Alaska / 4-6 p.m. in Brazil would be reasonably convenient for most of the Americas. A second such six-hour block could include Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. A third Russia, Asia, and Australia. All three of these time blocks would have been well represented at the May 2016 UCSB conference.

      The idea would be to open, via a real-time video conferencing service, three two-hour video cafés on certain days of the NCN conference where, in the words of the above speaker, “people could hang out” and interact casually, perhaps scheduling times to meet. As this speaker further noted, “this would have an added benefit of not leaving a permanent record. I would have availed myself of such a feature.” Of course, participants would be free to visit cafés outside of their regions if the inconvenience of the time difference was accepted. Video conferencing services such as Skype,, and Google Hangouts could be used for this purpose. Note that some of these services are free of cost.


  7. Erik Assadourian, Worldwatch Institute says:

    And John–watching your talk now, what a calculation for the campus! It really shows the climate inequity embedded in the conference model! 27,500 people living their entire lives or academics going to conferences, which they could get 85% of the benefits from in a virtual format (and avoid a whole bunch of flight discomfort). Perhaps the key to making the model work is factoring in a free vacation day to simulate the flying time ‘vacation’: participants can spend a day either sleeping sitting up in a chair or at a movie theater binging on all the latest movies (although maybe the trade-off is that they’d also have to eat a less-than-tasty microwave meal that day as well)! I have to admit I do enjoy the movie binge (though not the toxic food)! The opportunity to ‘consume’ new places and experiences and meet and converse with like-minded people, will of course, be much harder to replicate.

    Also: do you have guidance on how to close caption my talk? Happy to refine if it’s easy to do.


    • Ken Hiltner (UC Santa Barbara) says:

      Hi Erik,

      Since YouTube has already automatically closed captioned your talk, all that you need to do is to edit the CC for accuracy. Fortunately, YouTube makes this process relatively painless. In order to see how this works, I have created a short (5-minute) video that will walk you through the process. You can view it here:


      • Erik Assadourian, Worldwatch Institute says:

        Thanks Ken–just fixed my closed captions. Glad I did. I definitely wasn’t advocating for an egocentric civilization, but an ecocentric one! And Paul Ehrlich will probably be happy his name is no longer Paul air leaks! Feel free to add my CC as transcript along my talk if you want to.


    • John Foran, UC Santa Barbara says:

      What a great idea — the “free vacation day” that one spends not traveling to the conference! Excellent incentive and consolation for those who can’t live without the face to face at the hotel bar…

  8. Susan Dieterlen, Syracuse University says:

    Hi, Ken, John, and all-

    I am delighted to be participating in this groundbreaking conference format! Thank you so much for organizing this and getting the flying-free conference idea off the ground, so to speak. I confess that a major draw for me was the chance to see the online conference from the inside, because I am captivated by the notion of hosting one myself. Conferences remain very closed even as open-access publication grows. This far more democratic format deserves to become the standard.

    A few other notes:
    Transcripts: I like having the transcript to refer back to – I think this encourages people to use the presentations in a more thoughtful way (for example, I’m writing a blog post that will refer to points from Erik’s and Bill’s keynotes, and I’ll use the transcripts to verify I’ve got the correct terms and references). Also I’ve noticed that my 20-something students prefer watching video over reading, while many people my age (40s) choose to read over watching a video – nice to accommodate both preferences. And as Christina (I think) notes above, this also accommodates different learning styles.

    Current Q&A format vs. in person/real time: I agree with the points made about the value of real-time and face to face interaction, but I’m also seeing that there’s a depth to the Q&A here that I don’t experience in “normal” conferences. It is a relief to be free of the power dynamic that often lies just below the surface in the academic Q&A, plus the time constraints. Many of us are uncomfortable speaking in a roomful of strangers, but are happy to post something in writing. I’ve found this to be a pleasant surprise about the format here.

    Length of conference: I’ve been wondering about the multi-week window. Did you debate about this length? I see a trade-off between the intensity and immediacy of a shorter window and the chance for greater participation and perhaps more thoughtful interaction of a longer window. I’m experiencing this conference in small chunks between my regular work activities, similar to the way I experience Facebook. This is really different from the usual conference experience of 2-3 days of “conference world,” totally separate from the normal day-to-day. Do we all think this makes a difference in the interactions or value of the experience here? I could see both positive and negative aspects to this, so I’m curious what others are thinking.

    Continuing online presence of videos and transcripts: Final note is that this format makes the conference visible to outsiders in a way that is simply not possible with in-person conferences, and this too can lower barriers to participation. A few years ago I taught a research methods class that included an introduction to conferences and participating in them. I could see these online conference sites as outstandingly useful resources for such a class – a very nonthreatening way for students to see what goes on. The similarity to YouTube and Facebook would make the whole idea more appealing to them as well – a medium they already know well.


    • Ken Hiltner (UC Santa Barbara) says:

      Hi Susan,

      I agree that, with respect to this approach, “there’s a depth to the Q&A…[not experienced]…in ‘normal’ conferences.” In an easy comparison, when the number of words spoken at a traditional Q&A is measured against those written at one like this, the traditional approach comes up way short. At our last NCN conference, the average Q&A generated three times more discussion than a standard 15-minute face-to-face session. One generated ten times as much. But this doesn’t capture the “depth” (to use your apt term) of what is happening here, as the questions, answers, and comments seem to me to be more thoughtful, no doubt because folks have time to think them over before putting them to paper (or should I say to “screen”?). I happen to really delight in reading good dialogue in fiction. One of the joys comes from the fact that it is often just too good to have been spoken in real-time. And it wasn’t, as the author had the benefit of time in writing and revising. In shifting from the spoken to written word in this sort of Q&A, we have the same luxury.

      Regarding “the power dynamic that often lies just below the surface in the academic Q&A,” we debated whether to have speakers sign in with their academic rank or position (i.e. “Ken Hiltner, _______, UC Santa Barbara,” with the blank filled with “Professor,” “Ph.D. Candidate,” “Lecturer,” etc.). We decided to drop the titles in the hope of making conferences of this sort more egalitarian, which in a range of ways was one of our central goals. Unless you happen to know the person (or go to the trouble of looking up their bio), a comment can thus be judged on its merit, rather than its author’s position or rank.

      Thinking back on when I was a graduate student, I can remember on more than one occasion wanting to ask a question at a conference but feeling reluctant to do so, esp as some Q&A participants spoke with such intimidating authority (sometimes, I am afraid, this seemed to be their intention). Unasked, the question stayed with me for awhile, becoming more developed and refined. After an hour or two of floating around in my head, it would finally reach a form that was polished enough that I kicked myself for not having asked it when I had the opportunity. At a conference of this sort, such an opportunity doesn’t slip away in even a day or two.

      Yes, we did indeed debate the conference length. Two factors in particular influenced the decision. First, because from the start we imagined this sort of conference as, unconstrained by time zones, being truly international, the back-and-forth of an exchange between folks half way around the world from each other could easily take a week. Since it may well take a while for us to identify and view interesting talks before such exchanges can even take place, a multi-week conference seemed to make sense. Second, since many of the participants may be busy with other things (I am teaching four classes this term…), not asking them to commit a single, short block of time to the event seemed to make sense.

      But this really raises the bigger question that you touched on: How might one best attend a conference of this type? At our first event of this sort in May, a number of participants blocked out, as they would have for a traditional conference, two or three days for the event. They generally reported that it worked reasonably well.

      However, I am not so sure that a conventional approach to conference attendance works best for an unconventional conference approach. It does not, for example, allow for week-long exchanges across time zones. Or open up the possibility, as it did for me, of attending a conference during a busy academic term. Consequently, I believe that your approach (or something close to it) may be more fruitful: “I’m experiencing this conference in small chunks between my regular work activities, similar to the way I experience Facebook. This is really different from the usual conference experience of 2-3 days of ‘conference world,’ totally separate from the normal day-to-day.” In our White Paper for this NCN approach, I argue that a conference of this sort is in fact a form of social media. Consequently, it is not surprising that, as you note, we may experience it like Facebook. For example, since we have built in the option of being notified whenever someone replies to one of our comments in a Q&A session, this may prompt us to contribute rather than waiting for time that we have blocked out on our calendar.

      Finally, I agree that our students (and millennials more generally, as they have matured alongside social networking) may find this conference approach particularly appealing.

      It is interesting, as I jumped into this project for entirely environmental reasons. However, questions and comments like yours have caused me to realize that doing so opened a can of worms on a cultural practice that I simply took for granted, even though it is a central part of our profession.


      • Susan Dieterlen, Syracuse University says:

        Many excellent points, Ken. The NCN format seems like it really is a chance to remake the conference experience. Exciting and in my opinion, overdue for a renovation! I wonder if and how response to the conference call for submissions would differ if the event was framed as a temporary social media community (or a catchier version of that) rather than a different kind of conference. Probably you get a lot of early adopters in this format anyway, and there’s always the risk of scaring off too many people by sounding too out there and/or sounding like something irrelevant to climbing the P&T ladder. I imagine that last point is a concern for many, whether this counts as a “real” conference (which is ridiculous – peer review is peer review). Your points about greater depth and thoughtfulness in dialogue are really good ones for anyone trying to make that case to a hiring or tenure committee. Plenty of universities have cut travel funding to the bone, so this no-travel idea should have a receptive audience.

        I will have a look at the white paper! Thanks again-

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