Panel 1: Flying and Focusing on the Everyday



Panel 1: Flying and Focusing on the Everyday

The Inner Lives of Climate Scientists

Peter Kalmus, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (speaking on his own behalf)

Climate scientists routinely attend talks about the rapidly dying biosphere after which we ask a few polite questions and then shuffle back to our offices. We also routinely have some of the largest carbon footprints of any humans on Earth due to frequent flights to conferences and meetings. This talk  discusses these bizarre tribal practices and inner lives of climate scientists, employing a combination of anecdote and survey (more).

A Strategy for Flying Less in Academic Communities

Parke Wilde, Tufts University

This presentation will (a) briefly review the climate impact of flying, (b) explain the strategic focus on university and research communities, (c) review the wonderful diversity of methods available for universities and professional associations to reduce flying without greatly impairing academic research productivity or quality of life, and (d) summarize responses to common questions or objections that arise in conversations with academics about this issue (more).

The Nature of  the “Less than Meaningless” and “Self-righteous, Self-referential, Ascetic Bullshit” in the Anthropocene

Joseph Nevins, Vassar College

This paper interrogates four major ideas: 1) the implicit assumption that nature only unfolds on one scale—that of the biosphere; 2) an understanding of nature as singular, rather than plural; 3) a perception of the individual and collective as distinct; and 4) a failure to appreciate that “nature” is produced in such way that it is inextricably tied to power and inequality (more).

Q & A

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

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38 replies
    • Ken Hiltner (UC Santa Barbara) says:


      First, let me give a plug to the flying less petition that you and Joe Nevins, who is also on this panel, organized.

      Great job in providing an overview of the problem. The stats are truly illuminating, as is your explanation of factors like radiative forcing. Everyone attending this conference should watch this talk – and sign the abovementioned petition. They should also check out the informative Yes! Magazine article by Peter Kalmus, also on this panel, that you reference.

      Regarding just how big the problem is in academia, my system, the University of California (UC), really helps to make your point. In November 2013, the UC pledged that its buildings and vehicle fleet would, with respect to greenhouse gases (GHGs), become emission-free by 2025. While this is a laudable goal – the UC was the first university system to ever make such a pledge – there is something missing from this timeline: a promise to also reduce the emissions from commuting and air travel, which constitute about 25 percent of the carbon footprint of the UC. Because there is no quick technological fix for this issue on the horizon, the UC has not committed to eliminate these emissions until 2050. Thus, if the UC achieves its goal of carbon neutrality for its buildings and vehicle fleet by 2025 (which it may well, or at least come close), it will also mean that travel to and from talks and conferences will then be one of its two largest GHG emission sources

      On the other hand, if we transition into nearly carbon-free conferences (like this one) now, this enormous problem could be greatly reduced before 2025…

      Also, great job in exploring the many ways that how universities and associations can reduce flying. This was really a well considered discussion.

      So, to finally (!) get to my question, if you could suggest just two (or three at the most) things that we in the academy could personally do right now to help with this flying issue, what would they be?


      • Parke Wilde, Tufts University says:

        The question, “what can we do?,” always deserves an answer that is both personal and political.

        Personal. Set a goal for your own flying reduction. Then, pursue your goal with a sense of joy and liberation rather than ascetic deprivation. Enjoy your time with family and friends, your writing time, your connections with the diversity and sense of place in your own community and occasional travel to other places that you can reach by train and bus. If you remain an occasional flyer, lengthen your stay in your destination and drink deeply of the privilege of flying.

        Political. Please support our project (, to which Ken linked, encouraging universities and professional associations also to set goals and measure progress toward flying reduction. We recognize that no academic operates in a vacuum. Our institutions matter.

    • Joseph Nevins says:

      Hi, Parke,

      Even though you and I have discussed many times the issues you explore in your talk, I still learned a lot from it. So thank you.

      One thing I want to ask you about relates to your work as an economist. I once heard an environmental economist make the argument that personal decisions to consume (or not to consume) this or that really don’t make a difference in terms of the overall consumption of a particular product. He want on to say that this was especially important for things that are considered “vital” to every life, and he used the example of driving. If many people, he argued, were to decide to forego driving for environmental reasons, it would only lead to lower gas prices allowing those previously priced out of consuming gas above a particular level to now being able to buy more. (While I didn’t get a chance to ask him, I assume that he would admit that were the number of “boycotters” to grow to a sufficiently large number, their choices would turn out to matter–not least because the ability of non-boycotters to consume is limited.)

      Clearly, part of the problem is that the price of gas doesn’t equal its (socio-ecological) “cost.” Still I’m wondering what role you see–in terms of market mechanisms–for consumers to drive ecological change. (In asking this question, I’m implicitly making a distinction between consumers and citizens–citizens in the sense of people acting as members of a society or polity. In this regard, I’m asking whether you see, from an economic perspective, a role for (mere) consumers. Or can consumers only be effective if they refuse to limit themselves as such, if they act in concert with one another in order to effect policy changes–as consumers and citizens in other words?

      • Parke Wilde, Tufts University says:

        Joe, those are such great comments and questions!

        I think my profession usually does a terrible job communicating across discipline boundaries. Everything that is most profoundly true and wise in my profession can be argued quite well in plain language. If we communicated better, you would recognize our main points as familiar and more similar to your own thinking.

        For example, most of your talk in this session is a perceptive reflection on microbehavior and macrobehavior. You ask whether individual flying behavior is “self-referential bullshit” and conclude that surely our individuals behavior must add up to a large impact. Now, economists do not usually use the word “bullshit” in their academic discourse (for that matter, we rarely use the word “discourse” in our academic discourse). But your main point is delightfully similar to the Nobel Prize winning work by Thomas Schelling, whose book Micromotives and Macrobehavior in part inspired me to become an economist.

        I totally know what your environmental economist meant to say, but by no means does it imply that demand changes have no influence. Think of the traditional “Marshallian cross” of an upward sloping supply curve and downward sloping demand curve for driving. If many people forego driving for environmental reasons, demand shifts inward. The environmental economist is correct that this could lower the price of driving (you give the example of lowering the price of gasoline), but the effect still is to lower the total quantity of driving. For example, if demand shifted left by 20%, it is possible that the total amount of driving would fall only 10%. The fact that prices fall when demand changes only partly moderates the main effect of the demand reduction, never reversing it.

        Anybody who thinks about the environment and climate change should wish for good public policies. A carbon tax is a great example. There are many other policy options that are more cumbersome than a carbon tax, but, if they are more politically feasible, I might like them too. But none of us should sit around waiting for a carbon tax.

        In our #flyingless campaign, we are trying something new. This conference is trying something new. If somebody claims that this effort violates the sound advice of environmental economics, I call “bullshit.”


  1. Peter Kalmus says:

    This is going to be a fun few weeks exploring the talks here and interacting with the other participants. I’m looking forward to some good conversations, and also establishing the foundations for future collaboration. There are lots of ways for humanists and scientists to interact fruitfully on these issues! Let’s get to work.

    In my talk, I give an overview of the human experience of being a climate scientist. I took a survey of my Earth scientist colleagues, and discovered that scientist want to speak out more on the need for climate action, but feel that it’s too risky. I conclude that the time is ripe to change this culture: let’s encourage Earth scientists to speak out more. You can play a part by thinking about why / how (or why not / how not) scientists should (or should not) speak out, and writing about this — especially in venues scientists are likely to read. Maybe a “News and Views” in Nature? An Op Ed in the New York Times? What’s a useful way for humanists and scientists to have this conversation?

    There are a few other issues I’d love to delve into, that didn’t fit into my 16 minute talk. But before I say what those are, I think I’ll poke around the conference and see what you guys have been up to. I hope I can understand your language…

    • Ken Hiltner (UC Santa Barbara) says:


      First, as an urban homesteader myself, I love the compost pile and the message it sends!

      While watching your talk, I realized a benefit of pre-recorded conference presentations that had not occurred to me: the ability to go back and repeat something. I honestly didn’t think I heard you correctly at first when you said that you reduced your personal carbon footprint to one tenth its original. So, I went back 10 or 15 seconds to confirm. Once people find out that I am an eco-guy, one of the questions I am inevitably asked is what can any one person do to help mitigate climate change (incidentally Joe Nevins has a very interesting talk on this page taking up this issue). As you rightly note, a few major lifestyle changes come to mind, such as eliminating flying and adopting a plant-based diet. (Let me take the opportunity to give a free plug to the documentary Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret, as it does a good job of explaining how what we eat impacts our planet’s climate.)

      Related to your personal lifestyle changes, I could not agree more with your suggestion that humanity must rethink what constitutes a good life. Listening to you describe your life changes, I couldn’t help but think that they have resulted in a better life. Not just a more environmentally sound one, but a more rewarding life. Is that accurate? If so, it is a wonderful message, as so many people believe that personally taking steps to mitigate climate change will result in a less desirable rather than fuller life.

      Your poll is fascinating; your conclusion that it is not only ok for climate scientists to become advocates, but that they have a responsibility to do so really sounds right to me. But will they? Maybe another way of asking this is how can they be encouraged to do so?

      (Also, I will be responding to your excellent points regarding my opening talk directly.)


      • Peter Kalmus says:

        Hi Ken,

        Thanks for your comment. Yes, it wasn’t supposed to be the main point of my talk, but it’s true that I’ve reduced my personal emissions by 1/10th, and that on balance I prefer life without all the fossil fuel, for a variety of reasons. I think the reasons for doing this are interesting and I could have made this the focus of my paper. A lot of people assume I did it to keep my emissions out of the air, but this is completely wrong. Instead, I do it because
        1. I like it better
        2. I was curious to see if I could do it, and if I’d like it
        3. I want to tell a new story with my life (I think the most authentic stories we tell are through our lives, not our words)
        4. I want to allign my actions with my principles. I believe that this kind of alignment is actually a wellspring of happiness in and of itself, and that when a person lives against the grain of their deepest beliefs, it’s a kind of suffering. But then, what is happiness?

        For technical details on how I did this reduction, see this article. I’d also like to point out that even after my reductions, I still emit about five times as much as the average Kenyan! I think it will be easier to go “all the way” after US society catches up a little.

        I also need to say that I actually dislike the film “Cowspiracy”! for two reasons. First and foremost, the film gets its main fact completely wrong. Livestock agriculture is responsible for something like 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions, not 51% as the film claims. (Note by the way that the fact that film says “51%” instead of “50%” is a sure sign of a complete lack of numeracy.) As soon as I saw the film, I dug up the “scientific” paper it’s based on, which turned out to be the worst kind of junk science imaginable. I thought of writing something about this myself, but then I found this excellent article which says everything I would have said.

        I think that anyone engaging with the public as this filmmaker is doing has an ethical responsibility to do everything possible to get his or her facts right. Instead, this filmmaker found some garbage that supported the argument he wanted to make, and he went with it. I personally find this abuse of science to be morally repugnant. You, and many other smart people like you, were implicitly counting on this social compact, which the filmmaker flagrantly disregarded.

        That said, I think the filmmaker could have made an awesome film based on the correct science. The main point of the film — eating meat is a big part of the problem — is absolutely correct. 15% certainly counts as “a big part of the problem.”

        Second, the filmmaker is saying “Why is everyone focussing on fossil fuel? Don’t worry about that, the real problem is cows!” Well, it isn’t either / or, is it? These various issues are deeply connected. We need deep and thorough systemic change. Fossil fuels and industrial agriculture (both livestock and crop) are intertwined in a global industrial anthropocentric system that needs to be completely rethought from the ground up.

        • Peter Kalmus says:

          I should maybe expand on why I didn’t change my daily life primarily to keep my emissions out of the air. It’s because I believe that global emissions reduction requires systems-level change. If the changes I’ve made to my daily life help with our predicament, it’s probably more because they might help shift the culture and the way we perceive and think about “environmentalism,” or because they’re a vote for systems-level change. Whenever we use the systems that are a problem (planes, Walmart, cars, industrially-produced foods, etc.) we’re voting for those systems. Whenever we develop or use alternatives, we’re voting against those systems.

          Thinking about the role of the individual in the collective is tricky. I want to do what I can, as an individual, to respond to the predicament. Changes to my daily life have been helpful in my experience, and I think making such changes helps more than not making them, but I’m well-aware that I can do even more than that. I’m certainly looking forward to watching Joe’s talk in order to develop a little more clarity or at least depth on these difficult issues.

        • Ken Hiltner (UC Santa Barbara) says:


          Regarding your emitting “about five times as much as the average Kenyan,” what do you think would be a reasonable goal for global per capita CO2 emissions? In the neighborhood of a metric ton? I ask because I am gathering that the average person in Kenya emits less and that you are closer to it than you are modestly admitting. My bigger reason for asking is that your closing in on the goal should be heartening to anyone else hoping to make a similar personal intervention in CC.

          By the way, it is great to have a climate scientist in attendance to answer these questions!

          Yes, I was aware that the 51% figure quoted in Cowspiracy was wacky. I few months ago we screened the film in the EHI and considered its strengths and weaknesses. The pity is that it would not have lost much rhetorical punch if the director had not relied so heavily upon this number. By the way, was this article by Danny Chivers the one that you were referencing? (You can use HTML syntax for embedding links in this Q&A if you like, such as a href=”” between <>).

          What about the life of methane in the atmosphere? Since it is so short in comparison to CO2, would not immediately reducing it be one of the quickest ways to curtail CC? Incidentally, one of my UCSB colleagues who works on food systems gave an interesting talk on the subject last Fall at the EHI.

          Finally, this raises another question: just who should be disseminating such information to the public? Director Kip Andersen made a moving film, but fell short in either checking or responsibly presenting his facts. Gone are the days when a single person like Rachel Carson, with a B.S. in zoology and a lifetime of writing for a popular audience, could fill both roles. Does it come back to the question of the sciences and humanities working together that is opening up in the Q&A for my talk?


          • Peter Kalmus says:

            Wow, great questions.

            I think the ultimate goal should be zero kg fossil fuel per person per year. Just get off it entirely. Unfortunately though, I find it difficult to imagine humanity doing this without some kind of “evolutionary leap.” We can find fossil-fuel-free alternatives for much of modern life, but there will probably be certain aspects that won’t be replaceable, e.g. vast fleets of high-speed commercial airliners, or modern warfare as we know it. Imagine a war breaks out ten years after we get to zero global emissions. Wouldn’t the warring countries immediately go back to fossil fuels in an effort to win? Doesn’t this imply that until humanity expunges its apparently inexpungeable tendency to war, we’re going to keep using fossil fuel at some level? Global warming seems maddeningly existential to me, because almost no part of my life, and no part of society, remains untouched by it: From your reasonable and seemingly simple question, out pops a connection between global warming and the violence that seems inextricably embedded in human nature. Which connects this to meditation, etc., etc.

            In terms of the Earth system, I’m not sure what the max. sustainable global emission is, or even if there is one. CO2 has a long residence time in the atmosphere, so I suspect even low levels of per capita emission would result in slowly rising CO2 concentrations and gradual warming. I can look into it.

            According to Wikipedia, the average Kenyan emits 300 kg CO2 per year. I’m at about 2000 kg CO2-equivalents per year. So it is what it is. I’ve devoted a good bit of my extracurricular energy and creativity over the last five years to accomplish this, but as I said, I don’t feel like I’ve made a sacrifice at all. But, like you, I already had a lot of air miles under my belt, and I’d grown tired of flying around. And I happen to enjoy slow travel, which probably puts me in a small minority, things like sailing and multi-day long-distance bike trips.

            I’ll probably go gradually lower over the next few years because I’m curious. For example, can I help form a CCA to switch my community to renewable electricity? And then being replacing my natural gas with electricity? But I recently realized that the fact that I’ve only gone 90% of the way, as opposed to 100%, might actually make my message *more* compelling, at least for 2016. Because it’s attainable. Not necessarily easy: people may need to find new jobs, move to new houses, change the culture at their institutions, become thought leaders of a sort. But attainable. And rewarding. And meaningful.

            Yes, the Danny Chivers article. Agreed, the film could have done its job just fine with accurate information. As far as I know, the director is, regrettably, still going around insisting that he’s right. Why do human brains have such a strong need to be “right”?

            Yes, targeting methane in the short term would make a lot of sense. It is so not a “bridge fuel.”

            Well, I think in this specific case, Kip Anderson could have easily made an accurate film if he wanted to. Anyone with access to Google can easily check in two seconds that livestock is likely closer to 15% of global emissions than 50%. (Try googling “livestock percentage of global emissions” and click on the first link, which when I did it was an FAO page.) But Kip Anderson approaches veganism with a kind of religious fervor: I don’t think he was interested in conveying truth so much as converting followers. So he took the largest number he could find, which was from some bullshit paper dressed up as science. In other words, I’m pretty sure he made the movie that he wanted to make.

            But more generally, yeah, I’d like to see more books and articles with two authors, where one’s a scientist and the other’s a humanist. Are there any such books? To really dig into the climate science is a full time job, as is staying abreast of developments in any branch of the humanities. But I think such a collaboration would necessitate the collaborators educating each other, as opposed to neatly staying in their own disciplines. Maybe it’s useful for us to get our hands dirty with other disciplines, in order to take this wickedly cross-disciplinary broader discussion to the next level. At the very least, we should make friends with people in other disciplines so that we can read each others’ stuff before it goes to press!

            • Kian Mintz-Woo, University of Graz says:

              I am enjoying this conversation very much (especially the helpful Cowspiracy link). On the narrow question of methane (a short-lived climate pollutant or SLCP), I have friends in physics who have done work on it and here I have to respectfully disagree with Peter Kalmus. SLCPs are known to have little effect on long-term warming and so are of little benefit when dealing with climate change. [This is not to belittle the co-benefits of addressing SLCPs, since SLCPs are often implicated in different health and environmental hazards, especially black carbon from cookstoves. Not only are these co-benefits valuable in terms of justification, they may also be of huge political value in international negotiation!] For instance, you can read the policy brief from Myles Allen based on the work of Niel Bowerman from the Oxford Martin School (

            • Peter Kalmus says:

              A preview function would be helpful as well, or maybe the ability to edit, as I just demonstrated above. Oh well.

              • Ken Hiltner (UC Santa Barbara) says:


                Apologies for not replying sooner: I have been busy flittering around the diverse and interesting Q&As here.

                Sorry about that: I did not realize that Nofollow is indeed keeping you and others from posting embeded HTML links. Our IT dept is very serious about security, esp as we are concerned that the very active online community of CC deniers might try to crash this conference, given our theme. So, even though, as you rightly noted, Nofollow is not really needed as we are requiring Q&A participants to login, they would like us to leave it on. Please feel free to include links in your comments, such as to this panel ( 12640), but not as HTML.

                I have changed your WP privileges. You should now be able to edit your posts.

                And do keep making them!


    • Joseph Nevins says:

      Hi, Peter,

      I want to echo Ken’s comment about the compost pile. I really appreciate your sharing it with us. It may have been my favorite part of the talk! I also appreciated that you filmed the talk in your yard. Seeing lush vegetation in your backyard–despite the drought (showing, yes, it is possible to grow stuff in a low-water environment–check out this interesting piece in today’s edition of The Guardian:–made me long for life in California (where I resided for more than a decade). I just might have to visit you to see your garden. I guess I’m inviting myself, but don’t worry: I won’t stay long, and I won’t fly to get there.:).

      Your discussion of the survey that you conducted was fascinating. I have a couple of questions in relation to it.

      First, why didn’t you involve your senior colleagues? (I can guess, but I don;t want to assume too much.) If you had, do you think you would have found a significant difference in the types of responses you received from your non-senior colleagues? If so, any speculation what might explain that difference?

      Second, I’m curious as to what has been the “aftershock” of your survey? Has it led to conversations with you, and among your colleagues (independent of your presence)? Have some of your senior colleagues found about it and struck up a dialogue with you on the issues you raised?

      Thank you for your talk and for all your good work.

      • Peter Kalmus says:

        Joe, you are welcome to come visit! I hope you do.

        I didn’t feel comfortable sending it to my senior colleagues because of fear of social repercussions. I felt like I might be breaking a taboo in writing the survey. In fact, as I write this, I feel that I might be crossing some line by participating in this conference. It’s impossible for me to tell if this taboo is real or if I’m being paranoid, which is basically why I created the survey. I’m still trying to map out this social terrain. It’s also strange being “in the closet” around the lab, but “out” online.

        I suspect the major division correlates to the level of concern (concerned scientists tending to say it’s OK to speak out, less concerned scientists saying it isn’t) — and not to seniority. But I certainly could be wrong. At some point I might do a more serious and comprehensive survey. (Are any of the sociologists out there interested in working with me on this?)

        “Aftershock” has so far been positive. Out of the 30 respondents (50 now, but the extra 20 are not colleagues I know personally) half a dozen or so went out of their way to let me know they enjoyed the survey or that they were glad I put it together.

  2. Joseph Nevins says:

    I am grateful for the opportunity to share some ideas with conference participants and members of the virtual audience. My talk deals with a number of questions I’ve been struggling with over the last few years. As such, I very much welcome any and all feedback, questions, comments, etc.

    • Ken Hiltner (UC Santa Barbara) says:


      Wonderful discussion of how small solutions can indeed help solve big environmental problems. As you may know, Naomi Klein seems to be among the choir that you are addressing, as she has suggested that “focusing on individual consumer behaviour, whether it’s changing lightbulbs or going vegan, is just not going to get us there.”

      Your comparison to racism (at minute 10) really resonates, making clear that focusing on our individual actions does indeed matter. Moreover, unpacking how imagining the situation as a binary structure in opposition (i.e. singular/collective, individual/global human population), which therefore presents us with a limiting either/or dilemma, was really helpful, as is considering which nature it is that we are taking up.

      I could not agree more that so many of our activities, such as attending a conference like this, is at once a private and public activity (as you note at minute 14), as it is an individual decision that signifies much publicly. The challenge, as you rightly note, is successfully and fluidly being able to move from collective to individual and back and forth.

      So here is my question: As you note in your conclusion, if Bill McKibben or Naomi Klein publically renounced an environmentally disastrous activity like flying, it could have profound, positive consequences. But what can any of us mere mortals do? Moreover, does it help if what we enthusiastically model is positive, such as making clear that our lives are made better by flying less? In general, I fear this last point may seem to be a hard sell; however, as I personally find traveling to and from conferences far more nuisance than pleasure, perhaps this segment of flying is a good place to start. Incidentally, I am writing this while comfortably sitting at my desk at home, sipping my morning tea!


      • Parke Wilde, Tufts University says:

        What an interesting set of questions, Joe and Ken, about the role of leading environmental influencers.

        There actually are some leading media figures who have made public commitments to flying less or not at all for various lengths of time (Eric Holthaus, Kevin Anderson, and George Monbiot, for example).

        Other leading environmentalists fly frequently. Online, there is a loud, rude, cacophany of mostly conservative trolls and critics harassing these influencers about their flying behavior, just to score points, with no intention of actually promoting low-flying or low-carbon lifestyles more broadly.

        Our own discussion here is completely different in spirit. If I could catch the attention of Al Gore, Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, Pope Francis, Leonardo DiCaprio, or any of the other environmental voices, I would ask about a range of possible contributions to this effort: “You could stop flying or merely reduce flying, for a long time or merely a short time. You could combine a period of non-flying with a reminder that political choices are at the heart of true solutions (using the credibility earned by personal action to motivate attention to the policy platform). I hope you see that we follow your work with admiration, seeking heroes to emulate during a time of crisis. Above all, please don’t let the dissonance of flying in your work cause you to remain strangely silent about aviation in the midst of your criticism of so many other high-impact industries. Don’t let the trolls scare you into a peculiar silence about this one industry. Do what you are so good at — speak up.”

      • Joseph Nevins says:

        Thank you, Ken, for your comments and question.

        As for what we mere mortal can do, in some ways the very existence of this conference is an example of such. My guess is that, not too long ago, many of us who are participating and find very compelling the underlying premise that we need to shift toward carbon-neutral forms of conferencing would not have hesitated to jump on a plane and fly to California to talk about the environment and humanities (broadly construed). That was certainly my case in the not-so-distant past.

        But clearly endeavors such as this conference are far from sufficient. (I was rudely reminded of that today when I received an email in my inbox from the American Association of Geographers [AAG]. The email provides “highlights” from the AAG’s recent annual conference, one that included lots of panels on climate change and environmental justice, that took place in San Francisco. In it, the AAG gushes about the more than 9,000 attendees, 37 percent of whom came from abroad, from 87 different countries–a significant increase in the internationalization of the AAG and, of course, in the enormous amount of greenhouse gases the gathering entails.)

        So, in some ways the question you are asking is, how do we reach folks such as the ones that organize and promote such meetings and all those who uncritically embrace them? As you might guess, I have no idea–at least in any sort of concrete sense. That said, I find it useful to think about the role of organizing and activism in long-term struggles and what it takes to shift people’s allegiances, behaviors, etc.

        I remember when I was a union organizer (in the UC system) and how difficult it was to get people to join the union (one made up of graduate student employees) when we first launched it. Sure, there were lots of people who signed up easily–typically the already ideologically sympathetic. But there were a lot more in the early stages of the union drive who were resistant–and for all sorts of reasons. A small, but not insignificant minority, for example, was ideologically hostile. Some, concerned about the smooth running of the institution, just thought it was a bad idea. Most, however, were not so much opposed, but not ready to do something different–they had too many questions, doubts, fears–particularly something that challenged the dominant ways of doing things and the institution itself (the UC system, which was vociferously opposed to unionization of graduate student employees). Eventually, we won over a strong majority, however. And what was interesting was this winning over was not a gradual process, but like a dripping faucet that gushes all of a sudden. Once we reached a critical mass (which was a slow process), we experienced a flood of support from the previously unsupportive or, at least, the not-yet-ready to commit.

        What had changed was not our message, but that people saw a sufficient amount of others joining so that what had seemed scary, overly different, and alien no longer seemed so. My experience is that this is often the way social change happens. A small number gravitate to a cause for reasons of principle, while the rest hold back. To get the rest on board requires not only good organizing, but non-joiners seeing people they respect, care for, identify with, etc. joining up. Indeed, the sociological research on social movements shows that generally people join movements because their friends do.

        So, yes, in trying to reach that critical mass that will facilitate a large scale shift in behavior (absent macro-level policy changes that bring such a shift–something we also need to work for), we should emphasize the positives associated with slowing down and keep close to the ground. But just like a good carpenter needs many tools, those working for socio-ecological change need to have many as well. So, for some, the “life is better” approach will resonate. For others, an argument of ecological justice will work best. Etc And then there are those for whom nothing works–only the big tide that sweeps them up and compels change.

        Finally, let me mention that Naomi Klein was recently self-critical of her frequent flying in an interview with Al Jazeera. (See: In this regard, I understand her words (“focusing on individual consumer behaviour, whether it’s changing lightbulbs or going vegan, is just not going to get us there”) to be saying that individual changes are not sufficient–a position I very much agree with–not that we should forego them. As the title of her latest book asserts, we need to change “everything”–individuals, policies, institutions, relationships, etc.–not just one thing or person at a time. Now, I wish she would talk a lot more extensively and creatively about how individual changes relate to institutional shifts and push herself and her generally wealthy and high-consuming (in a global sense) readers and audience members to dramatically lower their individual consumption (in addition to supporting “Blockadia” and fighting against large-scale “extractivism”), but that’s another matter. . . .

        • Jaigris Hodson, Royal Roads University says:

          Hi Joseph,

          I love your response here and it resonates with a conversation I was having on another panel. The presentation was about “Apocalyptic” rhetoric around climate change: how the doom narratives that are considered to be most effective often work at cross-purposes to their intended outcomes. We were wondering how, in the absence of apocalyptic doom and gloom narratives, one might persuade others to take positive actions toward reducing climate change. We brainstormed in the comments ways to address this, and I suggested inspiring individual change in a round about way. Perhaps we do not always need to address the issues directly to achieve the intended results. And I think this relates to the “life is better” approach you were talking about above. I think we need a wide variety of tools in our toolkits to talk about these issues. I also think that people like Klein can be an inspiration to us all in that regard.

          • Joseph Nevins says:

            Belated thanks for your comment, Jaigris, Allow me to speak to one issue you raise–that regarding how we overcome despair. It’s hard not to feel despair in the face of huge, seemingly intractable, challenges such as climate change (among other environmental predicaments). That said, I find that I experience despair most when I’m not engaged in any serious effort to address the problem, particularly an effort of a collective sort. I worked for many years trying to contest Indonesia’s brutal occupation of East Timor and the support provided by many Western governments (particularly that of the United States). For a long time, it seemed like the issue was going nowhere–except getting worse. Still, when I look back on my experience, those years were some of my most enlivening because I was involved with many others–some of whom became friends for life–in working to put and end to Indonesia’s occupation and Western complicity. Yes, there was a lot of sadness and disappointment in the work, but there was also a good deal of joy and celebration (and victories). I try to remember this (not that I consistently or sufficiently act upon the memories) when I feel despair–whether it is on the climate change front or some other one.

        • Ken Hiltner (UC Santa Barbara) says:


          To jump to your last point first, I very much like your reading of Naomi Klein’s comment (“focusing on individual consumer behaviour, whether it’s changing lightbulbs or going vegan, is just not going to get us there”) as calling for a shift in focus from personal activity to systemic political change while not denying that a shift in personal practices is also necessary. Klein’s book was, incidentally, the inspiration for our EHI’s annual theme: Climate Futures: This Changes Everything.

          The experience that you related as a union organizer in the UC system strikes me as indeed the way that it often works with social change: that a small number of folks first begin or join a movement and then, slowly, others follow, often their friends.

          The approach that we are experimenting with in this conference, which I imagine is pretty clearly in evidence in my opening remarks and the Q&A unfolding around them, is largely a variation of, as you aptly call it, “the ‘life is better’ approach.” Specifically, I am arguing that in this case change is actually preferable, as 1) it will not in fact result in our being deprived of much that we cannot receive in another way (such as personal interaction, a topic astutely invoked by Brogan Bunt over in the Q&A for my opening remarks, which can also take place online) and 2) it gives us the opportunity to fix what is broken and to generally revitalize a tired old practice. This is, incidentally, one of the reasons that I very much appreciated your talk, which also took up the issue of asceticism and deprivation. In the case of the traditional conference, the status quo is lacking in a host of ways, as it is environmentally a disaster, wildly inequitable and unfair to a broad swath of the world’s scholars, hardly accessible to variously abled individuals, outrageously inefficient at many of its core missions (such as to provide a space to critique talks, yet only allocating a ridiculously short period of five minutes per panelist in a traditional Q&A session for this purpose), inconvenient, often unpleasant, and so forth. Plus – and this is a big one for me personally – there is no polite way to turn off, or at least lower the volume of, less-than-interesting talks…

          What I find fascinating about your comment is that a similar list could have been rattled off as a critique of the status quo before unionization of UC TAs (no doubt you compiled and promoted one or more such lists). However, in spite of the fact that today these reasons no doubt seems crucially important, and obviously so, to the group that you helped unionize, the “inertia of the status quo” (for lack of a better term, though I am sure that better ones are used by the folks that study this) slowed action.

          It strikes me that we really need to consider this inertia further. I would be very interested to hear if other folks have thoughts on the subject.

          Incidentally, as something of an aside, having been the DGS of a UC dept from 2008-11, when the budget crisis first hit, I can speak from experience in noting that UC TAs owe you and your fellow organizers a debt of thanks, as the union helped protect them from a rather vicious cost-cutting spree by the administration. For example, we faculty were put on furloughs, which is another way of saying that our salaries were cut by 10%, while TA salaries were protected.


    • Peter Kalmus says:

      Joe, thanks for an excellent talk. I’ve been struggling with these same issues as well over the last five years.

      My question is this: What do you think is really stopping Bill McKibben et al. from moving away from fossil fuels in their own lives?

      You suggest that they’d say “by flying etc. I can be a more effective advocate.” And maybe they would say this. But I wonder if something else is going on.

      Maybe it has something to do with taking an intellectual approach to these problems. In my experience, things that I understand merely intellectually rarely motivate me to change. It’s hard — maybe even impossible — to “intellectualize” oneself out of an addiction. Hence the all-encompassing nature of rehab facilities and AA!

      What does motivate me to change is when I experience something. Perhaps it would be interesting to start experiencing life with much less fossil fuel, and see what happens. Then the conversation can really get going. This conference, in fact, is a good start, and an interesting bridge between individual and collective.

      I find it remarkable that not even one of the uber-advocates, the Bills and Naomis and Leonardos, has tried doing this to see what would happen. I suspect that it would take their advocacy to the “next level.” It would certainly be an interesting experiment. As it is, when I see them talking about leaving fossil fuel in the ground while simultaneously burning far more of it than the average person, it leads me towards despair. Because the message they send me is this: “I’m so addicted to fossil fuel, individually, that even though I say all these things I can’t even give it up.” Well, if they can’t even give it up, it’s really no surprise that the “collective” has shown no signs of giving it up either.

      • Joseph Nevins says:

        Hi, Peter,

        Thank you for your comment and question. I apologize for taking so long to respond.

        In terms of your question about Bill McKibben (whose work I greatly appreciate), I once wrote to him (in 2010) when I saw that he was giving a talk in Berkeley, California and asked him how he was planning to get there. He responded by telling me that he was flying and that he flies “constantly” as part of his work to build a global movement fighting climate change, something he justified by saying that “when a house is on fire we don’t worry too much about how much gas the [fire]truck burns.”

        Four years later (in Sept. 2014), I wrote to him again upon hearing that he was one of the five recipients of the Right Livelihood Award, the ceremony for which takes place in Stockholm in December each year. In addition to congratulating him, I encouraged him to receive the award by video link (as Edward Snowden did at the ceremony–he had little choice, of course) and, in the process, to set an example for others and to give substance to the assertions he makes in his book Eaarth: that a new planet requires new habits, and that we need to substitute air travel with “travel” by computer. On this occasion, Bill did not respond, and he did go to Stockholm (presumably by plane) to receive the award.

        Even though he does “God’s work,” Bill McKibben should not be beyond criticism. Just as we need to hold national governments, corporations, etc. accountable in regards to the carbon emissions, we need to do the same vis-a-vis individuals, particularly powerful and influential ones. That said, I think it is a mistake, in trying to encourage the likes of Bill McKibben to do a better job “walking the talk,” to ignore those who invite him (and perhaps even those who encourage his presence by attending his appearance). So we need to ask why does the Right Livelihood Foundation encourage and facilitate frequent flying?

        Today it was announced that Naomi Klein will receive the 2016 Sydney Peace Prize, which will be awarded in November in Sydney, Australia. According to the Sydney Peace Foundation, Klein will receive the award in person. So how about we try to initiate some sort of social media campaign encouraging the Sydney Peace Foundation and Naomi Klein to “do the right thing” and embrace a different, close-to-carbon neutral way of conducting the award ceremony?

        As you write, “if they can’t even give it up, it’s really no surprise that the “collective” has shown no signs of giving it up either.” Indeed, the work of people like Elke Weber (at Columbia University) show that it is vital for climate scientists (and presumably those working on the issue broadly) to “model” a low-carbon lifestyle so that people take the issue seriously. (See

  3. Molly Hall, University of Rhode Island says:


    I am coming a little late to this chat, and I find all of the above discussion about advocacy and personal change fascinating, but I am actually wondering about something in particular that Peter mentioned concerning the emotional side to climate science. I know there are indeed several talks, in particular the ecopsychology panelists, whom may have much to say on this matter, and I am excited to get to them, but I am curious about Peter’s thoughts after his initial survey of scientists, on the potential emotional responses associated with understanding and reacting to climate science in the greater public. As a (beginning) environmental humanities scholar, my own research often circulates around the relationship between our affective responses to what we see and hear in the world and the personal ethics and public politics that we enact as a result (something I make a few comments on with my talk in Panel 9). As I mention in my talk, I recently helped to organize a conference at my institution, “Climate Change Science in an Age of Misinformation” ( In this conference, a mix of humanities scholars, social scientists, and climate scientists all seemed to circulate around a realization that the shift needs to occur away from using pure reason to effect change on behalf of the environment, and towards attention to and addressing of the emotions which surround our understandings of climate science and willingness to change in response to it. There was even a woman there from Brown University, Kate Schapira, who regularly mans a “Climate Anxiety Counseling” booth around the state to dialogue about such emotions (! I wonder, Peter (or others), what role you see humanities collaborations playing, not just in communicating and advocating for understanding climate science, but in understanding the emotions which underscore people’s responses to science communication in general? Could humanities efforts here help to ground effective scientific advocacy practices within historical and contemporary cultural relationships to and with(in) the environment? Might this be a politically efficacious partnership?


  4. Molly Hall, University of Rhode Island says:


    Thank you so much for your talk! I believe the ways we each, as members of an environmental activist community, contribute to conversations about environmental issues are all important and necessary —regardless of our disciplinary humanist or scientific affiliations. However, your perspective is often under-discussed and crucially important, I believe, to any effective political action in regards to “nature.” I wonder, in regards to your discussion of issues of scale, if you have ever taken up the recent work of Timothy Morton. Though I have not gotten around to reading his spring publication Dark Ecology, his Hyperobjects makes some interesting comments on the human ability to perceive such large scale phenomena as global warming, though one of my continual issues with Morton’s philosophies is with what I see as an absence of pedagogical or agential ways forward from the knowledge he propounds to the lived experience of individuals and the choices they make on a daily basis. Your comments on bridge-building between scales and spheres, on the other hand, are a fabulously tangible take-away and response to arguments about the meaninglessness of individual actions. Your suggestion about public figures embodying their political stance, such as Naomi Klein or Bill McKibben, seems a promising one. My second question, then, which I myself will continue to think through, is, how might this work for lesser-known individuals? Should there be a causal relationship between your place on the influential totem pole and your choice of action? How can “regular” individuals embody responsible environmental ethics which acknowledge the human-natural hybrid that is our environment? Or, is it more effective to seek positions of influence, however small—such as the teaching and publishing most of us engage in?


    • Joseph Nevins says:

      Thank you, Molly! I am not familiar with the work of Timothy Morton. I appreciate your pointing me toward it as something with which to engage.

      As for the question if one’s “place on the influential totem pole” should influence one’s choice of a course of action, my short response is “yes.” What this means for what “lesser-known individuals” may choose to do is something I addressed somewhat in my response to Ken Hiltner on May 5 (please see above). Beyond what I’ve written, let me make the obvious point that we all have influence in that we’re all part of multiple of social networks and, as such, our actions, we always have an “audience.” While some clearly have much larger audiences than others, we can never know with full certainty, a priori, what the impacts of our choices are going to be. This not to suggest that we shouldn’t think critically and strategically about how we might “socialize” our choices, but given the complexity of the socio-ecological systems, networks, webs, etc. in which we are embedded, life frequently yields surprises. Things that appear to be small at the outset can sometimes lead to something much bigger. In that regard, let me encourage you to look at an interview we (at did with climate scientist Kevin Anderson from the University of Manchester. Kevin, particularly in the latter part of the interview, has some really interesting and provocative things to say about the type of question you are pondering. You can find the interview here:

  5. Genevieve Simpson, University of Western Australia says:

    Peter, what an inspiration you are! While it’s wonderful to hear that you are enjoying your reduced-carbon lifestyle it seems you are also making genuine sacrifices as part of your lifestyle changes (even if you don’t see it that way!). You have spoken a lot about your own feelings regarding these changes but I’m interested in how your friends and family have responded to these changes? And what about other people you engage with? I’m enjoying this conference from the comforts of my office, which is not, unfortunately, in the continental US but in Perth, Western Australia. Perth is sometimes referred to as ‘the most isolated capital city in the world’. And, following on from Roberta Laurie’s (also excellent) presentation, our location and economy engender a carbon-intensive culture, particularly in terms of flying. Many in our population, my boyfriend included, are ‘fly-in fly-out’ workers in the resources industry (he flies 680 km once per week as part of his ‘commute’). It is literally cheaper for us to fly to Bali, Indonesia than it is to travel anywhere interstate. The majority of Perth-ites were not born here, so no longer flying would prevent people from seeing their family. Unless a conference is happening in Perth (or online!), academics will be flying. In short, changing our flying culture in Perth has challenges above those in some other parts of the world.

    While I understand you have made changes for personal reasons, I think that individualised changes for ideological reasons should be able to act as an inspiration and motivation for other people to change. However, making any statement against a flying culture in Perth has the potential to alienate people, considering it’s possible they will interpret it as a criticism of their choices of work, family and play. Do you have any reflections on your experiences that might be useful for engaging more people to change their flying culture in a more challenging environment?

    • Peter Kalmus says:

      Hi Genevieve,

      Let me take your last question first. Of course, there’s no easy answer. Many today are incredibly attached to flying, and see it as an inalienable right. If humans were to leave flying (and of course, we should remember that the vast majority of humans don’t fly even today, and that flying even among global elites like you and I has only become commonplace over the last few decades), those who are addicted to it will need to change, and most won’t like that change. For example, a person who lives thousands of miles from her parents and who values seeing them regularly might need to move closer to them, or perhaps convince them to move closer to her. A person who travels from N. America to Africa four or five times per year to engage in humanitarian work she finds deeply meaningful, might need to decide to move there (and in so doing, I’d hope she’d go even deeper into that work and find even more satisfaction). Perth is isolated, but some people prize such isolation; in a world without flying, maybe Perth would have a higher-than-random allotment of such folks. To fly a lot, and to simultaneously think of oneself as “green,” is in my opinion deeply dishonest.

      Of course, this wouldn’t be a very good tack for convincing our friends who fly a lot to fly less. I’ve reached a point where I actually don’t try to convince others to change their behavior, at least not directly. I’m willing to explore living with less fossil fuel in my own life, report back on my experiences, and engage in discussion like this one; what people do with this is up to them. One thing I find is that I *prefer* flying less. I see airports as ugly, horrible places; the rituals of flying as a pain in the ass; I dislike hotels; and I’m a homebody who gets homesick after a few days. And, I actually enjoy slow travel. There’s a sacredness to place, be it land or ocean, that you can’t savor if you fly over it (at least, not in a commercial jet). So speaking from an experience of preference might be more convincing.

      But still, I don’t see trying to convince others to voluntarily change as a direct way out of our predicament. I report on my experiences in the hopes of shifting the culture a bit by getting out the message that some folks might actually *enjoy* life with less fossil fuel. I hope this helps at some level. But I expect very few people to take me up. I suspect a much better way to get people flying less is to make the tickets more expensive by way of revenue neutral carbon fees. When countries start imposing these—and I’ll bet it’s a question of when, not if—I suppose countries with carbon fees would add a tariff to air carriers equal to what their fee would have been on fuel purchased outside of their borders, and will sell jet fuel with the fee added on. Of course, the airlines would then need to charge more for their tickets.

      All right, so how to my friends and family respond to my changes? I don’t think my friends care too much. Maybe for some it gives me a sort of novelty value, but I try not to talk too much about these things unless friends bring it up first (which they often do). Because I’ve started to write, my need to constantly hammer my poor friends about these things isn’t as strong as it might otherwise be. I do have a few friends who have cut down their flying and other fossil fuel use, and I think my example helped them do this more quickly, but they were already of this mindset. My two boys are totally fine with all this. My wife has embraced bicycling and having chickens, but she’s not crazy about the greasemobile. I do the laundry, because for me to ask her to hang the laundry on the line because of my desire to use less fossil fuel would be unfair. She flies once or twice per year. I honestly do my best not to make her feel guilty about this. I don’t think guilt is very useful: I don’t feel that it often leads to permanent, sustainable (e.g. happy and satisfying) change.

      If global warming suddenly and miraculously disappeared, I’d probably also fly once or twice a year–to an especially useful conference, or an especially awesome place I’d love to see and don’t have time to make a proper adventure out of–but still far less than I used to. But I don’t think I’d change anything else. So I’d claim, from my point of view, that this is the only “sacrifice” I’ve made: a flight or two per year. I think that’s a good tradeoff for having consonance between my principles and my actions, and for doing something I find to be really interesting (i.e. exploring what life’s like with much less fossil fuel).

      • Genevieve Simpson, University of Western Australia says:

        Hi Peter,
        Thanks so much for your detailed response. It strikes me that your preferences for slow travel and avoiding airports (and being a homebody!) have been a great help in transitioning to low-carbon travel practices. As you point out, so many people are ‘addicted’ to plane travel that they are unlikely to be persuaded by your example. I was discussing your decision to avoid air travel with some friends (who work in climate consulting) and their response was ‘if your guilt doesn’t prompt you to make changes to your own patterns of consumption then there’s no point being guilty, you might as well forget about it’. Part of me realised that their response was true and practical, and part of me was overwhelmingly concerned that this attitude is what will see our economies continue in their high-consumption patterns as the state of the climate deteriorates.

        • Peter Kalmus says:

          I think their response interestingly demonstrates how much damage has been done by the environmental movement’s putting guilt at the front and center of so much of their efforts. And now it’s unfortunately front and center in how we think about global warming. I agree with your friends that guilt isn’t helpful.

          I prefer slow travel etc. but I think most people would run away screaming. If some of those actually tried it, they might find they like it, but probably still a very small percentage. I think much of humanity would keep sordidly chasing money, convenience, ego, bacon, and pleasant sensations right up to the end of ecology. So yes, we really do need good policy.

          I live the way I like to live, without a lot of fossil fuel, and because this is perhaps somewhat interesting in the context of global warming I write about it in the hopes of doing some small good. And because, why not? We each do the best we can.

  6. Ashley Dawson, College of Staten Island/CUNY says:

    Hi folks. Coming very late to this discussion, I know. But thought people might be interested in a good update article about efforts to bring aviation into global emissions mitigation schemes:

    The news here is not good. Basically, the most progressive sectors of the industry are willing to engage in offsetting, and are being pushed towards doing so through UN-REDD. The Climate Justice movement – at least in my experience – is adamantly opposed to such offsetting schemes, for very good reasons in my opinion. So green capitalism seems to be the order of the day, when regulation is even talked about.

    The article is also useful because it discusses the shipping industry, something that I don’t think anyone has alluded to here but which contributes significant and growing quantities of carbon to the atmosphere. There are lots of ways to clean shipping up, and even some visionary proposals for making big ships run on wind power again using sophisticated hull designs. But so far the industry has largely eluded any kind of international regulation efforts.

    If I were going to write some sort of Cli-Fi novel, it’d be one in which aviation no longer existed (it’s simply unsustainable on a mass basis, right?). Instead, people would travel using solar-powered trains and wind- and solar-powered ships. The big challenge to realizing such utopian schemes (aside from obvious things like industry opposition), it seems to me, is temporality: how would we convince people to re-embrace the world of our parents, in which transcontinental travel took weeks rather than hours?

    • Parke Wilde, Tufts University says:

      Yes, Joe and I have been reading that same excellent article and sharing it through the @flyingless feed. I follow with great interest and appreciation all the good work being done in engineering (solar planes, biofuels, modern ships with kite-sails high in the sky), but as you indicate these largely miss the heart of the challenge. There is a danger that engineering news will distract us from the basic human and social choices we need to make, such as just for example how to have a great interactive conference with less flying.

      This can be done without losing our high quality of life. My family and I love traveling more slowly, on foot, by bicycle, bus, and train. It feels to us like we live in a bigger and more exciting world. Our bus trip to NYC four hours away is an adventure. I just this weekend got back from a trip to Florida by overnight train to spend time with elderly parents, and met such interesting people on the journey. A better world is hanging out, neglected, already within our option set, but never chosen, like a homeless person under the bridge whose job skills go unrecognized by all of the passersby.

  7. Peter Kalmus says:

    Yes. I can see no way around the conclusion that aviation is simply unsustainable on a mass basis.

    I personally enjoy slow travel. It comes with a healthy dose of adventure, and I like that the journey is a big part of the point. I like driving from LA to Chicago instead of flying because of the amazing camping in Utah and Colorado. Many years ago, I sailed from Bermuda to New York City once (yes, I flew to Bermuda) and it was simply magical. I hope to do that again, and I often wonder how long before a visionary entrepreneur brings back tall sailing ships. I’d sign up in an instant. I once traveled from LA to Hawaii on a container ship (an atmospheric science field campaign was installed on the ship) and I was able to get a lot of work done, as well as spend quality time with the ocean. I’ve had many other experiences with slow travel, including on a bike, and I’ve never once regretted it. Slow travel brings you the magic of place.

    I also find that it makes my visits better. When I get to my parents’ house, or a sibling’s, or a friend’s, the time seems somehow more precious than if I’d flown there. Because in a way it is: I’ve invested more time, and more of my own energy (as opposed to letting jet fuel carry me quickly but passively).

    But these adventures came after college, before a serious job, between jobs, and during informal jobs such as grad student and postdoc. To make slow travel work for everyone, society will have to decide it’s OK. Employers will have to expect it and allow it. A day on a train or a ship could be counted as a work day. And for goodness sake, we need more than two weeks of vacation per year! That’s just inhumane. A movement for slow travel could connect to taking back our lives from the soulless workaholism engendered by capitalism.

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