In an era of climate change, our ethics code is clear: We need to end the AAA annual meeting

In an era of climate change, our ethics code is clear: We need to end the AAA annual meeting

Image: United Airlines Boeing 767-200 by Ian Crivellaro. (Via Flickr)

By Dr. Jason Hickel

I remember when the AAA shifted from the old printed program to the new default paperless version.  It was part of a noble effort to “green” the meetings, and of course we all welcomed it.  But I couldn’t help but think it was all a bit quaint given that the annual meeting itself is so obviously an enormous carbon bomb.  The programs are barely a drop in the bucket.

Each year some 6,000 anthropologists descend on a North American city for five days.  The vast majority fly to get there, covering distances that average (I estimate) about 3,000 miles round trip, emitting 900 kgs of CO2 per person in the process.  For perspective, 900 kgs of CO2 more than twice what the average citizen of Bangladesh emits in a whole year.

In an age of dangerous climate change, is this morally justifiable?

Our ethics code suggests not.  It states: “Anthropological researchers must do everything in their power to ensure that their research does not harm the safety of the people with whom they work.”

We know that the effects of climate change are most acute in the global South – where most anthropologists work – and particularly among the poorest communities.  Climate change claims some 400,000 lives in the South each year, and inflicts damages up to $600 billion annually.  And this is just the beginning.  If we continue on our present trajectory and exceed 2C of warming, the South is likely to see mass famine and human displacement on a scale unlike anything we can imagine.

In order to avoid this catastrophic future, rich nations need to cut their emissions by around 10% per year, starting in 2015.  At the level of organizations like the AAA, by far the easiest way to do this is to cut out unnecessary flights.  And given our professional code of ethics, this is really less an option than an obligation.   It’s time to rethink the annual meeting.

There are lots of ways we could do this:

  1. We could start by holding the meeting every other year, or even every third or fifth year. I can imagine that this would make them even more exciting and useful than they already are. More bang for our carbon buck, so to speak.
  2. We could devolve the meeting to regional centers that can be reached by train or carpool. Washington DC for the East Coasters, San Francisco for the West Coasters, Chicago for the Midwesterners, etc. They would be smaller, more intimate, more engaging meetings.  Decentralizing knowledge production would make our knowledge more diverse, and hopefully more egalitarian.
  3. We could shift the meeting online. Webinar technology has made extraordinary advances in recent years. Presenters could post their presentations as videos, accompanied by text and slides, and open them to comment and dialogue.  This would make it easier for us to engage with all the presentations we want without scurrying half-mad between meeting rooms.

Or we could do some permutation of the above.

Will this somehow cripple our discipline intellectually?  I don’t think so.  I’ve attended my fair share of AAA meetings, and I can’t say that they’ve been so vital to my research that I couldn’t manage without them in their present form.  I think most would agree.  Plus, even if the meeting was essential to our intellectual project, our ethics code is clear that the obligation to do no harm “can supersede the goal of seeking new knowledge.”

But what about the job center?  The pre-interviews to select for campus visits?  Good riddance, I say.  It’s just not necessary, and it generates immense amounts of needless angst.  The UK seems to manage just fine without it.  In fact, they manage without the whole campus-visit game altogether: they interview all finalists in a single day, and use video-link for those who can’t make it easily by train.

The important thing to remember about climate change is that the carbon budget is a zero-sum thing.  Every unnecessary ton of CO2 that we in rich nations emit is a ton that people in poor nations cannot emit in order to meet their basic needs.  This introduces a stark moral calculus.  By insisting on our carbon-intensive annual meeting, we’re effectively saying that our surplus pleasure (if it can be called that) is ultimately worth more than the survival of the very people we claim to care so much about.   This is not a morally tenable stance.

During the 20th century we established ourselves as the moral discipline – the discipline with a political conscience and a truly global perspective.  We leveraged the insights of our work to fight against racism and colonialism in its many forms.  If we want to maintain this stance into the 21st century, we have no choice but to take climate justice seriously.  After all, what’s at stake here is nothing short of carbon colonialism, shot through with violent disparities of race, class, and geography.

The US government will not help us toward this end – certainly not under Trump.  As cities around the country are now pointing out, we cannot wait for Congress to impose the necessary emissions reductions to keep us within our 2C budget, for by then it will be too late.  We have to take matters into our own hands, and quickly.

We as anthropologists – we as the AAA – have the opportunity to lead on this front, just as we led on anti-racism and anti-colonialism in the past.  We can set an example that other disciplines and professional associations will follow.  Climate scientists are already taking this step.  We should be right behind them.

The ethical imperative is clear: it’s time to end the annual meetings in their present form and come up with a safe, just, and sustainable alternative.  Paperless programs simply aren’t going to cut it – not in the face of climate emergency.  I have no doubt that this shift would attract landslide support among anthropologists eager to help usher in a better world.  Let’s make it happen, starting in 2018.  We have little time to lose.


Dr. Jason Hickel is an anthropologist at Goldsmiths, University of London.  He works on global inequality, political ecology, and alternative economics.  He is the author of a number of books, most recently The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions (Penguin 2017).  In addition to his academic work, he writes a column for The Guardian and contributes regularly to other online outlets.  Jason sits on the UK Labour Party task force on international development, works as Policy Director for /The Rules collective, and holds a Fellowship at the Royal Society of Arts.  He tweets @jasonhickel

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25 Replies to “In an era of climate change, our ethics code is clear: We need to end the AAA annual meeting”

  1. I appreciate the sentiment, and I personally already only attend the AAA once every two or three years in favor of smaller regional or topical conferences, but I do worry that the proposals listed here will hurt those who are already on the margins of the academy. If you are in London, Chicago, or NY, or at major tier-one universities, these conferences may seem like an extravagance, but for those who are not at those universities or urban centers, it is often the only chance to engage in the very important social activities that happen outside the presentations themselves. Telepresence can’t offer the opportunity to chat with a senior scholar in your field over dinner or drinks, or at a publisher’s book stall. If you are at Chicago all the major scholars will come to you. If you are in NY you can walk over to one of several universities to attend workshops or guest lectures, but if you are teaching in rural Taiwan (as I am) the AAA creates an opportunity to maintain important social networks with other scholars and forge new ones as well – opportunities that are not available at any other conference. I think any plan to “end the AAA meetings” needs to take this into account.

  2. In our #flyingless initiative (flyingless.org), we are working hard on each of the concerns Kerim mentioned. For these reasons, and more, Jason Hickel’s 3 solution options are some of our favorites. With the right combination of these options, such as alternating big conferences every second or third year with smaller electronically-linked regional conferences annually, scholars like yourself will be very satisfied I think with your access to the major professions.

  3. Thank you very much for these incisive and important reflections. We have been thinking over these issues in the Society for Cultural Anthropology, and will be experimenting this spring of 2018 with a virtual conference on the theme of Displacements. The conference will take place at displacements.jhu.edu and will also include plans for local “nodes” of face-to-face meeting and collaboration as one way of addressing some of the concerns that Kerim raises. Do tune in and let us know what you think! Registration will open soon.

  4. I don’t see how local nodes address my concerns? It seems to be an example of exactly the problem I am talking about! Could you please elaborate on how you see this working?

    1. Kerim, thank you. It struck me that there were two different issues in your response, the informal socializing that conferences allow, and the fact that this can happen with more senior scholars in a field who are not otherwise encountered. In experimenting with a virtual conference in lieu of our regular in-person biennial, we at SCA have been thinking about how to grapple with the loss of such opportunities. The node was one strategy we evolved. I should have said regional node, or emphasized that local could also mean regional. We are encouraging people to gather together on the ground in the company of others they don’t ordinarily meet in such contexts. It wouldn’t simply have to be at your own institution. We are hoping that could foment other contexts for socializing and also making connections. We’ll have to see how it goes, and what further strategies can be evolved over time. I take Jason’s point to be one of encouraging the exploration of such alternatives. Something must no doubt change, but this won’t happen all at once.

  5. I agree that AAA needs to be even more proactive in helping to fight climate change, however, as Kerim mentioned above, the proposed solutions in this post would further marginalize already-marginalized members of the Association. As an Indigenous anthropologist, I am regularly the only Indigenous person, let alone person of color, in the room. There are very few faculty of color at my institution available to act as mentors, and often the anthropologists of color who understand not only my cultural and SES background, but also my research interests and career goals, are located at institutions thousands of miles away. Successful mentorship cannot occur solely on Skype and social media. Additionally, nothing can replace the opportunities for chance meetings with anthropologists outside of our own networks (which, for anthropologists from marginalized populations, are already quite small by virtue of literally being marginalized) which would not exist without the physical, annual conference. Some of my most productive, exciting intellectual endeavors have been the result of accidentally sitting next to the right person in a session.
    The annual meeting is very frequently the only way that anthropologists like myself have the opportunity to network with other anthropologists, to collaborate on research projects and papers, and to give and receive the mentorship necessary to ameliorate the historical homogeneity of both scholars and schools of thought in our discipline. I agree that we need to pursue method of combating out impact on the climate, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of those of us who are fighting for a climate of diversity and inclusivity in our discipline.

  6. I’d like to mirror Kerim’s sentiments; professional meetings are a lot more than the formal presentations and gatherings. As one of those isolated scholars myself, I cherish the time I can spend with others in my discipline; the professional (and indeed personal) benefits can be substantial.

    But I’d also like to pose another question in light of the sentiment expressed in the article. If we decide that we cannot support attending meetings due to harming the environment, how do we justify traveling (by air especially) to conduct our research? In this light, wouldn’t a reasonable interpretation of our ethical guidelines suggest we restrict ourselves to local research only?

  7. By calculating the per person production of CO2 for a 3000 mile conference trip, Jason illustrates very starkly the impact of air travel on green house gas production, but the illustration masks a more difficult problem: the airline flight generating that high level of CO2 will fly those 3000 miles whether or not anthropologists are on it. Modifying our national and international conference practices will slightly reduce the demand for CO2-producing flights, but it is less clear that it will reduce the number and frequency of flights or the production of CO2. In 2017, for example, it is estimated that there were roughly 2,245,000,000 air travel trips in the U.S., of which only about 20% were ‘business’ travel — which includes conference travel — while some 80% were ‘leisure’ trips. Most of that ‘business’ travel’ will be unaffected by any CO2-reduction policies, so anthropologists and other academic conference travelers are, arguably, piggy-backing on vacationers and private sector business flyers, and any additional CO2 production is probably negligible. We might want to consider the costs and benefits of reducing anthropology conferences — and academic conferences in general — to climate change, from a variety of perspectives., especially since much of this discussion has a kind of virtue-signalling quality, like driving a Prius when its total carbon footprint might be worse than many traditional gas-guzzlers.

    I also wonder if it’s worth bringing in the fact that lower-cost plane travel, at least in the U.S., has meant that grad students can now attend national conferences in numbers that we never saw in the past; regional conferences had high attendance when, say, the Northeastern Anthropological Association was the local and affordable option. Now the NEAA conference numbers have shrunk, and the AAA meetings are full of grad students — happily, I might add quickly, since the professional benefits of a national conference are considerably greater, and not just for job seekers.

    These are complex issues, and I don’t want to sound like I’m being sponsored by the Heartland Institute, but I have the feelings that the true complexities are being lost in the somewhat easy answers.

    1. Airlines are not in the business of flying empty planes. To suggest that whether or not one flies makes no difference to the actual event of a flight makes no sense. There’s a reason airlines spend huge amounts of money advertising: they need to encourage people of fly to be economically viable. If thousands of anthropologists were to shift their behavior–and especially if they were to do so publicly given the power of example-setting in encouraging others to adopt low-carbon ways (see, for example, link)–there would certainly be an impact. In addition, just the decrease in weight carried by an airplane resulting from people foregoing a flight makes a difference. United Airlines, for instance, has announced that its magazine will be one (1) ounce lighter in 2018. This, coupled with the airline’s decision to get rid of duty-free carts, will result in 30,000 fewer metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted this year! (See link) For those compelled to live near airports and breathe the resulting dirty air, such small changes can make a big difference.

  8. I am not an anthropologist, but a researcher in sustainability facing similar conundrums (although since I live & work in the UK, I feel already close to the “centre of interest” rather than the periphery). I just can’t justify going to conferences by long air travel any more, at all, on ethical grounds: the demonstrable harm done (in fact and in example) outweighs any measurable benefit that me giving a talk could bring – whereas by taking a principled stand, I know I am at least not doing further harm. Also I have been personally thanked, in really touching ways, by younger scholars when I traveled to faraway conferences by train: they believe what they can see, and they like to see action rather than words.
    This does not help the purpose of scientific communication across continents, from periphery to centre, informal as well as formal, senior and junior. I really welcome more work and thought on this. One thing that does help is social media: it allows much more immediate and diffuse communication, as well as more informal communication oftentimes.
    I hope this community, with Jason and others’ leadership, will be able to find new, scientifically and socially excellent ways of collaborating and meeting without damaging the planet further. Honestly, the question for all of us is not “if” but “how”: we desperately need to make this work.

  9. I totally hear what Kerim, Anand, and Savannah are saying. They each mention a cost or loss from not flying to a conference. Questions for further conversation: (1) do we take climate change so seriously that we can recognize those costs and still (with a sigh) favorably consider Jason’s proposals? (2) can we imagine a total aviation GHG budget for a professional, and plan the great things about conferences within this budget? The alternative of unrestrained growth in conferencing seems out of step with the times.

    I read Julia’s comment too with appreciation, but let’s not buy the “planes would fly anyway” argument.

  10. Ay ay. I botched the names in my last reply. Please forgive. I meant to ask questions of Kerim, Savannah and Karl, and to respectfully doubt the “would fly anyway” part of Barbara’s comment.

    1. I don’t really have much else to add to the conversation, except to say that it’s often easy to see the “costs” (or detriments) of something, especially something so controversial and political, and ignore the benefits without even attempting to put the costs into perspective. The cost looks impressive, but just what portion of the global carbon footprint are we really talking about? Is scraping conference travel going to be the difference of something less than a drop in the bucket (and yes, I understand that every drop helps, and I understand also that change has to start somewhere)? And is that drop worth the loss of the benefits? These are just questions that I don’t know the answers to, but I feel are worthwhile and important, not any counter political perspective.

    2. It would be wonderful if other commenters considered their positions of privilege and the relatively fewer risks posed to their careers by forgoing annual conferences and opportunities for networking and professional development. For students of color, for first generation students, for scholars from other marginalized communities, our access to the opportunities and resources necessary to ensure a successful academic career are much more limited, and therefore these conferences are much more necessary, not only for our academic well-being, but also for our mental and emotional health, getting to meet with other scholars who share our experiences and can provide mentorship. Perhaps Parke and Julia do not have quite as much to lose as those of us from more marginalized groups, and therefore cannot appreciate the relatively greater cost those groups would bear. Yes, we should try our damnedest to combat climate change and engage in greener practices, but not at the cost of the wellbeing of already marginalized scholars. Surely there are solutions that do not involve this disproportionate cost, and surely our community will prefer those solutions which are the most inclusive and equitable.

    3. Yes, all of us who are participating in this need to consider our privilege. Of course, privilege is a relative thing. In that regard, it is vital that we remind ourselves that flying is the purview of the ecologically privileged. Most people in the world have never flown and never will. People who do fly–esp. with some regularity–are most likely within the small slice of the world’s population (the top 10%) responsible for 50% of the world’s carbon emissions. I strongly support calls for inclusivity and equity, but the related efforts can’t be limited to academia–an elite group. If equity and inclusivity are the goals–and we accept climate science and the associated need for the wealthy parts of the world to achieve zero(!) net emissions by 2035 (see the Paris Accords)– we have no choice by to cut flying radically, not least for the sake of those who pay the highest socio-ecological costs of flying (marginalized communities, typically) . Certainly, we should fully support students and scholars from marginalized communities and backgrounds. Our challenge is to figure out how to do without dumping more carbon into the atmosphere.

    4. Joe, I’m not sure what you mean by “I strongly support calls for inclusivity and equity, but the related efforts can’t be limited to academia…” in this context. The argument made in this article is for reducing carbon emissions by limiting or eliminating the annual conference, which is strictly related to academia, and our field specifically. So yes, inclusivity and equity should be considered everywhere, even outside of academia, but my argument regarding the conference is that we must ensure inclusivity and equity in our proposed contribution to the fight against climate change. By this I mean that we ought not eliminate or severely restrict the annual conference because it is not an inclusive or equitable solution for marginalized scholars. There are other ways that we might limit our carbon footprint as anthropologists and academics, and we should consider those before we consider doing away with one of the few opportunities for networking, professional development, and mentorship available to those of us who in the field who are less privileged. What you seem to be arguing for is that we ignore the needs of marginalized academics in favor of being inclusive of the entire rest of the world? That argument sounds to me exactly like the one originally made in this blog post–which didn’t consider the needs of those of us in the margins of anthropology. It’s easy to sacrifice the conference for “the greater good” if you aren’t the one doing the majority of the sacrificing.

    5. Hi, Savannah,
      Among the points I was trying to make is that, if we accept what climate science shows–at least as reflected in the Paris accords–that the wealthy parts of the world achieve zero net emissions by 2035–there is simply no room in the global carbon budget for academic conferences that involve thousands of people flying to them. If you or anyone else can show otherwise, I’m “all ears.”
      As for meeting the needs of scholars on the margins, there are are many ways for us to realize them that don’t involve high levels of fossil fuel consumption. Finding and instituting those ways needs to be a focus of our efforts as part of the fight against climate change and for climate justice.

    6. Then how about y’all figure out those supportive solutions before screwing over marginalized scholars? I’ve been arguing that we should not be an afterthought in this matter, though we clearly are to both you and Parke, as neither of you considered the ramifications of your suggestions for us until after making your case for taking away one of our already scarce professional resources. It’s easy for you to give up something like this when you have so many other resources and systems of support already in place to ensure your academic and professional success. Your suggestion doesn’t impact everyone equally, and if you are really as concerned with the well-being of your fellow humans as you present yourselves to be, you won’t be ok with that.

  11. I hear you about the loss of benefits and need for perspective and balance. (I have a response though to the drop in the bucket line, but for another time.) Thanks for discussing!

  12. Karl asks, “just what portion of the global carbon footprint are we really talking about?” As climate scientist Kevin Anderson points out, “Divide the world into a sufficient number of small parts and everything fits within [the] classification of “miniscule”, i.e. so small as to be irrelevant.” (Here’s one interview with Kevin) I always find it strange when academics, who put so much emphasis on the importance of their work as individuals, respond to calls for them to reduce their large ecological footprints by suggesting that what individuals do (in terms of consumption) isn’t significant.

    1. Personally , I put no emphasis whatsoever on my work as being important (though I do believe that some of the work of anthropologists can be considered important, else why bother at all). I also never claimed that any portion of the ecological footprint we’ve been discussing is “irrelevant”. I’ve already acknowledged that even a small reduction is a step in the right direction, but I’m also simply curious to know what the impact would be. To that end, what I did ask was whether there was any attempt to quantify that footprint in terms of the overall global footprint. The implication of the OP was that reducing our footprint would at least be the ethical thing to do, and that may indeed be the case, but where’s the harm in quantifying that reduction? Is that unreasonable? But if nobody else will do it…
      According to data.worldbank.org annual travel by air amounts to approximately 3,700,000,000 miles traveled. AAA membership is about 10,000, but about 6,000 attending the annual meeting. Let’s say they each fly an average of 2,000 miles (no idea if this is reasonable, generous, or conservative) to attend a meeting, for a total of 12,000,000 miles. This would mean that if they didn’t attend, they’d reduce the miles traveled for that year by a little less than 1/3% (assuming the rough math is reasonable). Hopefully this helps.

  13. Joe writes “Airlines are not in the business of flying empty planes. To suggest that whether or not one flies makes no difference to the actual event of a flight makes no sense. There’s a reason airlines spend huge amounts of money advertising: they need to encourage people of fly to be economically viable.”

    While airlines are not in the business of flying empty planes, they already overbook and underserve, to keep demand well ahead of supply — my question was: if the 20% of passengers who are flying for business purposes (including anthropologists going to conferences) stop flying completely, what will the effect be on flights? I suspect that it would be minimal. In the end, I wondered if the small reduction in demand for flights would result in a small enough change to make a difference. I’m skeptical, especially when weighed against the benefits. We’re only human…

    (And airlines do not spend vast amounts of advertising money to get people to fly. An airline spends vast amounts of advertising money to get you to chose that airline when you fly.)

    1. One way to get an idea of what might happen is to look at what occurred after 9-11. In roughly the two years that followed, demand for seats on commercial aircraft dropped significantly. Airlines responded in various ways, one of which was to reduce the number of flights. See, for example, link

      See also: pdf

  14. Joe points to the perfectly clear relationship between demand and supply, but perhaps didn’t notice in the report he cites that “enplanements” were back to pre-9/11 levels by 2004 — and continued to rise every year until they were hit by the recession (and are now going back up). Urging anthropologists to stop holding national or international conferences to reduce demand for air travel is — forgive me for saying so — not exactly comparable to the fears of flying that people experienced after 9/11 or even the financial burdens placed on families during the recession, especially since about 80% of U.S. flights appear to be discretionary…. I said in my original comment that we can have a small impact on demand for flights, but the question remains: will that small impact be sufficient to produce significant change in the number of airline flights? 9/11, and the recent recession, suggest that it will take more than a few thousand anthropologists to have a real and lasting impact.

    Finally, and if I may, I find myself sounding like a shill for Big Oil, but that is neither my intention nor my science and politics — if eliminating academic conferences will produce a measurable decline in greenhouse gas production, I’ll sign on to that strategy immediately. I’d just like more evidence of the effectiveness of such a strategy, especially considering the professional costs.

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