By Claire Schooley
An article in January 25, 2008 Chronicle of Higher Education really caused me to sit back and reflect. The author, a university professor, questions the contradiction of conference travel thousands of miles away to hear or give presentations in light of global warming, with air travel one of the greatest polluters. Academics as well as business people travel all the time. In many cases it's critical for executives to gather for multiple-day meetings that address an issue or for academics to conduct research and interact with colleagues. But these are often the exceptions. People travel all the time to one-day meetings or even two-to-three-hour events and then turn around and come home. In fact I fall into this category. Recently I traveled from California to Amsterdam to deliver a half-hour speech, have Q&A, and do a five-minute Website video. At the after-party, I had an opportunity to meet and make connections and learn lots. It was great! I loved it! And that's why people travel. . . as social animals we like the face-to-face interaction, the new environment, or the invigorating atmosphere of a new culture. But is that always enough reason (as the author states) to "put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than do 110,000 Chadians or 11,000 Indians in an entire year?" But patterns are hard to change, especially when we like and get additional value from traveling. After the speech I didn't turn around and come home but traveled on to Belgium and Germany (by fast train) to see friends and deepen those cross-cultural human bonds that are so important in our challenging world today.
Travel alternatives do exist . . . one is videoconferencing. I've written about the life-like experience of Telepresence where one sees colleagues thousands of miles away in life size with amazing clarity. Also today's High Definition videoconferencing is far different from past videoconferencing experiences with audio and video out-of synch or a technical crew needed to get the session started and to monitor quality during the event. And the cost today is certainly far less than the cost of trips across the ocean. The bigger question is "Will we make the change?" With all the evidence of how air travel puts large amounts of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, etc. into the atmosphere, I think we will have to select carefully when travel is necessary or when a videoconferencing experience is the better fit.