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Environmental ethics in a post-pandemic society, academic talks edition

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There’s every reason to believe that by this fall the COVID-19 pandemic will be over in the United States and the UK, although it may last quite a bit longer in much of the rest of the world.

The pandemic has of course done enormous damage in all sorts of ways, but some potentially good things have come out of it as well. The most obvious at this point is the almost miraculous triumph of medical science that the various vaccines represent. Also important is the realization that you can pretty much get rid of influenza if most people wear masks in most public spaces, not that this latter habit is likely to survive beyond the end of this pandemic.

Another significant potential benefit, although one that could easily generate many bad developments as well, is the fact that hundreds of millions of people have by necessity become reasonably adept at using remote teleconferencing technology.

Fifty years ago when I was but a wee lad I remember distinctly that a standard feature of predictions about what the world would look like in the 21st century was the Telephone That Was Also a Two-Way Television. The TTWAATT was going to revolutionize communication, as you would be able to meet with people in another city or state or even country as if they were right there with you in the same room.

Somehow, despite the fact that this technology did get developed and refined, it never really took off much pre-COVID. I mean sure lots of individuals skyped and facetimed and google chatted etc., but, despite so many longstanding predictions to the contrary, the teleconference didn’t become anything like a standard feature of business or academic life.

Small detour: I remember a TV ad for United Airlines that must have been broadcast around 35 years go, in which a gruff but lovable Ed Ansner-type old white guy starts a meeting with his sales team by talking about how the firm’s oldest client had fired them this morning, because the CEO had told GBLEAOWG that he “didn’t know them any more.” Why? Because too often today business is done via FAX (remember those?), with a followup conversation in another FAX. That’s why GBLEAOWG was sending the entire sales team all over the country this very day to meet with every client personally. “But Bob,” says a young sales rep, “that’s over 100 clients.” “I don’t care,” he answers. He then starts passing out United ticket envelopes (remember those?) like bingo cards. “Where are you going?” the ingenue asks. “To meet an old client” he replies. Don Draper must have made this ad because I can remember it almost word for word 35 years later. (A gold star to any of you cyberninjas who can find it somewhere on the interwebs ETA: Commenter Les has successfully excavated this advertorial Troy).

The point is that a lot of enterprises that depend on business travel for their revenues have been terrified of the threat of teleconferencing for forever, but somehow the threat never materialized. Indeed I’ve read that most major airports around the world have extensive on-site conference facilities, precisely so that people can fly in for a meeting, then take another flight out that very same day without ever leaving the airport.

Anyway the important thing is that we wore onions on our belts, as was the style at the time . . . ah yes, the pandemic and its aftermath:

Now that we’ve all been zooming for a year, it seems likely that the various forms of inertia that have kept teleconferencing from ever really taking off may have broken down significantly. This could have lots of good effects.

I’ll throw out just one, from my own little corner of the world: Why shouldn’t the large majority of faculty workshops/colloquia/conferences be conducted via remote technology going forward? Yes, all things being equal it’s better to have a speaker be present in person than via Zoom etc., but of course all things are very much not equal. While it costs a couple of thousand bucks to fly in a speaker to give an hour-long lunchtime presentation and put them up for a night or maybe two if they want to go skiing, it costs essentially zero dollars in marginal capital outlay to have that same presentation done remotely, at least now that we all have the equipment to zoom.

And this doesn’t even begin to get into what economists call “externalities,” aka all the bad environmental effects of flying halfway across the country to cast your rhetorical pearls before a group of faculty, half of which (I’m being optimistic) have show up primarily for the “free” lunch.

All this can be multiplied many times over for academic conferences, and many times beyond that for annual meetings of scholarly associations and the like. Again, doing these things remotely obviously involves some costs: I would much rather present a paper, or listen to one, in person than via Zoom, all other things being equal. (BTW don’t use the phrase ceteris paribus. It’s pompous and annoying). But again they aren’t equal — not even close.

Of course a lot of what goes on at a lot of conferences and meetings is just pure junketing: hence no scholarly associations etc. ever meeting in Omaha in February. This is the kind of cost borne by academic institutions, aka the students and their families that pay the bills, that should be as the economists say internalized to the beneficiaries, as a matter of both justice and efficiency.

Now certain more legitimate things go on as well — informal academic conversations, various kinds of desirable social networking — that would be harmed by not having these events in person. So I’m not saying there should be no such events ever. But I suggest that cutting way back on them in a post-pandemic world, now that everybody has been forced by events to learn to zoom, would on the whole be a good thing.

After all, while giving or listening to a presentation in person is superior to zooming it, another countervailing factor is that there’s no reason we couldn’t have much more quasi-in person scholarly interchange going forward, given how cheap it is to meet in this way compared to our traditional practices.

This is just one example of a good thing, from an environmental perspective in particular, that could come out of the post-pandemic world (I certainly hope a lot of businesses eliminate forever the incredibly wasteful practice of flying people thousands of miles for a two-hour in-person meeting).

Indeed, one conversation worth having is what sort of informal ethical norms ought to develop around the realization that you don’t actually have to fly halfway across a continent to enlighten and be enlightened by your colleagues. Will the in-person faculty workshop by a visiting academic come to be seen generally as a morally dubious practice? (Maybe). If this happens, will there be much whining about that development from the tenured eminences at the top of the academic pyramid? (Odds of this: Approximately 100%).

These are just some preliminary thoughts: it’s not like I’m working up a manifesto or anything. Though somebody probably should, without printing it out of course.

ETA: Someone I know well from the communications technology world tells me that Zoom is “caveman stuff,” and that there’s already virtual reality technology that is vastly superior in terms of making remote meetings much more like an in-person experience, or even superior to it in some ways. He thinks that as costs come down this kind of technology is going to become more and more prevalent in all sorts of settings.

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