Academics Take Flight

The famed nineteenth-century Swiss historian Jacob Burkhardt, author of the seminal The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy first published in 1860, enjoined true scholars to remain at their desks rather than “congregate at conferences to sniff each other like dogs in a pack.” Mental labors might be relieved with brisk afternoon walk, but Burkhardt haughtily refused “to hawk” his intellectual wares beyond the gates of Basel, the city in which he was born and in which he died. Offered professorships at the great German universities of Tübingen and Berlin, Burkhardt declined both.

His sneering dismissal of conferences provides convenient buttress for standoffishly like-minded academics—some anti-social, others just plain ineffectual. Few, if any, have ever been as diligent or productive as Burkhardt, and none more influential.

With Ivory Tower franchises as far-flung, if not quite as numerous, as the Golden Arches, academic conventions provide opportunities for colleagues and competitors, teachers and students, admirers and admired, to come together, to grip and grin, to drink and dine, to dole out awards and honors, and—most important of all!—to deliver papers and enter meaningful colloquy that individually and in aggregate expand human knowledge and make the world a better place. So what if this larger mission also involves a few cocktails being slugged back and a few beds being hopped into and out of? There was a virulent Calvinist strain running through Burkhardt’s thought and disapprovals. Why not allow the human animal to exercise the atrophying olfactory organs?

Burkhardt made his first journey from Switzerland to Italy in 1838 when he was just twenty years old and before the advent of the European rail travel. Nearly two centuries on, the number of academics has exploded. So have the conferences so many enthusiastically attend. Not only is there a whole lot more human-to-human sniffing going on, but there is also a lot more aeronautical toing-and-froing, and that is stinking up the troposphere with untold tons of carbon.

The feedback loops that send global temperatures higher at ever-greater speed are in turn mirrored in the feedback loops of academic research. A scholarly paper appearing in a 2015 issue of EuroChoice, the journal of the Agricultural Economics Society, examines the “Carbon Footprint” of the eponymous professional organization’s previous conference in Ljubljana, Slovenia. What with the methane addictions of European and American bovine-centric ag and the carbon habits of the economists who seek to understand and manage its workings, there’s plenty of research to be done!

EuroChoice has articles like “Climate Change Mitigation Options in The Italian Livestock Sector” and the “Implications For Agriculture” of the Paris climate agreement.  The author of the contribution on the carbon impact of conferences is named Sam Desiere, a researcher at Ghent University in Belgium. His proposals for “mitigation” include having keynotes delivered via tele-conferencing, though exceptions can be made, just as one can forgive a prize-winning Holstein for a bit of grass-fed off-gassing: some scientists need to be heard in the flesh, but “to fully justify the large carbon footprints of these individuals, the programme committee might only select them if their contribution to the conference is outstanding and ensure that they play a key role during the conference.” Ljubljana is, as Desire put it, “not the most central location,” and most participants hailed from Western Europe. Choosing another less distant city like Stuttgart would also help. Desiere doesn’t mention that both Ljubljana and Stuttgart are popular easyJet destinations. I could fly to the latter from Edinburgh for a scant $30 this coming January.

Nor does Desiere admit if he flew from Belgium to Slovenia for the conference, though it seems pretty clear that he must have. Among Desiere’s other ideas for minimizing carbon is holding a “vegan day” at each conference—a kind of Lenten expiation before Carnival begins again when midnight strikes. Peer-reviewed scientific articles cited by Desiere accord with his findings that the average carbon output of a conference paper comes to nearly a tone of carbon. This does not take into account all those conference participants who aren’t presenters, who’ve come to listen and learn, grip and grin.

Climate scientists are also looking down at the outlines left by their carbon jackboots. The website stakes out a courageous and unyielding moral position— make that, sort of unyielding: “We are climate scientists and other academics who either don’t fly or who fly less.” The site is run by Peter Kalmus, whose book published in August is entitled Being the Change: Live Well and Spark A Climate Revolution.

In a 2016 Yes! Magazine article on climate scientists and their obscenely bulging air mile accounts, Kalmus lays out the math: “Hour for hour, there’s no better way to warm the planet than to fly in a plane.”  The hypocrisy of many of his colleagues is astounding: “I even have a friend,” Kalmus writes, “who blogged on the importance of bringing reusable water bottles on flights in order to pre-empt the miniature disposable bottles of water the attendants hand out. Although she saved around 0.04 kilograms of CO2 by refusing the disposable bottle, her flight to Asia emitted more than 4,000 kilograms, equivalent to some 100,000 bottles.” Others brag about their traversals of the globe in the name environment.

Not surprisingly, a 2016 study  demonstrated what should have seemed obvious, even tautological: that the findings of climate science are taken more seriously when the scientists heed their own advice with respect to personal emissions.

Yet across the art and sciences, professors still love to take to the air. No scholarly gathering put this lunacy into more flagrant practice than one I was invited to last year to mark the four-hundredth anniversary of the birth of the enigmatic and influential German keyboardist, Johann Jakob Froberger.  He led a restless musical life that led him across Europe. Accordingly, the three-day conference began in Froberger’s birthplace Stuttgart, but on that first night the participants flew to Vienna, where Froberger served for a time as imperial court organist. Early the next morning the group took a second flight over the Alps and down the Italian peninsula to Rome, where Froberger twice enjoyed extended stays to study with some of the great figures of the age.

Froberger’s many travels year were made by foot, horseback, coach, and boat. He left real footprints not carbon ones. His uniquely fantastical keyboard style often evoked adventures that captured the imagination of the likes of J. S. Bach. But none of Froberger’s musical fantasies were more bizarre and grandiose than those scholarly ones of his easyJetting epigones of the 21st century. I declined the kind invitation to participate in the conference.

Countering this kerosene-fueled gluttony is another musicologist whose mission is to combat conference carbon. Australian-born Richard Parncutt is Professor of Systematic Musicology at the University of Graz, coincidentally the city where another future climate warrior, Arnold Schwarzenegger first hoisted a barbell. Parncutt appears indefatigable in every way, but especially when it comes to minimizing the impact of academic travel. Specializing in music psychology, his own mind is beset by apocalyptic visions, as can be seen from these lines from near the top his sprawling personal website

In a couple of decades, when global warming is a serious problem everywhere, and most people (not just the crazy ‘alarmists’) are talking about the point of no return, and we are all mourning what has been irretrievably lost, while trying to deal with the every-increasing global chaos, I will look at my friends, family, and academic colleagues, and they will look at me, and we will ask ourselves: How could good people have been so evil? How could generous people have been so selfish? How could intelligent people have been so stupid? How could kind people have been so cruel? How could courageous people have been so timid?

A vociferous opponent of capital punishment, Parncutt got himself into hot water in 2012 for an essay in which he argued for an exception to that position in the case of climate criminals:

If a jury of suitably qualified scientists estimated that a given GW [Global Warming] denier had already, with high probability (say 95%), caused the deaths of over one million future people, then s/he would be sentenced to death. The sentence would then be commuted to life imprisonment if the accused admitted their mistake, demonstrated genuine regret, AND participated significantly and positively over a long period in programs to reduce the effects of GW (from jail) — using much the same means that were previously used to spread the message of denial.

Parncutt did not say how such verdicts would be carried out. Perhaps pitching leading academic deniers with lucrative Exxon consulting gigs from airplanes as in Argentina was what he had in mind. Such executions would also send an uplifting—make that downward-plummeting—message to jetsetting professors, one of Parncutt’s gravest bugaboos.

Parncutt’s words circulated widely in the internet among climate skeptics and also surfaced in mainstream publications like London’s Daily Telegraph. The president of the University of Graz, Helmut Konrad, promptly reprimanded his musicology professor, who in turn issued a public apology and quickly amended his essay (the opening one on his website) in favor of a categorical rejection of the death penalty even GWDs.

Parncutt has since directed his activism towards the creation of academic no-fly zones. He was the lead organizer last spring for a “multi-hub Global Arts and Psychology Seminar (GAPS)” held simultaneously in Graz, La Plata (Argentina), Sydney, Sheffield and Boston. The seminar offered “a novel mix of in-person and virtual conferencing” and served as a dry run for an even more ambitious undertaking this summer—the 15th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition and 10th Triennial Conference of the European Society for the Cognitive Sciences of Music. This global, yet carbon-curbing effort takes place in many of the same locations as the 2017 event, but with Montreal standing in for Boston.  After the Call-for-Papers’ opening gestures towards “Inclusion” and “Interculturality” comes a plea for “Climate Protection”: “If most participants travel to the nearest hub and avoid flying if reasonably possible, the carbon footprint per participant will be halved.”

That Parncutt thinks scholars should stay out of the clouds even as they loft their words and ideas guilt-free into The Cloud would probably not have convinced Jacob Burkhardt, who celebrates his two-hundredth birthday just before the upcoming conference, to leave Basel virtually and hawk his wares at global hubs. Whether many academics will be inspired to change their globetrotting ways thanks to the efforts of Parncutt and others also remains to be seen.  Burkhardt might well have suggested that it will take significant advances in virtual pheromones and pheromone robotics to allow for the long-distance sniffing that could usher in a utopian age of low-impact conferencing and sustainable global scholarship.

NEXT WEEK: By Bike from Ithaca to Rochester for the Annual Meeting of the American Musicological Society.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at