Reimagining Environmental Sustainability for the Academic Conference

Nancy Van Leuven's picture

By IECA Board members Hanna Morris and Nancy Van Leuven

Set amidst the bluest skies and towering pines of Eugene, Oregon, IAMCR 2018 was focused on sustainability and media research, an ideal opportunity for IECA Board members Gabi Hadil, Hanna Morris, and Nancy Van Leuven to join a multitude of IAMCR board panelists to debate a hot topic:  How can conferences be more sustainable?

Turns out...there are no easy solutions, with nearly every option carrying baggage. But we would like to offer our perspectives.

At the forefront are choices to reduce costs plus pollution: 

  • Reduce the sheer number of conferences, especially those held annually;
  • Increase virtual participation rather than require face-to-face interactions;
  • Step up member education about divestiture, carbon offsets, and best practices for more sustainable travel;
  • Sponsor more regional meetings to link scholars without long-distance travel

And here are both sides of the main issue:

  • FACE-TO-FACE, Must be present for interactions: On one hand, academia is built on the concept of sharing our research and networking, an important building block for securing tenure. And, while these professional requirements still stand, in-person conference presentations are a necessity for emerging scholars. A senior scholar, Graham Murdock, pointed out that face-to-face events are the critical chance to mentor students over wine and coffee, making personal connections that strengthen the higher ed community and expose students and early-career academics to international scholars they would not otherwise have the chance to meet. Proponents of face-to-face, annual meetings argue that some presenters in “at-risk” national contexts need the safety of an international conference setting to further their research; in addition, some lack the critical connectivity to Skype, Zoom, or otherwise present virtually. Many IAMCR organizational leaders, such as past treasurer Nico Carpentier, also worried about the loss of membership in off-conference years.
  • VIRTUAL,Reduce real-time interactions: On the other hand, such get-togethers require long flights that spew tons of pollutants into our atmosphere, toxins that can’t be offset with voluntary donations to carbon offsets.  Plus, not all researchers are funded for global travel, with virtual presentations their only access to conference-level activities. There is also the stress of having to produce a high-quality paper every year, often a high-stress proposition.

IECA can be a strong voice here. While we, as an organization, already subscribe to biannual conferences and are piloting regional workshops this fall to link practitioners with academics in environmental communication, we can do more. Some possible action-items moving forward in our partnership with IAMCR include:

  • Partnering with student divestment campaigns and to develop a packet of clear and accessible educational materials we can make available at every IAMCR (and IECA) conference
  • Developing “how-to” steps for virtual presentations—i.e. how to ensure that presentations run smoothly and how to avoid tech-problems
  • Researching and developing a list of vetted sources for carbon offsets
  • Developing a strategy for membership retention in off-years for a biannual conference model

Have any ideas?  Please, post here and let’s deepen this conversation! Let's keep talking!










About the Author: 

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Hanna E. Morris

Nancy Van Leuven