As the AAM staff races to get ready for our annual meeting in Philadelphia at the end of the month, I am thinking a lot about the carbon footprint of such conferences and, more broadly, the environmental impact of the museum field. I think this is worth each of us thinking about—as individuals, organizations and collectively as a field.
As is common in most fields of professional endeavor, each year thousands of museum practitioners travel to dozens (hundreds?) of local, state, national and regional conferences. In the past these gatherings have served as the bedrock of professional development and networking. Is this sustainable in the future? I suspect not.
AAM has been taking steps to “green” its meeting (for example, providing reusable water bottles, supplying handouts as downloads and choosing tote bags made from recycled materials.) The California Association of Museums looked at this issue very thoroughly at their 2008 meeting. Maybe there are further steps to be taken at the AAM meeting as well—less “loot” given away in the vendor hall (much of which I suspect ends up in the landfill); totebags intended to be reused at the meeting year after year with “add a badge to your bag” provided for attendees who want to commemorate their attendance over the years; maybe even handheld devices that exchange contact information in lieu of physical business cards.
While these are, or would be, worthy steps I worry that they merely tiptoe around the edge of a much larger ethical dilemma. What is the impact of having such physical meetings at all?
I recently played with a cool carbon calculator at the Choose Climate website. Assuming the average participant’s trip for an average AAM meeting is from the center of the country to one or the other coast, the emissions per trip total .12 tons Carbon (as CO2) per attendee. Choose Climate proposes that to stabilize CO2 levels, we need to cut emissions by 60%, to .4 tons C per person. It this case, a trip to a national meeting (like AAM) eats up nearly a third of each attendee’s total sustainable carbon emissions budget for the year. Ouch! CAM addressed this issue by purchasing climate credits to offset the conference energy use, but they acknowledge the need to examine the long term effects of this method of managing carbon emissions.
Right now many people are reconsidering travel anyway because it is not affordable. This will continue to be a challenge—even though the economy will (eventually) rebound, energy prices will (eventually) soar as we pass peak production of oil. But even if we solve our money and oil supply woes and travel miraculously becomes inexpensive, we still have to face the deferred costs. Energy use is never cheap—it is simply that the price is charged to the future. The bill for affordable travel over the last fifty years is now coming due in the form of carbon buildup in the atmosphere, increased climate instability and rising sea levels. Mitigating or adapting to these risks will not be cheap, for museums or for society as a whole.
I think it is time we start considering the alternatives. One thing that immediately springs to mind is conferences in virtual worlds such as Second Life. My reaction is: eh, maybe, eventually. I have attended several and not been blown away by the results. Perhaps it will work better in a future when everyone shares an intuitive grasp of how to navigate virtual realms (the result of growing up using such environments and improved design.) And I certainly believe that the technology supporting such experiences will improve in ways we cannot yet imagine, as well as those we can - faster connection speeds, higher speeds in the average PC processor, better and more realistic graphics. What are the elements of the meeting that can be performed well virtually (e.g., content delivery) and which parts are harder, if not impossible, to recreate (e.g., schmoozing and socializing?)
My friend Nancy Lutz, from Tucson, Ariz. proposes a mix. “My thought is to move to a virtual meeting where people sign onto seminars (pay as you go) and participate via skype or something similar. Museums in a region could host these web-based sessions so that there's a component of people sharing ideas in the same room afterwards, sparked by the panel/experts, but a manageable number and not just large Q&A sessions. Then every other year there could be a big trade fair in Vegas where those who are interested could view/test the latest products.” (Note Nancy has cottoned on to the availability of cheap hotel rooms in Vegas. How appropriate. Aren’t museum people inherently, at heart, gamblers? I mean really, can one rationally expect to make our budget numbers work?)
How best to mix virtual and physical components of a meeting is one interesting question. Another is: What things are possible in a virtual conference that would be impossible in the real world? Perhaps we could hold workshops where attendees actually design and build virtual exhibits or whole museums. Perhaps speakers can lead attendees in tours of museums and cultural sites across the virtual equivalent of the real world to illustrate their points. Maybe hundreds or even thousands of attendees can give real time input to ideas, proposals or forecasts presented in a single session.
What are your ideas? What does the conference of the future look like, and would you go? Leave comments on this blog, or visit the AAM Annual Meeting Blog.
And a note to CFM Blog readers! CFM is running the real time interactive game FutureQuest at the annual meeting to help attendees explore a futurist theme and encourage them to push content out to colleagues who cannot attend. (And just to demonstrate that not all games require technology, players can earn points by sharing their insights through mechanisms as low tech as sending postcards and writing on the Wall of Ideas. Though use of blogs, Facebook, Flickr and Twitter are great, too!) If you are attending, I hope you will play. If you are not, recruit a colleague who is going to join FutureQuest and share what they learn at the meeting with you via the game.
For those of you who are coming to Philadelphia, I hope to see you at the CFM New Connections and Ideafest Reception we are holding from 5:30 – 7 pm on Friday, May 1 at the Loews Hotel. We museum folk will be joined by a contingent of interesting Philadelphians from other sectors eager to share their ideas for what museums can be in the future, and talk about what we can learn from their fields of endeavor. The reception is free, and open to all attendees.