Walk the Talk

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This post is primarily targeted at the Computer Science research communities that surround the ACM and the IEEE, but it applies to all tech communities that gravitate around conferences. I believe that an overwhelming majority of people in these communities is concerned about the effect that global warming is having on the Earth’s climate; many of us also know the urgency of the necessary measures. The question is: are we ready to act on what most of us believe, and reduce the amount of air travel we do for conferences? Or are we going to continue to live as if it doesn’t matter?

This post makes a radical proposal: let’s reduce and limit the number of physical conferences  organized by the ACM and the IEEE down to a reasonable number. Something like one physical conference per SIG per year. Read on.

I’m not going to preach on climate change. I’ll just tell a personal story. About 1 year ago, we invited some colleagues from the Earth System Sciences department for dinner at our house. It was just a few days before Christmas. That dinner had a tremendous effect on my emotional involvement with something I was already aware at rational level: that bad stuff is happening in the poles, and it will affect us all. What really hit a nerve was the matter-of-fact with  which my colleagues talked about floods in coastal areas all around the world. For them, who have been collecting and analyzing ice sheet data for years, who have been going to the poles regularly, it’s not a matter of if or when, because it’s already started; it’s just a matter of how fast the ice sheets come undone, and then modeling the weather and geography of the different parts of the world to predict which ones will be the most affected.

So, that’s my personal story. There’s plenty of books, videos, and experts out there warning us about this, but, as usual, these warnings tend to stay only at the rational level of understanding, which is not very good for making us act. Dinner with my colleagues did it for me: what I thought was going to be a nice, relaxed dinner with academic friends turned out to be an unsettling evening that triggered an alarm in my mind, one that I haven’t been able to turn off.

The warnings have only gotten worse since then. On November 8, 2016, the same day as the US Presidential election, the World Meteorological Organization delivered a report stating that the previous 5 years had been the hottest on record. Not only that, but it looks like the temperature rise up to 2015 already reached 1°C mark out of the 2°C max that was set as limit by the Paris Agreement. Beyond that limit, the scientists don’t even venture to guesstimate how things will change; we’ll be in uncharted territory.

OK, so what does this have to do with Computer Science?

We Computer Scientists travel a lot. Our field has developed an obsession with physical meetings in the form of conferences that started back in the 80s. As the field expanded in scope and importance, there was plenty of money for CS researchers to go all over the place. Back in the 80s and 90s, there weren’t that many alternatives to physical meetings, so we took the money and traveled the world from conference to conference. The number of trips per year became a sort of badge of honor.

It turns out that air travel is one of the worst offenders to global warming. You can read about it herehere, here,  and, last but not least, here and here. And while ground-bound transportation has been making leaps of progress in fuel efficiency, air travel is not only as dirty as ever, its frequency has been increasing since the 1990s: as more people around the world have more money to spend, part of that general lifestyle upgrade goes to… traveling the world in airplanes.

It’s going to take a while for airplanes to be able to operate with machinery that will not harm the environment. Until then, people need to cut back on air travel, and do it only when it’s absolutely necessary, rather than doing it all the time, without much thinking, like we do now. If everyone in the world would cut their air travel in half, that would already have a major impact in the amount of airplanes in the air.

Can you cut your travel in half without impacting your career negatively? I bet you can.

More generally, at the institutional level, can we cut the number of physical meetings in CS without hurting the vibrancy of the community? That’s an empirical question, but I believe we can.

Let’s look at SIGPLAN. SIGPLAN sponsors about one dozen conferences. Some of them already co-locate with others, which is great. For example, SPLASH is an umbrella for OOPSLA, Onward!, DLS, and, sometimes GPCE; ISMM, CGO and VEE tend to co-locate with other conferences. But that still leaves SPLASH itself, POPL, PLDI, ICFP, LCTES, and ASPLOS. Worse, some of these conferences still have face-to-face Program Committee meetings, an excess only possible because of our (CS) privileged financial situation.

We could cut the f2f PC meetings, and we could be a lot more aggressive on co-location. In fact, we could pledge to organize only one, large physical meeting per year, which would host all the SIGPLAN conferences. Would that be terrible? I think it might actually benefit the PL community, as a whole, because everyone working in the field would be in the same place at the same time.

Would that preclude the organization of other conferences by other organizations? Certainly not. For example, I’m also involved now with the <Programming> conference and journal, which is not an ACM initiative. That will happen outside of SIGPLAN, at least until AOSA wants to co-locate or make the conference completely virtual.

But if SIGPLAN would pledge to organize only one or two physical meetings per year, instead of the unbounded number we have now, that would have a strong impact, at least symbolic. It would send the message that SIGPLAN cares about the negative effects of air travel, and is willing to act to reduce air travel of its community members. Symbols are important, they are representations of values. If we are to get serious about climate change, we need to change the way we do business; change very often starts with very simple symbolic gestures that then snowball into visible effects.

I hope this blog post stirs the conversation about what we can/should do. I want to end it by making two remarks:

  1. I am not the first person to raise the possibility of reducing the number of physical meetings sponsored by SIGPLAN. Michael Hicks, the current SIGPLAN EC Chair, did it back in June in a carefully written blog post analyzing various options, one of them being the co-location of all SIGPLAN conferences in one single physical meeting. He covers other equally interesting options.
  2. Recently, Benjamin Pierce approached SIGPLAN volunteering to chair a committee focused on how SIGPLAN and the ACM can act on climate change. For the moment, the committee consists of Benjamin, Michael Hicks and myself. We are going to draft a white paper outlining the issues and the options for action. Reducing the number of physical meetings will be just one option; we hope the white paper will have a lot more actionable options that the community will get behind. If you feel as strongly as we do about this, let us know.
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10 Responses to Walk the Talk

  1. Robert says:

    Rather than one large conference per year, I’d lean towards two if we’re trying to impact environmental cost. There should be an annual conference in North America and another in Europe, which would substantially reduce travel time for a significant percentage of attendees.

    Better might be a single conference that is physically located in two (or more) venues – one in North America and one in Europe with a video connection between them. (And, for instance, you could present your POPL paper at whichever conference is more convenient.) That would greatly cut down on travel time, while still preserving the feel of a conference.

    (Also, live-streaming the conferences would be great for the people who can’t make it to any of the major venues.)

  2. Gregor Kiczales says:

    Great post Crista. I know that some other fields, or at least sub-fields have one conference, or certainly many fewer conferences.

    Having a single conference can reduce other kinds of travel as well. A colleague of mine at UBC in sub-field of commerce says that because they have a single conference the way hiring works is that a sub-committee goes to the conference, does interviews there, and comes back with a short list to discuss. So candidates don’t fly out for interviews.

    I remain somewhat skeptical about VR and telepresence generally, but I’m convinced that air travel is a luxury the environment can’t afford. And it’s a damn miserable luxury at that.

  3. Michel Schinz says:

    You might want to have a look at the “flyingless” campaign (http://flyingless.org/, @flyingless on Twitter) that asks academics to reduce their flying. They have a petition to that effect on change.org (http://bit.ly/2jpPkNt).

  4. Stephen Kell says:

    Great post — thanks for raising this.

    I do like the idea of a small number of physical meetings per SIG, for all the given reasons and not just the environmental ones.

    Particularly in Europe, not all long-distance travel is air travel. Yet funders, institutions and/or grant-holders often don’t want to pay the extra cost of taking the train (or ferry or whatever), or make life more difficult in other ways. For example, my department has a “travel agent” that for international trips only really knows how to book flights. If I want the department to pay up-front, rather than reimbursing me later, I have to fly.

    Generally I choose the reimbursement option! I didn’t take a single flight in 2016, partly thanks to all my conferences being in Europe (especially SPLASH). But I’ve paid the delta out of my own pocket on certain occasions (mostly earlier; last year I did okay). So I’d like to see institutions / departments take this seriously, and also funders — perhaps by offering travel budgets that stretch further if used for environmentally sound means of transport.

    Also, being negative: until governments stop giving tax breaks to the aviation sector, and start investing in the alternatives, any change we make will be at best a symbolic effort. It may still be worth doing, of course.

  5. Faisal Aslam says:

    All SIGPLAN conferences will have same submission deadlines too then? If you miss that deadline then bad luck, now publish your work next year.
    In case their deadline will remain apart while they will be held together at same time then some people will have to wait very long to present their accepted work.

    What you suggest could be the solution of that?

    • crista says:

      They would have submission deadlines spread apart. Delaying presentation doesn’t seem like a big problem.

  6. Jeremy Gibbons says:

    I’m looking forward to the discussion!

    Minor SIGPLAN correction: LCTES colocates regularly with PLDI, as ISMM does. On the other hand, you missed PPoPP. So that still leaves six meetings a year. SIGPLAN doesn’t control ASPLOS (it’s shared with SIGARCH and SIGOPS), so that’s one we wouldn’t be able to bring under the umbrella.

  7. Crista: Thanks for the thoughtful essay. I agree we all fly too much, and need to cut down. Some of my climate science colleagues have adopted a radical solution: slow travel. See for example, Kevin Anderson’s essay: http://kevinanderson.info/blog/hypocrites-in-the-air-should-climate-change-academics-lead-by-example/
    He makes some good points about how ready availability of flights also contributes to our hectic lifestyles: we expect to make short trips for conferences and then get back in time to tuck our kids into bed. Perhaps it’s time to stop pretending we can have it all and make some hard choices about our priorities.

    I’ve adopted a limited version of this: I never fly if I can get there by train, I always fly direct if at all possible (planes use a lot of fuel for takeoff and landing, so reducing the number of flight segments makes a big difference), and for transatlantic hops, I fly to a major hub and then do the rest of the journey overland. I’m also preferring journals over conferences for my papers.

    So I strongly support the call for the CS community to cut the number of conferences. But I also would like to make a strong argument that concentrating on our personal carbon footprints is not an effective way to think about climate change. Personal lifestyle changes are a conceit of the wealthy privileged classes, and making personal sacrifices, as a strategy, does not scale. Rather, I would much prefer computer scientists think about how our expertise can be actively deployed to make a much bigger impact on tackling climate change than anything we do as individuals. I recommend Bret Victor’s article as a long list of ideas we ought to be engaging with: http://worrydream.com/#!/ClimateChange

  8. catfish says:

    This article was written 7 years ago: http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1536631

    I completely agree with it, and it also provides for the problem described in the post.

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