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Conferences, Ethics and the #ELTfootprint

July 22, 2019

I wouldn’t say I was a seasoned conference speaker, or count myself as being part of the international ELT conference circuit. But I have presented at a few conferences over the past few years, and it’s something I enjoy doing. Since I heard of the Fair List though, I’ve made a point of asking about gender representation when I’ve been approached about speaking at a conference, and I only agree to present if at least 50% of speakers are female. More recently I’ve started paying attention to other forms of representation as well – people with first languages other than English, people of colour, people with disabilities, people who identify as LGBTQIA – and I’ve tended to look more favourably at conferences that are clearly taking speaker diversity into consideration when planning who their presenters will be. I really don’t want to be just another middle-aged native English speaking white man in a line-up of middle-aged native English-speaking white men, telling an audience of mostly non-male, non-white, non-native English-speaking teachers what to do.

But it’s only very recently that I’ve started considering another ethical issue that relates to conference presentation. As well as representation, we also need to consider carbon footprint. Earlier this year, Daniel Barber gave a presentation and wrote a blog post in which he declared a climate emergency within the ELT profession. The #ELTfootprint hashtag has been doing the rounds on social media ever since, and there’s an ELT Footprint group on Facebook, as well as an accompanying blog. These initiatives have been really effective in getting people thinking about ways to reduce waste in ELT – recyclable name tags, reduced use of paper, ethical disposal of used marker pens, that sort of thing.

While all of these initiatives are well-intentioned and can have a positive impact, reading about them reminds me of an interview I saw with the journalist and environmentalist George Monbiot (which you can watch here). He describes individual gestures like these as “pathetic micro-consumerist bollocks which isn’t going to get us anywhere”. The only two things that Monbiot suggests we can do as individuals that will actually make a difference to climate change are to stop eating meat and to stop flying. Everything else has to happen on a much wider, structural, macro-level.

With this (and my children’s futures) in mind, I’ve massively reduced the amount of meat I eat, but I’ve also started thinking more about what I can do to reduce my carbon footprint within my working context. Travelling by plane is something that happens a lot in a global profession like ELT, but much of it is unnecessary and actually impacts negatively on the development of our profession.

On the ELT conference circuit, the main problem with a lack of diversity is the over-representation of (usually) white male native-speaker presenters, and this is facilitated by the practice of flying such presenters in from other countries. What this means of course is that these presenters are not only giving their talks from a white male native-speaking perspective, they’re also speaking from a position of relative ignorance of the local context. There’s a good chance that someone who knows more about the key issues in the country where the conference is taking place will be able to give a more relevant and useful presentation than someone who is being flown in from elsewhere. There is something very imperialistic about a white man flying into a country he knows little about, telling everyone what he thinks they should do (despite his contextual ignorance), and then flying home again. There’s an implication that the locals don’t know what to do and are dependent on this “superior” “expert” for guidance. I was very aware of this when I was one of these white men at a conference in Mexico a few months ago, and it did make me uncomfortable (though I managed to convince myself at the time that it was OK, as you can read here).

Having said that, it’s sometimes good to get some external input, and it may be the case that someone on the other side of the world happens to have a message that is particularly relevant to the focus of a conference. But that person doesn’t have to fly round the world to convey their message. There’s nothing to stop someone giving a conference presentation remotely. I don’t know much about technology, but it’s definitely possible. For example, here’s a keynote presentation given by the late David Graddol in 2017 for an audience in Korea, which he gave from his office in Milton Keynes, UK. He was unable to travel for health reasons rather than ethical ones, but his live-streamed talk managed to stimulate follow-up discussion and seemed to go down very well.

I’ve never organised a conference, and experienced conference-organisers might be reading this and thinking I don’t know what I’m talking about, and that I’ve failed to take various crucial factors into consideration; that’s fine, please use the comments section below to enlighten me. What I’m saying here though is that I imagine the selection of conference speakers is (or should be) largely influenced by what these speakers can bring to the context in which the conference is located, or the general theme of the conference. The chances are that locally-based speakers will be able to provide more relevant content than speakers from elsewhere, so my suggestion is that they should be considered first. Then, if it still seems appropriate to get input from speakers from elsewhere, they can be invited to give a live-streamed presentation. This approach makes sense in terms of providing relevant content, reducing white male native-speaker dominance among presenters, saving money, and reducing the conference’s carbon footprint.

So, if in the future I am invited to fly somewhere just to give a conference presentation, I will first enquire about representation among speakers and, if there are already lots of non-local white men on the list already, I’ll suggest they reconsider who they’ve invited. If the list of speakers is already reasonably diverse, I’ll suggest that I travel there by train (if that’s possible), or I’ll offer to give a talk via some kind of teleconference. If that’s not possible either, I’ll suggest that they look elsewhere – ideally more locally – to find another presenter.

Am I shooting myself in the foot? Well yes, I suppose I’m denying myself the opportunity to visit some cool places and to do interesting work that will benefit my career. But hey, I’m a white native-speaking male. I’ve already had plenty of opportunities and benefited from my privileged position. I need to acknowledge this and concede that the voices of less well-represented people need to be heard too; this might happen more if conference-organisers source their presenters more locally. But also, and even more importantly, something we should all be considering a lot more is the impact of our professional practice on the environment. Of course, reducing carbon footprint involves some sacrifices but, when you put them in perspective and consider the consequences of not making these sacrifices, it’s a very small price to pay.

Ultimately, I don’t have to fly round the world giving conference presentations. But the point is that nobody does. I realise of course that it’s an important source of income for some people, and I’m not deliberately trying to shame individuals into giving that up. However, we all have a responsibility to consider the ethical impact of our actions. This is what I’ve done, and this is the decision I’ve reached as a result. If everyone reflects on their professional practice from an ethical perspective, it could actually lead to significant positive change.

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5 Comments
  1. Hi Steve, I’m really pleased you’re taking this stance about flying. Like you, I and others I know are doing the same thing, although some of us have contractual obligations to promote books abroad – I wish it was otherwise. Where possible, from now on I’ll be trying to minimise the number of flights I make, and suggestions such as using teleconferencing tools to avoid travel are being mooted among publishers and conference organisers. Like you, I’ll miss the enjoyment I get from attending events around the world, but it’s a small sacrifice for someone who’s already done his fair share of travelling.

    You’re right that ELTfootprint has started by concentrating its efforts on plastic, waste, and so on, and while George Monbiot is certainly right that these can distract us from the main goals of reducing air travel and meat eating, the fight needs to be on multiple fronts; the natural world is suffering under many man-made disasters. But it’s far from true that ELTfootprint is ignoring these central goals; we are cognisant of the fact that the next step in greening ELT is to tackle these two big questions. Here are links to ideas for conference organisers: https://eltfootprint.home.blog/work-in-progress/ They include such ideas as ‘conference proxies’ (Chris Etchells’ term for local reps delivering internattional speakers’ content). Nevertheless, it’s important to be reminded that we’re only just getting started, that there’s no room for complacency until the conference scene has been radically localised.

    Dan Barber

    • Hi Dan,
      Thanks for your original declaration of a climate emergency in ELT, which got me thinking about the issue more deeply and inspired me to take this stance. I agree with you that we need to look at things like waste reduction as well, but George Monbiot’s point is that we mustn’t start thinking we’ve cracked it because we now use pens made from recycled paper and take our own cups to Starbucks. The big problem is the consumer society generated by capitalism and the perpetual growth that it requires. We all need to stop consuming so much, and a lot of unnecessary consumption can be taken out of ELT.
      Sure, we can be a lot greener in many different ways, but stopping flying is a particularly effective way of reducing carbon footprint. It’s something that happens a lot in ELT, and it’s often tied in with other issues like native speakerism and the globalisation/Mcdonaldisation of materials/exams. If everyone in ELT stopped flying, who would suffer most? Probably the same organisations who turned ELT into a global industry in the first place – publishing companies, examining bodies and language school franchises. I feel that this could allow ELT to develop in a far more positive way.
      Steve

  2. Hi Steve, an interesting post and one that strikes a chord. Like you, I’ve been working on changes since Mexico. I’m cutting back on both meat and air travel and considering various issues when it comes to face-to-face events. But I have to say I disagree with George Monbiot when he says that meat and air travel are the ONLY two things we can do to make a difference – car usage is another major carbon emissions culprit and we need to cut back on that too – and the other “well-intentioned” actions? I don’t think we should write them off too quickly. Cutting back on consumption = cutting back on production = cutting back on emissions. Cutting back on waste = cutting back on carbon emissions. Developing a culture which is less wasteful, which gives less importance to production and consumption is also part of the battle. Being part of the solution, not part of the problem helps people feel stronger when it comes to protesting and calling for change. So yes, I think we should encourage all actions, big and small, while they’re genuine attempts to bring about change. And no, of course it’s not enough, and so we should also keep calling out the big companies and the national governments on their virtue-signalling and greenwashing.

    • Hi Ceri,
      Yeah, I’m not writing off anything that leads to a reduction in general consumption of stuff, and the waste that consumerism produces. I don’t think George Monbiot is either – he’s just saying that if ALL we do is change our cotton buds, that’s not going to make any real difference.
      Personally I think we need to do things that don’t just force corporations to change their practice a little bit (e.g. Starbucks using paper straws instead of plastic ones), but which hit them so hard that they either have to re-invent themselves as much smaller, localised, ethically-minded operations, or they go out of business altogether. The world doesn’t need to have so many planes flying about, nor does it need so many fields full of cows (or other fields that grow stuff for cows to eat), or coffee shop franchises, etc. Yes, lots of small actions add up, but lots of big actions add up to even more.
      I think we agree with each other, more or less completely.
      Thanks for reading, and thanks for the good work you’re doing with #ELTfootprint.
      Steve

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