By Josh Kearns
I’ve had a lot of unpopular ideas. Maybe the all-time most unpopular, though, is this one:
The relatively short trips made by international humanitarian science/engineering and sustainable community development professionals for fieldwork, particularly to far-flung destinations, are almost certainly futile from an environmental sustainability perspective.
Most of us in the international “humanitarian science and engineering,” and “sustainable community development” sectors are professionally concerned with environmental sustainability. We relentlessly flog the rhetoric of “sustainability” for grant seeking and fundraising, in outreach and promotional activities, and in our organizational and institutional self-assessments.
But most of us, myself included, do an awful lot of long-haul air travel for fieldwork, incurring substantial CO2 emissions. This has led me to wonder:
What if the good we do advancing sustainability in our fieldwork gets negated by the CO2 we emit getting there and back again?
I became worried about this after reading climate scientist Kevin Anderson’s article arguing that climate scientists and others who are professionally concerned with sustainability are often a bunch of hypocrites for engaging in so much air travel for conferences, fieldwork, etc., and ought instead to go by train and/or travel less in order to lead by example.
I used to work as a researcher in the development of the Ecological Footprint, a sustainability accounting tool that provides a quantitative metric of sustainability by comparing humanity’s demands for energy, resources, and waste assimilation with the planet’s biological capacity to meet these demands.
A cartoon conception of the Ecological Footprint.
From my work on the Footprint, I know that people in the "developing world" have much smaller Ecological Footprints than we do in affluent countries such as the US. For example, the average Thai Footprint is about 1/3rd that of the average American. The average Ugandan and Peruvian Footprints are about 1/6th, and the average Haitian about 1/10th that of the average American.
So, recently I began to wonder: How long would a humanitarian scientist/engineer from the affluent world have to live at a local, developing community Ecological Footprint level in order to offset the CO2 they emitted getting out into the field and back home again?
It turns out that this is not too hard to calculate using existing Footprint data. I call the concept the Break Even Ecological Footprint, or “BEEF,” for short. It represents the minimum amount of time a scientist/engineer/development worker has to remain in-country, living with the local community, in order to begin to accrue a net sustainability benefit. Any trip shorter than the BEEF would be futile from a sustainability perspective, as the environmental costs of travel would outweigh the sustainability benefits of living at a lower Ecological Footprint level relative to the affluent home-country lifestyle.
The BEEF concept can thus be applied to gauge the net environmental sustainability benefit (or cost) of a particular work/study trip.
Many humanitarian science and engineering organizations are based in affluent regions and operate on college campuses through the activities of students, faculty, and with professional consultants from big private sector firms. The rigors of the academic calendar and limitations on professionals’ vacation time often greatly restrict the duration of travel by these groups for carrying out humanitarian projects. Trips are planned, for example, over winter break or for a few weeks during summer. Unfortunately, BEEF analysis reveals that trips of this short duration almost always incur a net sustainability deficit. In other words, from an environmental sustainability perspective, these would-be “sustainable development” practitioners should better have stayed home.
Now can you see why my BEEF idea may be record-breakingly unpopular?
If you’ve read this far and you’re still curious to learn more about BEEF analysis, including the calculation methodology and some sample results as well as consideration of criticisms and limitations of the methodology, see my article in Resilience.
You can also visit the Aqueous Solutions website and play around with our interactive BEEF Calculator. We encourage humanitarian engineering and science professionals from affluent countries who are planning to go abroad for fieldwork to use this calculator to assess their trips for potential futility from an environmental sustainability perspective.
And as long as I am pointing fingers, I may as well implicate myself, too.
My fieldwork is located in SE Asia, primarily Thailand and Burma. Using Footprint data for the US and Thailand, I calculate a BEEF of 2.2-11.7 months. That's a wide range, because it takes into account a couple of scenarios depending (1) upon how closely I approximate an average local lifestyle while in the field, and (2) whether a radiative forcing multiplier is applied for CO2 emissions at high altitude.
My current stint in the field is just shy of six months, so I’d better hope that my activities here produce demonstrable, lasting sustainability gains for the local individuals and communities I work with, extending well beyond my own professional life, in order to make it all “worth it” from a bona fide sustainability perspective.
Critically examining my own activities this way underscores the trenchant conclusion that:
If “sustainability” truly is among our most cherished values as professionals and not just a buzzword constantly trumpeted to expedite project funding and social ingratiation, then we must put our professional activities and contemporary lifestyles to rigorous (re-)evaluation, though the implications of doing so may be discomfiting.
What do you think?
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Author’s note: I will be taking a short hiatus from blogging for Chemists Without Borders for the next two weeks. I’m headed to the Kra Isthmus region of SE Burma to work with a small village on water projects and will not have internet access. When I return I hope to have lots photos, stories, and lessons-learned to share!
Links to my other posts