“Out in the main square with a pile of wood around my ankles…”
Global warming? Academics are to blame! At least that’s what Mark Pedelty wants us to consider, at least insofar as we academics travel a lot. Some evidence:
Ian Roberts and Fiona Godlee published an editorial in the British Medical Journal on the “carbon footprint of medical conferences.” They determined that flights destined for the annual conferences of the European Respiratory Society and the American Thoracic Society put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than do 110,000 Chadians or 11,000 Indians in an entire year. The problem does not end with medical researchers. Scholars of all stripes travel to meet, greet, and, in one of our more ironic roles, preach the gospel of sustainability.
At the instigation of this article, my colleagues on the Metanexus Academic Board are talking over–virtually–the value of getting together to talk things over actually. Although everyone wants to “go green,” not everyone wants to make sacrifices to do it. And for a group of people who think it’s imperative to engage in a global dialogue in an effort to get at something like “the whole story of the whole cosmos for the whole person,” “sacrificing” face-to-face encounters feels pretty much like throwing in the towel. No virtual encounter can substitute adequately.
Take the example of Second Life, supposedly the next big thing in virtual community where “avatars” (virtual you’s) have “enriching” encounters. Turns out, though, the Second Life world is becoming deserted:
Ever since BusinessWeek ran a breathless cover story titled “My Virtual Life” more than a year ago, reporters have been heralding Second Life as the here-and-now incarnation of the fictional Metaverse that Neal Stephenson conjured up 15 years ago in Snow Crash. (Wired created a 12-page “Travel Guide” last fall.) Unfortunately, the reality doesn’t justify the excitement.
Second Life partisans claim meteoric growth, with the number of “residents,” or avatars created, surpassing 7 million in June. There’s no question that more and more people are trying Second Life, but that figure turns out to be wildly misleading. For starters, many people make more than one avatar. According to Linden Lab, the company behind Second Life, the number of avatars created by distinct individuals was closer to 4 million. Of those, only about 1 million had logged on in the previous 30 days (the standard measure of Internet traffic), and barely a third of that total had bothered to drop by in the previous week. Most of those who did were from Europe or Asia, leaving a little more than 100,000 Americans per week to be targeted by US marketers.
Then there’s the question of what people do when they get there. Once you put in several hours flailing around learning how to function in Second Life, there isn’t much to do. That may explain why more than 85 percent of the avatars created have been abandoned. Linden’s in-world traffic tally, which factors in both the number of visitors and time spent, shows that the big draws for those who do return are free money and kinky sex. On a random day in June, the most popular location was Money Island (where Linden dollars, the official currency, are given away gratis), with a score of 136,000. Sexy Beach, one of several regions that offer virtual sex shops, dancing, and no-strings hookups, came in at 133,000. The Sears store on IBM’s Innovation Island had a traffic score of 281; Coke’s Virtual Thirst pavilion, a mere 27. And even when corporate destinations actually draw people, the PR can be less than ideal. Last winter, CNET’s in-world correspondent was conducting a live interview with Anshe Chung, an avatar said to have earned more than $1 million on virtual real estate deals, when Chung was assaulted by flying penises in a griefer attack [a “griefer” is an in-world resident intending to vandalize an event].
Anyway, the virtual world–at least that version of the virtual world–doesn’t hold much appeal. I am one of those who spent “several hours flailing around” and saw no one and nothing of interest. I have enough trouble with my “first life.” I don’t need the hassles of Second Life. No way I see holding a Metanexus Academic Board meeting in Second Life in an attempt to decrease our carbon footprint (although I wouldn’t mind finding out what sort of avatars some of my colleagues would come up with…).
But on the other hand, academics might be the cause, not so much of global warming, but of global warming catastrophism. So opines Alexander Cockburn, who has been branded a “blasphemer” for writing: “While the world’s climate is on a warming trend, there is zero evidence that the rise in CO2 levels has anthropogenic origins.” He particulary castigates the political left (of which he is a proud yet melancholy member) for becoming, in their obsession with the idea that humans are generating catastrophic climate change, useful idiots for the evil forces of global capitalism. How so? He writes:
For reasons I find very hard to fathom, the environmental left movement has bought very heavily into the fantasy about anthropogenic global warming and the fantasy that humans can prevent or turn back the warming cycle.
This turn to climate catastrophism is tied into the decline of the left, and the decline of the left’s optimistic vision of altering the economic nature of things through a political programme. The left has bought into environmental catastrophism because it thinks that if it can persuade the world that there is indeed a catastrophe, then somehow the emergency response will lead to positive developments in terms of social and environmental justice.
This is a fantasy. In truth, environmental catastrophism will, in fact it already has, play into the hands of sinister-as-always corporate interests.
As Cockburn sees it, climate catastrophism is just one example of an ever-intensifying “politics of fear.” On the right, for instance, obsession with global terrorism leverages people’s fears in unsavory ways. None of that does us any good.
But either way, we academics are apparently bad news. Either we’re wreaking havoc on our planet by holding international conferences on, say “Transsomatechnics: Theories and Practices of Transgender Embodiment” or whatever; or we are wreaking havoc on our political life by working up “Chicken Little” catastrophism about the environment; or–worst of all–we hypocritically hold an international conference on global climate change.
And, as Cockburn notes, even to bring up the discussion at this level is risky business. He writes that he sometimes feels like he’s “out in the main square with a pile of wood around (his) ankles.” Sometimes I know how he feels….
If you feel like talking, stop by www.peripateticpraxis.com/blog, log on, and sound off.