On carbon footprint in academics, Aikido, train tours and our feeling of guilt


This week, Antoine Rozel, senior researcher in ETH Zürich, gives us good news about carbon footprint. We can take the global warming problem as a pretext to change some of our arbitrary habits and make our communication much more efficient!

Antoine Rozel

Antoine Rozel

Global warming is real and yes we do need to drastically decrease our carbon footprint.

I see 3 options: 1) not caring, 2) feeling guilty about it and not doing anything, 3) doing something.

1) It is now too late to discuss option 1.

2) How about we feel guilty about it and do nothing? In the end, this is what usually happens. The feeling of guilt is for me one of the most important sources of problems in both private and professional life. As always, a key to remove this feeling is a matter of expectations. We expect that everything should be great, and it just isn’t. “Oh no, I should have finished this paper in May and it is already October, I am a worthless piece of s**t”. I propose we forget about the concept of “I should have” and life will be much nicer. How about: “wow this is great! I managed to debug this code now and ran all these simulations I did not even expect I could ever get to work!”

We are so harsh with ourselves. Let’s just think about how tired we are at the end of the day. Doesn’t this mean we are really trying? Why is it not enough? We just do not need guilt.

3) Aha “doing something”. Now this is scary! Will I have to give up my life and everything? Oh no!

As random as this may seem, this is where Aikido became useful, at least for me. See the video below from wikipedia of Ueshiba Mitsuteru demonstrating basic Aikido techniques at the Nippon Budokan in 2017.

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I practiced Aikido for few years. I do not have a great level at all but I learnt something very useful right away even without having much technique. Very simple: if you want to deal with an attack, you need to accept that it happens and even come close to the attacker. Great. Easy to say. If someone wants to slap you in the face, you should totally jumps in his/her arms!

No, what i mean is that by being close to a problem, one can deal with it. My point is that this applies directly to global warming: our problem is that we need to reduce our CO2 emission. Let’s just accept it. There is no need to feel guilty about it, it just happens. That’s it, we have accepted the problem now. Now just sit back a second and think how you could even take advantage of the situation.

The problem I want to address here is our transportation habits. Are our habits that efficient? Is it really that efficient to go to all these conferences? In fact flying to another continent to visit a colleague for 3 days is very tiring. Certainly it is great to be somewhere else than your workplace because you enter the social sphere of a team. We should not stop traveling. But how much of our current habits are due to how people have been traditionally behaving in the past? How arbitrary are our traveling habits?

Imagine you do not know anything. Someone tells you: “You need to learn about Nature and try to build ideas and models that can help reproducing and predicting the world. There are groups of people called researchers here and there in the entire world who already worked on this problem. What would you do to learn as much as possible from everyone and share your ideas with everyone as quickly as you can?”

From this perspective, flying seems like a rather stupid thing to do in the 21st century. What would you physically go to another continent just to talk to some people and give a talk when videoconferencing is actually free?

How about inviting people on videoconference at coffee breaks, group meetings, seminars? Simple. How about using videoconferences as deadlines to present some result you think you can get in the near future? By the way, never plan this kind of things on Mondays because this forces you and/or your student to work over the week end.

Seminars are organised in your group. Why not also organising a videoconference session every week? Make a list of everyone in your group. Assign a day in the future to everyone. Each week, a different person is in charge to invite a colleague online at a coffee break, just for 30 minutes. Easy. People will meet much more people. Huge potential for collaborations.

OK this is interesting but I will travel anyway. Alright I will take the train because flying is bad now and I feel guilty anyway.

How about preparing this trip and making stops on the way for vacations? Or for another visit to other colleagues? Do train tours. I did it, it is great! And you know what: you can feel good about yourself. You are actually doing something about global warming and you can be proud of it. Tell you colleagues when you do that. Encourage your students to do it as well. In fact, what we do influences people around us. Let’s show a nice example!

Yes I know, it is easy to say but you might have a family and you cannot just evaporate like that for that long. To be honest, I think it is more interesting to visiting colleagues than to go to gigantic conferences. Conferences should be online where communicating with a lot of people at the same time is easy.

We should communicate online MUCH MORE!

My take home message: use videoconferencing as much as you can and make train tours instead of flying far away for a short time. Ask for giving seminars online, that is so much faster, easier and cheaper to organise and more people will meet you!

Deep in the information era, we completely misunderstand how convenient internet is.

Find out more about the blog team here.

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