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British Association for American Studies

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Green BAAS

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Green BAAS is the environmental and sustainability network of the British Association for American Studies (BAAS). It was founded in 2019 to respond to increasing concerns about the environment and the United States’ relationship to climate change, and to consider and direct the changes that BAAS can make to contribute to collective global climate action.

It is co-led by Dr Elsa Devienne (Northumbria University) and Dr Rebecca Tillett (University of East Anglia).

All BAAS members are welcome to join our steering committee and/or the Green BAAS mailing list.

At our 2024 AGM, we launched our first ever Climate Action Plan, which will be revised every year to reflect our ongoing and future commitments to global climate action. Do send your suggestions and remarks to our co-leads.

Digital BAAS 2024: And Just Like That… We Saved 80 Tons of CO2 Equivalent  

In October 2023, Just Stop Oil climate activists sprayed university buildings across England with orange paint to protest the UK Government’s plans to license new oil and gas projects in the North Sea. The protests were part of a broader movement across UK campuses and beyond to confront universities’ active role in the perpetuation of the climate crisis. From calls for universities to divest from fossil fuel companies to campaigns to include mandatory climate change modules, student-activists demand that universities align their practices with the climate research their own employees produce. 

It is time that we, American studies academics, follow their example and end the divorce between our research and our professional practices. If we want to remain true to American studies’ long tradition of research informed by and engaged with social justice issues, we need to change how we work. For the first time since the COVID 19 pandemic, the British Association of American Studies will be holding its 2024 annual conference online as part of its commitment to lowering its carbon emissions and challenging business-as-usual in academia. At Green BAAS, the organisation’s sustainability network, we pushed for that change and welcome this critical engagement with climate accountability.  

We contend that the two most meaningful things BAAS can do to combat climate change are to defund from banks that fund fossil fuel giants, such as Barclays—a process we are currently pursuing; and promote low-carbon research and conferencing practices that do not involve frequent flying. While reducing “conference swag” and switching to reusable crockery are good steps, they cannot replace the difficult work of reducing our carbon emissions, the vast majority of which is created through flying and indirectly through using banks that fund new “carbon bomb” extraction projects.

Following discussions started under Cara Rodway’s tenure as chair and continued under Lydia Plath’s mandate, the BAAS executive committee has agreed to organise its annual conference online every three years. This means that our 2025 and 2026 conferences will be face-to-face and that we won’t return to online conferencing until 2027. We believe that this proposition, which was backed by the BAAS membership in Keele at the 2023 general meeting, positions BAAS at the forefront of progressive change while still accommodating different needs and opinions on the topic. 

Some figures might help here. If our 2021 BAAS conference had happened on site, in Hull, as originally planned, it would have released about 82 tons of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) into the atmosphere, the vast majority originating from flights (55.3 CO2e to allow 36 American academics to come and present). The actual conference “only” resulted in 2 tons of CO2e, which means we saved 80 tons CO2e—a rough equivalent to average yearly emissions of 17 people living in the UK. Another way to put it is that BAAS could have theoretically offset its emissions by growing a forest of 3,200 trees to maturity (that said, BAAS obviously does not own land to grow a forest and buying carbon offsets is notoriously problematic).1 

A pie chart showing the carbon budget of BAAS 2021 Conference.

Total carbon budget of the 2021 BAAS conference if it had taken place in Hull (UK), as originally planned. Most carbon emissions (55.3 CO2e) would have been linked to flying.  

There are understandable concerns associated with online conferences—losing the magic of the coffee break being a major one—and it does have associated carbon costs as well.2 Changing our professional behaviours is difficult. But there are also opportunities; for many with caring responsibilities, chronic illnesses and disabilities, online conferences are the only way to participate in scholarly debates. The Disabled Academic Collective a group of undergraduates, graduate students, faculty members, and independent scholars who identify as disabled and are fighting for accessible higher education for all academics, have written a passionate resource guide in defense of remote access, which is full of insights for our conference organising team. 

Some scholars point out the disconnect between worries about a nice chat at a conference break and the effects climate breakdown is having on lives, livelihoods, and ecosystems right now; they highlight the irony of getting on a plane to talk about the Anthropocene and climate justice.  

The truth is that individual people are not naturally virtuous. Air travel is profoundly normalized and viewed as both a necessity and an unquestioned right. We are all tempted by the £30 easy jet ticket to the Canaries. That is why professional organisations should take difficult decisions and model ethical behaviour.

In fact, we are not the only organisation having this conversation.  

  • In 2019, a petition signed by 234 members “regarding the CO2 Footprint of Annual Meetings” was delivered to the Council of the American Association of Geographers, resulting in the creation of a Climate Action Task Force, which has recommended the move to online meetings.  
  • On October 4, 2022, 130 members of the Middle East Studies Association delivered a public letter asking the executive committee to “explore remote access as a permanent feature of annual meetings”. Their 2024 annual meeting will be “mostly online”. 
  • SLAS (the Society for Latin American Studies) has adopted a Cimate Action Plan, which claims that SLAS members “should consider the effects of their day-to-day working lives on the environment” and commits itself to determining “what a carbon-neutral Latin American Studies discipline would look like in 2030.” 
  • The Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) has committed itself to “maintaining and advocating ecologically sustainable practices” and posted a list of practical recommendations for its future conferences.  

Many large professional organisations have very little leeway in terms of switching to online conferencing, having inherited contracts with hotel chains that come with obligations to secure a certain number of room bookings. Fortunately, BAAS is not in this situation and has the freedom to reinvent its relationship to conferencing.  

At Green BAAS, we would love to hear from members about our decision to go digital on an alternate basis and how we can continue to push the field towards more sustainable practices. We also want to encourage and support environmental humanities research in American studies. Do consider joining our network or, even better, our steering committee by emailing rebecca.tillett@baas.ac.uk and elsa.devienne@baas.ac.uk

Dated 25 January 2024 

The steering committee for Green BAAS (by alphabetical order: George Barkes, Abdenour Bouich, Elsa Devienne, Rebecca Macklin, Ananya Mishra, Katie Taylor, Rebecca Tillett, John Wills).

  1. Calculations using the following website: https://climate.mit.edu/ask-mit/how-many-new-trees-would-we-need-offset-our-carbon-emissions; for a critique of carbon offsets, see Jenny Price, Stop Saving the Planet! (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2021), 80 ↩︎
  2. “What about the coffee break?’ Designing virtual conference spaces for conviviality”, Geo: Geography and Environment, Vol. 9(2), 2022. Open access at https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/131790; on the carbon costs of our online behaviours, BAAS members will remember the provocative keynote on “Streaming Media, Online Conferences, and the Jevons Paradox” given by Dr. Laura U. Marks (Simon Fraser University) at the 2021 digital BAAS conference.