Gas prices keep going up, and don’t kid yourself that they’re going to go down again anytime soon either (enjoy those profits, ExxonMobil shareholders…). Some places in the US are looking down the road at $5/gallon, and of course Europeans have been paying vastly more than that for years. The news is rife with stories of police departments worrying about going broke because gas is too expensive, and schools that can’t afford the food they cook to give kids lunch at school because food costs are going up too much (which of course hits the poor kids more than the rich kids – yeah, that seems fair).

And yet, outside of asking for a larger mileage reimbursement for personal vehicle use, academia doesn’t seem to be having discussions about how we will continue to educate the public and do important research as gas prices continue to rise, and global warming continues to get more severe.

For example, I’m on my way to a conference in Switzerland where 90% of the papers are being given by people from the US. So we are all carting ourselves over to Europe, using a huge amount of gas and making a huge amount of carbon dioxide, to have a conversation with mostly Americans. This seems to be a silly idea.

So let me ask the question: what will academia need to do to get itself ready for the end of cheap energy? How will we have to change our patterns of teaching, research and service to have a smaller carbon footprint?

Here are some thoughts to get us started:

  • Conferences will be local, or webbased. Registration will be lower for local folks, or for people who travel using more sustainable travel methods (train, carpool, bike). People will stay with local hosts.
  • Publications will be web-based also, as printing prices and mail costs will be too pricey.
  • New university buildings will be built to be platinum-LEED certified, with no griping about the increased upfront cost. Older buildings will be refurbished rather than demolished and built over.
  • Students will be able to get class credit for working in the university communal gardens, and the veggies they tend will be used in the university kitchens.
  • Campus towns will go car-free, with improved public transportation and bike access.
  • More international research collaborations will have to develop to get access to field samples, as it will be too expensive for local researchers to fly halfway across the world to collect them themselves.
  • More and more classes will be taught online, with faculty members and students at home and using personal computers.
  • Universities will lead communities in hosting comprehensive reusing and recycling systems, including computer recycling and secure data disposal.
  • Exurbs, or bedroom communities will become ghost-towns as people will no longer want to commute in every day. Universities will start building faculty housing on campus again.

Some of these ideas are rather pedestrian (ha ha). What are some other, probably more out-of-the-box ideas?


  1. #1 Katharine
    July 3, 2008

    Buildings will have solar panels, there will be a trend away from automated research machines such as automated pipetters because of the power it takes to work them (hand pipetting will become de rigueur again!), there will be a significant reduction in unused green space such as lawns, students may be required to put in a few hours per week tending to the school’s food as a condition of remaining a student there, and in many ways, we will probably either be dependent on gas-free technology or go back to the days before we used machines requiring electricity to do our work.

  2. #2 Anonymous
    July 3, 2008

    I would hate to see increased energy costs making our society even more isolated. Web-based technologies are great, but at the same time, I am leery of largely online solutions.

  3. #3 hypatia cade
    July 3, 2008

    I already see this effect in my research. It used to be that families happily came into the lab. A trip to the University was an opportunity to come to town and shop (yes, I’m in a rural area). Now they really want us to come to them. This affects my budget (reimbursing students etc for gas; paying for time spent traveling since that is WORK time) and it also affects the number of subjects I can see (time spent traveling means we can see 2 kids per day instead of 5). It also makes it likely that I’ll have to shift away from having students see subjects to having a full time RA because coordinating travel and class time and ensuring that the student has a car is too complicated. This is really a shame because the undergrads really enjoy seeing subjects and learn quite a bit that helps them in their professional lives in the process.

  4. #4 Eric Lund
    July 3, 2008

    Universities, especially those located in out-of-the-way small towns, will have to get more creative in recruiting two-career couples in order to compete for top faculty contenders. That high-flying young scientist who is married to another scientist isn’t going to want a job at Podunk U. if it’s even 50 miles from any place the spouse can get a job, unless there is sufficient bus or train service to allow them to live in one town and commute to the other (and aside from the Northeast Corridor there aren’t many places in North America which have even semi-adequate bus/train service).

    We will see a decrease in the total number of international conferences as scientists try to squeeze as much as they can out of travel budgets. Smaller topical conferences might survive if they are held at one of the major institutes in the field, or at a conference center near such an institute. Conference series which use remote resorts will definitely be in trouble. OTOH international conferences will not disappear entirely: there is still a need for face-to-face time.

    For research areas requiring fieldwork, there will have to be more partnerships with local institutes, and to the extent possible field trips will be fewer and of longer duration.

  5. #5 Nic
    July 3, 2008

    Interesting how we have to wait for the market to force us to live a more sustainable lifestyle instead of seeking it out on our own.

    Science budgets are going to jump as the price of everything will increase. I think you’ll see more of the mini-stores (small Invitrogen and Sigma depots) located on campuses instead of shipping everything in individually for every lab (at least the more popular items). Maybe those companies will finally stop shipping tiny little vials in boxes that are 10x larger than necessary.

    If we could get trains updated, I think travel could still be a large part of the process. I admit it would be neat to have a Star Wars-like hologram of myself to attend international conferences. 😉

  6. #6 bsci
    July 3, 2008

    Are you talking about changes like this:

    Note that the University of California system is about 220,000 students and about 10% of the nations postdocs so across the board environmental planning on all new buildings is not trivial.

    As for conferences, I’ve never been to a non-US conference that had 90% US attendees. Usually when a conference rotates locations, it always gets a much higher proportion of attendees from nearer that location. One conference I attend gets all talks online a month or two after the conference. This isn’t the same as attending a conference, but it helps people who can’t afford to go.

    I don’t ever see student gardening as a response to gas prices. It might be a nice thing to do that makes people feel good, but it isn’t an efficient use of student time and even at $20/gallon gas, it wouldn’t be cost effective.

  7. #7 Donna
    July 3, 2008

    The future is now. NAE’s CASEE made its annual conference for fellows web-based this year – though I’m not sure what drove that decision. (BTW I do share the concern about what’s lost when people don’t meet face to face.) As of last year my college pays me $200 not to drive my car to campus, and I avoid the $50 annual parking fee on top of that. Bike paths abound with more in the works. My students who did a special studies last spring on my institution’s Carbon footprint estimated how faculty travel would factor in (they looked at student travel too, though it gets counted differently because of who pays for it) – after we convert our physical plant to cogeneration, we will need to look to new areas for further reductions, and those are big ones, though obviously controversial. And now I’m off to the same conference in Switzerland, which I agree could’ve and should’ve been somewhere nearer, given who’s attending. But does any of this amount to a hill of beans in the face of larger political and economic structures hell-bent on ecocidal neoliberalism?

    We catch ourselves to much on our personal decisions. Are Alice and I hypocrites for going to Switzerland and probably enjoying the trip while we decry the venue? I am reminded of Jensen & McMillan’s graphic novel As the World Burns: 50 Simple things you can do to stay in denial which it points out the futility of personal consumptive approaches and calls us to fight like hell for radical, systemic change.

    I don’t know what it would look like to enlist the power of academia in that kind of effort. But I do think we’d get further making some collective noise than following market forces and changing lightbulbs.

  8. #8 dave
    July 3, 2008

    I’m going to start by disputing the premise: Gas isn’t going to make it to $20/gallon in the foreseeable future. We’ll see more production becoming economically viable before then (I’ve heard $5+change quoted as the break-even point for coal-source synthesis, though those are probably more expensive dollars than the ones you’re spending now), and there will also be enough pain to the purchasers that they’ll change their habits (which will reduce the demand and, therefore, the upward price pressure) before then.

    That said, we’ve already run out of new sources of cheap fuel, and there will be enough pain to change a lot of habits in the near future. One thing that I expect to see eventually (though we’ll probably have to be dragged into it kicking and screaming) is giving up the “need to be there NOW” mentality that cheap fuel has enabled; instead of driving across town or taking the next flight across the continent, you can hop on the bus/train – who cares if it takes longer, give yourself more time at the start end, and bring something to do on the way. (This will also require making it easier to work from home/train/wherever, which is overdue anyways – giving up in-person interaction would be a mistake, but doing all of your work that way usually isn’t necessary.) Who knows, you might even decide that since you’re in Europe for a conference anyways, you might as well (Shock! Horror!) take a week of vacation before you go home – if the trip was that expensive, it makes sense to get your money’s worth while you’re there.
    (This will require a nontrivial investment in things like local transit and inter-city rail infrastructure. This is, unfortunately, likely to be treated as a chicken-and-egg problem for quite some time instead of the “If you build it, they will come” attitude that would actually lead to making progress on it.)

    In terms of population distribution, I see both more people moving from suburbs/exurbs into cities and better non-car transportation for the ones who stay outside. There will always be enough people who value their elbow room enough to be willing to pay for regular train service into and out of the city. (Again, this is probably something we’ll need to be dragged into kicking and screaming.)

  9. #9 TheNerd
    July 3, 2008

    Two words: SECOND LIFE

    I have attended many workshops, classes, and group discussions in Second Life, complete with multi-media presentations, voice conversations, and hands-on interaction. My current favorites are a weekly political forum, and weekly discussion on fairy tale metaphors, and a bi-weekly philosophy circle. Some I have seen advertised but havn’t attended are seminars on the biology and sociology of racial issues, various digital science experiments on natural selection, and even a rather large interactive NASA museum!

    Sure, this will require a good internet connection, capable graphics cards, and an optional monthly fee for land ownership (for the host), but it will be far cheeper than paying for the gas to meet in person!

  10. #10 Anonymous
    July 3, 2008

    I also think that being a human means more than having a carbon footprint. If, for instance, we embrace a “Go local” form of education, then students miss out on interacting with people who are different from them. Moreover, a similar “Go local” ideology could lead to devaluing study abroad experiences. Or perhaps “Study Abroad” could shift towards more localized venues that can be equally enlarging of a student’s perspective. Perhaps we will see a rebirth of leisure travel as opposed to the frantic pace of traveling for business.

  11. #11 AT
    July 3, 2008

    Rather than alternate conference locations between the coasts, more national conferences may have to select locations in the middle of the country or somewhere close to a critical mass of attendees. That is if the conference doesn’t have to go to an online platform.

    I too research will have to change too. I was planning some travel to collect data for my research. I love talking to people face to face, but given the costs/impact I’m considering doing my interviews by phone or IM.

  12. #12 Barn Owl
    July 3, 2008

    we’ve already cut back on the number of outside speakers invited to give departmental seminars each year, and I think the biggest shame is that it reduces the number of well-known scientists with whom our grad students and postdocs can interact, in an informal setting. I don’t think it’s nearly as important for me to have face-to-face interactions with a collaborator or out-of-town colleague in this context (we already communicate via e-mail, phone, or at study sections, for example). For the grad students and postdocs, though, it’s an opportunity to discuss their research and academic career issues with someone who usually has a different perspective, in the absence of pesky mentors and other faculty who might dominate the conversation.

  13. #13 Emily
    July 4, 2008

    Someone already beat me to the Second Life comment! There was recently an article in ScienceNews about the use of Second Life for conferencing and teaching science. I also read somewhere about a conference that was hosted in World of Warcraft.

    I haven’t attended any of the conferences in SL (yet!), but I’ve looked at some of the main science areas in SL (specifically the areas on Mendelian inheritance, basic chemistry, and ecosystems in SciLands), and enjoyed being able to interact with concepts. SL really has the potential to become a valuable resource or teaching aid…although there is the problem of ensuring that everyone has access to a computer with the proper hardware and speedy internet.

  14. #14 Sicilian
    July 5, 2008

    Academia will respond just like business. . . . . you will cut back. . . . . you will teleconference more meetings. . . . . you will build the expenses into your budget next year. . . . . but you will have fewer people traveling.
    In my work. . . . we are a teaching hospital too. . . . the verdict went down. . . . . no travel unless necessary. . . . . I immediately starting canceling conferences. . . . . our travel budget was 66% over budget and it was not the end of the year.
    I am one person working for 3 execs. . . . . every department did what I did in canceling travel.

  15. #15 Zuska
    July 5, 2008

    With the impending flight from the suburbs back to the cities, I wonder and worry about who’s going to get pushed out. I think it was in Jonathan Kozol’s “Savage Inequalities” that I was browsing through the other day, that I read a woman living in the inner city saying, roughly quoted “When they [white people] decide they want the inner city back, they’ll take that, too.” What role do universities have to play in ensuring that “going green” doesn’t help perpetuate and exacerbate existing inequalities? The gas price pain we are all feeling now is hitting the low income folks the hardest, of course. For the very rich, like the woman recently interviewed in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the pain is mainly being felt as having to chose between the $300,000 Maybock car she wants versus a share in a private jet, instead of getting both.

    At $20 a gallon gas, it may simply cease to be cost effective to continue working, unless some massive transformation in energy supply has taken place. People are already losing their jobs over gas prices – small companies are closing because they can’t afford to continue operating, people in rural areas simply can’t afford to commute to their jobs anymore. I feel like we are teetering on the brink of collapse, and we have very little time left to come up with good solutions.

    Sorry for rambling on so long and slightly off topic. I’m having a down day.

  16. #16 Mimi
    July 7, 2008

    I would really like to see more public transit in college towns as well. My campus is largely a commuter campus and it would be nice if we had a shuttle service from upper to lower campus and back perhaps using propane buses like the ones used in Zion National Park. People could really focus on local research topics as well. For example: in figuring what I was going to do for a dissertation, I realized that a survey of terrestrial invertebrates hadn’t been done in my area since the late 70’s and almost no papers have been done. I can now focus my energies here instead of flying to another area to study my bugs. While some of the solutions mentioned seem a little daunting, I think because we are academics, we should be able to come up with something to help the scientific community (and everyone else) eventually.

    I really feel it is unfair that the poor students have to suffer due to this crisis. I don’t know what my family would have done if my sister and I had not been able to get our free lunch. Now my sister and I are college educated and can afford lunch for our non-existent children, but not having food can really impede on a students ability to learn and function in a classroom setting. Transportation is even more of an issue. I relied on school buses as well. If I was left without those two services offered by public schools, I would not have succeeded academically and would not be where I am today. I hope as a collective, academia will come together and find solutions for this dilemma.

  17. #17 AT
    July 10, 2008

    Today’s Chronicle of Higher Ed had a piece on this very topic: Colleges Should Plan – and Teach – for an Oil-Scarce World. The article didn’t really talk about teaching, but it is also interesting to think about how it will have to change.

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