For Historians, the Journey is Just as Important as the Destination

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Last week’s annual meeting of the American Society for Environmental History included scholars from all over the world, including China, Japan, Singapore, Australia, South Africa, several European countries, Puerto Rico, the US, and Canada. The conference also witnessed the largest contingent of Canadians at an ASEH: 34 presenters plus several others just attending. This assortment of delegates (there were over 600 this year!) in Madison really embodied this year’s theme: From the Local to the Global. In keeping with the theme, a great many of the papers focused on how local contexts existed within the framework of wider global relationships and dynamics. So, it might be useful to consider how the ASEH itself had an impact from the local to the global as a result of our collective travel carbon footprint.

The sustainability of the conference has been a concern of the ASEH for the last several years, and the Association has committed a great deal of time and effort to promoting and adopting ways of reducing the meeting’s overall footprint, including the creation of a sustainability committee, a move towards providing more locally-produced foods, and the purchase of carbon credit offsets. ( Some year, the organizing committee might decide it is important to draw up a total carbon footprint for the transportation of all its delegates so that there is a better sense of the true impact of the meeting every year. In the meantime, it is important for each of us to consider the impact we have when we travel long distances to attend important gatherings, such as the ASEH.

Last year, I attended my first ASEH in Phoenix. The distance was too far to rent a car and drive given my time constraints (although I do know someone who did drive from Toronto to Phoenix for the conference). Once I had committed to fly I had to decide whether I wanted to save some money and book a flight with one or more stop-overs, which would also have increased my overall carbon footprint. Ultimately I chose a direct round-trip flight from Toronto to Phoenix (mainly because I had some funding to attend the conference). Using the emissions calculator from atmosfair, I discovered that my carbon footprint was 1,740kg of CO2. According to the Zero Footprint Calculator that round-trip flight accounted for 36% of my total carbon footprint last year! With that in the back of my mind, I decided that Madison was close enough to Toronto – where I live and work – that I would drive to the ASEH this year.

But, driving instead of flying would also save me money. A round trip flight from Toronto to Madison was going to cost me about $600! A car rental for a week, including gas would only cost $560. On my own that’s not much of a savings. But, if I found two or three others who wanted to join me, it would be much less (plus, I wouldn’t have to drive the 12 hours all on my own). In fact, I found five others who wanted to drive with me! Since a car promised to be a little tight for five gentlemen for half a day, we opted for a mini-van instead. The total cost, including gas, ended up being roughly $1,000, or about $200/person.

While the cost was an important part of the appeal in driving instead of flying, each of us were also interested in avoiding the carbon footprint of flying somewhere we could drive instead. According to the ‘Fly or Drive Calculator’ at, our trip from Toronto to Madison by road was supposed to have totaled 613 kg of CO2. The gas receipts from our trip, however, showed that we used approximately 230 liters (roughly 60 gallons), which, according the US Environmental Protection Agency’s ‘Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator’, equates to 533 kg of CO2. Divided by five people this total breaks down to about 107 kg of CO2 each. Using atmosfair’s emissions calculator again, a direct flight from Toronto to Madison would attribute 260 kg of CO2 to just one of us. In other words, by driving the 12 hours instead of flying, we each saved about $400, and avoided 153 kg of CO2. Put another way, driving cost 66% less than flying and emitted 59% less CO2.

So, let’s scale this up in a very crude manner. Let’s assume everyone who attended the ASEH traveled there from Toronto (considering a few came from the other side of the planet, and some came from down the street, this might not be such a horrible estimation). There were approximately 600 delegates at the conference this year. If everyone flew, the ASEH’s combined travel carbon footprint would have been about 156,000 kg of CO2. If everyone had driven in mini-van teams of five, that total would have been closer to 64,200 kg of CO2. That’s a difference of 91,800 kg of CO2!! According to atmosfair, 91,800 kg of CO2 is the equivalent of the annual climate compatible budget of CO2 for approximately 31 people (the site is based in Germany, so presumably so is this average annual budget).

All of this is not to suggest that driving is a viable alternative for everyone, or to accuse anyone who did fly of not caring about climate change. After all to purchase offsets ($1 = 22kg of CO2) for just one flight from Toronto to Madison would cost just $22, and for the entire conference just $4,173. But, what this demonstrates is that given the time (my time is worth about $35/hour, which makes a twelve hour car ride worth $210 more than the six hours it would’ve taken to go through the international terminal at the airport), it is possible to substantially avoid the heavy costs to your wallet and the planet. And, after all isn’t the journey just as important as the destination? We are historians after all.

Special thanks to Jim Clifford and Dan Rueck for sharing the driving with me, Colin Duncan for being navigator, and Dagomar Degroot for laughing at all our jokes, even the bad ones.

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Andrew is Assistant Professor in the Department of History and the School of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Saskatchewan. His current research includes the history of sustainability and tourism on the Canadian Shield in Muskoka, Ontario; the environmental, social, and economic history of coal in Canada; the role of energy in shaping agroecosystems on the Great Plains of the U.S.; and global leather tanning commodities in the British Empire.

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