I am a tech conference junkie.
I owe much of my career to them: The amount of knowledge I’ve learned is immense, I greatly enjoy being surrounded by tech people, and I get a real high from public speaking (which, besides being good for your Personal Brand™, is an excellent mix of adrenaline rush and ego boost).
But since 2016, I’ve stopped going to so many conferences. In fact, I’ve only attended those within close driving distance. What happened?
I originally stopped traveling for conferences in order to strengthen my friendships with people at home. It became a running joke that I was never around… then later it stopped being a joke and more just a fact.
Then my son was born. Being fully responsible for another human is a big deal! It’s also really hard work. Taking care of him with my wife is difficult enough, but it’s much worse when you have to do it solo. It’s not fair of me to go on unnecessary trips which would leave my wife alone with the baby.
That said, these are obstacles I can overcome. I can find a healthy balance between travel and relationships. My son will one day be old enough that being absent for a few days won't be such a burden on my wife (or he could even come with me).
But now I’ve hit an obstacle I can’t easily overcome: the climate crisis.
The Climate Impact of Flying
Concern over climate change has dominated my life recently, especially now that I have my son’s future to worry about.
Right now we're producing greenhouse gases far faster than we absorb them. We have to reverse that to reach a point of drawdown, where instead we’re absorbing more greenhouse gases than we’re emitting. We’ll get there by both reducing emissions and increasing absorption. However, it turns out that increasing absorption is usually expensive, difficult, and/or slow; given our current technology, reducing emissions is often cheaper, easier, and faster.
You may be surprised to learn that air travel is a huge source of greenhouse gas emissions. It turns out the travel I took - just for conferences - accounted for about 20% of my entire household’s carbon footprint.1 Simply not traveling for conferences was one of the easiest ways to substantially reduce my emissions. That’s the reason why I’m avoiding traveling for conferences.
I'm not claiming to be an air travel ascetic - I still plan on traveling by air from time to time. But only on rare occasions, and only if the need is great enough. All those tech conferences I used to go to just aren't making the cut.
You may ask “what about carbon offsets?” Well, let’s just say I’m skeptical. Carbon offsets don’t magically pull your airplane’s emissions out of the air. Instead, you’re investing in projects aimed at reducing overall carbon emissions. Much of that money is being used well, but it’s not foolproof - for example, forest preservation projects have been a failure so far. I support carbon offsets when there’s simply no other solution, but in this case there’s a guaranteed way to reduce plane emissions: just don’t fly!
While I enjoy conference travel, it’s not something I need in my life. Here’s what I do need right now: A habitable planet and being able to look my son in the eyes and say “I did my part.”
Broadcast Globally, Attend Locally
Not all is lost! There is still a way for me to continue enjoying tech conferences without traveling: going local.
There are tons of great meetups and conferences held in my area. Focusing on them - instead of traveling - has its own unique benefits. While I enjoy meeting up with travel conference regulars, I could only ever see them infrequently. If I meet a new friend locally, they’re around all year long to hang out and talk tech. Plus, getting to know the people around you can help when you want to recruit new coworkers (or find a new job yourself).
Also, these days you miss out on less than you used to by not traveling for conferences. Okay, so you can’t meet your heroes in person, but you won’t miss out on their talks - it’s now standard procedure to record and publish everything online, for free! The amount of knowledge is overflowing; my queue of talks to watch is far longer than the time I have to watch them.
My dream is that we all start holding more events locally, recording them, and sharing the talks. We can continue to spread knowledge, meet our neighbors, and at the same time lower our collective carbon footprints.
1 I estimated my carbon footprint using The Nature Conservancy's calculator. Your own footprint will likely differ from mine; I'm already low on my travel footprint because I work from home, so extra air travel had a larger impact.