Why I'm Not at Taco Tuesday

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I love Kubernetes, and it’s easy to tell: I’d never spend so much energy complaining about something I didn’t love! I’ve spent much of the past two years working on it, and have been able to keep using everything I’ve learned about Linux and scientific computing while embracing the new reality of systems having to be distributed from day zero and needing extensible integrations with proprietary vendors.

But as much as I love the project, I won’t be making Taco Tuesday at KubeCon.

It’s certainly not a distaste for tacos, which are sorely lacking in Boston. Work would be thrilled if I took some time off, so it isn’t that either. Nor are there any financial barriers to my attending; I was offered a free ticket, but I also could’ve put it on my company’s training budget, or just paid for it out of pocket.

There’s only one barrier to my attendance that matters: the flight from Boston to San Diego is 2,584 miles, and I can’t possibly justify that environmental impact for a tech conference.

In tech we are still in the early days of talking about environmental impact or sustainability, except for perhaps those teams who directly work on planning new data centers. There is little appetite for asking about the environmental impact of video transcoding or edge networks. If we can’t ask these questions as an industry, we can at least ask them as individuals. The best place to start an individual analysis is with our own actions, which we generally have the highest degree of control over.

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Determining the environmental impact of transit modes is complicated, and still an active topic of research. We’ve improved automobile fuel economy, but also reduced riders per car, and we’re still not sure how to factor in ride-sharing. Airlines have increased fuel efficiency and occupancy, but radiative forcing effects from high-altitude emissions also approximately double their environmental impact.

While the exact numbers are still up for debate, we are fairly certain that passenger aircraft emit somewhat fewer emissions per mile than a single person driving an average car the same distance. The problem is that this is dramatically more emissions than an equivalently loaded train, a Greyhound bus, or even a roadtrip with friends in a recent, reasonably-sized car. Any of these options is preferable to flying, even when compared to long-haul flights (which are more efficient).

But I’m not calling for a party train from Boton to KubeCon, either, as fun as that might be! Choosing more sustainable transit might halve or even third your transit-related emissions, yet it still can’t compete with not going at all. In a world already in the midst of climate crisis, there is no form of sustainable long-distance transit that is based on fossil fuels.

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The emissions situation is even worse for frequent travelers, such as developer advocates or professional speakers. If you live in an urban area, taking your first cross-country flight is likely to completely outweigh your decision to not to own a car. Taking your second flight is likely to outweigh several common lifestyle choices combined (like vegetarianism or improving home energy efficiency). What about the third such flight, or the fourth? What if the flights are cross-ocean instead?

It is clear that there are many people in the tech industry who are traveling much more frequently than this. This “conference-hopping” pattern of travel results in emissions so high that no personal decision could ever hope to offset it. Even switching to more efficient travel options like trains would still result in an exaggerated carbon footprint compared to their peers. (And those of us living in industrialized nations already have an unjustly large carbon footprint compared to the rest of the world!)

Nor is purchasing carbon offsets an appropriate compromise: at best they do not work as well as advertised, but twisted incentives may result in them being worse than doing nothing. It’s simply not justifiable to trust in the free market when the world’s health is at stake, and when we haven’t even tried to build a world where tech conferences don’t require extensive travel.

How do we start building that world? One person at a time, through every one of us reducing demand for travel-intensive mega-conferences and insisting on more environmentally sustainable options for learning and networking.

For myself, I used to be a developer evangelist. I traveled frequently to speak and to sponsor, including a few cross-country trips. I still am a conference speaker, but about a year ago I decided that I would only continue to speak at or attend conferences if they were local or regional to me. If I can’t get there on Amtrak or Greyhound, I’m not going, no matter how many friends I won’t see or job opportunities I might miss. I’ve already passed on several promising CFPs for this reason.

I understand that a lot of people have invested in the idea of cheap and convenient travel. That could be mundane investments like an air miles credit card, or a job that requires regular flights. Or it could mean something more profound: having “a friend group in every city”, or a deep sense that travel is part of your personality and life story. It will be harder for some of us to change than for others, but the truth is that this style of travel was never sustainable for any of us.

(We must also acknowledge the truth that this style of travel was also never accessible to most people in the world.)

If you’re at KubeCon this year, I truly wish you the best! I hope you have an excellent time meeting vendors, learning about shiny new projects, and sharing tacos with internet friends. I hope you share what you’ve learned so that I won’t feel like I’m missing out.

I also hope that you’ll set aside some time to calculate your environmental impact from travel, and to consider whether it’s in line with your personal values. I hope that if you’re a KubeCon speaker, that you leave your audience breathless - but that you redirect your energy towards local and regional events going forward. I hope that if your job requires you to travel to events like KubeCon, that you talk to your manager about changing that, and find a new role if they won’t budge.

I also hope that you’ll use individual actions as the starting point to learning more about systemic efforts to address climate change - we’re systems engineers, after all! Maybe that means showing up for an Extinction Rebellion event and learning why zoomers are so upset. Maybe that means attending a DSA meeting and learning from ecosocialists. Or maybe it means investing in local food production systems by planting chestnut trees.

But most of all, I hope that tech workers can have a good dialogue about this and work towards a more environmentally just world, together. Feel free to reach out to @jmeickle on Twitter if you’d like to comment.

Written on November 19, 2019