By Justin Mallette


When UC Santa Barbara put out a climate report in 2014, professor Ken Hiltner was in complete awe at the enormity of the carbon footprint that academic conferences left behind, amounting to about 55 million pounds of carbon dioxide.  

With a joint appointment in Environmental Studies and English Literature, Hiltner was ideally suited take action.  He realized that a third of UC Santa Barbara’s carbon footprint came from colleagues traveling to conferences and he immediately began working on a way to reduce this footprint – and share it with other universities.

The result was the Nearly Carbon Neutral (NCN) Conference Guide, a manual that, according to its website, can reduce the footprints of academic conferences by a factor of 100 at least.

First deployed in 2016, the carbon neutral guide has found an audience, with universities and professors from around the world participating in this new method of virtual academic exchange. Trading in-person assemblies for video streams was a major adjustment from the old ways of doing things, with interactions coming through online forums instead of face-to-face meetings.

Having been revised four more times since it was first seen, the guide is continually being tweaked to stay current. As creator of this model and director of the Environmental Humanities Initiative at UCSB, Hilton is widely distributing the guide.

He spoke in a recent interview about the Nearly Carbon Neutral project and the intersection of humanities and the environment.

Q. When did you realize you were passionate about both English literature and the environment?

The fact that I grew up on a farm in southern New Jersey was very important. I saw the entire farm area where I grew up develop into housing. That got me interested in environmental issues but then in the 1990s, a range of scholars were working on literary approaches to environmental issues. We had to look back and understand the emergence of environmental thinking because we had this documented range of literary texts.

Q. How does the Nearly Carbon Neutral guide fit into the vision that the Environmental Humanities Initiative has for the future? How does the guide tie together environmental work and the humanities?

For a long time, I have felt that the humanities need to engage directly with environmental issues. It’s one thing to stand back and evaluate what’s going on but it’s something else to sort of jump in with both feet and take part in it. So, what the NCNs are about were my effort to look at a social practice, a typical conference, and understand why it is the way it is, why it functions, and see if we couldn’t find a more environmentally sustainable way of doing it. It involves technology. But more than that, it’s sort of a study of culture, and how we can intervene in that.  

Q. When reading about the sheer number of talks, online conferences, and forums that need to be created for the guide, it feels like a lot needs to be done. What’s the workload when doing a Nearly Carbon Neutral Conference compared to a traditional conference?

It’s a lot less than it was because we’ve developed everything with the coding, the scripting, and all that. Putting together a conference is less than a traditional conference, because with a traditional conference, you must have a venue, you have to coordinate rooms, lodging, food, a whole range of other issues. You don’t have any of that here. It’s definitely less than standard conferences.

Q. Why has it taken so long to create virtual conferencing?

I don’t know. It seems to be a cultural issue. People get used to doing things a certain way, and it’s awfully hard to uproot them. It’s also the case that what we’re asking people to do is already familiar to them. What we do, in a way, is a form of social media. We ask people to contribute by way of forums. I think if we had asked them to do this before, it would have all been new to people. But here, there simply isn’t a large learning curve at all. People who aren’t very familiar with what’s happening can sit down and, in a few minutes, know what’s going on because they’ve done similar things online before.

Justin Mallette is a third-year student at UC Santa Barbara, majoring in Communication.