Sustainability, Ecological crisis (and research)

Mathieu Aubry , Aug 2023

Disclaimer: These are personal views, I am in no way expert in ecological or political topics.

Some AI gurus tell you AI is the main threat/issue for Humanity. To me, this is obviously complete crap.

There are clearly identified reasons for concerns and questioning our value system and way of Life. Climate change is arguably the most prominent in medias, but loss of biodiversity is just as threatening.

Consequences are typically much worse for people who contribute(d) the less... but it will also impact us all directly (if you doubt that, look at any reasonable 20 year climate projection). Our way of life is also ultimately threatening human life, and making life terrible for other people is also threatening ours.

If you want to look at very consensual and consolidated sources, you can try to have a look at:

While investments in mitigation is a clear necessity, technology driven solutions seem doomed to fail. First they mostly focus on one aspect of the problems, forgetting the others, e.g. you will indeed emit less CO2 when driving an electric car, but building it has a huge ecological cost, oil will still be burnt to produce the electricity you use to recharge it and in addition you will likely just re-sell your current car, effectively increasing the number of cars in circulation. Second, there is a very well documented rebound effect (Jevons paradox), e.g. industry managed to reduce the consumption (and thus carbon footprint) of airplanes to make them cheaper, but this increased the number of flights so much that they are emitting more CO2 than ever (cars, computers, cell phones or any kind of electronics are other obvious examples)

General value and ideological changes that make consumption less desirable and promote a more sustainable and frugal way of life seem absolutely necessary. However, such profound changes typically take a time we likely don't have... It can also be depressing to feel like the individual level is too small to change anything, or tempting to say that it's the job of politicians. If politicians of all countries suddenly agreed and decided to put in place strong ecological policies, starting with 500% taxes on coal, oil and red meat, while putting in place a large universal income (and 90% taxes on large inheritance and high incomes), maybe we would be on a good track, but I have the feeling it might not happen tomorrow, so it's up to us to still do something.

These are clearly not easy problems to solve, and I have neither solutions nor any moral ground to tell anybody what to do. What makes sense on an individual level, how to best contribute to a solution, I don't know, but here are a few things that make sense to me.

What can we do as researchers and professors?

  • Organize formations and reflections about these issues in your team. Knowledge is clearly not enough, but I believe that's where things have to start (and if you are a professor there are chances you agree). My students did a simple poster for our lab, which I think is a good start. We also made a half-day 'climate fresco' - teaching about the high-level mechanisms and consequences of climate change - formation mandatory for all students and researchers. We are thinking about a Charter with more specific guidelines (a meatless day? Publish the lab flights statistics? Vegetarian instead of meaty restaurant meals/buffets?...). A lab carbon assessment is also a good way to understand how we, as a lab, have direct impact, and to generate reflections and discussions.
  • Fly less. Do you really need to fly to Hawaii for a week (I know I did, along with 10k other people), go to several conferences a year, give a talk abroad every month? Sure, it might boost your career and visibility, but is that really a good motivation? (if like me you are old enough to have a permanent position, I would argue definitely not, if you are a PhD student or looking for a job, matters are of course more complex) If you are senior or successful in your field, not flying as much as possible is also an opportunity to define 'success' in a different way for people who look up to you.
  • Be mindful about hardware/compute. Most Machine Learning and Computer Vision researchers obviously need hardware and compute. But we can think before you buy a new computer or train a model for 1 year GPU equivalent. Are you sure it's really needed and will bring anything good? A lot of compute is probably a good way to get a paper if you don't have a great research idea, but I went into research to pursue idea, not papers, and my guess is that it was your case as well.
What can we do individually?

I do believe that once people become really aware of these problems and the distress they cause, they question their own values, way of life, and want to minimize their own personal contribution to these disasters. I know I do, and even if not all changes are easy, some are, the following were for me:

  • Travel less. Driving and flying have terrible carbon footprints. Driving has the most impact on average because since many people drive daily they drive a lot every year. Flying is the worst because you fly extremely far, and in a single quick trip you can emit more carbon than an average human does in a year. This is a big part of why the richest people emit so much more CO2. Trains are amazing, with much lower impact than planes or cars (about 20x less), but if you travel too much, they are still a big part of your carbon footprint (I know they are for me!)
  • Become flexitarian/vegetarian. Meat, especially red meat is typically your second main impact after transportation. If like me you were brought up eating two meaty meals a day and thinking a meal without meat was just a snack, it might sound hard, but I actually switched to one meaty meal a week without even really deciding it (do a blood test after some time if you change your habits a lot!). While not at the same scale, coffee or chocolate are actually quite bad as well mainly because of the deforestation they cause (I know, it's terrible, I love and drink both).
  • Avoid buying new staff, be it electronics or clothes. High quality second hand electronics are now easy to get (and a bit cheaper than new staff), and second hand stores are blooming (and I think they might help you look cooler - but I am hopeless on this specific aspect)
  • Monitor your personal consumption of energy. I know I divided by two my energy consumption simply by downloading an app that was giving me my daily consumption (yes, I am ashamed it was even possible)
  • Measure your carbon footprint. This is the first step to know what's relevant for you to change, there are many online tools, such as
What can we do as citizens and social beings?

[to be completed]

I even have less knowledge and experience in this, but the following sound like good ideas:

  • define new life models. All the changes you do on a personal level also have a larger impact, by contributing to defining what's desirable to people around you.
  • get involved in politics
  • get your voice heard (by voting, demonstrating, joining a NGO...)
  • raise awareness and discuss their opinion and choices with other people (starting with the ones close to you and at your work)