Air travel - the academic dilemma

Apr 9, 2016 - 5:00am

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En route to the recent Association of American Geographers meeting in San Francisco, the packet on my airline nuts told me that ‘In a nutshell, this delicious snack is tackling climate change… The Brazil nuts in this snack grow wild in the Amazon rainforest that you help protect when you fly carbon neutral with Qantas... With the help of Qantas passengers, 400 Peruvian farming families sustainably harvest these nuts while protecting precious Amazonian rainforest and the wildlife that call it home’. 

Many participants at the conference could have provided a critical political ecology of such claims, but most of us were enrolled in a bigger dilemma - we had flown long distances to get there for a few days of meeting. We knew that a few brazil nuts would do nothing to reduce the amount of flying actually occurring.

The wonderful Kevin Anderson has challenged us all, in both his academic and public writings, to drastically curtail if not stop our air travel. He argues that both scientists and policy-makers are severely underplaying the scale of the 2°C mitigation challenge, and the urgent, deep, sustained emissions cuts necessary to get us there. The emissions from a single flight easily counteract hard work in other areas of our lives to reduce energy consumption. It is eleven years since Anderson has been on a plane, and he recounts his various attempts to get to conferences and meetings via train, bus and other land-based travel.

Should we all follow suit? For Australian academics, air travel is essential if we are to participate in international conversations. And in the case of climate change debates, its cessation would cement the Anglo-American dominance that has already constrained the available policy choices too much. Creative new thinking requires interaction between diverse voices from many parts of the world. I work in a School that values international fieldwork intensive subjects as transformative experiences for our final year students. How to assess the value enabled by that air travel against bussing them somewhere in Australia? Should we stop air travel for fieldwork that produces important research outcomes, including ones that enhance international understanding?

Most Australian universities now prioritise international links as part of their mission. How can we make that work with flying less? This conversation is increasing, with discussions here and here. The UK Tyndall Centre has developed a code of conduct for low carbon research, with a focus on flying.

I have been involved in a few attempts to do things differently. Some years ago colleagues and I presented a paper on household sustainability to the RGS-IBG conference in the UK via skype. Notwithstanding the efforts of the organisers, it was a deeply unsatisfying experience. We couldn’t even see the faces of the audience – they might have been sound asleep for all we knew! (Colleague Leah Gibbs later told us she had been in the front row, nodding enthusiastically in encouragement.) A different group of us undertook regular video seminars with colleagues in Sweden and Norway. This was more successful, but one of our conclusions was that the disembodied video experience only worked because members of the group had had enough physical visits to each other’s institutions to know each other reasonably well. 

For the record, my dilemma is made more acute by my own family situation. I have recently taken on a job in a new city, and travel regularly to see my partner, often by plane. Our kids both live overseas, so the family love miles mount up. (Perhaps love miles, like the calories in chocolate, don’t count?)

There are no easy answers here, but the bigger issue in this conversation is to imagine how academic life more broadly will need to change in a carbon constrained world. The structure of academic research and teaching – from high tech labs to international mobility – is very much embedded in a fossil-fuel economy. We can imagine that life will be slower, as it must have been when Griffith Taylor spent six months travelling by boat to the Pacific Science Congress in Hawaii and back to Sydney. What else can we imagine about how scholarship will need to be structured differently? 




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