Rara avis (infrequent flyer)
For the last twelve years I have had a notice posted here asking to hear from other academics who have substantially reduced their flying or are keen to do so, and from anyone with information on practical alternatives to academic travel, e.g. high-quality video-conferencing.
As I update the page in January 2021, the situation has changed almost beyond recognition. Because of Coronavirus, academic travel has largely ceased. And we have learnt a lot about holding travel-free academic meetings through remote links. I think most of us will agree that these have disadvantages, e.g. the lack of social contact, but also merits, including the time, jetlag, money and carbon saved, not to mention enhanced access to very distant or otherwise inaccessible colleagues.
It is incredibly important that, when the pandemic is finally over, academics do not simply revert to their old ways but, for the sake of the planet, capitalise on what we have learnt.
From interview in Times Higher Education, 18 June 2009
FORGET THE PLANE, TAKE THE TRAIN: EVERYONE CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE
For David Sedley, Laurence professor of ancient philosophy at the University of Cambridge, academics have been too slow to acknowledge how their actions contribute to climate change.
“I am interested in continuing an academic life without doing damage to the environment,” he says. “Many academics have lifestyles that require much travelling. When this involves flying, that is very environmentally damaging, especially when one factors in the increased harm done by greenhouse gases released into the upper atmosphere, as well as the sheer number of tonnes of carbon released per passenger per flight. If you want to know what is the most damaging thing you can legally do to the planet in a single act, the answer is probably: get on a plane.”
Sedley acknowledges that his own response to the challenge involves some abstemiousness. “I’m trying to restrict myself to one return flight a year, and in the past two years I have turned down four or five trips to North and South America and one to Korea. But I am aware of few other academics who are trying to alter their style of travel in response to the dangers of global warming.”
Keen to keep in touch with colleagues and the latest research, he continues to attend conferences in Europe but almost always travels by train (often overnight). This is no hardship but just, he says, “a return to the lifestyle of my teens and twenties, when flying was too expensive and most of our travelling was done by train”.
There are a number of reasons why travel has become such a major unexamined feature of academic life. It is often seen, Sedley says, as “one compensation for a not particularly well-paid career”. Moreover, promotion, and hence pay, can depend on international recognition. Although this is largely achieved through publications, visibility at major conferences clearly doesn’t hurt. And such events provide important intellectual stimulation, too.
Although Sedley suspects that many of his colleagues view his avoidance of air travel as “harmless eccentricity”, he is worried that “future generations will view us even more negatively than we view our ancestors who profited from the slave trade. I want to be able to face my grandchildren when they ask whether we really went on flying, even though we knew how much it was doing to destroy their environment.”
The academy must change its ways of planning and organising conferences, he argues, putting accessibility ahead of exotic locations. For international committees and the like, we need to opt for virtual meetings wherever possible, although this is “barely yet even on the academic agenda”. And universities and funding bodies may need to reconsider their rules for travel, since “cheapest means of travel” clauses may encourage people to rack up air miles with budget carriers.
“While drastic cuts in the number of conferences might alter the fabric of academic life,” Sedley concludes, “a more modest reduction would do little harm. All I am saying is that environmentally damaging travel is one of the issues academics need to take account of. But I fear that may happen only when climate change becomes a hideous reality close to home, as it already is beginning to be in some parts of the world.”