Climate and the Working Academic

Part of the (re)growing night train network in Europe

I’ve been a environmental activist since I was in my teens. I stood for the Green Party as a student, I was a direct action activist against road-building, illegal logging on Indigenous lands, and much more. I’ve never learned to drive a car, and that was entirely deliberate. We built a Passive House, and are aiming at a net-zero life (you can read more about that here).

But there is one aspect of my life as a working academic that is difficult to reconcile with this, and that is flying. Air travel is one of the worst sources of greenhouse gasses and it’s even worse because the emissions occur higher in the atmosphere. And yet, academics fly a lot. Partly this is about conferences – scholarly associations do love to have their events scattered all over the world – but partly it’s about research – we have to go to places to do observation, interviews etc. etc. – don’t we?

Well, perhaps not. Or perhaps we are not being imaginative enough. The pandemic has shown that many smaller seminars and workshops can happens perfectly well via the internet, and with VR, that’s only going to improve. I don’t think our Surveillance Studies Centre seminars, which have been entirely virtual this year, have been worse, indeed we’ve been able to invite people from further afield than we would normally do. I’d also argue that a lot of more distant research visits could be replaced by a combination of internet connection and on-the-ground work carried out via partnerships with local researchers.

I don’t think we can replace the magic of face-to-face interaction and chance meeting and discussion entirely. But we can minimise the environmental damage we do. A lot of this is strcutural and therefore it is a matter for funding agencies, scholarly associations and universities. We should be seeing research funding taking into account excessive travel proposals when evaluating grant applications etc.

But I think it is also necessary that we take personal action, especially those of us who in the most priviledged academic positions. My personal climate pledge is this: I will take no more than one long-haul return flight a year from now on –– forever. I’m not going to be doing lots of short-haul flights either –generally speaking, I will take none– but I do leave open the possibility that I would take one very occasionally.

This is ‘inconvenient’ but it just means I have to take decisions about what I do, when, and where I go. For example, I know the Surveillance & Society / Surveillance Studies Network Conference is every two years, in Europe. This means I can plan for a month-long conference / research and friends and family visit trip in 2022: I’ll be doing 4 conferences (ICA – Paris, SSN – Rotterdam, EuroS&P – Genoa, Beyond Smart Cities – Malmo), a mountain marathon in Leichenstein, and visiting family & friends in the UK, all by train (mainly night trains) and ferry. 2023 will have to be a family trip to Japan, but could also involve a significant research visit.

If I’m invited anywhere else overseas outside of this, I will either insist on virtual presentation or if that is not possible, I will just turn it down. I’ve been working out how to get to places I might need to go in Canada and the USA. It’s possible to get to most major cities by train. You just have to accept it’s going to to take longer, but since you can work on trains, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and the worst part of it is generally the Canadian elements: Canada desperately needs to invest in its railways and espcially in frequency and speed. It’s ridiculous that you can’t get to Montreal or Ottawa from Kingston much before midday. Anyway, we’ll find out how well this is going to work when I go to New York by train via Montreal, in April next year.

Now, who’s going to join me?