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Title

The Grad Abroad: A Critical Look at My Academic Air Travel

Considering the consequences of academia's carbon footprint.

November 19, 2019
 
 

Riley Linebaugh is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Justus Liebig University in Giessen, Germany. Follow her @rileysline.

This summer ended with much of the world following Greta Thunberg’s zero-carbon voyage across the Atlantic from Sweden to New York. One month later, I joined thousands in the streets of Frankfurt as the world rallied around #FridaysforFuture. Looking around the demonstration, I was confronted by dozens of different protest messages that pointed out some of my own climate hypocrisies. In the last six months, I have taken two round-trip transatlantic flights, a half dozen inter-European short hauls and made daily use of taxi services for months at a time. After a quick carbon footprint calculation -- which only accounted for academic-related travel -- my results are 58 percent worse than the average for my region. The day after this article is published, I will board another plane from Frankfurt to Boston to attend a conference, only to return in two weeks.

Recently, I have joined millions of others in considering how to reorganize my life and reduce my carbon expenditure. The political discourse on climate change trends toward two domains: systems change vs. personal responsibility. I don’t own a car, I don’t eat meat, I don’t buy fast fashion. But there is no number of regionally grown, organic apples that I can pack into my reusable fair-trade tote bag that will compensate for how much I travel at this stage in my academic career. I live in Germany, where I write about colonial history related to Kenya and the U.K. The archives I rely on are spread across both countries. As a graduate student, my personal and professional responsibilities are embedded in the systems and structures of my university and global academic networks. I was selected to join my current graduate center because it is intent on internationalizing both the demography of its graduate students and the content of their work.

As a junior academic, I have been encouraged to attend conferences to develop a wide-reaching network, to better understand my transnational field and to establish contacts for my future on the job market. I have made small, harm-reducing decisions regarding my academic travel, such as paying out of pocket to opt for the “carbon-friendly” flight option. But if the world is at a critical juncture that requires a rapid reconceptualization of energy use and carbon production, what role do universities play and how should the form and focus of research change? A quick internet search tells me I’m not the first to ask these questions. In the U.S.-American context, institutions such as Cornell and University of Florida are engaged in campus carbon neutrality, aiming to reach net zero emissions within the next decades. However, a Huffington Post article published last summer raised the question of growing environmental conscientiousness at universities, the continued rate of academic air travel and the hypocrisies therein.

Some suggestions by other concerned academics include increasing transparency within the research community regarding how much we’re flying. According to a study quoted by Academic Flying, an initiative explicitly interested in reducing academic air travel, the size of work-related travel footprint averages 10.76 metric tons of CO2 per year per professor. The authors estimate that air travel by itself is responsible for 30 percent of universities’ CO2 emissions. Jürgen Gerhards suggests that universities publish the number of flights made by their research staff in recent years to generate a comparative framing that would automatically put pressure on institutions based on their ranking. The question remains how to shrink academic travel. Video technologies offer an alternative for conference participation that would otherwise require travel. Of course, in-person meetings are favorable, but as with any normative shift, we have to tolerate a little discomfort. Fellow Gradhacker Kelly Hanson suggests using digital spaces for collaborations such as writing groups. Nature published a piece this autumn that encourages academics to simply do less when it comes to meetings and conferences and to focus on making that what we choose to do more valuable.

At this stage in my career, I have a growing number of ethical reasons why I should not continue business as usual in transnational historical research. Beyond the energy expense of huge amounts of travel, there remains the question of how this money could be better spent. There is the question of how to create more equity in the political economy of knowledge between the global North and South. As Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui argues, social sciences and humanities departments in the global North claim and fund canons of thought (postcolonial studies, transmodernity) not only through intellectual discourse and publication hierarchies but through the creation of positions, awarding of degrees and distribution of resources that increasingly attract intellectuals from a global South academic context to the global North. This movement, according to Cusicanqui, “deepens the crisis” in Latin American universities, for example. When I sit on the plane from Nairobi to Frankfurt, I wonder how to better align my research praxis with my evolving sense of equity. The climate crisis is not the only factor when reconsidering the ethics of global research, but it has demanded a general sense of urgency.

Amid the excitement caused by Greta and actions across the globe by Extinction Rebellion, a global South solidarity organization called Wretched of the Earth published an open letter to the environmental movement. In the letter they wrote, “Indigenous communities remind us that we are not separate from nature, and that protecting the environment is also protecting ourselves. In order to survive, communities in the Global South continue to lead the visioning and building of new worlds.” In light of the climate crisis, many within universities are reconsidering the role of international networks and collaborations. Perhaps academic travel could be partially replaced by strengthening academic and research solidarities across the globe, a process which refuses extractive academic relations from South to North.

As for me, I’m committing to a one-year flight moratorium after Frankfurt-Boston. I’m asking my colleagues more and more about their flight habits and trying to generate a more meaningful criteria for what can justify environmentally unfriendly travel. After all, unlike other questionable choices I’ve made during my Ph.D. (such as binge-playing Sims 4), we will all pay the consequences of academia’s carbon footprint.

Has the intensification of the climate crisis discussion affected the way you see your academic work?

[Opening image is a screenshot by the author of the results of their own carbon footprint. If you’re interested, check yours out at: https://www.nature.org/en-us/get-involved/how-to-help/consider-your-impact/carbon-calculator/]

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