As teaching finishes, the last of the marking is done and the exam boards wrap for the year I have a bit of time to reflect back on an academic year without flying. Various people have been asking me how it has gone and what I have learnt, so here are some initial reflections and thoughts on what next.
Last March, sat in Frankfurt airport en-route back from Warsaw I wrote a blog post explaining why I was going to make a decision not to fly. This was honestly one of the most unsettling things I’ve done as an academic and I still feel conflicted for reasons I will outline below. However my initial reasons for stopping flying still very much stand and I actually feel more settled and more convinced of the value of the exercise now than I did at first.
The decision came off the back of what I think, speaking to colleagues, was a pretty average year of international travel for a UK anthropologist. Unlike most of my colleagues I don’t have a fieldsite in another continent to where I live, but I had flown, in the preceding year, to conferences and workshops in Stockholm, Cork, Warsaw, Norway, Switzerland and the USA. I had also travelled to Portugal and Rome for holidays. These had been amazing trips – meeting inspiring colleagues, experiencing stunning landscapes, gaining new vantage points on global and local political histories. But, increasingly attuned to the scientific projections on projected climate collapse, the inexorable and ongoing rise in global climate emissions, the lack of any sustained conversation about climate change in our discipline or, at the time, in the public arena, and a realisation of the increasing role that air travel was likely to play in contributing to global climate breakdown, flying was coming to feel like a matter of living in bad faith. Rather than just feeling guilty, I started to entertain the thought – did I really need to fly? What would happen if I didn’t? And what might I learn about the social, political and interpersonal implications of that rather anodyne term ‘low carbon transitions’ by attempting to live without international air travel – the biggest low carbon transition that I could personally make. I realised the decision I was making was not one that anyone could make. I know that many of my colleagues have long term fieldsites, friendships, and family members located around the world. I also know that face-to-face interaction, being together and conviviality are crucially important if we are to know the world and its problems better and differently. But I also realised that from my position – family in Europe, permanent academic position, fieldsite in the UK – not flying was something I could do, and perhaps by doing it, it was something all of us, including those for whom it was not possible, might be able to learn from.
Stepping into a Movement
When I first wrote the blog post I knew of a few other academics and activists in Manchester who were also not flying, but I was not prepared for my rapid incorporation into an international network of scholars who are likewise questioning the built in assumption that flying is part of being part of a successful academic. Tweeting my initial blog post I found myself immediately signed up to the ‘climate champions club’, retweeted by @flyingless, directed to https://noflyclimatesci.org/ and becoming aware of public proponents of not flying like Peter Kalmus. Over the year I came to know about Greta Thunberg’s similar decision not to fly (something she is struggling with now as she is invited to talk to the UN in New York and the next COP meeting in Santiago, Chile). I became aware that in Sweden there is a thing called ‘flygskam’ (flight shame) and another term for ‘train bragging’ (tagskryt)! We’ll get to tagskryt in a bit, but flight shame really intrigued me. When I told colleagues I was not flying some told me that this was making them think about it too. Sometimes it led to an awkward silence, or discussions about their own circumstances and how difficult it would be to do the same. Sometimes I found it strange to later be in a group where discussions were dominated by talk about how much travel people were doing and where they had been and where they were going on their next research trip/holiday/conference. But interestingly, over time, other colleagues also subsequently told me of trips where they would have flown but they had got the train instead. PhD students began to articulate to me their own qualms about flying and we talked through how they were dealing with it – some using trains instead of flights for internal travel in the countries where they were working – others trying to combine trips to reduce travel. This social side effect of the experience of not flying was of course part of the point of the exercise – I never thought of stopping flying as individual act was going to make any direct different to climate change. But the speed with which I was drawn into an international social network and the immediate possibilities that not flying opened up as a form of activism surprised me. I had hoped, but not really seen evidence, that this kind of decision could have broader social and political effects. Now since I stopped flying I have seen both direct and indirect changes around me, from the one-to-one conversations mentioned above, to reports that as a result of public concern about climate change in Sweden there has been a 4% drop in passenger numbers from the 10 Swedish airports operated by Swedavia, whilst interest in European train travel has soared. These suggest to me that not flying – and other similar acts that anticipate the constraints that we might have to face in the future – can help generate the conditions of possibility for reimagining normative assumptions around the ethics and value of high-carbon infrastructures and in the wake of this reimagining, might bring about social change.
At present the public conversation around flying in the UK and in academia is still very marginal. Whilst the UK government announces a climate emergency in one breath they plan a third runway for Heathrow Airport in the next. The algorithmic response to my ‘not flying’ social media posts has been to feed me with adverts for the joys and opportunities offered by British Airways or Virgin Atlantic, images that remind me constantly of the centrality of air travel to stories about what it means to be fulfilled, successful, relaxed and cosmopolitan. But this has also highlighted how these stories are sustained by an infrastructure of advertising, big business and oil. Acknowledging this offers a reminder that these stories are not neutral, that they are crafted, that they are crafted with particular ends in mind (namely profit and growth) and that they entail relations of power, exclusion and inequality (see Bhimal for extended discussion of flying, race and inequality https://nyupress.org/9781479843473/empire-in-the-air/). Moreover this recognition also highlights that the stories that offer a means to these ends are not immutable truths but are contemporary myths – myths that link consumption and commerce to the sense of self. What then, if flying were not the pinnacle of achievement for those who have made it? What if there were other stories we could tell about flying and its relationship to knowledge, equity and wellbeing. Might we find that flying could even be a barrier to achieving an answer to the ethical question of what it means to live a good life?
In the autumn I received an invitation to go to Copenhagen to examine a PhD project. This was a first real trial for my resolve not to fly. As a result of not flying I had not gone to other conferences I might have otherwise have attended, like the American Anthropological Association meeting in San Jose (a conference which ironically ended up being dominated by the smoke of the wildfires raging out of control in Northern California). With this trip to Copenhagen however, this was an opportunity to try not to forfeit travel but to travel differently. Instead of being away from home for a week to travel to the USA, what if I saw this trip to Copenhagen as a similarly significant trip – a week rather than two days, a major event rather than a quick hop across the North Sea? Later in the year I was to accept an invitation to Halle which I would take up in part because I could combine it with visiting family in Berlin. In the case of the Copenhagen invitation, thanks to supportive and enthusiastic colleagues at the ITU who paid for the train travel and covered an extra night in a hotel, we ended up extending the trip so as to organise a workshop (to build a curriculum on the Digital Anthropocene) and a book launch for my recent edited book Ethnography for a Data-Saturated World.
The way in which this trip both refigured the importance of travel and opened up a different kind of time with colleagues has prompted me to think much more deeply about the relationship between air travel and the pace of academic life (and life more generally). I recently heard an analogy being made between academia and the ‘pacers’ of industrial factory settings – people who would be placed by factory managers on production lines to speed up the production rate of other workers. Academic promotions and success criteria are tied not only to international reputation but also to the metricisation and ranking of academic outputs which might be seen as our contemporary pacers, forcing us to work harder and faster, to travel more frequently and further, to apply to more and bigger research grants. Sitting for six hours on a train from Cologne to Hamburg, or chugging between Germany and Denmark on a ferry-train to spend three days with colleagues as the major trip of the year, was a surprising antidote to this hyperactivity of academic production. It was not just lower carbon than flying, it was also the anathema to the hyped up pace of academia for its own sake. I know other academics have talked about how productive train travel can be, and it is certainly true that I too used the time on the train to read and write. But what was more striking to me was not the productivity of the train ride but the time it opened up and the pace it slowed down. There is already a slow academia movement. Not flying is not really part of this conversation but perhaps it should be. In stopping flying I have certainly becoming more aware of the relationship between the exhaustion and burn-out of the academic and the exhaustion and burn-out of the planet. I have found not flying to be a way of re-pacing academic life, of slowing down thinking, of creating more space for conversation and even a way of reducing the physical pressure and onslaught on the body that flying generates. When I returned from a week of travel and talk in Copenhagen I felt none of the exhaustion of either an overnight trip to Europe, or a transatlantic week away.
Travelling by train instead of plane then, has actually been a rather positive experience. I do not miss the stress of the airport, the experience of being herded through line after line of surveillance and interrogation, the monitoring, the scanning, the checking and the bombardment to buy that an airport brings with it. Travelling for 14 hours from Manchester to Berlin with three children under 12 was surprisingly less stressful than dragging them through the rigmarole of airports and airlines in a more compressed 5 hour journey.
From tracing our route on an interrail map of Europe, to eating ice creams outside Frankfurt station, to creating sticker-zoo-worlds with my 5 year old on the train to Leipzig, travelling by train in Europe felt less monitored, more free, and more flexible than travelling by plane. Perhaps the train bragging I mentioned earlier points as much to the experiential possibilities opened up by train travel as much as the danger of a moralised sanctimoniousness about reduced carbon emissions that also potentially accompanies any ‘low carbon’ activity.
Of course, ‘not flying’ is not without its own difficulties, inequalities and exclusions. I could (and will at another point) write about the difficulties and challenges it has raised. When I tried to explore possibilities of virtually attending the next American Anthropological Association conference in Vancouver by proposing an experimental joint virtual/present panel for example this was rejected outright (as was a similarly focused executive session). This is particularly ironic as the title of the conference is ‘Changing Climates: Struggle, Collaboration and Justice’ ! More recently the challenge has come in the form of trying to work out the relationship between my decision not to fly and how it could, or should, inform UCL’s sustainable travel policy. But these difficulties have also become an impetus for imagining what a different kind of anthropology and academia might look like, and it is in this respect that so far, the experience has been most generative. Galvanised in part by the AAA rejection, I have begun to work with colleagues on other avenues for collaboration and conversation that don’t build in international flights as a given. I’ll be running a workshop at the ASA conference in Norwich where we will try to design a future flight-free gathering, one that I hope will address not only carbon emissions but also questions of diversity, access, and intergenerational opportunity. In August I will be joining a workshop on Socio-Cultural Carbon at the IT University in Copenhagen, embodied in the medium of an avatar(!). This has already prompted a discussion about how robotics, VR and other kinds of uses of digital media might be part of a speculative vision of what anthropological research and conferencing could look like in a world without planes, what kind of sociality it might engender, and what kind of worlds it might bring into being for people who might otherwise have been excluded from current conference formats. This brings me to my final point which is that I have come to see this whole exercise not as a demonstration of what other people should do, or what the right way of addressing climate change is, but as an exploration of what becomes possible when we bring a projection of climate changed future into the present. In some senses it is a way of building resilience in anticipation of the future. In another it holds the prospect of being a radical exercise in imagining our world differently. I have started to think now of not flying as a conceit then, a way of saying what if there were no planes, no way of doing the business as usual version of anthropology that I find myself structured within. How we would respond? In starting to work out the answer to this question, I have found a new space for thinking about what it means to do anthropology and do academic work, a space in which I am beginning to explore with others new ways of reflexively critiquing and potentially transforming, the high-carbon version of knowing and acting that we have come to take for granted.