Not flying. Steps towards a post-carbon Anthropology?

From 8.30pm to 9.30pm this evening is Earth Hour and I am spending it in Frankfurt Airport, en route from Warsaw to Manchester. This is more than just an irony – it also feels like a turning point, the moment when I can no longer reconcile the understanding I have of the effects of flying on the planet with being on a plane. This has been coming for some time. I had already decided that I will stop flying from this September until December 2020. The reason for delaying until September is to honor commitments I have already made. The end date of December 2020 is arbitrary and may not even end up being an end date – but I have set a date because I want to treat giving up flying not as some kind of moral individual act, but as an exploration of what difference it actually makes to professional and personal life to not fly. I decided a few years ago not to initiate work visits that would involve flying but in the meantime I have received more invitations to speak than I can practically accept anyway, so that decision has ultimately made no difference to how many times I have been on a plane or where to. Now I want to push the issue further, to create both the impetus to really consider what it would mean for me not to fly, and to share that with others who may be coming to the same conclusion.

For some time it has been very clear to me that flying is a major contributor to climate change. Because of research I have been doing on climate change and its social and political implications in the UK, I have had the privilege of hearing Kevin Anderson from the Tyndall Centre talk in unequivocal terms about the contribution that flying makes to rising carbon emissions (– Kevin Anderson speaking at Manchester’s Mayor’s Green Summit last week). Kevin is also very good at reminding his audience who it is that is taking those flights – primarily professionals, the most affluent, and that includes euro-american academics. But I have also been caught up in the recognition that anthropology is a discipine that is fundamentally defined by air travel. It is not only that anthropologists travel to academic conferences to share snippets of their years of work in the field, meeting, socialising and conversing with colleagues from around the world – something I of course value. It is also that the very subject matter of anthropology depends on the ability of anthropologists to travel the world. As an individual act, giving up flying might indicate a particular political stance, but how is it in any way consistent with what it means to be an anthropologist? Given the importance of travel to the discipline, would it make any difference? At best wouldn’t it just be irrelevant given I am a member of a discipline where flying has become so much a part of what it is to produce anthropological knowledge? And at worse might it not be an oversimplified imposition of a particular scientific way of thinking on a more multiple, more discursive and interpretive way of understanding the world that I have actively worked to promote for the past 20 years?

Last year, I ran a conference panel where one of the panellists, who is based in the US, joined us by skype because he had decided to make the decision not to fly, and we discussed his decision in the panel. In January, Jason Hickel, an anthropologist at Goldsmiths, published a blog post on anthrodendum arguing not just that there are individual reasons why we should rethink flying, but suggesting that the ethical code of the AAA fundamentally contradicts the carbon consequences of the annual jamboree that is the American Anthropological Association annual meeting. Hickel points out in this blog post that anthropology is a discipline that explicitly states in its code of ethics that ‘anthropological researchers must do everything in their power to ensure that their research does not harm the safety of the people with whom they work’. And yet it is precisely those people with whom many anthropologists work – people in poverty, people in the global south, people who do not often get a voice in public debate – that are likely to be most affected by the knock on consequences of our flying on a changing climate. A famous aphorism often quoted in anthropology is the statement that anthropologist Ruth Benedict is supposed to have made that “The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences”. Whether this is accurate or not it is a sentiment that rings true for many anthropologists who hold up the necessity of attending to human difference as being at the heart of the anthropological endeavour. But are we really making the world safe for human differences if we are involved in practices that are predicted to prompt mass migration, conflict and the associated increases in social inequality? Hence, I think we need to start talking more about flying.

When Michel Serres pointed out in The Natural Contract over 20 years ago, that during the era of modern politics humans have been embroiled in a realm of discussion in the human domain, meanwhile they are blindly being consumed by a bigger politics that entails natural processes, he could have been talking about anthropology. However recent debates in the discipline that are creating a rupture in that view that I think actually makes talking about flying more possible. Firstly, the ‘ontological turn’, has opened anthropology up in new ways to material processes and to the requirements to attend to materiality as it presses in on social relations. The conference I am returning from was on Materializations of the Political. The questions I am raising here about flying are also questions about how to materialise the politics of anthropology, in ways that seem to me entirely consistent with an anthropology of ontology, infrastructure, feminist techno-science and multi-species ethnography.

Political theorists Andreas Malm in his book Fossil Capital and Timothy Mitchell in his book Carbon Democracy have redescribed the politics of the 20th century in terms of such material relations and their social and political effects. I wonder if we could tell a similar story for anthropology, exploring the way in which the knowledge we have produced as anthropologists, including both the insights and also problems with this knowledge, have been generated by the conditions of possibility of cheap, secure, easily available air travel. Early ‘armchair’ anthropologists did not travel by air, but then the life of an academic at those times was very different to today, as were hierarchies of power, beliefs about the nature of cultural difference, and expectations about what anthropological knowledge should do. It could be argued that air travel democratised the production of anthropological knowledge, creating connections, blurring boundaries between the insides and outsides of anthropological knowlege, inculcating an attention to the discursive production of cultural difference as a central preoccupation of the discipline. But flight-enabled anthropology is not without its drawbacks – in the US there are now more anthropology PhDs than there tenure track positions, the postcolonial critique of extractive anthropological knowledge has been well rehearsed and there is a growing movement of indigenous anthropology in many parts of the world that pushes back against a more mobile euro-american anthropology. Could a push-back against the automatic embrace of frequent and cheap flights not also be part of a critical conversation about the politics of anthropological knowledge? By seeing what happens when I and others don’t fly, might we not learn something about what carbon-anthropology is, and what post-carbon anthropology might be? Because ultimately the decision not to fly is for me an opening to a question that I think concerns most anthropologists – what kind of world do we want to live in? This points to another theoretical debate within current anthropology that seems pertinent to the decision not to fly – the anthropology of ethics. For not flying is far from a simple act but entails all kinds of questions about one’s ethical commitments – as a scholar, as a citizen, and for me as a sister, daughter, friend and mother.

A personal decision not to fly is particularly difficult because of the effects it has on others I care about. My sister and her family currently live in Berlin and my brother has just moved to Turin. These are reachable by train, but train travel across Europe is expensive for a family of five, and time consuming too. There are of course question-marks over the difference it will even make not to fly, counted in terms of carbon emissions. One journey by train may end up not making that much difference in terms of contribution to global warming. But committing to travelling by train rather than on a plane is a difference that will make a difference in other ways that will likely be more significant than the difference made to global CO2 levels. For not flying will demand an attention to the relationship between work and family, a reconsideration of what travel is, how time is spent and with whom. We have good friends and family in the USA. How will we deal with that? Will a personal decision not to fly simply shift responsibility onto others who will be expected to travel to us? There are no generic answers to these questions and I don’t know how they will play out personally but by not flying I aim to put myself in a position to find out. One reason why I have put a limit of December 2020 on this decision is in recognition of how potentially fraught this decision is. Nonetheless it seems clear that the alternative is just as fraught as well if for other reasons and at a different scale.

One of the problems I see with the way in which climate change is treated in the UK is that it is so frequently cast as a matter of individual personal choice, and therefore some kind of reflection on the subject as a holder of a fixed and stable identity. This has also been something that has put me off making the decision not to fly. Ultimately though, am I choosing not to fly? Perhaps. But in making that choice I am climbing on the shoulders of others who have done the same. I also recognise that by acting I am imposing myself on other people and things in ways that will have consquences and will act back on me in ways I cannot anticipate. This was one reason I hadn’t stopped flying, but now it is the main reason I have, for it is the only way I can see of forcing climate change to affect me personally and to make me aware of where things could change. So, for example, if an ‘esteem indicator’ for career progression is invitations to international conferences, and I am personally disadvantaged by this, it creates the impetus to question and challenge such regulations. The recent strike of UK academics has revealed the power of refusal and its capacity to generate a broader critique of a system that is fundamentally broken. Perhaps something similar could come out of a refusal to fly?

So I do hope that this will make a difference, though the precise difference I want it to make is crucially and intentionally not entirely clear to me. Ultimately I do not really think it is in my gift to decide that difference, rather it needs to emerge out of a collective conversation about the kind of world that we as anthropologists (and mothers and sisters) want to live in. However, as Margaret Mead famously said never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. Even if its not clear what that world should be like, I am pretty sure it is not the one that will result if we all continue to fly.


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