In November 2019, a one-day conference titled “Reducing Academic Flying” took place at the University of Sheffield in Britain. Two of us (Matt and Steve) organized the event and one of us (Joe) presented a paper.
The hybrid conference involved speakers and attendees based on three continents – none of the people involved boarded an aeroplane to participate. The purpose of the conference was to explore research about the continuing growth in the frequency with which academics fly to conferences and meetings, and consider pathways to flying-less. A key motivation is the intensity of CO2 emissions related to aviation. If emissions from commercial aviation were a country it would be the sixth largest in the world, just behind those of Japan and Germany. Conferences can be significant sources of carbon emissions, which has led to calls for flightless conferencing.
In our discussions following the conference, a thread that emerged for us was that air travel is most typically conceptualised in carbon terms. We noticed this abstraction of environmental responsibilities in the policies of universities with commitments to technical measures such as carbon neutrality. What this means is that climate change becomes framed as a general and nebulous notion, with associated implications distanced in both time and space. Consequently, any acknowledgements of the suffering caused to humans and other forms of life from a university’s environmental consumption, including via flights, is lacking. In particular, following the conference, our conversations together were about the ethics associated with the unequal distributions of those who fly and those who are most harmed by climate change.
We became specifically interested in considering the ethical dimensions of academic flight through the lens of, and in relation to, ideas about decolonizing universities (see here: an example book on decolonizing universities). This is because decolonization, although a wide-ranging term, is broadly about inequalities between people, places and knowledges related to histories of colonization.
Our impression was that in the emerging streams of literature on flying-less and decolonizing universities, significant opportunities existed to make connections between them to further debate, policy and practice. Our goal became to “enhance our understandings of coloniality as it relates to the academy and to aviation-related consumption among universities and professional societies”. By working with this goal we developed and recently published an article in the interdisciplinary journal Travel Behaviour and Society.
In our article, we explore how the literature on decolonization can illuminate what academic flight ‘does’, as well as how the literature helps to imagine and create pathways to reduce air travel. A key contention is that academic air travel both reflects and helps to reproduce colonial relations. What we mean by this is that inequalities between people, places and knowledges can be understood in relation to the consumption of flights, and resultant environmental harms. Academic air travel reflects colonial relations because of, among other matters, historical patterns of personal and institutional wealth; relatedly, airport transport capacities, routes and terminals, enable if not impel certain bodies ‘to travel’. Meanwhile academic air travel reproduces colonial relations as the (high)flying bodies and the knowledges which they speak of, and stand for, are able to be widely present at conferences and meetings.
Based on our exploration of the literatures on flying-less and decolonization, we argue that a decolonizing agenda requires a significant reduction in academic air travel. Such a shift will, as we argue in the abovementioned article (p. 236), “enable destabilization of Western orthodoxies and diversification of ideas, theories and knowledge, with implications of who travels, when, how, and for how long”. Whilst we do not offer prescriptive recommendations, we make provocations such as redistributing funds for air travel to those who have historically been shut out of academic networks. We also pose questions such as: “What if the money saved by Western-based scholars flying less was devoted to supporting virtual communication?” This is particularly timely given how Covid-19 lockdowns have forced significant innovation in how people meet.
Fundamentally our article argues that decolonizing asks us to consider the implications for flying in the face of seeking solidarity between humans and more-than-humans. Doing so requires a shift from seeing nature as an external storehouse for humans, to an entangled commons for all species in which there can be no distant ‘others’. Indeed, as we conclude “flying – not in and of itself, but as a practice that embodies profligate consumption by a small slice of the world’s population and the associated harms that result – is antithetical to such solidarity”. Consequently as an ethical obligation we need to challenge the webs of social and material relations which hold existing patterns of flying and connected injustices in place.
For us personally and for our institutions challenging ingrained and taken-for-granted ways of seeing and being in Western universities is not straightforward. However, there are increasing numbers of examples of efforts within academia to reduce flying. These range from individual commitments to decrease aeromobility to institutional action plans (e.g. ETH Zürich, University of Basel, University of Sheffield) and networks (e.g. Flying-less and Stay Grounded). The connections and possibilities for developing solidarity with those seeking agendas of decolonizing could create further and new possibilities for progress which will involve rethinking academic meetings and conferencing.
Stephen Allen is Lecturer in Organization Studies at the University of Sheffield in Britain. By working at the intersections of ideas about sustainability, reflexivity and leadership his interdisciplinary research explores how people make sense of and attempt to organize for socio-ecological sustainabilities. His book ‘Being and Organizing in an Entangled World: Sociomateriality and Posthumanism’ is open access and published by MayFly Books. You can find his ResearchGate profile here.
Joseph Nevins is a professor of geography at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. With Suren Moodliar and Eleni Macrakis, he is a co-author of A People’s Guide to Greater Boston (2020). His other books include Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid (2008) and Operation Gatekeeper and Beyond: The War on “illegals” and the Remaking of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary (2010). Along with Parke Wilde, he also coordinates Flying Less (www.flyingless.org), an initiative that seeks to radically reduce the CO2 emissions associated with academia.
Matt Watson is a Senior Lecturer and Director of Research in the Department of Geography at the University of Sheffield, UK. Through his research, he develops and works with practice theory and related approaches, to produce and communicate new insights into broader social change. Different projects have covered issues relating to biodiversity, waste, food, mobility and energy, and involved interdisciplinary collaborations across arts and sciences. He has worked with a wide range of partners outside of the academy, including international governing bodies (e.g. G7), national government department (e.g. Defra, BEIS), regulators and NGOs. He has co-authored three books including The Dynamics of Social Practice (Sage) and The Design of Everyday Life (Berg). You can find his ResearchGate profile here.