Recent academic publications

Here are synopses of academic publications relevant to the work of FlyingLess from 2022 and 2023. We will gradually add more in the coming weeks.

Each year, the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) has an annual meeting. It is a large affair: in 2018, it took place in San Diego, involving 28,691 registrants and 12,761 presenters. In their open-access article (“Recommendations emerging from carbon emissions estimations of the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting.” eNeuro 10, no. 10 [2023]), Caroline Kay, Rob Kuper, and Elizabeth A. Becker used the presenters, 92% of whom traveled by air, as a proxy for the larger group to calculate their travel emissions based on their city of origin. Those emissions total 69,593 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents–in other words, they reflect radiative forcing–or 38,010.85 metric tons in terms of carbon dioxide alone. When emissions associated with the meeting venue and hotel accommodations are added to those associated with travel, the former make up less than 5% of the total, the authors find. The authors then consider alternative meeting formats with an eye toward greatly reducing emissions and ensuring equity. In this regard, the authors conclude that a multi-hub format, with hubs spread across the globe, and a fully virtual format are not only the most ecologically sustainable models, but also the most inclusive ones.

In the effort to reduce flying and associated emissions, “super short-haul flights” have received significant scrutiny. One reason is that emissions per passenger relative to distance traveled is typically greatest for the shortest flights. That train travel can sometimes easily substitute for these flights provides further justification. Following such reasoning, some European countries—Austria, Belgium, France, and the Netherlands—have taken various steps to either ban or discourage (via taxes) super short-haul flights. And more are considering doing so. However, as Frédéric Dobruszkes, Giulio Mattioli, and Laurette Mathieu point out (“Banning super short-haul flights: Environmental evidence or political turbulence?” Journal of Transport Geography 104 [2022]: 103457) “climate change is the consequence of absolute GHG emissions and not of flight efficiency.” As such, the authors, by examining 31 European countries, explore whether it is prudent to focus on super short-haul flights–those of less than 500 kilometers–as part of the overall fight to reduce aviation emissions. They find that, while it might make sense to target super short-haul flights as “low-hanging fruit,” the actual emissions impact is small: such flights comprise 27.9% of departures from airports in the 31 countries, but only 5.9% of jet fuel consumption. This is why they suggest that a focus on super short-haul flights risks exaggerating their, while effectively obscuring (or delaying the addressing of) the much greater impacts of longer flights. It is these longer flights—and the forces that drive them—they assert, that “ought to be the primary target for action.”

Universities produce large amounts of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. At the same time, many institutions of higher education see and present themselves as leaders of sorts in responding to the climate crisis.  However, as Kirstie O’Neill of Cardiff University observes, there is typically a disconnect between the discourse of universities—not least because of their neoliberalized nature–and their incremental approaches to cutting GHG emissions that they generate (directly or indirectly). Given the breadth and depth of the climate (and broader ecological) crisis, “more radical change is required,” O’Neill contends, “than is currently envisaged.” To this end, the geographer examines three areas of university activity that have potential for contributing to substantive change. Those areas are teaching, campus buildings, university-related travel (particularly by air). Teaching commensurate with the demands of the climate crisis require challenging norms deeply held by students, O’Neill contends, norms related to neoliberalism, economic growth, and techno-optimism. Regarding buildings, O’Neill advocates a fundamental rethinking of what constitutes a “good university” so that the built environment reflects place-based sensitivities, while fostering socially and ecologically just connections with areas of socio-economic disadvantage. As for travel, far-reaching introspection within institutions is needed to challenge the “climate hypocrisy” and the “dirty little secret of academic life” that universities’ heavy reliance on flying reflect. O’Neill offers concrete ideas on all three fronts to help the reader think about what such transformations might look like. (See “Can Universities Be Climate Change Leaders?” In Julian Dobson and Ed Ferrari [eds.], Reframing the Civic University: An Agenda for Impact, Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing, 2023: 63-81.)

In light of the significant impact of aviation on the climate, the European Union is exploring ways to decarbonize air travel. In consideration of such efforts, a team of seven scholars based in Germany and Switzerland examines the two main technology options for cutting emissions: CO2 removal and synthetic, electricity-based fuels. (Romain Sacchi, Viola Becattini, Paolo Gabrielli, Brian Cox, Alois Dirnaichner, Christian Bauer, and Marco Mazzotti. “How to make climate-neutral aviation fly.” Nature Communications 14, no. 1 [2023]: 3989.) Carbon dioxide removal, the authors explain, takes place via Direct Air Capture and permanent geological storage of CO2. Synthetic jet fuel is a product of CO2 captured from the air and hydrogen synthesized through water electrolysis. The team finds that, if growth in aviation is sustained, mitigating its climate impacts during this century via CO2 removal and synthetic fuels will require “significant amounts of energy, natural and financial resources.” In the case of (decarbonized) electricity use required annually to achieve carbon neutrality during the period of 2050-2010, for instance, it would necessitate 1.3 times the present yearly electricity output of the European Union’s 28 member-states. Regarding freshwater consumption needed annually between 2018 and 2100, it would almost equal the current levels of consumption of the EU-28. For such reasons, the authors advocate reducing demand for air travel in the short and medium terms. This would “[give] society time to develop other, possibly longer-term, sustainable solutions.”

Four of the organizers of the Fourth International Feminist Geography Conference share their experiences and reflections for would-be first-time organizers of a hybrid gathering. The conference took place in June 2022, in three in-person locations: Boulder, Colorado (USA); Kandbari (India); and Durham (United Kingdom). It also involved virtual participation across many different time zones. About 500 individuals registered for the conference, with 300 of them participating in the live event (two-thirds of them virtually) and with many of the others engaging recorded papers and sessions before and after the gathering. The feminist geographer authors—all of whom were new to hybrid-conference organizing—find that the gathering was an “enormous success,” not only because of the high level of participation (which was far greater than previous conferences), but also in terms of inclusiveness. The bulk of the article focuses on four themes that offer valuable lessons for anyone thinking about organizing an international hybrid conference. They are: (1) budget and funding; (2) technology, equipment, and hybrid format; (3) advertising, networking and keynote speakers; and (4) organization and timelines. In the end, the authors emphasize that organizing such a conference is an “exceptionally labor-intensive” endeavor. They thus stress the importance of “planning ahead, planning early, and strategizing about how to allocate time and labor throughout all stages of preparation.” This requires “thinking carefully about organizing committee makeup, structure, and task designation.” (See Hanieh Molana, Deirdre Conlon, Jennifer L. Fluri & Nancy Hiemstra (2023) Conference Organizing in the Hybrid Age: Lessons from the Fourth International Feminist Geography Conference, The Professional Geographer, DOI: 10.1080/00330124.2023.2258395)

In an open access volume on pedagogy in relation to refugees and displaced persons, geographer Joseph Nevins considers long-distance travel courses that study these matters. (“On the Pedagogical Value of Not Going There: Mobility, Fossil Fuel Consumption, and the Production of Refugees,” in Brittany Murray, Matthew Brill-Carlat, and Maria Höhn [eds.], Migration, Displacement, and Higher Education: Now What? Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2023: 173-182.) Via a focus on the ties between climate change, fossil fuel consumption, and associated inequities, he argues that such courses contribute to some of the very factors that underlie “forced” and illegalized human movement across international borders. In other words, he asserts that the very exercise of fossil-fuel-dependent mobility and the associated CO2 emissions that travel courses entail harm people and places, particularly the already vulnerable, thus helping to produce a world of people in need of refuge outside of their home areas. In the end, he suggests that the conscious exercise of immobility on the part of students and faculty concerned with forced migration can enrich the learning experience for all by illuminating such connections. It can also aid the fight against intensifying climate breakdown by challenging socio-ecological inequities and excessive consumption among the globally affluent, and thus make forced migration and refugees less common.

As with land transport, fuel consumption associated with air travel has grown over the last couple of decades and shows no signs of abating. Frequent flyers are responsible for an increasing share of the emissions from air travel.  The question is, what drives the ways of the “hyper-aero-mobile”? Noel Cass, a Research Fellow in Energy Demand Behaviour at the University of Leeds, addresses this, in part via an overview of relevant academic literature. (“Hyper-aeromobility: the drivers and dynamics of frequent flying,” Consumption and Society, Vol. 1, Issue 2, 2022: 313–335.) He determines that the key factors “are not individual and psychological, but structural, social and cultural.” In terms of the latter, they include the availability and proximity of airport infrastructure, changing social norms (e.g., “conference culture” or the notion that long-distance travel and individual well-being are tied), and a growing population of individuals whose social networks are geographically extensive. Findings from 30 semi-structured interviews with members of “high-energy-consuming households” in England support this assessment. With only a “decade left to pursue a habitable planet,” Cass thus concludes that “the only strategy for flight demand reduction which is likely to be successful” requires “targeting first the hyper-aeromobility of the rich,” one reason being that broad societal “norms descend from the desirability of elite lifestyles.” Limiting the jet-setting ways of the rich necessitates working to shrink, not expand, airports, and decreasing aviation routes and the number of flights. This task, Cass writes, “is likely to require stronger government actions than are being considered, including but not limited to frequent flyer levies, taxing of air fuel, and/or more coercive measures such as the rationing of flights.”


October 2023 update

Tufts University #flyingless video and article. The Tufts University media site Tufts Now has given our #flyingless initiative some energetic coverage, including a video, feature article, interactive map, and chart comparing transportation modes. Consider sharing the link above with your own social media networks. Or you may forward it by email within your own university to ask, “could our university promote the climate action efforts of our own faculty in similar fashion?”

Gianluca takes a stand. Our friend and long-time #flyingless supporter, Prof. Gianluca Grimalda is returning home by ship, train, and bus to Germany from his anthropology field research site in the Solomon Islands, at the cost of his faculty position at the Kiel Institute, which is firing him for being late returning to the office this fall. His act of principle received extensive media coverage in the GuardianNew York TimesCNN, and many other outlets. Don’t ask whether we each can do likewise (that would be a lot to ask). But we can each reflect on Gianluca’s courage as a mark of what is possible, as we take stock of what perhaps more modest collective action is possible within our own university communities.

New Years’ Eve Eve Party (Dec 30). We usually host an online social event with toasts and reflections on #flyingless themes each December 30, at 4pm eastern (9pm UK, 10pm CET). Please hold the date. If you are tempted to host and log in from a local party in your own community at that time, please contact us by email. We’d love to coordinate.

Traveling by train in the USA

We love traveling by train. Personally, I like the views, comfort, station architecture and locations, connection to history, suitability for laptop work, and people. And, in a time of climate emergency, traveling by train offers a sense of having one foot in the world that is and another foot in the world that ought to be.

A couple weeks ago, while traveling by Amtrak from Boston to Kansas City, I had a video conversation with Prof. Adam Aron of the University of California San Diego, who was coincidentally traveling the same route in the opposite direction on his way to the East Coast for speaking events related to his wonderful new book, The Climate Crisis. This week, I saw on social media that climate scientist and #flyingless supporter Milan Klöwer, along with climate scientist Viktoria Cologna, are right now on their way across the country to California.

So it seems like a good time to collect information and reflections on long-distance train travel for professionals in the United States. Jeb Brooks has a nice YouTube video embedded below, with a well-organized summary of detailed strengths and limitations of travel different options, from coach to roomette to bedroom. Here are my own additional comments and tips, in more random order.

  • Enjoy meeting people from different walks of life and regions of the country. Even recognizing the growth of budget flying in recent decades, trains seem still more diverse by economics, race, ethnicity, and lifestyle than planes. For example, Amtrak’s Lakeshore Limited, which I travel frequently, is bustling with Amish families. If you like conversation, trains are more social than planes.
  • For work on laptops and cell phone, download some files in advance to smoothly adapt to gaps in internet. Be prepared to switch occasionally from cell phone hotspot to Amtrak WiFi, depending on which seems to work best at a particular time.
  • For the best price, choose coach. The prices are competitive with flying. If you travel overnight in coach, bring an eye mask for sleeping, fleece or comfortable jacket, and neck-supporting pillow. For best comfort, choose a roomette. The food comes free and there is a private toilet and a shower down the hall. Personally, I choose coach for overnight travel if I will have an opportunity to rest up afterwards, but I’ll splurge for a roomette if I have professional meetings the next day or if I have been on the road for multiple days.
  • Bring fresh fruit and some healthy food. The cafe car offers adequate but highly processed food and beverages.
  • For physical comfort, avoidance of back pain, and to reduce a small risk of blood circulation health hazard from sitting too long, be sure to walk around and stretch frequently. Get nice outdoor time every time the public address announces a “smoking break” (ha). But do stay close to the door to avoid missing a train. (I am too chagrined to explain how this lesson was learned, once long ago). Take advantage of this key advantage of trains over planes.
  • Be philosophical about train delays. Amtrak is usually but not always on time in the Northeast Corridor. In other regions of the country, delays of a couple hours are common and delays of several hours are possible. You might think it excessive, but I plan for a 2+ hour gap before my first meeting in the northeast and a 6+ hour or overnight gap outside of the northeast.
  • Enjoy the low-carbon travel. Most Amtrak trips are in the northeast, where trains run many times daily and are electric, with carbon emissions far lower than flying. Elsewhere in the country, trains typically run once daily and are diesel-powered, with carbon emissions that are still somewhat lower than flying. In a spirit of “skating to where the puck will be,” I am happy to contribute economic demand to the train market, even while advocating for electrification elsewhere.
  • Amtrak workers are lovely people, more blunt and sharp-worded than I recall being typical in air travel. They can be more bossy than people in other service sectors such as restaurants. I don’t mind. Amtrak workers are unionized, and Amtrak is not in a competitive market. For me, personally, the non-deferential style has an egalitarian spirit. Trains reflect the world I want to live in.