I love travelling. I love seeing new places, meeting new people, exploring the variety of cultural expressions (and impressions), telling me that this is not my hometown. Often this process starts already by the window of the train or aeroplane. The geological and urban morphology, the architecture, the flora and fauna – every sign of difference makes me delighted. Stepping out of the train, or from the airport, taking that first breath of air and letting the humidity, temperature and aromas fill my palate and lungs is an almost sacred ritual. A first taste of something – potentially – different. But I also love the travelling per se. While spanning space, travelling creates a pocket in time. A sanctuary.
Before I became part of academia, the times I had travelled outside the Nordic countries could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Then I got enrolled as a PhD student, and after seven years in academia, I’ve been to India (twice), China, the U.S. (twice), Canada and more places in Europe than I can remember. In Europe, I’ve often chosen to go by train: to Zürich, Paris, Brussels, Rotterdam, London and Lancaster. One reason for this is that my ever-growing CO2 footprint haunts me. Of course, I know that train-travels cannot offset the CO2 emissions released by my long-distance travel by air, but at least it keeps my footprint down. Though at times, I seem to be quite on my own worrying about my CO2 footprint. When I vent my discomfort regarding flight practices to friends and family, I am always, without exceptions, met by conciliatory replies. In some way, my CO2 footprint seems to be excused by the fact that I work with sustainable development, and that my travels are part of this work. Unfortunately, nature is not as forgiving. Nature does not give a f*ck about reasons behind the ever increasing CO2 emissions. It just reacts.
But there is another reason for why I go by train as often as I can: I actually prefer it. When going by train you typically start and end your journey in the very centre of a city. No need to spend time (and money) going to an airport in the outskirts of the outskirts. You (usually) don’t have to allocate time (and patience) to go through security controls. On a train, it is easier to stand up and walk around, and, quite often, there is a nice bistro to visit. No one tells you to shut your electronic equipment down, and the chance of having access to a power outlet is far greater than on an aeroplane. You get to see more landscapes and places, because you will be passing right through them, rather than thousands of meters up in the air. But perhaps most important of all, the time pocket experience is never as strong as on a train. One reason for this is because the travelling time is usually both longer and less fragmented, but is probably also due to a perceived speed of travelling.
So why do I travel by air at all? Well, I think that Yolande Strengers sums it up quite neatly in her blog post Fly or Die: air travel and the internationalisation of academic careers: “what is at stake is not flying itself, but what it enables: the interacting, collaborating, promoting and collegial ‘work’ that I am able to do when meeting face-to-face with others.” – and how this is rewarded through institutionalized ideas of how to assess excellence when awarding funding or positions. Making an academic career without flying is close to impossible.
But I also believe that one important part of the puzzle is the fact that most people in academia also enjoy ‘having’ to go to exotic destinations, vibrant cities or picturesque European villages to do their job (or work on their careers). If this would not be the case, then why on Earth are so many conferences arranged on Bali? And why else would the location of conferences be so highlighted in promotional materials?
The drivers for academia to continue flying are many, strong and institutionalized. The barriers, on the other hand, typically come down to private concerns over climate change. Just because I work with sustainable development, my moral obligation to cut down on flying does not decrease, but increases. Sustainable development is a matter of learning to prioritize, and that is why you never will see me at Bali.