Why do academics travel so much? The first reason is the most obvious: as part of their research in order to get new material to base their publications on. Secondly, there is conference attendance. Thirdly, there is the sheer joy of travelling and experiencing other countries, something that strengthen the incentives of the other two. There is a long tradition of “Bildungsreisen” in the Western Romantic-Enlightenment tradition, a tradition heavily influential in creating the framework of modern academia. Bildungsreisen was the process in which a young man of scholarly inclination went off on a journey to learn things he could not learn by studying the tomes of his father’s library.
This romantic tradition is still with us, influencing us to keep visiting faraway places long after high-quality images and films can show us literally any place on earth. Fourthly, there is prestige. Travelling long distances and often is a sign of accomplishment, and signals that someone is willing to pay for our travels.
Souvenirs from faraway lands…
Since the reasons why academics travel are not so different from the reasons for travelling non-academics, I now turn to the larger discussion on flying for all individuals. There are different estimates on the contribution of flying to the total man-made effect on global warming, from three to nine percent. But this share is expected to rise in the future. Flying is estimated to be an individuals single largest contribution to global warming. Taking this at face value, each flying individual could thus make their single largest contribution to halting global warming by refraining from flying. I think that most frequent flyers know this, and that the main reason that they do not stop flying is that the overall effect for their sacrifice is negligible – the empty flight chair will simply be filled by another passenger, or just be empty with a slightly lower profitability for the airline but with the same emission of gases. The sacrifice for the individual, is thus to no practical use unless many people decide not to fly at the same time.
We might thus refrain from flying – if everyone else does the same. I think that this is the main problem with proposed solutions to environmental problems that focus on the choices of individuals. With economic growth in previously poor countries, the amount of individuals facing the same dilemma grows.
What then can solve the dilemma? The obvious candidate is technology. Advances in information and communication technology have already eliminated the pressing need for actual travel in most cases, but the authenticity prejudice hinted at above still means that people will want to travel. The most attractive solution would be flight technology allowing us to fly as much as we do today and beyond (minus the environmental side effects). This is estimated to be unlikely at least during the decades ahead, but technological development is notoriously difficult to predict. Another possibility is changes in norms. Changes in human behavior based on changes in norms have occurred multiple times in the past (for some reason the most frequently used example is the way people blow their noses – openly ejecting snot through the nostrils gave way to “snot-rags” which gave way to sterilized non-reusable paper Kleenexes). Norms might be shifting concerning travel by flight, making it a gradually less savory way of travel until shunned unless strictly necessary. In many communities this might already be the case.
Yet another solution is for individuals to voluntarily agree to a restriction of their freedom of flying. Garrett Hardin’s 1968 article The Tragedy of the Commons argued, echoing the common obsession of the time, that infringement of personal freedom was the only way to solve the ticking population bomb. But long before that Thomas Hobbes in 1651 hypothesized that society was ultimately based on a social contract involving a sacrifice in freedom in order to obtain security – a contract resulting in the creation of the sovereign, or Leviathan named after the terror-inspiring but ultimately magnificent beast described in the Bible.
The Leviathan model 1651
(Source: Cover of Hobbes, Thomas: Leviathan, Harmondsworth: Penguin Press 1985)
According to Hobbes, life before Leviathan was “nasty, brutish and short”. Life in a post-global warming world might well be nasty, brutish and short too. So perhaps we need a new social contract, a global Leviathan to constrain our freedom?
I do not claim to have all the answers to the questions raised in this blog. All I can say is that I welcome the opportunity to live in a time in which large solutions to large problems will have to be discussed.