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Gabriel Söderberg: Concerning Aviation in the Service of Academics and Other Individuals

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.

/Gabriel Söderberg


One thought on “Gabriel Söderberg: Concerning Aviation in the Service of Academics and Other Individuals”

  1. I agree with Gabriel that we need a re-consideration of freedom in our society. For doing so, I would suggest we start with questioning the division between “free” and “non-free” societies. We, who are mostly Western modern academics, have been raised up with the image of the democratic free societies – in contrast to what has been before that until the mid of the 20th century (authoritarian monarchy, tyrannical dictatorship) – and what lies next to us (still tyrannical dictatorship in North Corea, a bit less in China and Cuba and so on).

    The closer one looks the more one can see that this image is very much simplified and has been very powerful as an ideology. Restrictions to individual activities have of course not stopped with the first parliamentary elections. Individuals still have to face long-year penalities in prison for harming other people, their ownership or institutions of the state. Moreover, they are disciplined to behave in certain ways – and this can be exemplified with a number of mundane examples: speed limits in traffic, silence in libraries, health education in school ect. And of course they can be “happy” about certain liberties – like to choose a profession we want, to buy and consume what we want – but they are also raised to meet these decisions responsibly and if they do not they get in troubles (let’s think about all the hustle unemployment people have with employment offices ect.).

    The point is: we are used to prohibitions, desciplinations and only preliminary liberties without really thinking about them in our everyday lives. “Freedom” becomes something a less constant thing then and rather something that is shaped and formed in varous ways. Michel Foucault has reflected prominently on these issues in his lectures on “governmentality” in the late 1970ies.

    In the case of free travelling we might also think: why are we allowed to fly as much as we want? The first answer might be: because we live in societies which respect the freedom of the individual. But another one might be: because it contributes to economic growth – which consequently benefits companies, state budgets, employees – everyone it is said. Except the climate and the broader enviornment obviously.

    But this does not say that there are no ways around restricting individual freedoms. History teaches us that during certain times people have accepted cuts in their freedom to be mobile. During the oil crisis in the 1970ies the Austrian government implemented a policy that made every car owner to choose one day of the week in which he or she will not use his or her car. To prove that caro wners were obliged to have a sign indicating this day (e.g. “Friday”) on their cars so everyone could see it. The police of course which would fine them in that case – but also other people which would create a certain feeling of shame if seen driving on the day he or she chose not to. Today such a policy would hardly find any support – because there is no national need to rationalize oil or at least, because the population, the government and “experts” don’t believe there is.

    This example might show that restrictions to individual mobility are possible if there is a different political and economic climate and if policies are designed in a smarter way and not just expect “Do not”. And it might also show that we modern humans are not free individuals but rather individuals which are trained to deal with a number of liberties, disciplinations and prohibitions.

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