- The Travelling ScientistReflections on Aviated Knowledge Production in the Anthropocene
“We are travellers,” or so we have been told in a commercial campaign from a major Scandinavian aviation company.1 The flight industry and mass tourism have, since the 1970s, contributed to the habit of travelling by plane. How about a weekend in Barcelona or one week in Thailand, anyone? Researchers at European universities have identified themselves as travellers for hundreds of years. First, travelling was a means for researchers to gather data, then for disseminating results, and later increasingly for asserting their presence physically in the international community that rose alongside the administration of the European empires.2 But things are not what they used to be. Western academics are part of the societal groups relying on flying for their work, and yet greenhouse gases emitted through air flight are increasingly contributing to global warming. Academia has come to rely on a carbon-intensive scholarship. These and subsequent changes in travelling patterns are set to be a game changer either for the academic community or the climate.
In this article, we start unpacking how this new game of academic travelling can be played, using social media both as a means and a method. We first explore social media as a means for personal writing in a scholarly discourse. We will primarily focus on our analysis of a blog experiment conducted in 2014–15 where we invite guests to write, comment, and share their thoughts on travelling in academia. [End Page 71]
At the second level, we wish to engage in the debate that sprung out of our social media experiment. By close engagement with the strands of thought, emotions, and frustrations that emerged, we will not just be able to analyze and synthesize them, but we assign our exploratory undertaking a performative role. Part of this performative role is about keeping momentum in the discussions. But more importantly, by continuing the social media–generated discussion through reengaging it in this journal article, we wish to show that the boundaries between traditional academic publication and other media should not be regarded as finite or impenetrable. Throughout the article, we will thus engage, comment, and discuss the material generated in the blog The Travelling Scientist as a way to incrementally expand our method of inquiry. In the final section, we sum up the discussion and point to some conclusions.
Flying for research recurs as a common denominator for large parts of European academia. When talking with Johan Gärdebo, meteorologist John Porter noted the following about climate science:
For international forums like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we rely upon thousands of researchers with data from around the planet to collaborate, and others like myself to coordinate them, to frequent meetings. To not fly would, at this stage, stop the encoding and exchange from being effective.
Adding to this, researchers are incentivized to travel far and wide, back and forth, as a form of career building. Ideally, one should regularly be participating in international conferences, workshops, and guest lectures around the world.3
In response to this, researchers seeking to address global challenges petitioned for reduced aviation as preambles to COP (Conference of the Parties) meetings, first in 2008 and then again in 2015. Travelling by airplane is the highest carbon-emitting activity—counted as carbon dioxide emitted per time unit—that an individual can undertake.4 Carbon emissions in turn contribute to global warming and make life conditions uncertain for the greater part of Earth’s species in the Anthropocene. Researchers’ reliance on aviation, chiefly with respect to the dissemination of results, is central to the dilemma by which we diagnose the dangers of a carbon-intensive scholarship. This dilemma also frames the question of how a transition toward sustainability may be achieved. [End Page 72]
If quantified, the dilemma could, in its simplest form, be construed as balancing flight miles versus scholarly output. Brendan May, chairman for the UK-based environmental advisory organization Roberts-bridge Group, wrote in the Guardian in 2013 that all environmentally concerned researchers should fly more, not less. According to...