- Slow Academic Travel:An Antidote to "Fly Over" Scholarship in the Age of Climate Crisis
The bison were not cooperating.
All three animals faced away from me, a row of hairy posteriors blocking the rest of their hulking bodies from view. My iPhone poised in camera mode, I walked slowly to the left, keeping my eyes on the herd grazing eighty yards in the distance. They were in no hurry, and neither was I. Just as I had lined up the perfect shot—the lowered heads of the bison, tiny black eyes shining and mouths masticating in perpetual motion, were now visible—a frigid blast of wind whipped across the plain, rustling grasses, flapping my jacket, and prompting the bison to rotate in one choreographed movement to the right. Unlike me, they wanted to face into the wind. Laughing under my breath, I moved farther to the left until the bison were in profile and began snapping. I arrived back at my car the proud owner of a new nature photo series: "Unruffled Buffalo, Badlands National Park."
I perhaps would have never communed with the Plains bison (trinomial name Bison bison bison, my new favorite animal) or witnessed the Badlands' breathtaking canyons and hoodoos, its pronghorns and desert cottontails, its red clay and Western wheatgrass, if I had traveled to my research week at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West by airplane. And I would have never known the serendipitous detours of that two-day road trip from Buffalo, New York to Cody, Wyoming in a plug-in hybrid—or come to value the expansive critical thinking and writing that extended train, bus, and car travel enables—had I not become one of the millions of people around the world suffering from a paradigm-shifting case of eco-anxiety. After nearly a year of conducting professional travel without flying (to research visits, conferences, theatre productions, and guest lectures), I have found much to recommend in low-emissions transportation and the opportunities it affords the climate-conscious academic. This essay will set forth a two-pronged rationale for undertaking slow academic travel as an arts and humanities scholar. In it, I will articulate the potential environmental and scholarly impacts of slowness as a time signature for professional travel, which together coalesce into what I hope is a meaningful, twenty-first-century approach to journeying (from the Old French journée, meaning "a day's work or travel").1 I will also offer some best practices when planning and executing slow academic travel, before considering the procedural and philosophical transitions that our field (and academia in general) will need to undertake in order to adequately respond to the climate crisis's global mandate: a carbon-free economy as soon as humanly possible.
First, a note on terminology. I use the term slow academic travel to describe a speed of traversing spaces (customarily resulting from avoiding air travel) in pursuit of professional opportunities and obligations and a consonant approach to intellectual work that capitalizes on ground travel's spatiotemporal variations. Slow academic travel fosters a gentler way of moving through the physical world and the scholarly process; it is deliberately unhurried, flexible, and attentive to the impacts of human behavior on planetary health and vice versa. Encounters with the unfamiliar and unexpected animate slow academic travel, as does the freedom to abandon conventional methods of academic thinking, researching, and writing. It poses direct challenges to the neoliberal valuating of academic [End Page 17] research through measurements of speed and quantity and the ungrounded scholarship that can at times result from such pressures (what I think of as "fly over" scholarship). In my experience, slow academic travel has the capacity to bolster productivity, perceptivity, and rootedness, even as it urges scholars to stop and smell the bison. Perhaps most importantly, slow academic travel concedes that an ethics of scholarly practice in the twenty-first century cannot fully claim to be antiracist, anticlassist, antisexist, and anti-ableist if it is environmentally negligent or abusive.
Second, it is important at the outset to acknowledge the profound inequalities imbedded in both the climate crisis and activist movements aimed at lessening the crisis's...