Transience: academic travel

Ely train station, Cambridgeshire, 2016

This section connects with my former travel blog (currently offline; still thinking about which parts of it I want to resurrect), engaging with some of the theoretical, practical, and ethical elements of the relationship between space/place and knowledge production. It documents and reflects on some of the challenges related to academic travel, asking how we can transform practices of academic knowledge production in relation to the climate crisis, and how doing so can help us change academia for the benefit not only of those of us who are in it, but people and planet more broadly.

Why travel?

Pretty simply, because that’s one of the most enjoyable activities I can think of. I think, barring very old age or infirmity, travelling should be part of everyone’s life. I do not mean the mass-tourism-Ibiza-hopping, nor, for that matter, it’s high-class equivalent. I think everyone benefits from being in more than one place. Humans are not made to sit still; it is only with the development of agriculture that the idea of sedentarism developed. There will be a bit more about that here, and in the vast literature on nomadic subjects, if you’re into that kind of thing.

I am not trying to romanticise the ‘travelling’ lifestyle of the nomad-blogger kind. Many people are mobile not out of choice; refugees, trafficked persons, many seasonal workers.  However, I also happen to think that many people are sedentary (or, in the contemporary form, semi-sedentary) equally not out of choice. The particular confluence between work and consumption in a capitalist economy dominated by nation-states that means people are expected to practice a particular form of sedentarism, and when they do move, to move only in particular ways; this section – and the blog that preceded it – were born out of desire to think about how one could go to different places without reproducing those elements, or at least doing that in the least harmful ways possible.

The big issue, obviously, is the environmental impact. Yet, as many people have noted, travelling has always been part of human lifestyles – including lifestyles much more sustainable than what the majority of people Latour calls ‘Moderns’ lead. There is nothing about travel itself that makes it unsustainable. What makes it unsustainable is the way it is embedded in contemporary, carbon-spewing, hyper-consumerist economy – mostly because this economy is unsustainable in and of itself (and harmful to all living beings – humans included). So, the purpose of the blog is to think about how one might go on travelling while doing the specific form of activity that we tend to associate with the academia – namely, knowledge production, or teaching and research – without reproducing these practices.

Academic travel, that’s a pretty niche thing, isn’t it? Don’t we have more important problems – neoliberalisation, marketisation, casualisation?

Yes and no. On the one hand, right, academia is a pretty ‘niche’ industry, though not a small one. On the other, academics do travel, a lot – for study, research, conferences, meetings, as well as obviously, commuting or leisure – not to mention ‘change places’ for fellowships, sabbaticals, or jobs. Obviously, how and why academics ‘move’ is incredibly dependent on location, origin, seniority, job security, gender, family status, and (perception of) race/ethnicity, to name but a few things. This is why practices, assumptions, and structures of academic mobility are not separate from questions of marketisation, casualisation, and broader power inequalities in the academia. Put differently: political economy of knowledge production is not independent from its geography/spatial practices.

In fact, it was through looking – in part – at this aspect of academia, and different forms in which they are talked about, understood, and analysed by academics, that I realised the salience of spatiality and mobility practices for thinking about the relationship between academic structures, knowledge (including about those structures), and agency (what we can do about it). I’ve written quite a bit about this elsewhere, but in simplified form the ‘puzzle’ goes something like this: we all know neoliberalism is bad. We all know that neoliberalism is about competition, exploitation, etc. We all know we don’t want that. We also know (at least most of us, I think, would agree) that climate change is happening, and that it is bad. Yet, when it comes to exercising the choices such as, for instance, flying to conferences half a continent away in vague hope of increasing our chances of landing *that job*, most academics do it anyway. When it comes to ‘citing up’ while casually poaching ideas from our peers, most academics do it anyway. When it comes to inviting people for events on the basis of our career ambitions rather than expertise, we do it anyway. If we are men, we often talk about gender equality in principle yet pretty consistently pass over, patronise, or conceptually reduce the work of our female colleagues; this isn’t even getting into the sustained practices of gendered, raced, and other forms of exclusion that permeate institutions of knowledge production.

The broader point is: this isn’t accidental. Academic critique of neoliberalism almost without exception focuses on the ‘big, bad’ economic and political structures ‘out there’, rarely taking a moment to look at how our own ideas and practices not only reproduce but willingly contribute to exactly what we claim to be the problem. This apparent paradox inspired my PhD, but it also relates to the broader theoretical and political problem that forms the backdrop of my research and engagement: the relationship between thinking and doing.

This section of the blog, therefore, seeks to put into conversation two things I have spent a lot of time researching, thinking, talking to other people, and writing about: structures of knowledge production, their relation to ‘space’, and their impact on the environment. I am interested in is how the main theoretical, conceptual, and philosophical question I have been exploring – relationship between knowledge and action, or how what we know influences what we do – becomes implied, embedded, and reflected in two most pertinent (and, needless to say, interrelated) problems today: neoliberal capitalism and environmental destruction.

So what are you going to do?

As academics like to say, let me write an article about it! Jokes aside – this blog serves to reflect (and report) on what being, and being mobile, in the academia could mean – and would look like – if we stopped basing it on extractive and exploitative modes of relating, not only to ‘the environment’, but to each other.

Needless to say, this goes much further than travelling. The carbon footprint of academic mobility is but one link in the chain that makes contemporary academia part and parcel of the current structures of capitalist exploitation (rather than uniquely its victim, as many like to claim). We don’t even have to look as far as Ministry of Defence contracts or the fossil fuels companies pension funds are invested in (the greatest proportion of USS stock, for instance, is in Royal Dutch Shell); many academics from ‘the West’ or the ‘Global North’ are more than thrilled to accept invitations to speak to audiences in the global South in ways that often imply a very ‘top-down’ notion of knowledge transfer. That’s a form of colonialism, pure and simple. Yet, we rarely think about it in those terms; when it comes to such opportunities, most academics switch to a very instrumental form of reasoning – ‘oh but it’s good for my career’, ‘oh but they are paying for the flight, hotel and per diems’. It is these choices, rather than some sort of large-scale conspiracy, that sustain neoliberalism.

Given that my work over the past ten years mostly consisted of trying to disentangle these different elements of the political economy of knowledge production, it is only natural this would be the focus of my writing. This section of the blog, however, is more about thinking and developing strategies of resistance to these things in practice – in particular forms of academic mobility that could be sustainable and good for everyone involved.

My own commitments include:

  • Not more than one conference that requires air travel per year

This is also connected to something I’ve been advocating for a long time – reducing the amount of ‘conferencing’ (and many associated practices) altogether. While meetings and exchange of ideas are important, most conferences – as a host of other people have argued – are hugely unsustainable affairs that serve to reproduce existing disciplinary/institutional/spatial hierarchies. The payment of largely unjustifiable participation fees, a particular burden on early career researchers, usually funds wasteful catering and conferencing services, outsourced to intermediary companies that employ casual or unpaid workers. It is time for these practices to end.

This year (2019), I’m attending the European Sociological Association’s annual conference in Manchester (to which I will, obviously, be taking the train, as overcrowded and delayed as they tend to be) – and that’s it. If you think ‘oh, it’s easy for you, pathetic little just-submitted PhD student’, I’ve held two tenure-track academic and a number of policy advisory positions, and can assure you that a lot of this travel can be done without flying – or, as this checklist suggests, not at all.

  • No more long-haul flights

I took my last long-haul flight in March 2019, as part of the trip that I had long ago promised myself as reward for submitting my PhD; prior to that, I haven’t flown long-haul since 2016 (to Boston and back). I can certainly no longer ethically justify air travel for leisure, and have already made a serious commitment to eliminating it for work. Obviously, I am aware that I may have to fly long-haul again – for instance, I would really like to go back to doing research in New Zealand and in Australia, and both are very difficult-to-impossible to reach without flying. Yet, even in these cases, I will do my best to eliminate air travel to the greatest possible extent. For instance, I will take the train for a summer school in Moscow I am participating in in July, and write about the journey – in part as a way of, hopefully, conveying some useful thoughts on the challenges of developing an academic trajectory through different places, spaces, and disciplines – without contributing to processes that destroying the broader ecosystems that sustain it.

Easy for you to commit to this, you’ve travelled around the world.

I did travel quite a bit, especially if you take into account that, like many people of my generation born in former Yugoslavia, I spent about ten years not really able to leave the country. Most of this travel was for what most people would qualify as ‘work’, though I did always use opportunities to go further and explore outside of the actual academic or policy engagement I had. A high proportion of this travel was done on buses, on trains, and on foot – even before I realised how much air travel actually contributes to environmental destruction. Similarly, most of it was ‘on a shoestring’ – like most people of my academic generation, I’ve been in a somewhat precarious financial situation most of my adult life (and still am).

Within these limits, I’ve managed to visit most countries in Europe, to travel to four other continents, to see the sunrise in Uluru and in Angkor Wat, sunset in the Coromandel and in Tangier, and be in many beautiful (and sad, and inconvenient) places beyond the usual tourist routes. As an anthropologist and a sociologist, I’ve also been continuously aware of (as well as professionally interested in) ways in which the practice of mobility itself reflects, and can reproduce, global and local structural inequalities. The purpose of this blog, then, is to use all these experiences – inevitably inflected by the fact that I am white, upper-middle-class, cis- and able-bodied, and educated, and, at the same time a woman, (in most cases) a foreigner subject to exclusionary and potentially violent immigration and visa regimes, and someone who is still frequently read as ‘young’ – to inform thinking and discussion on how academic travel – and academia more broadly – can become more sustainable and better for all.

Some things this will include:

Travelogues‘ – reports from journeys (train/bus/foot) to different places, academic-event-related and otherwise;

Reflections on different places – closer to my ‘usual’ style of blogging (e.g. here)

Hints and tips on sustainable ‘academic’ travel, based on ideas I’ve accumulated along the way, as well as links to other people’s blogs/resources. There will be a separate page with links and resources, but two most obvious ones to start with are Seat 61 – the absolute Bible of train travel; and Flight-Free 2020, the pledge to reduce air traffic pollution by staying ‘on the ground’ in 2020.