At the NYRB:
Non-flying academics can’t help but notice a conspicuous tension between, on the one hand, the espoused values of universities and professors, and, on the other, the flying behavior that is condoned, incentivized, and relished at their institutions. Professors are not especially highly paid, considering their educational credentials, and getting flown out to give talks and hobnob at conferences in destinations such as Berlin, Bangkok, or Johannesburg is a major perk of the job. At the same time, even if they would prefer to stay put, junior faculty members feel pressure to travel, in order to schmooze with colleagues and promote their work.
With their petition, which currently has signatures from more than 600 academics, Wilde and Nevins ask both universities and professional associations to take steps to modify this system. One idea they propose is the “regional hub” conference model, in which academics would congregate in their respective regions for personal connections and use video-conferencing to interact with other hubs. A few of these associations have begun to consider experiments with the conference model, which, after all, has remained static for decades—why shouldn’t it change in the face of both new technological options and new environmental imperatives?
If we took a fraction of the money spent on aviation engineering research — or a fraction-of-a-fraction of what Muskrat and Bozos et al are pissing away on their exoplanetary colonisation efforts — and threw it at the challenge of dragging videoconferencing out of the glitchy uncanny-valley hellscape where it still resides, the need for conferences would effectively disappear.
One problem being, as this this article points out, that the desire for conferences would not disappear. We academics are certainly part of the problem, but the globetrotting suits of capitalism are a far bigger one — and it’s far more about status for them than it is for the rest of us, as anyone who’s ever been upgraded to business class should be well aware.
(I’ve been a non-flyer for about three years now — with one exception for a job interview in the Netherlands last year for which there just wasn’t enough notice to arrange for trains — and it’s less of a sacrifice for me, because I utterly loathe flying, for an assortment of mental health-related reasons. But what’s been interesting to note is that when I’m asked why I don’t fly, if I say it’s because flying makes me crazy, no one bats an eyelid; but if I say it’s for ethical reasons, it’s like I opened Pandora’s box, and all the justifications come pouring out. As one respondent in the article notes, refusing to fly for ethical reasons sends a signal — and that signal really does elicit a reaction.)
The other problem is manifest in the multiple diasporae of immigration: how will those hard-working people see their far-flung families if not by flying? I don’t have a good answer for that — but while it’s qualitatively and quantitatively different to academics and businesspersons flying for work, it’s still an expectation of mobility which, historically speaking, is hugely anomalous, even within the timespan of my own lifetime.
The movement of mass through timespace is the basic function of all infrastructure; the faster and/or further that mass moves, the more damaging the movement is environmentally. That expectation has to end, one way or the other.