Campaign Urges Academia to Continue Flying Less

Flights can account for as much as 25% of an institution's emissions.

Airbus A380 flying in sky
RUSS ROHDE / Getty Images

When I wrote that we were thinking about flying all wrong, I suggested we might want to spend less time worrying about the morality of any and every single flight. Instead, I argued, we might want to focus our energy on identifying specific points of leverage that reduce society’s reliance on aviation as a whole. 

One of the possible strategies I suggested was encouraging businesses and institutions to reduce the need for work-related air travel—with academic conference travel being a fairly obvious place to start. 

The Flying Less Campaign has been working on this issue for quite some time. And they are now doubling down on that ask and relaunching both their petition and their campaign for the new academic year.

While "maintaining momentum" isn’t exactly the right phrase when the topic is essentially traveling less, there is a sense of trying to solidify some of the lessons learned from the pandemic. It’s an effort that’s summed up in the humorous animated video documenting the anthropological adventures of Sir Professor Doctor Geoffrey Mosquito.

The campaign is seeking to mobilize universities and research institutions, academic associations, research funders, and individual academics alike—both with a goal of directly reducing emissions (the campaign claims that flights account for as much as 25% of some institutions' emissions) as well as recruiting scientists and other academics to set a model for society at large. 

Interestingly, the campaign’s FAQ directly addresses the idea of reduced flying as a strategic and systemic intervention, as opposed to a test of moral purity: 

“This initiative is focused on institutional change in civil society (academia) as part of a coherent theory of social change, contributing to transformation of bigger economic sectors with greater influence over powerful political decision-makers. We do not care about individual non-flying purity.”

In many ways, this intersects with many conversations I had while writing my upcoming book on climate hypocrisy. While there are, undoubtedly, moral dimensions to every consumption decision that each of us makes, centering our conversations on personal virtue risks overlooking bigger and more impactful opportunities to start making a difference. 

When I interviewed United Kingdom-based academic and nature writer Zakiya McKenzie, for example, she noted shaming individuals for flying to see their family, for example, has not proven to be a great way to win people onboard. And yet, as we have seen during the pandemic, there are huge opportunities to "virtualize" or otherwise replace a large segment of travel-related emissions, and to boost social equity and quality of life in the process.

McKenzie was quick to point out that academics with disabilities had long been pushing for more virtual conferencing opportunities, and it was somewhat bittersweet to see those adopted only now that others were forced to stay home. (The Flying Less campaign also points to career and personal benefits for young researchers who may not have a travel budget.)
Of course, even a complete cessation of conference travel would still leave the majority of societal aviation emissions intact. But that’s not the point. Like the discussion of technological tipping points and feedback loops, we need to get better at thinking about our efforts in non-linear terms. 

A reduction in conference and research travel has the potential for significant knock-on effects that would make flying less easier for all of us.