Waiting to board at yet another airport

Waiting to board at yet another airport

I’m writing this on board a flight, my fifth international journey in the last two months – this is unusual for me, as life and work in Cambridge does not normally involve this level of travel. It has been a particularly busy period, with each of the journeys relating to quite independent areas of academic life in which I am involved.

The point of this blog post is not to boast about the increasing numbers of immigration stamps in my passport, or to show off about my international links. It is to raise a very modern-day dilemma, one that I am acutely conscious of because of my own research, which tries to understand how our contemporary global society can live within the constraints of a finite planet.

The consensus within the climate science community seems pretty clear – human activities have a discernible impact on global climate change, and one especially important offender is our continued dependence on fossil fuels. Amongst these activities, international air travel is about the worst, in terms of its carbon emission impacts. It is also one of the activities about which we can make conscious personal choices – and we should. The College Environmental Committee, with which I have been closely involved, suggests that we think about sustainable transport options and promotes cycling to work (which I do). However, all of these attempts to reduce my personal impact on the environment are wiped out by the carbon emission consequences of a single international long haul flight – and, here I am, returning from my fifth such journey!

So, should I fly less? Undoubtedly, where possible – and I’m sure that my family would concur, despite my attempts to minimise the number of days and nights that I am away. With a nine year old and a seventeen year old in the house, I am constantly reminded about the irony of me claiming that I am travelling the world talking about how to make the world more sustainable!

But, this is where my dilemmas arise. I am a firm believer that human society benefits from closer interaction – the sorts of meetings that allow strangers to become friends. People talk about the global village, and there is no doubt that one of the great developments of the last century was mass commercial air transport, which has allowed millions to benefit from the opportunities of international travel, exposure to new ideas and places, and the connections and networks that arise from these journeys. As a College, we benefit greatly from this, and our graduate student community, especially, is international, culturally diverse and brings the world to this small Fenland town that we inhabit. Institutionally, we encourage travel – the Tutorial Committee takes pride in being able to offer our undergraduates and graduates support for travel, both for direct academic purposes, and for ‘broadening the mind’ – and we continue to hope that the generous benefactions of our donors will allow us to expand these opportunities even further.

Let me reflect on my own journeys, and perhaps the readers of this blog can judge whether they were strictly necessary. One was the start of a new two and a half year research project in India and Nepal, looking at water availability for small towns in the Himalayas. The team had never met before, and this was the first occasion at which we could sit together and plan our activities for the project. We needed ‘face time’ – no amount of electronic communication and video conferencing could have replaced what we achieved by sitting intensively for three days (and nights), tucked away in a remote part of the Indian Himalayas, working together. The next trip, almost immediately after, was to support one of the University’s major scholarship programmes for graduate students, conducting interviews for candidates in the United States. Perhaps we could have done these by videoconference or Skype? Maybe, but I’m sure the interviewees appreciated the fact that we were in the same room, and they could ‘read’ our body language as they nervously tried to persuade us to give them the funding.

Back again, and a quick trip to Scandinavia, as part of a new network of research institutions which are hoping to collaborate more closely over the next few years. My host had visited Cambridge for a week in November, but this was an opportunity for me to meet her colleagues and others, and to explore areas of mutual interest. We could have done this in other ways, I’m sure, but a day and half in each other’s company helped put faces to names, and to humanise the otherwise impersonal electronic communication that characterises much modern academic correspondence.

I stayed put for a while, before my two recent trips, again back to back. One to convene a global team of experts who are working on the role of forests in food provisioning systems – a new group, who had never met, and who are expected to work voluntarily (in their ‘spare time’) to produce a major report on the subject. I am leading the process, and needed to find ways to make the team work together, and to forge a collective consensus on the direction of the report and the work plan. As with the Indo-Nepalese project, face time was essential. We will now use all the virtual means that we have available for academic collaboration, but none of these would have substituted for the team building that we achieved in the three days that we were together.

And finally, this last visit – an invitation to give a lecture at a University in a ‘troubled’ part of the world, hosted by an old friend and colleague with whom I had worked in Oxford, and speaking (amongst others) to a group of students who are trying to build bridges across cultures and countries as part of an innovative new Masters programme. The purpose of these annual lectures is to expose students to new thinking and ideas, to overcome some of the isolation that they might otherwise face because of their particular geographical location.

Five journeys, four continents, twenty days and nights away from home. A little microcosm of our lives as academics – research, teaching, student recruitment and outreach, collaboration. The downside – a high carbon impact, lots of precious lost moments with the family, and pressure on those who have to cope with my absences. In return, new networks, new ideas, new opportunities, and new connections (as well as the renewal of old ones). Is it worth it?

Bhaskar Vira

About Bhaskar Vira

Bhaskar Vira is a Fellow in Geography, specialising in Environment and Development, and is Graduate Tutor.

1 Comment

  1. In short, it seems the premise of your piece is to suggest the benefit to the world and environment that is derived from your travel outweighs the cost to the environment. While I don’t disagree with this premise, it is difficult to ascribe a clear value and impact your travel took (no negative control for example whereby you didn’t go!) so calculating such a cost to benefit ratio would be very difficult if not impossible. The second point relates to the inter-connectivity you speak of and I would imagine that probably anyone who travels will say that their trip is worthwhile even if its just for a sunny holiday or to visit family; as there are positive attributes to such trips too, even if not immediately obvious.

    To be slightly argumentative, if the flights are in economy class you’re at least getting a reasonably high level of efficiency in moving people across the world at a particular carbon cost which is per aircraft and not per person. Flying in business or first would probably then be substantially less efficient!

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