Time for Ecological Economist to Fly Less

by Clive L. Spash
Institute for Multi-Level Governance & Development
Vienna University of Economics & Business

A recent campaign initiative asks academics to sign-up and commit to fly less.  That is not asking them to even stop flying, just fly less.  Why academics?  Because they are supposed to be intelligent enough to realise the consequences of their actions and are generally empowered enough to be able to do something about it.  Many of the most active flyers are wealthy academics who often are not even paying for their own flights anyway.  When we get to the environment there are too many hypocrites; too many who should be acting differently; those who claim they know better, but fail to act, whether in ecological economics, degrowth or the climate change scientific community.  The inconvenience of public transport is just too much for busy planet savers who are too important to change their ways, while recommending social innovations for other less important mortals.

There are many good reasons to reduce, and even better stop, flying, besides preventing greenhouse gas emissions and noise pollution.  Flying is part of the aerospace industrial-military complex and you indirectly support it when flying.  The whole security paranoia and militarisation of civil society is communicated directly via airports.  You support multinational corporations of the worst extractive types both for fossil fuels and minerals.  The airport as a piece of infrastructure has become a leading edge, high tech, consumer interface, designed to boost sales of stuff.  If doing short-haul flights, you often waste as much time going to and from airports as you save flying.  The ‘time saving’ just results in faster and more hectic lives, or ‘time wasting’ elsewhere.  People flying all over the place lose all conception of geographic space and connection to the planet they buzz around.

These are just a few random points. If you want more coherent environmental arguments checkout Kevin Anderson, a climate scientist who has been arguing against his own colleagues and their jet set lifestyle, as well as those of hypocritical environmentalists.  See his online articles and debates: “Hypocrites in the air: should climate change academics lead by example?”; “Evangelising from 32 thousand feet: Why Brendan May is wrong in calling for more environmentalists to fly”; “Debate with environmental business advisor on flying, emissions & leading by example”; “Does Greenpeace’s sanctioning of short-haul flights mirror wider hypocrisy amongst the climate change community?”.

Personally I slowly (too slowly) moved to the no flying camp.  Yet, once I got there, or even before arriving, I found very negative responses from within ecological economics.  The India Society invited me for a plenary talk a few years ago, but when I said I would not fly, but instead do a telecommunication version, all went silent; I finally got a list of excuses for why this would not be possible, after being told they themselves often flew to Europe so what was the problem?  An invited talk to the German ecological economics conference proved highly problematic because their travel agent only dealt with flights, and when I booked trains myself a refund was impossible because that was not in the protocol.  The ISEE holds conferences in totally inaccessible locations for anything but flyers, such as Iceland, while sending out messages on global limits from sustainability professors and headlining the conference as addressing respect for planetary boundaries.

None of us is perfect but this is a millions miles from even attempting to go in the right direction.  So if you are flying to another conference, workshop or meeting for your ever so important talk on how to save the planet, may be time to think twice.  I also hope you are not trying to justify that with tradable permits, which would add political and ethical irresponsibility to the insult of planetary and humanitarian injury.  Instead consider taking direct action and start to at least fly less, and make the commitment to do so by joining the campaign by clicking the link to fly less, and if you are an academic send your name to

One Response

  1. I agree, we should be flying less, or ideally not at all. Taking the train is better in carbon terms, but still has a high ‘footprint’. Maybe ESEE and ISEE could organise paper swap sessions to reduce the flying associated with their conferences? This works as follows.
    Instead of presenting your own paper in country X, you present someone else’s paper at a conference somewhere near you. In return, they present your paper in country X. In addition to eliminating two return flights, presenting someone else’s paper makes you engage meaningfully with someone else’s work, so you can both expect better comments than you usually get by jetting off on another academic tourism jaunt!
    Of course you have to trust this academic in country X, but you are presenting their work too, so the risks are shared. I’ve done this a few years ago to avoid a trip to San Fransisco, and it worked very well… Apparently some Oxbridge colleges organise paper swap meetings just for the better engagement reason. It also has none of the techno-risk drawbacks of video-conferencing / Skyping in.


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