By Elke Schüßler
I had been doing research on climate change since 2009 when, after my history-oriented thesis I wanted to engage with the most current and pressing topic of our times. As a start, and with some ideas in my backpack, I travelled to the 2008 UNFCCC climate conference in Poznan by train, because the colleague I wanted to meet there, Bettina Wittneben, suggested we meet there rather than in the UK because I (then living in Berlin) would not have to fly. Most of the scholars engaged in climate-related research I met in Poznan and also in later years had already internalised the “train option” for basically all or at least most of their academic work. I must confess: I was fascinated by their dedication, but for many years I did not really make the connection that this rule should apply to me, too. I was way too busy trying to get connected with the international academic community of management and organization scholars by attending the many international workshops and conferences taking place in different places of world throughout the year, since this is where our leading scholars and role models would be.
Yes, I had long taken a stance on avoiding long-distance flights. I have only attended the AoM three times, and these were the only transatlantic flights I have ever taken for the purpose of my academic career. But I definitely cannot say the same regarding trips within Europe. Moving to the UK when I was 19 as a student, my independent adult life started out with regular (flight) trips back home to Germany and then further trips to various places around the world to meet my new international friends and their families. Becoming a “global citizen” and getting to know the world with an open mind was – and still is – something desirable. At that time, I certainly did not think about the negative side effects of the carbon emissions I was causing. This mindset continued during my academic life. And really, who can argue that it is wrong? Being connected to knowledge and worldviews from around the world is a key purpose and inspiration of academic work. This inspiration, however, now increasingly intersects with multiple other obligations, as critics of the neoliberal business school have outlined elsewhere. While we want to connect, we do so always in a rush. One night more, or less, per trip makes a major difference in one’s schedule – especially when squeezing in faculty and committee meetings, a normal teaching load of 8-9 hours/week as well as family obligations. Flights definitely were my default option for trips that took longer than about 4 hours by train.
It seems that many climate-conscious people, like me, find it easy to avoid a car, plastics, and meat/dairy but cannot quit flying. The explanation is relatively easy: while the rest are lifestyle choices, flying is a work obligation. As recently argued by Michael Gill, the incentives and performance criteria set by business schools set the targets which most of us simply try to live up to. As always with “grand challenges”, it is thus the system that needs to change before individual behaviour can change on a larger scale. However, until we get there – and to help us getting there – we need new role models and a vision of an alternative (career) path to follow.
It is here that OS4F really touched me with their EGOS by train initiative. I had long booked my flight to Edinburgh given the need to balance multiple competing obligations and the rather long train ride from Austria – but the OS4F team showed me that an alternative was not out of reach. They showed that it was possible to get to Edinburgh by train, even if the trip took 12 hours or longer, and to use use this time productively. Yes, I would have needed more babysitters, I would have had to move teaching – but it would have been possible.
Since then, I have replaced 10 trips for which I would have normally taken the plane by train rides. I also cancelled one trip because I simply could not squeeze it into my schedule without taking the plane. I truly felt inspired by colleagues “walking the talk”, acting as role models and showing alternative paths. The colleagues from OS4F, both junior and senior, came from my own community, operated under the same norms and obligations as myself, and showed me how I could change even within the existing system. No, it wasn’t always easy to take the train option. It often meant an additional 1-2 nights away from my family. Sometimes it is possible to make this happen, sometimes it is not. My kids are upset if they do not see me for several days. But will they not be even more upset if I tell them, 10 years from now, that I was happily boarding a plane every two months despite knowing everything about the climate crisis?
Does this mean I will never fly again and ask everyone to do the same? No, it does not. Staying connected with the international community is important. Every one of us will need to fly sometimes to enable this connection and exchange. What I am advocating for is to follow the “replace, reduce, refine” model. Think about alternative modes of travel, even if they seem burdensome at first – there might be much to gain. Make it a rule to never fly for just one talk – combine purposes, take longer stays. And, of course, in the mean time the Covid-19 crisis has catapulted us all into the world of virtual encounters. Virtual faculty meetings, virtual research seminars, virtual classrooms and virtual conferences have become routine procedures for all of us. And while we understandably miss meeting our colleagues in person, while our students miss intense in-classroom discussions, while informal conference talks and encounters still remain important for developing new research ideas and socializing especially our junior scholars into the academic system, this experience has shown us that at least some trips can easily be reduced by replacing them with digital technology.
Thus, we now face a unique opportunity for changing the norms of our scientific community, for developing university travel policies that enable sustainable travel and support a mix of physical and virtual exchanges as a basis for career development. It is again a time for role models to step up and share their experiences of what works and what doesn’t in the virtual realm. The main challenge for our community and university policy makers will be not to discard the importance of face-to-face encounters entirely, while actively shaping what the “new normal” of academic work could be. This includes thinking about blended formats that combine the affordances of digital technology with face-to-face interactions and developing a “smart mix” of teaching and conference formats that allow travel-related emissions reductions for faculty and international students alike.
OS4Future has really inspired me to take action on climate change before the Covid-19 crisis, which is why I have joined the movement. I hope we will inspire many more in the years to come.
(photo by Robert Maybach)