FlyingLess initiative challenges traditions of travel in academia

In 2015, two professors teamed up to start the FlyingLess Initiative, putting forward a petition that calls on universities and professional associations to greatly reduce air travel. Led by Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy professor Parke Wilde, along with professor Joseph Nevins of Vassar, the petition has over 2,500 signees as of 2019. This year has seen an array of notable public figures opting to fly less, from Swedish activist Greta Thunberg’s decision to travel to the UN Climate Action Summit by way of a 15-day Atlantic Ocean sailboat voyage, to rock band Coldplay’s recent announcement that it would cancel its concert tour to reduce air travel.

According to a September report by The New York Times, air travel accounts for about 2.5% of global carbon dioxide emission, but by 2050 could account for up to 27% of the global “carbon budget,” the amount of carbon dioxide permissible to prevent temperature rises above 1.5 degrees Celsius. That number is much higher for educated communities in developed countries.

“For people who run in our circles, flying is like blowing your nose and I think it’s very important we address this,” Nevins said.

Wilde stressed that the majority of flying-related carbon emissions come from a small group of travelers, with about half of Americans flying less than once a year.

“About a quarter of Americans only make one or two trips [a year] by air,” Wilde says. “[Another] quarter are people who fly more than once or twice a year. When you look at the average overall, aviation isn’t a dominant part of national greenhouse gas inventory but for people at a certain income and education level it’s the most important.”

Professors in particular travel by air more than most, to attend conferences both domestically and internationally. Wilde’s mission has been to challenge this convention by offering alternatives to the traditional conference model.

“Even though academia is a small sector, it’s fairly influential,” Wilde said. “Other people are watching what we’re doing and hopefully they can see its possible to do better.”

The FlyingLess petition calls on universities to include all of their carbon emissions in their annual sustainability report, including emissions attributable to air travel.

Universities have historically categorized flying as a Scope Three emission, which means that flights are not attributed towards the university’s carbon emissions. Rather than demanding that institutions set specific goals, the petition encourages universities to set reduction goals that are “commensurate with the climate science.”

Tina Woolston, program director of Tufts’ Office of Sustainability, has found that not all professors are fond of travelling so frequently to conferences. But for those seeking tenure, it can be necessary to attend a certain number of conferences in order to meet expectations set by universities.

“If the professors don’t want to go to these conferences then we need to spend some time looking at the tenured promotion process and how professors are evaluated and start reevaluating that,” Woolston said. “Are there other ways to evaluate professors other than the number of conferences they fly to?”

However, Woolston is doubtful that there will be expedient structural changes to the tenure promotion process.

“It’s difficult for one university to do it if other universities don’t do it,” Woolston said. “Tenure is this long-standing centuries-old tradition. Changing it seems like not an easy process.”

There are movements in the university space to get rid of tenure altogether: in 2017, bills were introduced in Missouri and Iowa to end the practice of tenure. If such legislation were enacted on a larger scale across the country, it would remove a serious obstacle to the FlyingLess movement.

In addition to obstacles posed by tenureship, Wilde and Nevins have found pushback in the form of lack of engagement and softer climate denial.

“A lot of people acknowledge it and that’s about it,” Nevins said. “Asking people to give up things is not popular. It makes people uncomfortable because many see flying as a right. If you hear about students putting solar panels on the roof nobody would complain, but when it becomes a matter of giving up something people get uncomfortable.”

However, Wilde is confident that many alternatives are employable for professors and will gain momentum alongside this movement. These alternatives include traveling to conferences overland, increasing the amount of literature they publish to substitute conference attendance and the “hubspace” conferencing model in which multiple linked conferences across the country are located in regionally convenient hubs, which Wilde expressed excitement for.

“Hubspace conferencing preserves, at least in part, some of the spirit of an in-person conference,” Wilde said. “You might have four or five locations and each location is a real person event with the social life and this sense of leaving aside your daily life, just the same as a regular in-person conference but the travel distance is much smaller.”

While Wilde recognizes the inherent challenges in giving up flying, he considers himself a living testimony that it is doable. An avid traveller, he hasn’t flown since 2014. He’s been forced to miss a handful of conferences but still attends many that are useful, travelling up and down the Northeast corridor by Amtrak and making one longer trip across the country each year. The furthest he has traveled so far is to New Orleans.

Prior to giving up flying, Wilde was a frequent international traveler and enjoyed visiting cathedrals in Europe. But now in this flying-less chapter of his life, he has found joy in bike touring with his partner in Canada.

“It is possible to generalize the the sense of joy and adventure you found before in pursuing whatever low-carbon option that is available to you,” Wilde said. “Giving up air travel does not mean giving up what’s delightful about life. We can really preserve that.”

Nevins is an ardent believer that with individual lifestyle changes, each person can each be impactful in making greater structural change.

“We are deluding ourselves if we think we can deal with climate change, biodiversity, soil quality and any other issue without making lifestyle changes,” Nevins said. “There’s been a very significant change over the past four years. When we first started no one wanted to be a part of — now we can’t keep up. It shows that hope is not something that’s just out there. It’s something you build.”