Flights of Peril and Privilege (Part 2 of 3)

October 8, 2019
By Richard Slimbach
ZME Science. 2017. Climate Change Has Been Associated with Droughts and Water Scarcity. Image. Retrieved from https://www.zmescience.com/science/hearing-climate-change-30032017/.

First, read Part 1 here. 

  1. Quantify impacts

There are 7.5 billion people on our planet. I, along with most of us reading this, belong to the top billion. Economic and cultural power carries with it the responsibility to use it well. A seemingly trivial but necessary first step is to calculate the greenhouse gases that we’re actually responsible for. All of our personal consumption—for housing, food, transportation, clothes, electronics, and so on—carries a carbon “load” and leaves a carbon “footprint.” To the extent that our consumption of goods and services rely on CO2-producing production processes, it is a main constituent in both total global emissions and climate change.

Our carbon footprint can be easily computed using any one of the many free online calculators (e.g. Carbon Footprint Calculator). Somewhat surprisingly, few people are actually aware of the environmental impact of their lifestyle choices. I certainly had no idea how my travel decisions contributed to global warming until I did my own carbon footprint accounting. I suspect that most people are like me—blissfully ignorantly until enlightened. But I also suspect that many of us have come to see flying as an inalienable right and find ourselves exceedingly resistant to changing our behavior.

  1. Fly much less

The most effective way to reduce our carbon footprint is to fly less—or not at all. And that is precisely what the small but fast-growing fly-less and no-fly movements are seeking to achieve worldwide, both among both academics and average citizens. [3] In 2014, the Beyond Flying anthology helped to focus attention on aviation’s massive carbon footprint. Then, in 2018, global momentum was sparked in Sweden with the coining of a new term—flygskam, meaning “flight shame.” Within one year, thousands of travelers committed to keeping their feet on the ground. The movement spread across northern Europe, causing the aviation industry to take notice. At the 2019 annual meeting of the International Air Transport Association (ITAT), Alexandre de Juniac, the association’s Director General, spent considerable time discussing with CEOs how to combat the spread of flygskam. “Unchallenged, this sentiment will grow and spread,” he warned.

 Global educators can celebrate the push towards more ethical travel, yet still wrestle with reducing their flight-related footprint. I often catch myself thinking how different my life would be—politically, religiously, vocationally—if I had not traveled internationally. Extended residence in India, Pakistan, Latin America, and Europe afforded me an education that no academic study could hope to match. The essence of global citizenship, it seems to me, is caring about how our life affects human and earth others, and then acting accordingly. But to know peoples and habitats intimately enough to merit our moral concern, we typically need to go to where they are, observe their existential hardships, and finally recognize our complicity in systems that advantage some by disadvantaging others. This is why I, along with many of my professional colleagues, feel somewhat cursed: we cherish educational travel but recognize climate change as a death sentence for much of the world. 

So, this is not an argument against journeys elsewhere. With atmospheric CO2 levels at their highest point in 800,000 years, disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable human and natural communities, the last thing we need is a revival of indifference. The question is how to exercise a proper responsibility towards fellow world citizens and the Earth, our common and only home, through our travel behavior.

The answer, I think, is fairly simple, though probably difficult to hear: Distinguish between “essential” and “optional” or “frivolous” travel. By “essential” I mean travel that is indispensable to the performance of one’s job or critical to the achievement of distinct intellectual, intercultural, and ethical outcomes. It involves a breadth and depth of cross-cultural interaction impossible to approximate virtually. Especially for newcomers to the field of global education, travel can play a vital part in learning the world and building field programs. Presenting and networking at academic conferences, despite ballooning costs, also assists early-career scholars in finding their next collaborators and developing new research ideas.

Commitments not to fly, or to fly as little as possible, are much more easily made by older, seasoned professionals. They have already traveled much of the world and are already embedded within a community of practice. More often than not, the travel they undertake as senior leaders is optional, if not recreational. Indeed, universities and study abroad organizations often condone and incentivize attendance at professional conferences that offer little that is new or interesting for experienced professionals—apart from swag bags and reconnecting with friends over food and suds.

Frivolous travel is also commonplace amongst academic administrators and faculty, especially when budgets are in substantial surplus. Several years ago, a dozen administrators and faculty on my campus were invited to travel 10,000 miles for a three-day look-see of our new South Africa semester. The trip discharged a total of 72 tons of C02 with no perceptible impact back on campus. Voluntary service and mission trips are particularly vulnerable to the charge of being a consummate waste of time and money. Last summer, 15 inexperienced undergrads flew to the Philippines for two weeks of work with a local NGO. Although the trip was billed as service-learning, the group’s service was uninformed by disciplinary knowledge, and their learning was never documented. The trip was much more about recreation than education—at a combined cost of $35,000 and 40 tons of emitted CO2. 

Climate justice begins with acknowledging how optional or frivolous air travel renders us morally culpable in the climate-induced suffering experienced by others, especially people in so-called “non-traditional” locations. The right thing to do with this type of travel is to radically reduce it or ditch it altogether. “The evidence is clear,” writes Londoner Daniel Masoliver (2019) in The Guardian. “As far as the climate is concerned, we should keep to one return short-haul flight every two to three years. It’s not that I can’t see the world—I could still go abroad at least another 10 times in my life—it’s just that I can’t go to Istanbul for the weekend.” Flying is a luxury that ought to be reserved for a fraction of the events that we use it for right now.

  1. Relocalize learning

Thankfully, learners need not travel far to grow into a profound sense of responsibility for the fate of the planet and its human families. In fact, most home campuses offer abundant opportunities for students to pore over global concerns and interact with racial, religious, and political groups holding substantially different views from their own. Then, sometimes right outside the campus gate, there are any number of equality movements—Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, #AbolishICE, Extinction Rebellion—that focus on building solidarity with victims of economic, social or environmental injustice. Moreover, in contrast to popular foreign destinations abroad where virtually everything has been carefully ordered for tourist consumption, domestic sites are comparatively freed from the burden of performance. Everyday worlds are neither themed nor simulated. They have no corporate sponsors or staged productions. Social relations are unrehearsed and struggles unscripted. Authenticity is found in the raw, unmediated life of city streets, households, buses, restaurants, storefront churches, hospitals, and jails. True, these are not venues that are likely to attract rootless travelers or endless fun-seekers. But that is precisely the point. Relocalization effectively weeds out party animals from serious world learners.

Educationally, global learning in diverse domestic communities can include almost all of the same processes as an overseas program, including the study of a language, family stays, meaningful internships, and community research. All without a passport or customs line. In extended relationship with members of these next-door nations, learners confront the truly global issues of cultural marginality, urban poverty, substandard housing, public health, and climate adaptation and mitigation. They learn to genuinely love, rather than romanticize, the stranger. The program examples presented in Neal Sobania’s book, Putting the Local in Global Education, testify to how local and regional settings, rich in human or ecological diversity, can be just as intellectually and interculturally formative as overseas programs. Moreover, regional destinations can be reached by bus or train, which are not only more enjoyable than air travel, but also 50 to 90 percent less polluting. 

I have no crystal ball to predict the future. Nevertheless, it is a fairly safe bet that the combined effect of nontraditional students, global climate breakdown, and shrinking institutional budgets will increasingly challenge the moral legitimacy of long-haul, carbon-intensive, and high-cost models of global learning. Rather than seeing a dramatic expansion of education abroad participation, we could witness its steady contraction for all but a tiny mobile elite.

  1. Reimagine international programs

For now, study abroad numbers continue to rise, even though over 60% of all U.S. students earning academic credit abroad participate in short-term programs of eight weeks or less. This is to be expected, given the growing number of working students who simply can’t afford to quit work, leave family dependents, and pay thousands of dollars in program fees for a semester or year abroad. And yet the amount of greenhouse gases produced by flying to Sydney or Shanghai is the same whether students stay for one week or one year. Especially in programs of compressed duration, it is hard to see how the educational benefits might adequately compensate for the environmental harms. Take the case of the purported service-learning trip to the Philippines described above. The money spent transporting and housing the group of unskilled and culturally-naïve ‘helpers’ could have funded four or five competent nationals, full-time, for an entire year, without generating any planet-warming pollution. Did program organizers assume that the educational and personal value of the experience, seemingly independent of quality considerations, offset the ecological impacts?

As airplane pollution levels literally go through the stratosphere, we need to ask: At what point are short- or long-term programs “worth it”? What would a program look like that positively balanced the rights of humans to travel with atmospheric rights? [4] One way to answer that question is negatively—by spelling out the conditions by which the carbon and social costs are likely to outweigh the educational benefits.

International programs run the risk of environmental and social harm …

  • When the location of program sites is geographically distant from home, requiring a carbon-intensive, planet-warming intercontinental flight.
  • When program participants fail to purchase of carbon offsets for their round-trip flights.
  • When the size of the student group is such that it is forced to set up a separate and self-sustaining foreign enclave within the host community.
  • When the length of term allows participants to acquire only a superficial and largely stereotypical view of the local culture.
  • When the backgrounds of participants allow for only limited intercultural contact, perspective taking, and foreign language learning.
  • When the primary motivation of participants has more to do with the promised thrill of travel and immediate goal gratification than the opportunity to learn from and with community residents.
  • When participants’ prefield preparation is limited to a discussion of program logistics and health and safety precautions rather than learning how to learn.
  • When the field residence deters the formation of intercultural bonds and the reduction of water and power consumption toward the local standard.
  • When guest-host interactions are transitory, non-repetitive, and unequal in power.

The way forward may not be to declare a moratorium on short-term study abroad until its dysfunctional patterns are completely overcome. If our objective is to reduce its social and carbon “footprint,” one way, as already suggested, is to build study abroad on top of domestic study away. Another is to realign program operations according to established Fair Trade Learning principles and professional standards of excellence (Hartman, et al.; Forum on Education Abroad). Global educators have the opportunity to help change society’s attitudes and behaviors, but to do so they must be willing to challenge ‘business as usual.’


Richard Slimbach only allows himself one domestic flight for one conference each year. This year he’s attending the 6th GSL Summit at Clemson University, from Nov 3 – 5. Join us there; register now.  

Read more about the ethical dilemma in global education and air travel in Part 3 of  Slimbach’s Flights of Peril & Privilege coming soon!


Richard Slimbach, raised and educated in California, is currently Professor of Global Studies at Azusa Pacific University. He created Azusa’s Los Angeles Term and Global Learning Term programs, and co-created the Transformational Urban Leadership program (focused exclusively on the planet’s one billion slum dwellers). A graduate of UCLA (Ph.D. in comparative and international education), he is the author of Becoming World Wise (Stylus, 2010) and The Art of World Learning (Stylus, 2019). He lives with Leslie, spouse of 36 years, and their two children (Justus and Destinae) in Monrovia, California.


Notes

[3] For example, climate scientist Peter Kalmus runs a website called No Fly Climate Sci where he and other researchers, academics, and activists pledge not to fly, or to fly as little as possible, and to meet their professional commitments with alternative, less emission-heavy methods.

[4] Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts that “a citizen also has the right to leave any country, including his or her own, and to return to his or her country at any time.” https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/index.html On the other hand, cities in Maine, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Virginia have adopted laws that protect the rights of nature. Ecuador includes rights of nature in its constitution.


Hartman, E., et al. (2014, January-April). Fair Trade Learning: Ethical Standards for Community-Engaged International Volunteer Tourism. Tourism and Hospitality Research, 14, 108-116. 

Masoliver, D. (2019, June 29). No Flights, a Four-Day Week and Living Off-Grid: What Climate Scientists Do at Home to Save the Planet. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/science/2019/jun/29/no-flights-four-day-week-climate-scientists-home-save-planet

The Forum on Education Abroad (2011). Code of Ethics for Education Abroad. Retrieved from http://www.forumea.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/ForumEA-CodeofEthics2011-2ndEdition.pdf

Watson, C. (2014). Beyond Flying: Rethinking Air Travel in a Globally Connected World. Cambridge, England: UIT Cambridge.

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