My rule is in any case to never fly to places where I will only be listening, but only where I have a speaking engagement.
1. How important are short and long-distance travel for you as a professional to do your work and build or maintain your network? In other words, can you be a good researcher if you fly less?
I decided some 20-25 years ago to not fly for work. My PhD supervisor at the time wondered whether this was a good idea, because of conferences and the like. Still, it was my choice. I made one exception, ten years ago. There was a meeting in Spain on the exact topic I was working on. When I was there, I did notice that when peers talk to each other in real life, it generates a lot of ideas for articles.
The experts who work on my exact topic are not at the same university as me, nor are they within 100 km. It’s a trade-off between the benefits of meeting face to face and the environment. In which case, I choose the environment.
Whether you can, as a young researcher, build a good network that way all depends on your definition of ‘good’. For me, as a philosopher, it's about ‘good enough’. Because let's face it, it can't be done equally well in different ways. So it's a choice you have to make. For me, the environment is so important that I think some things should just be put aside, even for young researchers.
2. Radboud University and the Radboud university medical center aim to achieve CO₂-neutral travel by 2030. Do you think that it's feasible, and why or why not?
CO2-neutral travel by 2030 is only feasible if we offset emissions, for example by planting forests. But there are moral snags to this. First of all, it is unclear whether it makes the journey any less wrong; after all, you could have planted forests without flying. And you're basically buying off your debt.
And remember that we also hire international staff and students. This creates additional air traffic in addition to commuting transport, as well as extra family transport, for example at Christmas or for family visits.
3. How can we encourage employees to travel more sustainably?
I think price incentives are very important. Make it mandatory for people to book flights through the University's travel agency, and let the travel agency charge a higher price for tickets. If flying is more expensive, you can decide whether the activity you want to fly for is worth the higher price. Now flying is so cheap that no one really asks themselves this question. Airline tickets are usually paid for from departmental budgets, so it should be up to the department to decide about trips. The University can then invest the difference in price in green projects.
Environmental problems are social dilemmas. These are problems we all cause together, and we are often looking to each other to solve them for us. We can only break out of this dilemma with policy, but we will have to start by raising awareness. With information campaigns, we can make people more aware and give them the courage to speak to each other. This is a necessary first step. But also a tricky one. Take transgressive behaviour, for example: it is abundantly clear to most people that this kind of behaviour is unacceptable, but the same cannot be said for most people when it comes to destroying the environment. This also makes us less likely to call each other out on our behaviour. Ultimately, to get a policy through, you need support, because awareness alone is not enough to move people to action.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw how you can change people's behaviour by introducing new policies. We all wore a face mask, we washed our hands, we walked in the same direction through the buildings. It all went fine. Climate change is a bigger crisis than the pandemic. If you believe that there is a climate crisis, don't get it into your head to fly to a conference. As a University, we should say: “This planet is dying because of climate change. We are radically changing course.” People talk about a climate crisis, but there is no sense of urgency to match it. A crisis requires radical policies, and not awareness-raising.
If you truly believe that there is a climate crisis, don't get it into your head to fly to a conference.
4. Did the COVID-19 pandemic change your perspective on work-related travel and the online alternative? And if so, how?
The pandemic has forced me to work more online, and through trial and error, I figured out what works best. I taught my lectures online, and in the beginning I had to get used to the fact that I could only see a few people on the screen. Plus, depending on the topic, there wasn't always enough interaction. Now that I’m walking around campus again, I notice that being there in person improves the interaction. But thanks to the pandemic, we now know that online teaching is not impossible.
My experiences with online meetings have been positive. I’m much less apprehensive about it than I used to be. For example, I am the chair of the Environmental Philosophers of the Netherlands, and we used to meet in Utrecht. That meant considerable travel time for everyone. Now we do it via Zoom. Those meetings are much better, and they are better attended.
5. What do you think of the policy to stop flying to cities that can be reached within seven hours with sustainable alternatives?
The economist in me would say that this actually provides an incentive to book further trips. Why spend seven hours on a train when you could also choose a further destination that is, say, ten hours away by train, but that would only take two hours by plane? That's why I think that making flying, both short and long distance, more expensive is more effective.
6. Travelling long distance to attend conferences can be a privilege, putting established researchers from wealthy institutions at an advantage. How can we ensure that scientists worldwide have more equal opportunities to build an international network, regardless of their background? In other words, how do you make conferences and research more inclusive?
Those more equal opportunities can ultimately only be achieved once wealth is distributed more equitably. One preliminary solution is to help universities in poorer countries with funding to improve their digital facilities. And if we could just make up our minds to only organise conferences online from now on, they could also attend many more of them. And it would be better for the environment too.
7. Anything else you'd like to say about sustainable travel?
We need clear rules. In performance reviews, we should no longer give people a bonus for conference visits or temporary work assignments in faraway places. Clearly, internationalisation can contribute to the quality of academic work, but the impact on the environment must be taken into account.
My view is certainly not shared by all my fellow researchers. In their view, science is an essential human activity and travel is a necessary part of it. I guess I can also understand their position: the bulk of flights are made for holidays, and as a researcher, you can think: holiday flights are much more useless than a conference, so why sacrifice the latter? This is also part of the social dilemma I mentioned earlier. Everyone thinks that someone else should do something about the climate first. It would therefore be good if academics understood that you can still have high-quality research with much less mobility. I’m fully aware of the fact that we lose something in the process, but that applies to everyone. Science is not unique in this.
We need leaders, researchers who start organising their work differently. This is also about the credibility of your message. In my lectures, I use Greta Thunberg as a strong example. She is invited by all the world leaders and could bring her message anywhere on the world stage. But she only goes to a few places because she does not fly. Her message would never be as clear if she did. She has such a huge impact because her behaviour is consistent with her message. Researchers, too, should practice what they preach.