On the Disillusionment with ‘Environmental’ Research—And Current Opportunities

Broken ice of a frozen puddle on shattered asphalt.

When doing ‘environmental’ research, scholars are not only studying and analysing the developments that have led to the current crises of nature and climate but—being caught in the wheel of international academia—also actively contributing to them. After decades of increasing internationalisation and accelerating mobilisation across the globe, the pandemic offers a chance to not only do environmental history but to make this research environmentally friendly.

At the beginning of every research lies a specific subjective motivation. Some are amazed by a certain geographical region or cultural tradition, some are caught by a specific development or form of aesthetics, others are drawn to a topic due to personal ties, ideals, identities, and interests, and still others by their bewilderment with contemporary developments and crises. Not every environmental historian is necessarily an environmentalist. Likewise, not every environmental history project considers nature in its research process.[1] This is a discrepancy that might be more striking within environmental humanities than in other research fields. While the impacts on environment and climate depend on research topic, geographical location, personal positions of individual scholars, research is shaped, to a greater extent, by an environmentally harmful structure defined by economic interests and academic policies.

Whereas global awareness about the causes and effects of environmental degradation and climate change has increased in recent decades, academia still requires increasing mobilisation and international track records, collaborations, and quantity of publications which often diminishes their quality. One is expected to fly across the Atlantic for a one-hour talk, or across the continent for grading thirty-minute oral exams, job interviews, conferences, exhibition openings, and shorter talks, occasionally resulting in travel hours that surpass working hours and time zones crossed. Scholars within environmental humanities do international fieldwork and international archival research, and they, too, build international track records of education and employment showing great mobility, as our generation has learnt it should do if it wishes to have a realistic chance on the job market. Yet this increasing mobilisation has its downsides. Those without international track records are less likely to get funding, regardless of the excellence of their research. Others move every second or third year, exemplifying the existing precariousness within academia, and leading to otherwise avoidable overconsumption of goods.

As a historian studying international environmental policies, I depend on archival research in multiple countries, and, eventually, I started to compromise on my personal environmental idealism. By the end of the second year in my PhD, I had emitted about 5t CO2e on work travel, going from archives to conferences and back to seminars—in addition to my private travels by plane and train. This is little compared to colleagues who cross the Atlantic two or three times a year, but it is still too much. Had I travelled by train instead—which either is powered by diesel or receives electricity from coal-fired power stations, making this ‘green’ alternative rather lignite-brown—the emissions could have been reduced decisively.

But that would probably also have blown my travel budget because international train tickets are far more expensive than airplanes, due to less favourable tax policies. First and foremost, though, it would have been incompatible with the mandatory in-person activities at my university. Two years into my PhD, I had learned to live with the Weltschmerz that comes along with adapting personal environmental ideals to academic carbon realities. Environmental demands of the past fifty years have, however, essentially remained unchanged: consume less, support regional agriculture by strengthening local societal networks, tax polluting transportation, make environmentally friendly traveling cheaper, and slow down societies’ work and lifestyles. And then, over night during the spring of last year, the pandemic did slow down societies across the globe.

The fact that international travelling in some regions was reduced by about ninety per cent last year compared to the previous one does not mean that international networks have disappeared.[2] Within a short time, social, professional, or academic meetings and events were moved to the digital sphere. While it is not the same as in-person meeting, it made it perfectly obvious that a great amount of academic research and work does not require extensive and regular travel, but can be done from home. In some cases, the international exchange might have even increased during the pandemic because it is now possible to join weekly colloquia and talks without travelling to those places, which increases the impact and diversity of these discussions. Thus, while international mobility has nosedived, it was possible to maintain international collaborations and create new ones because technology offers alternatives that did not exist twenty years ago.

Hence, the pandemic is not only a possibility to rethink economies and societies, as the public discussions about zero- and post-economic growth ideas in some wealthy countries show. It should also be used to make academic research more environmentally friendly. Eventually, academia, too, has to contribute its part to realising the Paris Agreement. The fundamental changes brought forward by force majeure provide a great opportunity to do so. Yet, for this to happen, scholars of every career level have to contribute to the availability and acceptability of these alternatives within the international environmental humanities research community in a post-pandemic age. Not only should we adapt our own fieldwork and archival travels to fewer and longer trips, but we should also aim for a change in research funding policies. Research councils should, for instance, support the most environmentally friendly travelling, not the cheapest one; it should be standard policy, not the exception, to offset carbon emissions from airplane travel; and it should be possible to settle in a place and conduct an international career from there without having to move after every finished research project.[3]

All of these arguments are not new, of course, but what might be new is the acceptance and realisation that slowing down academia does not lead to a decrease in quality and exchange. Since good research needs time, the opposite may well be true.[4] Reduced demands for mobility might also have positive effects on other aspects of society: for women with children in particular, it would make it easier to combine career and family. For others, it might be possible to engage with the local community and do cultural or political work, to live away from campuses and universities, wherever they may be, which might reduce stress and strengthen creativity. Not everyone has to become a farming academic, for sure, neither is every aspect of academic work doable from a distance, including visiting research stays. Notably, digital conferences consume immense amounts of electricity, too.[5] But allowing and facilitating such flexibility would make academia more diverse, creative, and attractive. It would allow environmental research to be environmentally friendly and contribute to global greenhouse gas reductions.

[1] Diana M. Valencia, “The Carbon Footprint of Environmental Research: A Personal Dilemma,” Environmental History Now (October 24, 2019).

[2] Statistisches Bundesamt (Destatis), “COVID 19 pandemic: Sharp decline in EU air traffic” (2020).

[3] Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, “Beitrag zu mehr Nachhaltigkeit in der Forschungsförderung,“ Information für die Wissenschaft 15, no. 101 (December 2020).

[4] In Germany, for instance, the pandemic revived a debate about the temporary and precarious employment policies within academia and the Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz (WissZeitVG).

[5] Kaya Wiles, “Turn off that camera during virtual meetings, environmental study says,” Purdue University (January 14, 2021); Sarah DeWeerdt, “New study quantifies the carbon emissions of virtual conferences,” Anthropocene Magazine (February 9, 2021).

*Cover image: Broken ice. Photo by author.

[*Cover image description: a close-up of broken ice of a frozen puddle on shattered asphalt.]