Green Academia: Our Place in the Climate Crisis

Lindsay Middleton reflects on the responsibilities of the academic community when it comes to climate change.

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to challenge, disrupt and refigure the way we think of our lives, one phenomenon has not diminished as we adapt to ‘the new normal’. For me, worrying about handwashing, the distribution of particles in the air, and increasingly terrifying infection rates actually took the focus off of the thing that had previously caused me daily anxiety: the climate crisis.

Before Covid-19 started occupying my thoughts, it was the regular ‘freakish’ weather, unseasonably high temperatures and distressing images of habitats and ecosystems being destroyed rapidly by wildfires or gradually by rising sea levels that kept me up at night. I’m aware this sounds like some kind of eternal neurosis, but climate anxiety is a common form of chronic worry, particularly experienced by young people, which has garnered increasing attention in the last few years. As a 24-year-old I feel like the majority of my adult life has been spent watching the climate get worse and the timeline for disaster growing ever shorter. And mine is by no means the youngest generation worrying about the dangers of the future, as demonstrated by activist Greta Thunberg leading scores of school-aged children to ‘Strike for Climate’ each Friday. Every month now, rather than every second year, a new record is broken for the hottest day on record/heaviest rainfall/longest spring drought. The exposure that comes with social media means there is no escaping these headlines, and when they increasingly threaten the future you have imagined for yourself it is hard to disengage. Indeed, Covid-19 has only served to highlight the harmful ways we treat our planet. From the perilous food supply chains we rely on that endanger the health of workers and animals, to the reports of clearer air because we are working from home, now more than ever seems like the right time to fully address and – crucially – change the way we inhabit this earth.

What has to be acknowledged is the privilege that allows me to worry about the climate crisis in this way. As a funded PhD student, I have the financial security and time to spend researching and adapting my life so as to reduce my carbon footprint: buying food as sustainably as possible, reducing my plastic use and recycling everything I can. But I do fly sometimes (or I did before Covid-19) and make other decisions that aren’t always as eco-conscious as they could be. I offset my choices when possible, though, and the ability to do that is facilitated by time, money, and a lack of other immediate worries in my life. Even so, I find these small gestures oscillate between sometimes feeling useful, positive and like I’m doing my bit, to at other points feeling frustratingly tokenistic.

When the people in power frequently make decisions that prioritise those with the most damaging impact on our planet, stripping the plastic window out of an envelope to recycle it or switching to oat milk feels somewhat futile. The fact that just twenty companies make up a third of the world’s carbon emissions historically is not a new one, but it is disheartening. What is even scarier is the inescapable reality that while the climate crisis will affect everyone, it will not do so equally. The world’s poorest populations, and those that contribute the least to the situation in terms of emissions, will be those who disproportionately suffer as things continue on the course we are currently set on.

That is why I feel that people who do have the resources to change things should do so, and academia feels like a fitting place to start. At the recent SGSAH Summer School, I attended and helped to facilitate the Scottish Green/Graduate School workshop, which was organised by the director of SGSAH, Professor Claire Squires. The afternoon started with two short keynotes from Professor Jaime L Toney of the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Sustainable Solutions and Dr Dominic Hinde of Queen Margaret University. We then split into several breakout rooms, where we were given personas and scenarios within academia to discuss in terms of how their academic endeavours created carbon footprints. It is a fact that many normal parts of an academic’s life are not overly climate conscious. Overseas library visits to important archives or research centres, or undertaking fieldwork abroad, for example. As PhD students and beyond, we are consistently told that networking is key and that the way to do so is by attending and presenting at conferences. Even if these are not international events, the pressure to keep things cheap, whether for satisfying funding applications or when paying for it yourself, means that travel is often done by flight rather than by train or bus. For my first conference at the University of Portsmouth I secured funding that stipulated I keep costs as low as possible, which meant a 40-minute flight over a train ride that was triple the cost. From our discussions of different academic jobs, ranging from PhD student to Graduate School director, it seemed that these activities increased with seniority and professionalisation.

This begs the question: should it be the duty of the PhD student to turn down opportunities for the sake of being eco-conscious? The short answer is no. The majority of students do not have all of the previously discussed privileges, and we are already stretched too thin in a myriad of ways. In a cut-throat market where there are few jobs and even fewer secure jobs, the pressure is there to have a CV bursting with conferences, publications and extra-curriculars, all of which require the establishment of a professional network. This is problematic in itself, but on the other hand conferences and networking are often the most enjoyable parts of our research, so why should we pass up on these chances while we are doing our PhDs? Covid-19 has changed things considerably, meaning that more conferences and workshops are held online, but it’s unlikely that if things ever return to normal people won’t jump at the chance to travel and see colleagues again. And to return to the tokenistic gestures, it would feel like a disservice to deprive yourself of necessary and enjoyable opportunities when those above you aren’t pulling their (much heavier) weight.

So, what can be done? On an individual level, we discussed the prioritisation of travel, perhaps on the basis where one’s research has the most impact on other places and communities. If that research is geared towards sustainability, more the better. My thesis considers nineteenth-century culinary technologies and recipes: not something that immediately screams ‘eco warrior’. But in the food studies field, there has been a huge increase in the attention being paid to what the past and present can tell us about our food future, and even I have found ways to apply my critical thinking and knowledge to these problems. We should all be considering how our education can enrich the environment and communities we inhabit in enduring and responsible ways.

Beyond this, the consensus was that change should not be expected of the individual but has to be structural. Universities and graduate school should be building sustainability into their everyday operations and their student support: making sure they aren’t taking grants from fossil fuel companies, incentivising research into climate solutions in the Arts and Humanities and STEM and recognising that the way academia currently operates will not be feasible forever. The creation of student networks that are accessible to all researchers in Scotland and beyond would both help to overcome elitism and create platforms for brainstorming these problems. In the recently published plan from the Scottish Government, ‘Supporting Scotland’s Colleges and Universities Coronavirus (COVID-19) – Further and Higher Education Sustainability Plan’,  sustainability was a key feature of the future of Scottish higher education, one goal being to promote ‘Scotland as a high quality, green, clean and safe study destination’ (p.8). While it is encouraging to see thinking and policy keeping sustainability at the fore, there is little detail about how this will be implemented beyond the notion that funding would be channelled into carbon reduction. The other worry is that the environment and climate are side-lined, or worse, endangered even further as we all reach for normality again. The key point to all of this however, is that we can all make positive changes as long as thoughts are turned into action. And what are academics better at than thoughts? Work needs to be done to keep the climate crisis a priority in academia, and our critical thinking should be enlisted as a powerful tool when moving forward.

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