Going to conferences is an important part of academic life.
It’s a great way to network with experts in your field, learn about cutting-edge research, brainstorm and develop your career.
However, it feels uncomfortable to arrive at a conference to talk about sustainable technologies having just flown there.
In June 2022, I took the train from Birmingham New Street to Stockholm Central for a conference. It was amazing! I went for a walk in Brussels, had pizza in the sun in Cologne, woke up in Copenhagen and had breakfast in Malmö. I couldn’t believe I’d never tried such a thing before.
It feels uncomfortable to arrive at a conference to talk about sustainable technologies having just flown there.
It was a completely different mindset. I felt a lot less anxious travelling, and able to sit with my thoughts and absorb my surroundings. I only had to make sure I was on the right platform at the right time.
I loved being able to get up and buy food in different places. I also managed to work a lot on the train, and watch the sun set over Northern Germany. Seeing different places along the way was wonderful – I fell in love with Cologne in my quick stop, and 6 months later came back there on holiday to explore properly.
I started a PhD because I wanted to make a difference and help stop catastrophic climate change. It feels ironic and wasteful that this research is used to justify flying to short conferences when there are alternatives available.
If researchers don’t understand the need to stay grounded when possible, and lead by example, how can we ever expect anyone else to? It feels extremely disingenuous not to engage with these implications. One journey probably doesn’t make a huge difference in emissions, but each one changes perceptions and gets our friends and colleagues thinking about the options. The time for excuses has run out. Leading with business travel would create some hope that a different future is possible.
If researchers don’t understand the need to stay grounded when possible, and lead by example, how can we ever expect anyone else to?
The logistics of crossing multiple countries and booking multiple tickets can be daunting. If you don't know anyone who has done a journey like this and can advise you, it's scary to book it all. Flights are so easy to just book and sort out, whereas trains require more planning and thought. For this reason I now try to offer help and advice to anyone who wants it.
Watching the landscape roll by and realising that I was perfectly capable of this journey, I was filled with joy. Something had always made me doubt if I could make the connections, or get the right paperwork, but suddenly I was free from the need to get places faster and the trappings of the modern systems.
In fact, time felt more efficient as most of the trains had wifi so I could work or watch films, or just watch the scenery whirl past. Time was not there to pressure me, it was a gift that I could spend as I pleased. I felt light in my head and heart, because I was free to make the unconventional choices that aligned with my values and aspirations.
Time felt more efficient… it was a gift that I could spend as I pleased.
I want to be a part of building the new world, which means confronting and challenging my own learnt behaviours, and weaving sustainable systems choices into how I live my life as well as do my research.
Since that trip, I have no longer just travelled. Every journey is an adventure, with stopovers in places I never would have seen otherwise. I have since been by train to Madrid, Barcelona, the south of France and Cologne, and am planning to go to Gothenburg in Sweden in October for a conference via a very similar route as I did before. I plan to come back via Copenhagen and Berlin, to stop for a couple of days and explore.