The eternal challenge: walking the talk

By Joern Fischer

Having recently come back from a short, long-distance trip halfway around the world in the name of sustainability science – and having blasted a vast amount of carbon into the air in the process – I couldn’t help to think, yet again, about the perpetual challenge of “walking the talk” in sustainability science. But how does one “walk the talk”? The following are some suggestions for how to think through this.

  1. If it’s work-related travel, carefully weigh the sustainability costs and sustainability benefits. Frankly, a lot of work-related travel is not needed. We have a culture of workshops and meetings, and a culture of attending lots of these even if they are far away. Travel is cheap, workshop papers (i.e. discussion blabla papers) sell well, and have become a business in their own right. Personally, I believe in (i) prioritizing fieldwork related air travel over workshop air travel, (ii) prioritizing close travel for workshops/conferences over far trips, and (iii) thinking through how much travel you are willing to do in a given year.
  2. With respect to work travel, question the difference between what is necessary versus expected versus something you simply feel like. It’s too easy to say “I was invited and so I went”. In a culture where we all travel around without a second thought on whether that is good or necessary, just travelling a lot because everyone else is doing it is a very poor argument. So, as a minimum, be honest with yourself about (i) what is necessary, (ii) what is expected of you, and by whom, and (iii) what is simply your personal preference. Things you classify as necessary, well, I guess they can’t be changed easily. For things you classify as expected you can think about whose expectations these are, and whether you need to meet these expectations. And regarding third, frankly, that might be a fine reason at times, but from a sustainability perspective you should be aware that a preference for personal gluttony is also what’s destroying the planet. So probably best to remain a bit critical with oneself on this last point!
  3. Is there a way to get there without flying? Air travel is fast, and cheap (because it does not account for externalities). But it’s not the only way to get around. For example, many trips within Europe are possible by train if you think about it a little bit in advance. Night trains exist to some places, too.
  4. Once you decide to fly somewhere, consider offsetting your carbon impact. Most likely, your workplace – even if it’s a sustainability department – won’t have an offsetting scheme (do any?? I’d be interested!). Still, you can consider offsetting your personal and work-related carbon emissions. People who fly a lot also tend to earn a lot, making this not as big a deal as it may sound. Obviously, in science, your ability to offset depends on your salary and/or career level.
  5. Beyond travel, differentiate between big-ticket items versus little things in your life. Little actions can be good because you can do many little things. But changing a few big things in meaningful ways may achieve even more in terms of sustainability. Big changes are, for example, to live somewhere where you can ride a bike to work, rather than drive every day. Or to cut down the amount of animal protein in your diet, or obtain your food more locally. Little things like turning off light bulbs are fine … But just leaving your car at home one day (when you normally drive) is like a lot, a lot of lightbulbs!
  6. Recognise that you’re part of a “system”, and work on personal change as well as systemic change. While some sustainability scientists do too little (in my, in this case, not-so-humble opinion) to walk the talk, others beat themselves up for not being perfect footprint-free creatures. I think it’s important we recognize that it’s both a personal and systemic issue. If you live in North America or Australia, it’s nearly impossible to have a lifestyle that is fully sustainable. Most likely, most things from the food you eat to the transportation systems you use, to the infrastructure you support through your taxes are unsustainable. That is why it’s worthwhile to think about what you can do, and do that – while at the same time working on systemic changes so that living more sustainably becomes mainstream. That is, the institutional and socio-cultural context we live in will ultimately need to change, but that won’t happen overnight.

Comments on how you think about “walking the talk” are, as always, most welcome!

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5 thoughts on “The eternal challenge: walking the talk

  1. Agree.”Walking the talk in sustainability” to achieve the final goal of reducing carbon emissions & building a healthy cleaner greener environment for all is very important!

  2. Yes. All these points are well-articulated and important. Particularly (from my point of view) #6 😉

    #6 says nicely, and goes a bit beyond, one of my bits of personal philosophy. Given that even a life of complete personal asceticism would not, in itself, be sufficient to solve our problems; BUT, given that individual actions do add up, symbolism and peer behavior counts, and that as sustainability professionals we arguably should hold ourselves to higher personal bars, my goal on the personal level is to simply keep learning, and to keep working to be better. To try to add a new, better habit/pattern each week, month, or year. To not dwell on my sustainability shortcomings but instead to commit to doing better, a little at a time, and be “content” with the fact that constant self-challenge and assessment is vital, and that also, no amount will ever be “enough.”

    And indeed, I have to thank you for being part of making me re-think conference travel. As I enter what seems roughly to be “mid career” level, I can afford to be more choiceful. Besides which, having moved frequently for jobs, I’m looking forward to/hoping to spend more time at a “home base” in order to build the kinds of community and connections that I think, in the long term, are absolutely vital parts of our roles as sustainability scientists, and as citizens, full stop.

  3. Agree with most of the points. I personally feel guilty about all my travels by plane. However, as I am at the beginning of my career, I value experience over everything else. I eagerly take every opportunity to see a new place, meet new people, get out of my comfort zone. I do not take long distance trips too often (perhaps not often enough) but I try my best to compensate for my travels during the rest of the time.

  4. Nice blog entry. UFZ has an offsetting scheme for carbon emissions from flights. However, what fightened me a bit, this week actually, was that the inhouse travel agency uses this offsetting policy to question why people should take the night train (in this case a journey from Leipzig to Zagreb) – their logic is if it is offset anyway, why then choose a sustainable alternative?

    Having worked in three institutes, ecology/sustainability related, I have to say that very few walk the talk, and flying for work is the normal case. I personally try not to fly within Europe, which meant several 24 hours nice train journeys from the Netherlands to Oslo. The was cheaper than flying, actually, as will the night train journey to Croatia be – it is often simply a myth that fyling is cheaper. And reviewing papers in the train can be very productive.

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