Sound Matters: The SEM Blog

The official blog by the Society for Ethnomusicology

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Academic flying and climate justice: Toward an inclusive and sustainable ethnomusicology

by Catherine Grant, Aaron Pettigrew, and Megan Collins

Earlier this year, SEM members released a Statement entitled “Disciplinary intervention for a practice of ethnomusicology” (available in full on this blog). According to its authors, the Statement is intended as “a declaration of commitment to changing the academic structures that deny many scholars full inclusion in their fields.” It calls for greater equality and justice in the practices of ethnomusicology, through “active change” and a “radical restructuring of professional societies” and the “multiple spaces in which ethnomusicology occurs.”

We wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment of the Statement. In this post, we draw particular attention to a single such practice of ethnomusicology (and other academic disciplines) that we believe requires radical restructuring in the names of inclusion, equality and justice. That is the phenomenon of academic flying: frequent air travel for conferences, networking, fieldwork, and other academic activities.

Although only a privileged few of the world’s population fly regularly, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization plane travel is responsible for around 2-3% of all greenhouse gas emissions. The European Commission notes that by 2020 emissions from fossil fuel flying are predicted to be 70% above their 2005 levels. Emissions from flying need to be urgently and dramatically reduced in order to limit global temperature rises to well below 2 degrees Celsius, in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Scholars in some disciplines have stopped questioning whether unfettered academic flying is an environmentally sustainable practice—clearly it is not—and have instead begun engaging with it as an issue of ethical and moral concern. Some leading climate scientists have committed to radically reducing their own flying, or even ceasing it altogether. Others are advocating for systemic change (see Parke Wilde’s online petition); still others are spearheading change within their institutions and professional organizations (like those associated with the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, UK).

In light of the Statement mentioned above, we wish to bring this wider discussion about academic flying and climate change to the discipline of ethnomusicology. We believe that climate change (as an issue of social justice) and academic flying are inextricably connected with the wider systemic concerns around access, inclusion, and justice raised by members of SEM and our other professional societies.

Take academic flying as an issue of climate justice. Ethnomusicologists fly around the world to carry out or disseminate our research on important issues such as the global refugee crisis, poverty, civil unrest, and cultural endangerment — all topics of recent research in our discipline. And yet we little acknowledge that through our flying, we are contributing to a global intergenerational crisis that is set to tremendously exacerbate these and other issues of social justice and human rights. We also seem to overlook the fact that climate change is likely to have the worst impacts for those peoples and cultures that have least contributed to the problem — those same people and cultures that the discipline of ethnomusicology has historically been most concerned with.

In fact, it is rather astounding that climate justice so rarely surfaces as an explicit factor for consideration in our ethnomusicological decisions around funding applications, research design, or conference planning. By failing to embed climate justice in our collective consciousness in the same way that principles of mutuality, collaboration, and respect are now embedded in our work as ethnomusicologists, we simply further ingrain those global imbalances of power that have led to a privileged few being able to fly in the first place.

This, of course, directly invokes a problem SEM and other ethnomusicological organizations have been struggling with for decades: how can we enable the broadest possible participation at our conferences and other scholarly gatherings? The issue rightly causes angst. When only some researchers are able to gather (often at fancy conference hotels) to report on their work, the absence of those who cannot be there for economic reasons is perhaps the most obvious manifestation of inequality and injustice in our discipline.

One organizational response has been to offer travel bursaries or registration subsidies to researchers (and indeed, we authors have been recipients of such bursaries in the past). Though well-intentioned and often very helpful for individuals, this approach arguably entrenches existing economic and power imbalances, with those already in positions of relative power or privilege determining the participation of less powerful and/or less wealthy members. Further, such a strategy is not scalable to anywhere near the degree necessary to achieve a fair global practice of ethnomusicology, because it does not address the root problem — the considerable costs associated with conference travel that are prohibitive for most people in many countries around the world.

So, we believe that one necessary step toward making ethnomusicology more inclusive and equitable is to reconsider the way our conferences and symposia are run. One way to enable participation by researchers who cannot fly (or who choose not to for environmental reasons) is to permit virtual or remote presentations, and to actively support such presentations through ensuring technological capacity at the conference site.

While SEM has been live-streaming selected conference presentations since 2011, current SEM policy does not allow remote presentations (except under rare circumstances). Allowing such presentations would reduce the carbon emissions associated with our gatherings, while also increasing their accessibility. Successful prototypes exist for low-emission or even ‘nearly-carbon-neutral’ conferences that enable geographically dispersed, interactive participation and networking opportunities through online means.

By signing SEM’s “Disciplinary intervention for a practice of ethnomusicology”, we pledged to “[r]equest that societies and organizations to which we belong devote resources and attention to democratizing and horizontalizing representation within these societies.” In this spirit, we invite SEM and its membership to reinvigorate a conversation around more democratic, inclusive and environmentally sustainable conference practices that reduce the need for flying.


In July 2017, the authors delivered a (semi-virtual) panel “The Plane Truth: Academic Flying, Climate Change, and the Future of Music Research” at the International Council for Traditional Music World Conference (Limerick, Ireland) The panel was featured on an episode of Culture File on RTE Irish National Radio.