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“Slow” Geographies and Ecological-Ethical Dilemmas of International Research

Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:15 AM (Mountain Standard Time)

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“Slow” Geographies and Ecological-Ethical Dilemmas of International Research

Type: Panel
Theme: Geographers Respond to COVID-19
Sponsor Groups: Development Geographies Specialty Group, Energy and Environment Specialty Group, Cultural and Political Ecology Specialty Group, AAG Climate Action Task Force
Poster #:
Day: 4/8/2020
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:15 AM (Mountain Standard Time)
Room: Virtual Track 8
Organizers: Ashley Fent, Joseph Holler
Chairs: Ashley Fent


In spite of ongoing concerns and discussions about rapid climate change, the IPCC reported in 2018 that greenhouse gas emissions continued to rise and predicted that if current climate policies and levels of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) are maintained, it will no longer be possible to remain below the IPCC’s target goal of a 1.5o C increase in warming. This year, 7,000 colleges, universities, technical schools and community colleges from around the world declared a climate emergency in a letter to the UN, pledging to increase their sustainability curriculum and reach carbon neutrality by 2050 (Ryan 2019). Meanwhile, due to various initiatives and petitions within diverse disciplines, academic conferences are moving toward low-emissions models. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic currently sweeping the globe, many academic conferences (including AAG) have been forced to adopt virtual models in 2020; this has created serious challenges and hardships at institutional, individual, and economic levels, but also raises important opportunities for developing low-carbon modes of intellectual exchange.

In the current context of imposed "slowness," we are interested in exploring in this panel what it might mean to do “slow” and less carbon-intensive geographical scholarship longer-term, specifically in conducting internationally-engaged research. Slow scholarship has previously been theorized through the lens of feminist theory as a collective response to the neoliberalization of the academy and the demands for rapid publication timelines associated with this growing emphasis on research productivity (Mountz et al. 2015). In our application of “slowness” to understandings of academics’ active engagement with climate change, we are interested in thinking with panelists about whether and how internationally-engaged research can be conducted more equitably and more sustainably.

Recent scholarship has expressed concerns that academic careers still require considerable amounts of air travel to participate in conferences and conduct international research. One study estimated that air travel to the 2011 AAG Annual Meeting in Seattle was responsible for 5,351 metric tons of carbon emissions--an amount that is 3.8 times the total annual emissions of the average Haitian (Nevins 2014). Air travel contributes four to nine percent of carbon emissions from human activities (David Suzuki Foundation 2017), and it is growing rapidly, with demand outpacing UN predictions and reducing the impact of efficiency gains made within the industry (Tabuchi 2019). Frequent fliers taking six round trips or more per year are responsible for 68% of the aviation industry's emissions (Rutherford 2019). Increasingly, both long- and short-term global research, study abroad, and fieldwork experiences are also being encouraged among undergraduates in geography and other disciplines (McGuinness and Simm 2005). At the same time, studies have found no correlation between metrics of academic productivity and emissions from air travel; this suggests that many scholars can reduce their professional travel without adversely impacting their academic success (Wynes et al. 2019). Of course, structural changes, both within academia and within capitalism, are needed to fully address what has been termed “ecological privilege,” as it pertains to inequalities in emissions and the effects of those emissions (Nevins 2014). However, these trends raise a series of dilemmas for critical scholars who conduct international research (often on issues that intersect with anthropogenic climate change) while acknowledging the need for socio-ecological transformation (Baer 2018; Kjellman 2019).

The environmental and climatic impacts of this air travel add to a number of other ethical dilemmas that emerge in particular from scholars from the Global North conducting international research, often in the Global South. Feminist scholars have raised issues of power in transnational research dynamics, and have encouraged greater attention to positionality and the negotiated ethics and relational racialized and gendered subjectivities involved in the research and writing process (Kobayashi 1994; Sultana 2007; Faria and Mollett 2016). Additionally, scholars have critically examined the unequal relationships between foreign researchers and their research assistants and research participants, tracing both the problematic power differentials and the opportunities for collaboration, debate, and co-authorship that arise from these relationships (Neely and Nguse 2015). Some scholars have argued against a reactive turn away from research in the Global South in order to conduct “safer” and ostensibly less problematic textual analysis, which may fail to engage with the concerns and preoccupations of real-world individuals and communities (Nagar 2002). In this view, critical scholars should develop better ways of working through the dissonances and discomforts of conducting and writing transnational research, rather than retreating entirely from the prospect of doing international fieldwork. We view climate change as illustrating these ethical dilemmas further, as the emissions from personal and professional consumptive practices in the Global North exacerbate extremely dangerous living conditions for people in the Global South. This situation prevents climate solidarity and perpetuates racialized and gendered forms of structural and ecological violence.

We invite panelists to consider questions such as:

What are some models of international collaboration that you have used in your work?
How can electronic networks, social media, and virtual meeting platforms be used to coordinate research and conferences?
To what extent can and should the "speed" of remote data-driven research (e.g. with microdata and remote sensing) replace the necessity for air travel and in situ empirical observation? (And what are the emissions impacts of relying on energy-intensive digital technologies and data centers?)
How do you balance your interest and/or your students’ interest in international dynamics with the need to reduce air travel? Have you found ways to engage and address your research through more localized data collection practices?
What are some of the professional and personal difficulties you have encountered in practicing “slow” research?
What are the limitations of individualized or department-level initiatives to reduce air travel? What are some strategies for enacting and advocating structural changes?
How might seniority and tenure play a role in who can practice “slow” geography and who cannot?
What should be the differential obligations of scholars who have benefited from the white supremacist and patriarchal capitalist system that has driven anthropogenic climate change, and those who belong to communities that have been marginalized, oppressed, and subjected to various forms of violence by this system?


Baer, Hans A. 2018. “Grappling with Flying as a Driver to Climate Change: Strategies for Critical Scholars Seeking to Contribute to a Socio-Ecological Revolution.” Australian Journal of Anthropology 29 (3): 298–315.

David Suzuki Foundation. 2017. “Air Travel and Climate Change.”

Kjellman, Sofia E. 2019. “As a Climate Researcher, Should I Change My Air-Travel Habits?” Nature, May.

Kobayashi, Audrey. 1994. “Coloring the Field: Gender, ‘Race,’ and the Politics of Fieldwork.” Professional Geographer 46 (1): 73–80.

Mountz, Alison, Anne Bonds, Becky Mansfield, Jenna Loyd, Jennifer Hyndman, Margaret Walton-Roberts, Ranu Basu, et al. 2015. “For Slow Scholarship: A Feminist Politics of Resistance through Collective Action in the Neoliberal University.” ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies 14 (4): 1235–59.

Nagar, Richa. 2002. “Footloose Researchers, ‘Traveling’ Theories, and the Politics of Transnational Feminist Praxis.” Gender, Place & Culture 9 (2): 179–86.

Neely, Abigail H., and Thokozile Nguse. 2015. “Relationships and Research Methods: Entanglements, Intra-Actions, and Diffraction.” In The Routledge Handbook of Political Ecology, edited by Tom Perreault, Gavin Bridge, and James McCarthy, 140–49. New York: Routledge.

Nevins, Joseph. 2014. “Academic Jet-Setting in a Time of Climate Destabilization: Ecological Privilege and Professional Geographic Travel.” Professional Geographer 66 (2): 298–310.

Rutherford, Dan. 2019. "Should you be ashamed of flying? Probably not.*" International Council on Clean Transportation, September 23.

Ryan, Kate. 2019. “Thousands of Schools and Universities Declare ‘Climate Emergency.’” Reuters, July 10.

Sultana, Farhana. 2007. “Reflexivity, Positionality and Participatory Ethics: Negotiating Fieldwork Dilemmas in International Research.” ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies 6 (3): 374–85.

Tabuchi, Hiroko. 2019. “‘Worse Than Anyone Expected’: Air Travel Emissions Vastly Outpace Predictions.” The New York Times, Sept. 19.

Wynes, Seth, Simon D. Donner, Steuart Tannason, and Noni Nabors. 2019. “Academic Air Travel Has a Limited Influence on Professional Success.” Journal of Cleaner Production 226 (July): 959–67.


Type Details Minutes
Discussant William Moseley Macalester College 15
Panelist Christine Gibb 15
Panelist Sachiko Ishihara Uppsala University 15

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