Green New Deal(s): A Resource List for Political Ecologists

Green New Deal(s): A Resource List for Political Ecologists

The Green New Deal has become a central focus of debates around ecosocialist politics; this list brings together diverse resources to foster critical reflection on its potential and limitations.The global ...

Seeds of resistance: Palestinian farmers fight against annexation and pandemic

Seeds of resistance: Palestinian farmers fight against annexation and pandemic

The violent Israeli encroachment and annexation of Palestinian land is compromising the future of the West Bank and putting its residents in an extremely vulnerable position. Palestinians are resisting both ...

COVID-19 | Will current travel restrictions help academics change their flying behaviour? by Lara Vincent and Oane Visser

With drastic restrictions on mobility due to the COVID-19 pandemic, international academic air travel for research, conferences, and defences has largely come to a halt. The sudden inability to hop on a plane and fly away makes us even more aware of how mobile academics have become over the past decades. The COVID-19 pandemic may provide the perfect opportunity to reassess and alter our travel behaviour now that we are forced to stay put, write Lara Vincent and Oane Visser.

Hypermobility is widely viewed as a cornerstone of contemporary globalised academics and a sine qua non for professional success in the increasingly competitive environment of higher education that requires the showcasing of research at academic conferences and elsewhere. Academics are pressured to be innovative and utilise travel to undertake and present distinguishable research (Nursey et al. 2019: 1). Data collection, conference attendance, and networking opportunities are three of the main reasons for international (short-term) mobility, all which are described by academics as essential for one’s visibility—and success—in the academia. This is consistent with the profession’s ranking as one of the three most mobile jobs in the world, with business executives and politicians filling up the other two spots (Mahroum 2000: 26).

Frequent air travel is gradually becoming an issue of debate in academia. Several European universities have introduced policies to reduce (the impact of) academic travel. In the Netherlands, a ‘climate letter’ drafted end 2018 by a group of prominent academics pushed for a progressive climate agenda to be adopted by Dutch universities, with strong support from the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU). In Belgium, Ghent University is one of the pioneers, with a travel policy that distinguishes ‘green destinations’ (with a travel time by train or bus below six hours) and ‘orange destinations (up to eight hours). For green destinations like Oxford, Frankfurt and Montpellier, flights are not offered anymore; for ‘orange destinations’, such as Geneva and Hamburg, train and bus are the preferred options.

But at most universities, it still seems business as usual regarding air travel. Unlike business executives and politicians, academics are deemed knowledge producers. The paradox between the abundant knowledge produced and circulated in academic settings about the far-reaching negative repercussions of climate change and continued frequent air travel by academics raises the question why the profession fails to move to more pro-environmental mobility.

Research by Tom Storme of Ghent University on the contradictory nature of knowledge and action regarding air mobility stimulated Lara to conduct her ISS Research Paper on this topic. She found that many of the 20 academics interviewed about how they view their academic travel behaviour mentioned psychological discomfort due to the inconsistencies between their knowledge and behaviour. This can be characterised as cognitive dissonance and can only be relieved with a change in attitudes or actions to match the other (Festinger 1957: 7).

The academics interviewed at the ISS stated that not travelling was viewed negatively in the ever-changing world of academia where transnational connections enhance the ability to be socially and professionally visible. As a result, the interviewees dismissed their dissonance by predominately adapting their attitudes to match their flight patterns, such as by comparing academic flight emissions favourably to other industries, emphasising the lack of control over their actions, compensating emissions by becoming more environmentally conscious in their personal lives, or highlighting the essential societal value of the research that the travelling enabled. Changing travel behaviour by reducing flying was seen as impossible when you want to build an academic career.

Ironically, it seems that 2020 has forced academics to re-evaluate their reliance on cross-border travel. The grounding of aeroplanes due to COVID-19 has forced academics to review their reliance on air travel, behaviour that was previously imagined as virtually impossible. PhD defences are now suddenly done online, part of planned conferences are being shifted online, and some face-to-face research is being substituted by online and phone interviews. Will these trends stick when the airspace is opened, or will we divert to our old habits?

The move to confine individuals to their houses and limit travel to contain the coronavirus has also drastically reduced the carbon emissions produced by air travel. The world has seen a reduction in pollution levels with satellites images showing clear skies over cities that were previously impossible to view from space (Collins 2020: 1). The pandemic has unexpectedly unleashed or accelerated pro-environmental mobility policies in various cities. Mostly notably, Milan is drastically reducing car use to rapidly make space for laying out cycling infrastructure in order to stimulate people to avoid public transport where it is difficult to keep enough distance to prevent the proliferation of the coronavirus.

While air traffic is likely to rebound substantially after the pandemic has been contained, it seems that the global lockdown has enabled academics to re-evaluate their need for hypermobility in a world where the repercussions of climate change are acutely experienced—a change that was deemed almost impossible until early 2020. The pandemic has shown that it is possible to go back to ‘normal’ levels of mobility when compared to today’s hypermobility, but the academia that demands air travel as way to ensure success may also have to be fundamentally transformed to allow for academics to conduct and showcase their research  differently. More online conferences, conferences with a mixture of online and offline presentations, and organising (or selecting) conferences based on their accessibility by ground transport may be some of the ways to go.

Acknowledgments: A word of thanks to the ISS academics who shared their views in the interviews.

This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Read all articles of this series here.

About the authors:

Lara VincentLara Vincent was part of the 2018/2019 Masters students who graduated in December 2019. While at ISS she majored in Agrarian, Food and Environmental Studies, with a specialisation in Environment and Sustainable Development.


Oane Visser (associate professor, Political Ecology research group, ISS) leads an international Toyota Foundation funded research project on the socio-economic and environmental effects of -and responses to- big data and digitalisation in agriculture. He is an ISRF fellow for 2020-21.


Resisting environmental and social injustice through commoning

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EADI/ISS Series | Digitalizing agriculture in Africa: promises and risks of an emerging trend by Fabio Gatti and Oane Visser

EADI/ISS Series | Digitalizing agriculture in Africa: promises and risks of an emerging trend by Fabio Gatti and Oane Visser

The potential of the digitalization of agriculture in Africa to contribute to food security, poverty reduction and environmental sustainability agendas is being increasingly claimed by international development actors, and reflects ...

Contesting the Amazon as an ‘Open Space for Development’ by Lee Pegler and Julienne Andrade Widmarck

The use of land for soya cultivation in the Brazilian Amazon has led to compelling debates on the sustainability of the movement of products globally through global value chains (GVC) and the democratic processes surrounding these. All of us, in the Global North and Global South alike, have played a role in stimulating the expansion of GVCs in the Amazon that has led to an increase in the precarity of livelihoods, landlessness, and health/environmental problems. Without sustained and imaginative strategies by local and transnational social movements, this disjuncture between the market, sustainable futures, and democratic processes may simply widen.

The Amazon does not leave the news. Fires of unprecedented scale have devastated the area and are still occurring at a fast pace[1]. The latest wave of fires in the Brazilian Amazon appears to be not just an ecological warning, but also part of a cyclical strategy for land recovery and sale and/or alternating use of soya and cows by farmers[2]. The lungs and waters of our collective ecological future are at stake[3]. Nevertheless, those of us in other parts of the world are not without responsibility for this. At the same time, we are open to the assertion that the fate of the Amazon is none of our business.

What happens in the Amazon is our business, however. For example, energy- and protein-inefficient soya for animal feed produced in the Amazon is promoted as a low-cost input for sale to European farmers from a value chain supported by Dutch capital and the Dutch state[4]. Whilst Dutch farmers react to EU directives to curb emissions[5], Dutch and European consumers continue to purchase meat and dairy products, produced thanks to soya supplied as bulk feed for cattle and pigs from unsustainable and conflictual locations such as the Brazilian Amazon[6].

Amazon squeezed from all sides—can it cope?

The soya Global Value Chain (GVC) emerging from the Brazilian Amazon is threatening local populations’ security, livelihoods, and health as widespread deforestation continues to make room for soya plantations[7]. Various national and multinational companies financing land, sourcing output, and providing infrastructure for this chain (e.g. for local ports) are reacting to an increased demand for soya, thus “doing what the market tells them to do”.

The Dutch government, one of the countries with the greatest demand for soya is, on one side of the chain, emphasizing their country’s sustainable policies, initiatives, and institutions[8]. On the other side of this chain (in Brazil), we have a national regime that sees the Amazon as an “open space” for commerce (for cows, soya, minerals, and tourism) and a civil society that is fighting to raise the voices of indigenous communities and small-scale farmers threatened by these developments[9]. Thus, while there is a push for more responsible soya production practices from outside and from within, this is countered by the Brazilian government’s aim to commercialize the Amazon further[10]. The Amazon is being squeezed from all sides—can it cope?

This particular debate on the soya GVC is being studied within the ISS/EUR Governance of Labour and Logistics for Sustainability (GOLLS) programme[11]. In a project about commodity traders and social movements, we are exploring the link between firms at a global level and their activities in this region/sector. What is evolving is called the Ferrogrão[12] (logistical train/road grain chain) and a waterway silo-platform-barge system (strongly supported by Dutch firms and government) for the more efficient movement of soya along the Tapajos river, up the Amazon River, and then onto Europe/the Netherlands/Rotterdam[13] (Figure 1 below).


Figure 1 – Logistic Plan of Soya GVC in Amazon. Credit: Portal of the Company of Planning and Logistics S.A. (EPL)

Ongoing resistance to land use changes

A key mechanism for resisting these plans, used by local communities, small-scale farmers, indigenous groups, and their social movement supporters, has been a process of participation and rights recognition through ILO Regulation 169[14] (ratified by Brazil in 2003). Along with campaigns urging farmers not to sell their land, this participation protocol process has been one of the flags of resistance of affected parties and their supporters[15]. This reliance on institutional regulation and push for greater transparency on land rights[16] has helped boost the morale of many and put some local players in a position of influence, but also greater precarity[17].

Experiences locally and in other contexts note how such struggles consume many resources and will be met by counteraction by firms and, at times, by the state[18]. This is also happening here. For example, the current Brazilian federal regime is further undermining this rights process via proposals[19] for land area freezes for the indigenous, increased rights to mining in protected territories, and in amended participation rights—groups may still have their say, but no veto over “development” proposals[20].

At a local level, NGOs have been asked to explain their activities to public representatives[21]. Indeed, the ambient surrounding our case studies (one where land has been appropriated and soya grown, the other a mainly mining community where soya from other regions is being stored) reflects these local political economy dynamics. In one location, capital accumulation is dominated by “the laws of small-scale mining,” whereas, in the soya production case study, even the more accepted model of concertation (“accumulation by legislation” – i.e. by rules) is under pressure[22].

This situation clearly requires more concerted public awareness and broader level (international) collective responses. This ISS-EUR/Brazilian research programme seeks to widen the scope of awareness and societal action on these themes. We plan to move beyond our present case studies to other logistical points and to carry out further participative studies of local (displaced) communities.

It is essential to take these issues up to centers of decision making in the Global North (much as is being done by indigenous leader gatherings across Europe and by action groups like the “Amsterdam Coalition for Democracy in Brazil”). Local and transnational social movements are under severe pressure to make their cases heard[23]. Without sustained and imaginative strategies by them and others, this disjuncture between the market, sustainable futures, and democratic processes may simply widen.

About the authors:

JulienneJulienne de Jesus Andrade Widmarck has been a PhD researcher at the ISS since 2018 and a PhD student in Applied Economics at the Federal University of Uberlândia from 2019. She was a substitute professor at the Federal University of Viçosa from 2017 to 2019. Currently, she is a consultant in Territorial Development, Agroindustry, and Business Planning. She has experience in the field of agricultural economics, with an emphasis on commodities exportation, econometric methods, and family farming. Outside the academic field, she develops financial empowerment activities and participates in the National Human Rights Movement in Brazil.

Lee 3Lee Pegler spent his early career working as an economist with the Australian Labour Movement. More recent times have seen him researching the labour implications of “new” management strategies of TNCs in Brazil/ Latin America. This interest expanded to a focus on the implications of value chain insertion on labour, both for formal and informal workers. Trained as an economist and sociologist (PhD – LSE), he currently works as Assistant Professor (Work, Organisation and Labour Rights) at the ISS.

Title Image Credit: Vinícius Mendonça/Ibama from FotosPublicas
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[21] Also noted in author interviews with social actors in Santarem, October/November, 2019.