The article that follows was originally finished on 5 March, at which point the coronavirus had become impossible to ignore in Austria but hadn’t yet begun ruling our everyday lives. The week thereafter then saw radical changes announced, the likes of which had been mentioned only in connection with the climate crisis in this article’s first version. So as things stand now, we’d do well to ponder the climate crisis and the coronavirus simultaneously.
Bertolt Brecht, in his poem “To Those Who Come after Us”, reflected upon the dark days of Nazi dictatorship as follows:
“What kind of times are they, when
A talk about trees is almost a crime,
Because it implies silence about so many horrors?”
We currently have reason to fear that those who come after us will know times in which “a talk about trees” is above all a nostalgia session. It’s not simply a climate crisis that looms up ahead; crises, after all, can turn out all right in the end. No, what we’re facing is a climate catastrophe—along with the question of whether there’s anything we can still do to prevent the worst … or at least delay it. Personally, I have my doubts about our economic system’s ability to deal well with the complex chain reactions that have long since been underway. But that’s no reason to be apathetic, to act as if there weren’t still hope.
While arts universities like ours may not burn down any forests, their work does consume quite a bit of fossil energy—in part because we do so much travelling. It goes without saying that we can and must compensate for our flying through carbon offsets, and there now exist voluntary commitments by researchers (at several universities in Berlin, for example) to make their travel more climate-friendly—such as by no longer flying for trips of less than 1,000 km that would take less than 12 hours by train. This is laudable, worthy of imitation, and something that absolutely should be added to sets of rules for professional travel.
For that matter, it’s well-known that avoiding unnecessary travel in the first place would make more sense than simply travelling in less climate-unfriendly ways or making conferences more climate-friendly. The only thing is: Who decides just what travel is unnecessary? In my circles, people often joke about how nice it would be to regularly have a conference-free year—because then, they’d have time to dig into new themes or at least start working off the backlog of things that hadn’t gotten done. At the moment, however, the only ones who can afford to do this are older colleagues in secure positions. For the younger generations, this will remain a dream as long as the prevailing criteria for quality assessments don’t change. After all, it’s still the case that applying for an academic post without being able to document conference visits or either studies or teaching activities abroad is pointless; the more frequently and farther afield one’s travelled, the better.
Can travel be avoided when working in academia? After all, streaming lectures on the Internet can be very attractive (as evidenced by the various TED Talk formats), and discussions involving smaller groups can be replaced by video conferences. Online events in the music field have already been held and will certainly be taking place more often in the future, even if they may well never be as popular as online seminars about excavating swimming ponds, finding oneself, or cat conventions—all of which appear far higher up in my search results. But I’m still not quite sure how we could replace one of conferences’ essential components: namely, those informal conversations that one has alongside or even instead of the lectures, conversations that frequently give birth to the most interesting ideas. And I must admit that I’d sorely miss Erasmus teaching visits and refreshing my various contacts in the process, even if it’s clear to me that it really is pretty insane to fly to places like Norway just for that.
My personal gut response to the search for other ways of engaging in international exchange is none too original: I think to myself that our competition-oriented research business is so set in its ways that it will be difficult to change. But that’s followed by thoughts about just what all has been possible in the past, about the incomprehensible degree of willingness to sacrifice that’s been exhibited by societies again and again (albeit only in wartime, as far as I know)—as if radical changes to habits, solidarity, and courage were only imaginable as furious responses to supposed outside enemies.
Radical changes are headed our way no matter what; the question is no longer if, but when and how. The optimistic view holds that a whole lot will have to change so that at least some things can remain as they are. The pessimistic view, on the other hand, is that nobody will be interested in our academic work anymore amidst resource wars, or amidst even larger amounts of methane gas released by global warming, or when our atmosphere’s oxygen content plummets due to the die-off of blue-green algae in the oceans.
I’d really like to be an optimist, and I’d like to close this commentary with an impassioned appeal—but I’m at a loss for suitably infectious ideas. I will, however, dare to optimistically assume that we’re gradually beginning to wise up.
Today, on 25 March, it feels to me as if the text above had been written in a bygone era. Since I wrote it, we’ve transformed our lives—more fundamentally and faster than even the most cheerful eco-optimists could have wished for just 20 days ago. And the initial effects are already visible. With drastically reduced flights and road traffic, the air quality all over the planet is noticeably better. The Venetians can once again see fish in their canals. And even in big cities, the night sky is starrier.
And in actual fact, it’s unfortunately the case that many of these changes just aren’t sustainable to begin with. Stay-at-home orders, mass unemployment, and sudden economic collapse are nothing anyone would wish for. But it would be nice if our cautious way back into life in the wake of this virus didn’t lead right back into our “old normal”. If occupations that are truly important—including when they’re done primarily by women—weren’t paid far worse than those that produce little apart from damage. If one didn’t have to travel halfway around the world to do entrance exams. If we didn’t just go back to attending as many conferences as possible, a fair number of which would also be possible online with no noticeable loss of quality. If we didn’t have to view the world, professional life, and our work in academia as a shark tank. If we could introduce a universal basic income that would make it possible for all of us, including young people, to swim in other waters. And if we were to refrain from explaining away the present crisis as a freak occurrence, instead regarding it as preparation for setting out into an entirely different way of life that, due to the climate catastrophe, will become necessary and would be desirable even without any new pandemics.