October 7, 2019

Can Creatives Do With Less Travel and Still Help the Planet?

As the environmentally-conscious push to reduce air travel gains traction, some artists are forgoing it altogether which can drastically alter how they work. We attempt to weigh the social, creative and environmental costs against each other to find a middle ground.

Can Creatives Do With Less Travel and Still Help the Planet?

As the environmentally-conscious push to reduce air travel gains traction, some artists are forgoing it altogether, which can drastically alter how they work. We attempt to weigh the social, creative and environmental costs against each other to find a middle ground.

The Choreographer’s Not Coming

In a piece in the New York Times, Roslyn Sulcas highlighted the story of French dancer and choreographer Jérôme Bel who changed the entire scope of his career after realizing that despite other lifestyle changes such as eating organic or reducing heating, air travel was the largest footprint — for him and his full-time assistants flying across the world to stage shows. So he gave it up and had his team avoid it as well.

With projects underway already, including a US tour with French dancer Elizabeth Schwartz, they had to find a to avoid flying the performer there. Schwartz proposed New York-based Catherine Gallant instead. And so began choreography and rehearsal via Skype: suffice it to say, their efforts were hampered by a limited camera view, poor Wi-Fi and mic problems.

“It’s not the same as being in a room together, especially generationally, for someone like me,” said Ms. Gallant, 63. “But I realize that this opportunity exists for me because of what Jérôme decided.”

It’s Not A One-Off

Bel’s example is one where an artist forgoes air travel, even when the nature of his work is highly contingent on being in the same room with the artists he’s guiding. And yet, he isn’t alone. British theater director Katie Mitchell refuses to travel by plane as well.Belgian choreographer Anne-Teresa de Keersmaeker and her dance company Rosas recently decided to travel only by train in Europe, increasing travel costs and time. Bel has followed suit, convincing theater directors and presenters to allow train trips for upcoming tours under the reasoning that they’re justified by visits to multiple cities on the way.

Conscience or Culture?

While there is mounting popularity (or flight shame) to change the way we travel for the sake of the planet, it’s also hard to ignore how much humanity has benefited immensely from the ability to traverse large distances. Aside from maintaining close ties to family and friends spread across the world, air travel has enabled us to make new connections and experience new ideas that are instrumental to our creativity. It’s hard to suddenly cancel that dynamic overnight.

In a Vox article highlighting the movement to dissuade people from flying, Umair Irfan sums up the conundrum we’re currently facing perfectly: “Compared to other personal concessions for the sake of the environment, reducing air travel has a disproportionately high social cost. Give up meat and you eat from a different menu. Give up flying and you may never see some members of your family again.”

So, what can we do?

For artists and creatives, we are unlikely to stop flying anytime soon and it’s by no means a call to end a convenience we enjoy simply because someone tells us to. But instead, we can see it as an opportunity to also rethink how we derive the benefits we seek or reduce the costs we want to avoid — all at the same time.

For starters, short-haul flights leave a much larger footprint relative to their flight time with over 25% of a plane’s fuel used in taking off. Then there are the diminishing returns on convenience when we factor in all the extra non-flight time we forget to attach to these flights. Finally, it has to be said we don’t have to necessarily jet off to exotic faraway locales to derive the creative benefits of travel, just that we need to find ways to break up the monotony that leaves us wanting for inspiration.

In the digital age, we’ve found the creative class to be highly adaptable — so long as we have a passport, money, a laptop, and ideally decent internet — we can travel and work under many different circumstances, even if that’s on a bus, boat or train.

Forcing the Future of Work Through Environmentalism

This “future of…” is an interesting topic that we’d all like to have an understanding of. It’s clear that physical interactions are in themselves a precursor to a certain type of work culture. But with the idea of these interactions moving online, we’re now left to rethink how we build a strong decentralized work culture.

There are many nuances that are simply unaccounted for when we’re face-to-face, where subtle moments in the interaction help diffuse the situation. Slack, Zoom, and various communication tools bridge the gap. But in light of these changing scenes, the question becomes: what’s the closest we can come to replicating these experiences without the element of physicality?

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