A flight from Boston to Mexico City might take you eight hours, including a layover. Parke Wilde took five days to make the same journey by land, and he’s fine with that.
This summer, Wilde made the 3,000-mile trip entirely by train and bus to show that eschewing air travel, even when more time consuming, is worth it for the carbon savings. Airplanes, he said, are outsized contributors to climate change, and in his estimation, taking a few extra days to get to his conference in Mexico was an environmental bargain. “I’m aware that most people would view it as difficult, bordering on foolhardy,” he said. “But I absolutely would do it again.”
Wilde, an agricultural economist and professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, has flown a lot in his professional life—for research, conferences, speaking engagements, and collaborations with colleagues. Plus he has taken plenty of flights for vacations. But about nine years ago, Wilde, a member of the Tufts Sustainability Council, realized that those air miles were not sitting well with his concerns about global warming.
Compared to trains, buses, and even cars with two or more people, planes emit the most carbon dioxide per person per mile. Jets also put out soot, nitrous oxides, and water vapor from contrails at high altitudes that contribute to the greenhouse effect.
So Wilde started thinking about what university communities could do to cut down on flights. To see if what he was asking was even feasible, he made a personal commitment in 2014 to spend a year without flying; as it turned out, he hasn’t flown since. Now he’s on a mission to educate others about how it can be done.
He found a like-minded colleague in Joseph Nevins, a professor of geography at Vassar College, and together they launched a project in 2015 called Flying Less. It aims to convince academic communities to rethink how often plane trips are necessary for the good work they do.
Wilde found that he could still attend many conferences in D.C. and the Northeast, and even places like Ohio and Atlanta, by train. When he does make a long trip, as he did to Mexico City, he’ll package multiple work stops into the one excursion. He brings a laptop and uses the extended travel time to work on those tasks he would do in his office—often with fewer distractions.
He emphasizes that sometimes, flying is the right choice. “I think of trips my colleagues take for important global diplomacy, or to address food security crises, or many other critical goals that I would not want them to miss,” he said. But most academics will admit that there are less useful conferences that they can skip.