Trans Europe Express: some advice for overland travel in Europe

trans europe express
#flyingless early adopters Kraftwerk

Since taking the decision to avoid flying where possible, quite a few people have asked me for advice on how to plan overland travel in Europe, so I thought I’d write up a few tips to share.

The first thing I’d say is: yes, in most cases it is more complicated to figure out overland travel than it is to buy a plane ticket. It can be time-consuming to figure out routes and timings if you’ve never done it before, and it’s sometimes hard to find the cheapest and most convenient way of doing things. But like everything, it gets easier with experience.

Plane travel is often cheaper than overland travel but that’s in large part down to the ridiculous subsidies given to airlines – for example, they don’t pay tax on their fuel. If this annoys you, write to a politician and tell them that it annoys you. On the other hand, sometimes train fares are surprisingly cheap – e.g. Brussels to Prague for €29, or London to Dublin for £50 or less. In many cases I’ve found that it costs less or about the same to go overland as it does to fly, especially if I need to bring luggage.

The overland transport system in Europe is far from perfect – in some places the train network needs a lot of investment, we need better ticketing services for international travel, and delays and cancellations do happen. I’ve had a few stressful days while travelling over the last year. But I’ve also had some very good times – drinking tea and watching the dawn over Lake Zürich, catching up with faraway friends in between journey sections, the pure oddness of getting on a Russian train in Paris. The shape of Europe has changed for me since I’ve been travelling more this way – it feels bigger, but also a lot more interesting. If you are able to travel overland, I recommend it mightily.


Alright, if you want to expand your European overland travel range, and you’re not sure where to start, here are my main tips:

  1. Plan your trip as far in advance as possible. Train fares, unlike airplane tickets, almost always get more expensive the closer you get to your travel date. However, it’s not usually possible to book train fares very far in advance – in Europe, it varies between countries and can be anywhere between two months and six months. If you know you need to take a trip somewhere but you haven’t hammered out the exact details yet, it’s worth checking the booking horizons so that you know when you should make firm plans. Check individual train company websites or see here for a guide. If you’ve planned your trip but the tickets aren’t yet on sale, then mark the date to buy tickets in your diary or set a booking alert – RailEurope offers this for trains within France, Germany, Spain, Italy, and the UK, and individual train company websites often do too.
  2. How to find the best route, and how to buy tickets? For train travel, I always start with – it’s an amazing resource, with general advice as well as highly detailed information on individual routes. If you’re travelling internationally, RailEurope, SNCF, ÖBB, Deutsche Bahn, Polrail, etc can all be used to find and buy tickets for journeys through neighbouring countries: you don’t have to buy separate tickets for every country you travel through. However, there are limits to each of these – it’s unfortunately not possible to buy a through ticket from one end of Europe to the other, so if you’re doing a very long journey you will have to buy multiple tickets.
  3. Consider Interrail passes. These can be very good value, especially if you’re travelling to more than one location – in 2020, a pass for four days’ travel in one month costs €185/€246 depending on whether you’re under or over 28 years old. However, you also need to factor in reservation fees for night trains and for some high-speed trains. Depending on your plans, it can be cheaper on paper to buy individual tickets rather than getting an Interrail pass. However, if you need to book tickets separately for different sections of your journey (e.g. one ticket through SNCF, another through ÖBB) then you should remember that you’re not officially covered if you miss a connection on the second part of your journey because of a delay in the first part of your journey: they’re separate tickets. This can get expensive. Here, an Interrail pass can be invaluable, because it gives you flexibility if things go wrong.
  4. Night trains are great. The most extensive network is ÖBB’s Nightjet, which uses Vienna as a hub, although there are lots of other routes too. There are different types of compartment available (including women-only compartments): here is a good guide. Couchettes are fine, especially if you get a four-person rather than six-person one, but sleeper compartments are more comfortable. There is a bit of a knack to sleeping in trains – personally, I need good earplugs and an eyemask – but we’re all different, so you’ll need to figure it out for yourself. To be honest, I don’t always sleep super well in trains so I would try to avoid going directly from a night train to e.g. chairing a conference session. I got a single compartment once when I knew I had to be in good form the day after, and that did help a lot. All that said, I always look forward to getting on a night train – there’s nothing quite like them.


And a few more bits of advice that might help:

  1. As well as looking for tickets directly on train company websites, there are a few search engines that may help you find interesting possibilities. Rome2Rio doesn’t find the best routes 100% of the time, but it’s so easy to use that it’s usually worth a look (and is especially useful if you’re looking for coach options too). Google Maps can also be useful for figuring out potential routes.
  2. Join train company newsletters. For example, Eurostar often send out emails advertising deals starting from £29 one-way: if these kinds of deals might interest you in the future, it’s worth signing up to their list.
  3. See these tips for finding cheaper German rail tickets.
  4. Don’t overlook coaches. These can be enormously cheaper than trains and are often nicer than you might expect. In some parts of Europe the train network is also very limited and coaches may in fact be faster than trains. Flixbus has a huge network in Europe and often very cheap fares – there’s also Eurolines and lots of other regional operators. I’ve used Flixbus a few times – in my experience they’re comfortable but not always punctual, so allow some extra time when planning.
  5. Border crossings on trains travelling within the Schengen area are generally extremely simple, although I’ve sometimes experienced passport controls due to recent suspensions of Schengen rules in some countries. Every time that I’ve seen this, the officials have come through the train and checked passports as they went. Border crossings on coaches beyond the Schengen area, however, can be a nightmare – we waited for four hours at the Serbia-Hungary road border last summer, which is not something I want to repeat in a hurry.
  6. Night buses are not my favourite thing in the world but are worth considering, especially in regions where train services are patchy or non-existent. In areas where they’re a major form of transport, they’re often a lot nicer than they are in western Europe. In Turkey, for example, night buses often only have three seats per row rather than four, and the seats recline a lot more than what I’ve seen elsewhere. They’re also generally cheap as chips.


That’s it for now! If you have questions or comments you can try asking me on Twitter, and I’ll update this post if I think of anything more to add. Good luck!


New Year’s resolutions

New year. New decade. Today’s date – 01/01/2020 – has the allure of blank paper. It’s a good day for making plans for the next year and looking back on the past.

For me, this year has been both joyful (getting married!) and exhausting – I spent a lot of the year hovering around burnout, and it’s only been in the last few months that I’ve been capable of writing again. So if you were wondering if I’d given up on this blog or on writing about this subject – no, I haven’t, it’s just been a tricky year. But I do have numerous half-written pieces to finish up and share, and I’m looking forward to letting them see the light of day. I’ve also been thinking a lot, talking a lot, and figuring out my priorities for the next year or so. I’m sharing these largely to help focus myself, but if anyone wants to chat about any of them, or about any other ideas, please get in touch. So here goes: my New Year’s resolutions for decarbonising archaeology.


Imagining a decarbonised archaeology

What would a decarbonised archaeology look like? I took a few tiny steps towards answering this question over a year ago, and since then I’ve thought about it a lot more. This year I want to put forward a description of how a decarbonised archaeology might look. To do that, it’s necessary first of all to grapple with how deeply entwined archaeology is with fossil fuel exploitation and environmental destruction. This is not straightforward and neither is it comfortable, but it’s a prerequisite for understanding what we need to let go of if we want to truly decarbonise archaeology. This is what I want to write about in the next 12 months.


Flying less

Just over a year ago my partner and I decided to reduce our flying as much as possible. I haven’t taken any flights since February 2019; since then I’ve travelled all over Europe and beyond (UK, Poland, Austria, Denmark, Ireland, Russia, Turkey, and more) using trains, buses and ferries. There’s been a big learning curve to this – this kind of travel is complicated in comparison with taking a highly polluting flight. But it’s also been satisfying, and has gone a long way towards curing my climate-related cognitive dissonance. More than that, it’s been incredibly gratifying to see friends and colleagues of mine also seeking to skip flights in favour of other modes of travel. For 2020, I’m going to keep going with flying less, and setting the bar high for what constitutes a “necessary flight”. But I’ve also now collected a heap of tips on how to travel around Europe without flying, so I will be sharing some of these soon.


Organising a conference

I want to organise an online, no travel archaeology conference. More on this soon.


Decarbonising archaeology, one department at a time

I haven’t said much about this much online, but over the last year I’ve been talking to people within my lab in Bordeaux to see what we can do as a collective. My contract ends soon and so this will be a good time to look back and take stock of the last year or so, which might be useful to anyone who’s thinking of starting, or continuing, a similar conversation within their own departments. So watch this space.


This next decade is going to be interesting, and it might – might – just be the decade when the world gets serious about decarbonisation. If it is, it won’t be due to the beneficence and wisdom of our political leaders. It’s up to us. Happy New Year.

On quitting flying

A couple of weeks ago I flew back from a trip to visit my partner’s family. We had a nice time. It was also a milestone, because it was the last time that I am flying anywhere for the foreseeable future.

In the end, this was not a difficult decision. That doesn’t mean that living out its consequences is going to be completely easy. But the decision itself was not hard. Flying has made up more than half of my personal contribution to global warming over the last seven years. I want to cut this footprint as much as I can and so giving up flying is the obvious thing to do.

I’m inspired by the groundswell I’ve seen, just over the last few months, towards cutting flying, both among researchers and the wider public. I am willing to jump on the gloriously awkward #flyingless bandwagon. I think it’s the right thing to do and it’s something that I can do. The question of individual action vs group action is an endless source of tension and debate among decarbonisation campaigners, but for me this individual action is a group action: I’m not doing this on my own, I’m joining in with an ever-growing number of other people who are also doing their best to stay away from appallingly damaging airplanes.

In practical terms, this is going to cause some complications. I live in France but I’m from Ireland and my partner is from Turkey. This means that to visit our families, it’s not a matter of swapping the plane for a simple train journey. But we’ll figure it out. For work, I do most of my research in Eastern Europe – again, not the easiest place to get to from Bordeaux. But it turns out that, for example, there is a direct sleeper train from Paris to Moscow – who knew? So again, I’ll figure it out.

I can’t say I’ll never fly again. I have close family in North America and in Australia, and I have no idea how, long term, I can square that circle. I’m also in a fortunate situation right now, in that I have good research funding to pay for my work trips and I set my own timetable – if I stay in academia, things will probably get more complicated at some point. On the personal travel front, we’re happy to take on the added expense of overland travel at the moment, but our situation might change in the future.

But right now? Yes, for 2019, I’m happy to say: no more flying.

My carbon footprint: flights, damned flights and statistics

A lesson that archaeology has taught me repeatedly is that you can’t solve a problem if you don’t know how big it is. This goes for finishing a PhD, cooking dinner for an entire field team, or getting through the last crates of lithics before the museum closes down for the summer. You need to know how many words you need to write, how many people you need to feed, and how many stone tools are in those boxes.

One problem that I’ve been working on lately is how to reduce my personal contribution to the climate mess we find ourselves in. To do this effectively, I needed to work out my carbon footprint. I knew there was space for reductions but I didn’t how exactly how big my footprint was or what exactly it was made up of. So I decided to find out.

In particular, and because I’m also keen to do what I can to decarbonise my work practices, I wanted to know just how many flights I’ve taken as a PhD student and researcher in archaeology. I started my PhD in October 2011 and I’ve been working as a postdoc since the beginning of 2015, so I decided to do an analysis of my flights for the period January 2012–December 2018. I wasn’t sure how many flights I’d taken in that time. I guessed maybe four or five return flights per year, on average, so maybe seventy flights altogether for the period in question. But I knew I could check, because all my flight confirmations are saved in my email account. I sat down one Sunday in late November and I started collating the information into a simple spreadsheet: date, points of departure and arrival, purpose. Where I had stopovers, I counted each leg of the flight separately.

It turns out I’m not very good at guessing how many flights I’ve taken, because the total was 152. One hundred and fifty two individual flights over seven years, or an average of nearly 22 flights per year.

The next step was to add up the carbon footprint of all of these flights. The first problem I met is that it is extremely difficult to find out how to calculate a carbon footprint accurately. There are many calculators online and they vary wildly in the results they give. Part of this is down to the existence of major complicating factors when calculating the global warming footprint of a flight, including the fact that CO2 is not the only pollutant emitted by airplanes, and that pollutants that are emitted high up in the atmosphere have a different effect from those emitted at ground level. For the purposes of carbon footprint calculation, this is often accounted for by what is called a radiative forcing index (RFI; here is a good explainer by Carbon Brief). There are numerous ways of applying this, which explains much of the difference between different carbon footprint calculators – some don’t apply an RFI at all, others do it only if you ask them to, and the methods and factors used vary significantly.

In the end I settled on Atmosfair to calculate my carbon footprint. The RFI calculation methods they use seemed well-reasoned; similar methods are also used by Other calculators often gave much lower results (especially ICAO), but underestimation seemed like a bigger risk than overestimation.

To cut to the chase, this is the total footprint I calculated for those 152 flights: 47,844 kg CO2-equivalent. Nearly 7 tonnes of CO2-eq per year over the last seven years, just from flights.

That seemed like a lot (it is a lot) but I wanted some context, so I decided to estimate what the rest of my carbon footprint looks like. Again, this is not straightforward, but here goes. I rent a small flat with my partner near the city centre in Bordeaux. We don’t have children or pets. We don’t have a car. We cycle everywhere. We recently went mostly vegetarian, eating meat a maximum of three or four times a month. We are not avid shoppers. Using our energy bills, I calculated the carbon footprint for gas (4500 kWh/year) and electricity (1200 kWh/year) in our flat and it’s about 500 kg for each of us (that’s pretty low, thanks to France’s nuclear energy). Our transport footprint apart from flying is negligible and I’m ignoring it here (it just includes some occasional bus or train trips and very rare taxi trips). The average dietary footprint in France has been estimated at about 1,200 kg – that may well be an overestimate in our case since we’ve mostly cut out meat, but let’s leave it as it is. Let’s allow 2,600 kg per year to account for clothing, services and buying manufactured products (based on the averages for France as found in SI Table 3 of this paper). That all adds up to a personal estimated carbon footprint excluding flying of ca. 4,300 kg per year. It hasn’t been exactly the same for the last seven years – when I lived in the UK my energy footprint was almost certainly higher, for example – but it’ll do as a point of comparison.

So my carbon footprint is made up of something like 6,800 kg CO2-eq per year on flights and around 4,300 kg on everything else. In other words, flights make up about 60% of my global warming contribution for the last seven years. If I want to reduce my carbon footprint, there’s nothing else for it – I have to cut my flying.


* * *


So what does this flying consist of? I’ve put my flights into three categories: Work, Holidays, and Mobility.

Work includes all the flights I’ve taken for study and research in archaeology: to fieldwork, conferences, meetings, and so on. This added up to 90 flights, and 55% of the calculated carbon footprint for flying. I’ve done a lot of work in Russia, so it includes many flights to Saint Petersburg and Moscow from the UK and France, but that’s the furthest I’ve flown for work: all my conferences and research trips have been within Europe.

Holidays includes flights for holidays (rare) and also to visit family and friends outside of my home country of Ireland (more frequent). This made up 20 flights, although they also included the only very long-haul flights I’ve taken in the last seven years, and contributed 32% of the flights footprint.

Mobility might seem like a slightly strange category, but more on it later – it includes all the flights I’ve taken to go back to Ireland for personal and family reasons. This included 42 flights, and made up 13% of the flights footprint.

There was a bit of messing round involved where I wasn’t sure how to allocate a flight from a multi-leg journey with several stops, but to be honest it didn’t make much difference to the numbers in the end – one more short-haul flight in one or another category doesn’t change the overall results.

This is a barplot of the CO2-equivalent in kg per year and per category:

Graph of my flight-related carbon footprint for 2012-2018, divided into the three categories of Work, Holidays and Mobility
My estimated carbon footprint from flights for 2012-2018


You can see that work usually makes up the biggest category although in 2014 and 2015 the holidays category becomes a lot bigger. You can also see that the work footprint is a lot smaller in 2014 and 2018, and that the mobility footprint is bigger in 2016–2018 than in previous years.

I’m going to discuss the Holidays and Mobility categories briefly, and then go on to Work.

Holidays make up 32% of the flight-related footprint. The reason my Holidays footprint is so big in 2014 and 2015 is because I took a trip to Australia in 2014–2015 to go and see my family out there after I’d submitted my PhD. That return flight to Sydney has a shocking footprint: over 10,000 kg CO2-eq, or 22% of my entire total for flights for the last seven years. The holidays footprint for 2012 and 2013 is very low because I was working on my PhD and I was broke. It’s been bigger in the last few years because I’ve gone on a few holidays within Europe and to visit my partner’s family. The potential for reducing this part of my footprint is high: both my partner and I are keen to shrink our footprint as much as possible, and this is an obvious place to make changes.

I named the Mobility category after the “Mobility Allowance” that comes with my current postdoctoral funding: these journeys make up 13% of the overall CO2-eq footprint for my flights, although for 2018 they actually constitute the biggest single category. They include flights back to Ireland for Christmases, weddings, funerals, and just to see my family. The reason that their contribution is bigger in 2016–2018 is because I moved to France from the UK in early 2016 and so the carbon footprint of the individual flights increased. These flights are the result of, basically, academic mobility. This is what happens to your carbon footprint when you’re living in a different country from your family but you still fly home to see them. Many people, of course, find themselves much further away from their family than this. And looking at this part of my footprint makes me think. On a personal level, I can cut this part of my footprint: it’s not that difficult to get to Ireland from France by train and ferry (although it is more expensive and much slower). But to take a bigger perspective: I’ve taken on average three return flights a year to go see my family over the last seven years. And that is mirrored many thousands of times over by other researchers and students living away from their families across the world. There is a massive ongoing push for increased mobility in academia from funders and employers, and I don’t deny the intellectual and career benefits it’s given me. But if we are to keep doing this, how can we make this aspect of academia carbon neutral?


* * *


The final category is work.

Overall, the 90 flights I’ve taken for work make up a majority of my flights-related footprint: 55% in total. It’s pretty consistent over the years, except for 2014 and 2018. A little bit of personal history is necessary here to make sense of this. From October 2011 to November 2014 I was working on my PhD. In 2012 and 2013 I took a lot of research trips to Russia, but I spent most of 2014 writing and so didn’t travel much. I spent 2015 working as a postdoctoral research assistant on a large project based in Oxford which involved quite a lot of travel around Europe. I then moved to Bordeaux and spent 2016 and 2017 as a postdoctoral fellow, still travelling, but with very limited funding so I tended to always pick the cheapest travel mode. In early 2018 I started a new fellowship, again in Bordeaux. I actually didn’t take any research trips in 2018 because I was already fully occupied working on papers and desk-based research for my new project. My new fellowship has a very generous budget for research expenses, which means that I now don’t have to take the cheapest options for travel, and so I could use the train to get to conferences in Barcelona, Liège and London. The only flights I took for work in 2018 were in fact to get home from Liège because of train strikes in France. This is why my footprint is so much lower in 2018.

The flights I’ve taken over the last seven years were for various purposes: fieldwork (mainly in Russia), conferences, and occasional meetings and training sessions. Some of them were incredibly useful and vital to the work I’ve done. Some of them weren’t. For some, I could in principle have taken the train without too much effort.

These flights make up a huge part of my footprint, and they represent my personal contribution to, well, carbonising archaeology. So I wanted to know if I could have done things differently. I’ve gone through my work trips and divided them into three categories. The first category contains journeys that I think were worth taking, where I learned a lot and collected useful data, and that would have been a significant hassle to do without flying – all of these were research trips to Russia. The second category contains journeys that I think were worth taking but where I could happily have taken the train: this includes most of the conferences I’ve gone to. The final category contains journeys that, frankly, I don’t think were worth taking, and that I could have skipped without any adverse effect on my or anyone else’s work. In general I could have guessed this before organising the trip, if I’d thought about it hard enough.

Of the 90 flights I took for work over the last seven years, in retrospect I think only 44 of them were essential. I could have cancelled 26 of them without losing out on much, and I could have replaced 20 of them with train journeys.

I’m leaving out 2018 from the following calculation because I already used low-carbon transport for most of my trips that year. But if I recalculate my carbon footprint for the imaginary world where I cancelled some of my work trips and took the train for others, then my work footprint for 2011–2017 drops significantly – in fact, from 26,212 kg CO2-eq to 16,018 kg CO2-eq, or by 39%. That’s a big saving. And that’s without doing anything particularly radical, such as taking the train to Russia rather than flying, and it’s without cancelling truly useful research trips or conferences. If anything I would probably have benefited from travelling the way I do in this imaginary world: I would have wasted less time on travel that wasn’t useful, and I would probably have planned the trips that I did take more carefully.


* * *


For me, this has been a really useful exercise. It took me a long time to write this blogpost, not just because it involved a lot of research but also because it took me a while to get my head round the results. When I first calculated my flight-related footprint I was taken aback at how much bigger it was than I thought, and frankly pretty ashamed at my profligacy. Later I started to see it differently. I can’t change the past. But I can change my behaviour from now on.

I hope that what I’ve done here can help start some conversations and provoke other people into thinking constructively about their own carbon footprints. Recently I’ve had quite a few conversations and Twitter interactions with friends and colleagues about work-related travel where people tell me that they feel really guilty about it. Please don’t. Everyone has different circumstances, and we all have to weigh up our travel decisions for ourselves (if they’re even our decisions to make, which they aren’t always). Feeling guilty just isn’t useful. Lots of us are in situations where there just aren’t straightforward ways to fulfil our work requirements with low-carbon travel, and lots of us have commitments to field projects in farflung places that are impossible to get to overland.

On the other hand, I think that many of us can cut our travel-related carbon footprints and I think it is worth us all thinking about what we can do. If you want to do this I strongly recommend taking some time to calculate your past travel-related footprint (try doing it just for the past year or two), or starting a simple spreadsheet of journeys that you take from now on. For calculating the carbon footprint of flights I do recommend Atmosfair, although I’d be interested to hear if anyone has a properly informed opinion about the differences between various calculators. It’s also very much worth getting an idea of the differences between modes of transport for taking particular trips: for Europe the Ecopassenger website is excellent for this. (Note that to you need to change the settings after calculation to include the “climate factor” if you want a full estimate of the flight footprint including RFI). This really brought home to me the amazing efficiency of trains (especially in Western Europe with its clean electric network) compared with kerosene-guzzling air travel. For example, a trip from Bordeaux to London has a footprint of 14  kg CO2-eq if done by train, vs 168 kg CO2-eq by air – and these short trips, as I’ve found, soon add up.


Ecopassenger comparison of different modes of transport for a journey from Bordeaux to London
Ecopassenger comparison of transport options for a journey from Bordeaux to London including calculation of “climate factor” (RFI) for flights


We all have different constraints in terms of our funding, workloads and personal responsibilities: we have to figure out for ourselves what we can and want to do. But if, like me, you’re interested in reducing the carbon impacts of our discipline then it’s important to get an understanding of what those carbon impacts are, based on numbers rather than gut feeling or guesses. Our own work-related carbon footprints, which are the ones we understand the best, are a very good place to start. For me this exercise has been confronting but in the end it’s also been empowering: now that I know how big my carbon footprint is, I can do something to reduce it and I know how much I’m reducing it by. This is amazingly satisfying. It means I can make more informed decisions about what I’m doing and concentrate on making reductions where it counts.

My experience of calculating my own footprint also appears to confirm that, if we’re to decarbonise our discipline, the most important thing we need to focus on is travel. There are lots of other things to talk about too: everything from lab practices to conference catering. But it seems very likely to me that the biggest single element of our disciplinary footprint derives from air travel. There are very many archaeologists who travel a lot less by plane than I have over the last few years; at the same time, there are quite a few who travel much more. If we want to make meaningful reductions in archaeology’s contribution to global warming, this is where we should start.

I’m still a long way from understanding the total carbon footprint of archaeology and how we can reduce it as a discipline. But I’ve been brilliantly encouraged by these calculations, because they suggest that in my case at least there is a lot of space for reductions in my work-related footprint. If that’s true for me, it’s true for other people too. If we’re to fully decarbonise our discipline we will need to make some very difficult choices, but there is also plenty of low-hanging fruit there for the taking if we choose to change our practices. For most of us, however, there are stumbling blocks to making these changes, including funding, academic culture, project management practices, personal responsibilities and employer policies. These aren’t necessarily insurmountable but they need consideration. I’ll be writing more in the future on what I think we can do about these issues – in the meantime, if anyone has any thoughts on any of this I’d love to hear them.

Decarbonising academia: what’s happening outside archaeology

I started writing about decarbonisation and archaeology without a plan. I still don’t have a plan. But since publishing last week’s blogpost I’ve been very relieved to see that there is an appetite within our discipline for change and that I’m far from alone in thinking what I’m thinking. I’ve had some fascinating conversations and interactions with colleagues inside and outside archaeology over the last week. There are definitely the seeds of something here.

So what next? Well, I come at this problem as a researcher. Being a researcher, I know that the most important thing to do when starting a new project is to find out what’s already been done. If this is to go anywhere, we need to know what’s going on elsewhere and what ideas we can borrow to apply within archaeology. We need to know what the low-hanging fruit are, where the big gains can be made, and some of the likely trade-offs and sticking points. I’ve only scratched the surface so far, but it was brilliantly encouraging to see what other people have been up to. So here are a few highlights.

There are plenty of other people arguing for strong action to cut the carbon footprint of academia. See for example Jason Hickel making the case for cancelling the AAA annual meetings altogether (yes, those AAAs, the American Anthropological Association meetings). There’s also Alison Munson calling for a change to how things are done in ecology following the most recent IPCC report. And finally, social psychologist Michael W. Kraus making “a modest proposal” to decentralise academic conferences to counter their environmental impacts and accessibility problems. So we’re not alone in archaeology in wanting to change the way things are done: this is an academia-wide trend.

Speaking of decentralising academic conferences, here’s one that actually did it: the ICMPC15-ESCOM10 music psychology conference, which took place across four global hubs livestreaming to each other. Another conference went mostly virtual with the explicit aim of reducing its contribution to carbon outputs: Displacements, the 2018 Biennial Meeting of the Society for Cultural Anthropology (USA). One of the interesting things they did was to set up dozens of “nodes” hosting events across the world, to enable some of the face-to-face interaction that makes conferences what they are for academics.

I found the latter example via the Flying Less blog, which contains some great arguments for why and how to change the travel culture within academia, and accompanies an ongoing petition. There’s also No Fly Climate Sci, which presents a huge number of testimonies from academics and others who have cut their flying or stopped altogether.

One of the best things I’ve found so far are the slides from a recent presentation titled Evaluating the climate impact of psychological science: Costs & opportunities by Leor Hackel. This is an excellent resource, that includes references to follow up, plenty of statistics, and – what I think is most important – that follows a quantified, evidence-led approach. One of the things that I’ve been thinking a lot about is how to measure archaeology’s contribution to climate change, and how to track our progress in reducing it. I’d also like to know the composition of our footprint, so that we can focus our energies where they’ll be most effective. This is difficult, of course, but it’s also crucial, so I’ll be spending some of my spare time looking into it over the next few weeks. If anyone has any ideas, please send them my way.

Cognitive dissonance and archaeological practice

I think a lot of us archaeologists like to think of ourselves as grown-ups when it comes to climate change.

This is especially the case for people who, like me, work on the Palaeolithic. We know just how dramatically the climate has changed in the past. We know about the Greenland Ice Core Chronology, about Heinrich events, Milankovitch cycles, marine cores, loess-paleosol sequences, past sea level change. Nobody needs to convince us that the earth’s climate system is complex and contains many surprising feedback mechanisms, and that if you inject a huge amount of carbon dioxide into the earth’s atmosphere there will indeed be repercussions.


From NOAA NCEI Paleoclimatology Program
based on EPICA Dome C data (Lüthi et al., 2008).


And yet. And yet. We’re stuck with a bad case of cognitive dissonance. We are stuck between two ways of seeing the world, and we’re not doing a very good job of thinking clearly about them.

The first way of seeing the world is, essentially, a scientific way. Lots of us are really good at this. This way of seeing the world understands that modern-day climate change is serious and real and that there is abundant data to support this. As archaeologists, many of us have a good background for understanding the significance of what is going on and we take our colleagues in climate science seriously. When they publicly conclude, as they did recently, that if we need to cut carbon emissions by 45% by 2030 and go carbon neutral by 2050, we support them entirely.

The second way of seeing the world is the way we’re taught to see the world as working archaeologists. This is the worldview that is shaped by the fact that we love archaeology and think it’s important and we want to do good work. (It’s also shaped by wider political forces). It’s the worldview that tells us to work long hours and put large amounts of pressure on ourselves and go away on fieldwork, to conferences, perhaps more than we really want to. In this worldview it’s good to get funding to do exciting work in faraway places. It’s good if we travel a lot. Our employers tell us it’s good. Our funders tell us it’s good. Our colleagues praise us for these things and our students, perhaps, look up to us for them.

I did not spend eight years in higher education to learn not to notice that those two ways of seeing the world are fundamentally incompatible.

We live in the time of neoliberalism. That affects every aspect of our lives and work, including as archaeologists. We compete for funding with each other and with our colleagues in other disciplines; many of us work on short-term contracts; if we have a permanent job we might be stuck with idiotic targets to meet. We worry about journal impact factors. That is the context in which we are flying all over the place and giving papers and doing more research trips and feeling, all the time, like this is all necessary and we don’t have a choice. At the same time, we are not stupid. We hear what climate scientists are telling us and we take them seriously. We want to be able to find a way to deal with all these different needs coherently, the need to fly less and the need to get funding, the need to prioritise the environment and the need to go to conferences. But we can’t, because there isn’t one.

Cognitive dissonance is a bad space to be in. It’s what happens when we hold two sets of contradictory beliefs and it causes mental discomfort and clouds thinking. As a discipline, right now, we are suffering from cognitive dissonance. We know, as humans, as researchers, that global warming is a grave problem that demands changes in every aspect of our lives. But as humans, as researchers, our jobs demand that we do things that are entirely at odds with those necessary changes. We reduce this cognitive dissonance by telling ourselves that we have to keep doing things the way we’ve been doing them. Because we’re archaeologists, this is what archaeologists do. Because archaeology is really important. Because everyone else is doing it. But the cognitive dissonance caused by the contradictions between our two sets of beliefs stops us from thinking straight and it stops us from talking honestly to each other.

There are numerous possible responses to cognitive dissonance. We can do our best to ignore it, and keep rationalising our behaviour, forever, and get uneasy and change the subject whenever the topic of our dissonance comes up. That’s not good for our mental health and it also doesn’t do anything to solve the root causes. We can deny the truth of reality, which leads to all sorts of lousy behaviour. Or, of course, we can try and find a way through it by thinking as clearly as we can and figuring out which things are true and which things are not. This is not always easy. But if we manage it in this case, we might come to realise that of the two ways of seeing the world that are set out above, it is the first one that is real and non-negotiable and the second one that needs to be rethought.


* * *


I’ll cut to the chase: we cannot keep doing archaeology the way that we have been doing it if we are serious about climate change. We cannot.

I’ve thought about this a lot and I can’t find any other conclusion.

This doesn’t mean I’ve suddenly decided that archaeology isn’t important. I think it is, and actually I think that the perspective of archaeologists is badly needed in the world right now.

But if we take climate change seriously – if we really acknowledge the gravity of the situation where we find ourselves – then we have to face up to the impossibility of continuing as we are. We have to change the way we live our lives, and that includes changing the way we do research.

This is a real-world, practical problem. So let’s talk about it like one.

The IPCC told us, in October 2018, that we need to cut CO2 emissions by 45% in the next twelve years, by 2030, and reach carbon neutrality by the middle of the century. Do that, and although things will stay risky, we have a decent chance of the climate stabilising at around 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels. A world with a stable climate is a world I want to live in. It’s a world I want the next generation to live in. And the one after that.

(It’s weird for me, as a researcher, to find myself quoting things that I don’t understand well. Citing figures straight out of an online press release is not the kind of thing I normally do. I don’t understand all the data and models and uncertainties that go into establishing these figures. I am taking it on trust, because I respect climate scientists and the IPCC, that this report is a useful guide for what we need to do. I think that’s worth saying because I’m probably not the only one who feels a bit strange about it. I’m sure these figures are a bit off, because that’s how science goes. But as a guide for action, they’ll do.)

Ok, so since we need to do this – since we need to cut emissions by 45% by 2030, and reach carbon neutrality by the middle of the century, how are we going to do it? There are plenty of things that we can do in our personal lives, obvious things to do with food and transport and energy-efficiency. I’m not going to rehearse them here. But we also have to change the way we work. And that includes us archaeologists.

I’m going to take the IPCC’s numbers as a target for action within archaeology. Let’s consider the global warming contributions of our discipline, of all the things that we consider as work, and let’s see how we can start cutting them immediately, cut them by 45% by 2030, and get as close to zero as possible by the middle of the century. That seems like a fair target. No more and no less than what the entire world has to do. We can argue over it but if anything, I would suggest that it should be a minimum target for us.

I want to suggest some concrete ways to get us towards this target. They need refining. They need input from a lot more people. They’re very much shaped by my experience as a full-time postdoctoral researcher based in continental Europe. But they’re a start. They’re mainly to do with travel because I’m pretty sure that travel is where we, as archaeologists, are contributing to global warming the most. We fly around the continent, around the world, for conferences and fieldwork and meetings. Many of us fly far more than the average citizen. So we need, as a matter of urgency, to cut our travel.

I’m no more qualified than any other archaeologist to start saying things like this (which is another way of saying that you’re all as qualified as I am to start saying these things too). But in the absence of leadership from my superiors, in the absence of institutions and funding bodies taking all of this as seriously as I think they should, well, I’m not going to apologise for making an attempt at this problem. So here goes.

First – what if we, starting from now, cancelled every second conference? Some of our annual conferences attract thousands of people – that’s thousands of return flights. What if we had half the number of conferences but planned them to be longer and slower, so that we could take full advantage of these opportunities to have meaningful interactions with our colleagues? What if, on top of that, we chose conference venues based on their accessibility by train?

Second – what would happen if we decided, as a discipline, to publicly declare a moratorium on starting new research projects until we’ve cleared our backlogs? What if we just sat down and caught up on all our work, learned some new skills to deal with the data we have, finished writing the books we have half-written? What if funding bodies supported ECRs not only in starting new research projects, but in working on data they’ve already got? Would archaeology, as a whole, suffer for that?

Finally – what if funders and universities started using environmental impact as a criterion for funding decisions? What if they asked, upfront, for justification of how many flights would be necessary to complete a research project and refused to pay for more than those? What if they required researchers to take the train rather than fly wherever feasible? What if we, as a discipline, asked them to do this?

These are all things that I think we can do. I am aware that there are a thousand possible objections. I am aware that if we tried to implement them they would face enormous opposition, from many people within our discipline, including senior and well-regarded people, and from our universities and research institutes and funders. I am aware of all of that.

But I am also completely serious about these ideas. Because these are the kind of things that we need to do. And ultimately we will need to go much further than this.

If, at this point, you’re recoiling and saying hang on, archaeologists aren’t really the problem, we shouldn’t have to change our research strategies, let’s not be too hasty about doing drastic things like systematically reducing our travel, then I suggest you think hard about why this is your immediate response. If you are coming up with a hundred rationalisations as to why archaeologists have to travel as much as we do now, have to fly around the world, have to see each other at conferences – well, then ask yourself how that squares with the fact that we have to stop burning fossil fuel, and ask yourself whether you’re suffering from cognitive dissonance. The travelling we do can be important for our research, it can be fun, it can be good for our careers and our egos, but I struggle to find a rationalisation as to why we archaeologists should be exceptions to the human imperative to decarbonise. If we’re going carbon neutral in the next three decades that has to include archaeology as well, so we’d better start adjusting, and quickly.

I have other practical ideas too, which are smaller-scale and lighter-impact. I am leaving them out because we need to think big right now. There are also other, more abstract contributions we can make towards the necessary culture shifts. These include telling the world what we know about the flexibility of human culture, about our capacities for large-scale co-operation, about big picture perspectives. These sorts of communications have the potential to be vital contributions. But to me it seems foolish to try and convince the world in general of the possibility of changing our fossil fuel habits when we ourselves haven’t done it yet. Changing our work practices, putting decarbonisation at the top of our priority list, will send a stronger signal to the world at large than anything else we can do right now.

Solving this problem of decarbonisation is difficult. If we take it on, it is going to involve learning a lot of new skills and talking to a lot of new people and getting our heads round a lot of new knowledge. It’s intellectually exciting and it’s important and funnily enough it requires the exact same broadness of approach that makes archaeology so wonderful, with its combination of hard science and social science. It is daunting, of course. But who cares? We’re archaeologists. We love big problems.

I don’t know if there is anyone else in archaeology who is already saying these kind of things (and I would love to know if there is). I do know that what I’m saying is a long way from the typical conversations that we have, if we have any at all, about climate change. But all I’ve done here is start from the last IPCC report and think about its repercussions for us. It’s not rocket science, and although my suggestions might seem superficially radical, I actually think they’re quite moderate and only the start of what we need to do. Whether ideas like this can be implemented doesn’t depend on me or on any of us as individuals. It depends on us as a discipline. It depends on our taking a deep breath and thinking about our priorities. We need to deal with our cognitive dissonance about this topic and we need to talk to each other, honestly and openly. We need to set goals and we need to strategise. Who’s with me?


Also published at Nature Research Ecology & Evolution Community, 2 November 2018