My research is on the consequences of climate change, and I love this. In my opinion, climate change is the fight of our era and this focus makes my work worthwhile. However, it means I can’t ignore everything else around me and tunnel my vision only to the consequences I’m researching. I now question every decision I make, from food to power to washing and to transport. And what I find doesn’t usually make me feel good. Long gone are those guilt-free days when I thought that recycling was enough to play my part.
The ship is a good place to make you consider your consumption and waste. Everything you need has to be brought with you before you set off, and most waste has to be stored, transported, and deposited at a shore facility. We were not distanced from our waste as much as ashore, where the bin in your flat gets magically emptied (okay okay maybe not by magic, maybe by the flatmate – thanks Sam) into a larger outside bin, which magically gets taken away to ??????, out of sight and out of mind. Sometimes I imagine all the waste an individual creates during their lives stacked up next to them, one towering monstrosity, a mountain of slow degradation. Well, on a ship it’s not quite like that, as waste is stored away nicely and the food waste is burnt. But there were containers full of our recyclables, and its presence alone is enough to make you think.
A ship is also a great place for focus. Having no signal and little internet is freeing, and being away from notifications allowed me really concentrate, and weirdly considering the long working hours, relax. I might adjust the notification settings of a lot of apps on my phone.
Now the fieldwork aspect of my PhD is complete, I need to process my samples, analyse the data, and write. Many students go to far-flung conferences in this period to present their early findings, but I have decided against going to conferences outside the UK or further than a train can reach. As tempting as they are, and as good they are for networking etc, I can’t bring myself to fly again. I feel guilty for my flight from Svalbard to Aberdeen, and got the train from Southampton to Aberdeen and back before and after the trip to avoid any extra flying. As climate scientists, I think we need to question the good that will come from our carbon emissions. There was an interesting piece in Nature about it, and there was an open letter written to AGU and EGU this year about how we need to change our research behaviour. Are we helping the world, or just ourselves?
There has to be a balance somewhere. I have been lucky in the past, and some amazing opportunities have come my way. I worked in Malaysian Borneo on three occasions in a project that brings scientific technology to places where it isn’t usually available. We were studying the influence of land-use change on respiration in rivers in Sarawak, and I loved the entire experience. It helped me as a scientist and I will value the memories forever. Even now, looking back from a more informed position, I don’t know whether I’d make a different decision about flying across the world. In fact, I’m about to move to Hawaii for three months for a research placement (more to come on this). I weighed the benefits against the costs when I applied for it, but have since doubted whether I made the right choice. I’m just one big ball of excitement and guilt right now, and the guilt is winning. I guess it is just important that we think carefully about our decisions.