There’s little question that “forced migration” and (im)mobility related to people seeking refuge outside their countries of origin or official residence are matters of grave (and growing) concern. And there’s no doubt that undergraduate courses need to address these matters. The question is, how?

One approach involves long-distance travel. Visiting contested and heavily policed borderlands, as well as refugee camps and detention centers, it is said, provides an enhanced learning experience, one that a mere classroom-based course does not and cannot. Moreover, some suggest that “going there” and “connecting with” the peoples and places that students are studying facilitates the otherwise unattainable making of ties and bodies of knowledge that contribute to endeavors that go beyond the scope of an academic course, laying the basis for collaborations and organizing efforts that lead to positive change-making.

In what follows, I do not examine these assumptions. Instead, I consider the work that long-distance travel courses do to contribute to some of the very factors that underlie “forced” and illegalized human movement across international divides. I thus focus on the ties between climate change, fossil fuel consumption, and associated inequities. In doing so, I argue that the very exercise of mobility that such courses engage in is a form of world-making; it helps produce a world of people who need refuge outside their home areas.

If, as geographer Tim Cresswell (2006: 2) argues, movements of people are always “products and producers of power (and thus their attendant inequities),” we need to analyze the work that long-distance, resource-intensive mobility undertaken in the name of academic enrichment does—not least in terms of climate change, socioeconomic inequality, and vastly different capacities (in an effective sense) to traverse global space. Similarly, we need to consider the value of not going, of staying put physically, as a way to further the study of people on the move and their stymied mobility. In the end, I suggest that the exercise of immobility on the part of students and faculty concerned with forced migration can enrich the learning experience for all. It can also help to challenge the socio-ecological inequities that contribute to forced migration and the nation-state apparatuses of exclusion that limit the mobility of refugees and other people on the move.

Going There

Several years ago, I had a conversation with someone in the town where I live. The person told me about what he thought was a fantastic program his church was involved in. Local high school students traveled each year to a rural, low-income community in El Salvador for a couple of weeks. There, students learned about the everyday struggles of community members, the country’s civil war (1979–1990 roughly) and how it impacted area residents, and people’s ties to and perceptions of the United States. The students also did some physical labor, helping to repair and build houses. The experience, he assured me, was “life-changing” (in a positive sense) for all the students who made the trip.

In many ways, what my acquaintance shared resonated with me. On three occasions (in 2007, 2009, and 2012), I had helped to organize and lead study trips to the Arizona-Sonora borderlands as part of a Vassar College course on the U.S.-Mexico boundary, the border region, and matters of (im)migration, human rights, and nation-statism. It was a time of rapid and extensive growth of the U.S. policing apparatus in the borderlands—growth that led to illegalized migrants taking ever-greater risks to circumvent the regime of exclusion, and to an associated dramatic spike in deaths (among other forms of suffering) of people who tried to enter the United States without authorization. It was also a time of intense political struggle in the borderlands, as evidenced by the emergence of militia groups focused on the U.S.-Mexico boundary and humanitarian aid groups that sought to assist migrants in need (see Nevins 2008, 2010). My co-instructors and I wanted to expose students to these developments in a “close” manner to deepen their understanding of the making of the border region and of how and to what effects the U.S.-Mexico boundary and its associated agents and institutions work to define, divide, and unite people and places. We also hoped that students would learn to appreciate the different ethical commitments—religious and secular—that inform struggles over the U.S-Mexico boundary and related matters as a way of figuring out where they stood, and why, in relation to those struggles.

After all three course trips, many, if not most, of the students spoke powerfully upon returning to campus about how important the trip had been to broadening and deepening their understanding of course themes. They also reported that it markedly enhanced their appreciation of the intensity of the violence that characterized the U.S. migrant and border policing regime, and the importance of organizations and social movements on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico divide working to remedy the injustices embodied in the region and binational ties more broadly. Such feedback confirmed my sense of the value of firsthand encounters with people and places associated with what we read about in class.

Nonetheless, aspects of the trip to El Salvador, the one my acquaintance described—not least the financial expense and ecological costs of roundtrip air travel—disturbed me. When I gently raised some concerns, the person insisted that the people with whom they interacted in El Salvador wanted them to come. But I wondered if the response he reported was the answer to the wrong question. Rather than “should we come?” being the question, I said to myself, what if it were something like “We have X number of dollars and Y number of tons of CO2 emissions. What do you think would be the best way to use them given your needs and desires?” Had that been the question, I strongly doubt that the response would have been “we want your church group to visit with us.”

The reasons underlying my reaction were, in part, related to why I stopped participating in the travel course to the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. In addition to the travel component of the course involving a great deal of work—before, during, and after the trip—it was expensive: more than $2000 per student. Traveling back and forth from New York to Arizona and Sonora also entailed the consumption of a considerable amount of fossil fuel and, with it, the production of many tons of CO2 emissions—together which constitute an exercise in ecological privilege and a furthering of ecological injustice (see Nevins 2014).Footnote 1 And then there was the question of what we were actually building—in terms of ties between students and faculty at Vassar College and the people with whom we interacted in the Arizona-Sonora borderlands—given the relative brevity of our time in the region (two weeks) and the difficulties of maintaining post-trip ties of substance, the distance between New York and the border region, and the transient nature of student life. Finally, there was the lingering question of why we needed to travel great distances and expend considerable resources to “see” and “know” the borderlands, when the realities of the U.S.-Mexico border regime were all around us (see Miller 2014)—in Poughkeepsie, where Vassar College is located, and in New York State. This is not to deny the uniqueness of what unfolds in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands proper. Instead, the goal is to raise the question of whether that uniqueness—the “extra” gained by conducting field research there rather than in proximity to campus—warrants so many costs, especially when many of those costs (e.g., intensifying climate change) are disproportionately borne by already vulnerable people and places.

In posing this question, I run the risk of positing clear divides between “here” and “there,” and “us” and “them.” In reality, our relations with peoples and places transcend the neat categories that suggest clear differences. As Doreen Massey (1993) reminds us, places are unbounded in that they shape and are, in turn, shaped by other places. So, too, are people bundles of connections. In other words, none of us is isolated in an absolute sense. We are, instead, always and unavoidably linked (to varying degrees) to others—past, present, and future. As Light Carruyo (2008: 109) writes in her rich, nuanced critique of international development endeavors in the Dominican Republic: “[B]eyond commodity chains and global communications, what weaves us together—ties of blood, compassion, fear, distrust, imagination, hope, history, memory, pain, violence, desire, responsibility, potential to create something better—cannot easily be disentangled.” Thus, for Carruyo, the question is not whether we engage (or not) with “distant” people and places. Rather, the challenge we must address involves rethinking (and transforming) how we do so—particularly in light of the profoundly unequal relations of power that typically characterize development. Thus, she writes, “ultimately what needs to change are the terms of the conversation” (Carruyo 2008: 80). How we might productively engage in a conversation on new terms—and why we need to do so, especially in a time of intensifying climate breakdown that demands a radical reduction in CO2 emissions in short order (see Anderson et al. 2020)—is the concluding topic to which I now turn.

Beyond Mobilism

The hypermobility enjoyed by some—not least academics and students at well-resourced institutions—is related to the highly constrained mobility of others (Cresswell 2006; Illich 1974; Massey 1993; Nevins 2018). To give one example, long-distance, high-speed mobility, especially air travel, commands a highly disproportionate share of the world’s fossil fuels. Particularly at a time when the amount of fossil fuel humans can consume is constrained by the realities of climate change (see Anderson et al. 2020), this limits what is available for other modes of fossil-fueled travel, and other activities. In this regard, not only is (im)mobility socially produced (Cresswell 2006), it is also socially (and geographically) productive—in addition to relational. And given the marked degree to which difference in mobility is tied to a broader set of inequities associated with unequal life and death circumstances, we might characterize this as “mobilism”—an “ism” of injustice (like racism and sexism) that is both product and producer of privilege and disadvantage (see Nevins et al. 2022).

For such reasons, Portia Roelofs (2019: 268), a scholar of international development, asserts that thinking critically about airborne travel “is not a question of ethical consumption or eco hand-wringing, but fits into a wider political-economy: air travel is the activity that most clearly embodies the links between inequality and ecological breakdown.” It is estimated, for instance, that more than 80 percent of the world’s population has never flown (see Gurdus 2017; Negroni 2016). In 2018, only eleven percent of people in the world traveled by air, with at most four percent doing so internationally. And among those who do fly, there are pronounced disparities. In 2018, for example, at most one percent of the world’s population accounted for more than half of the total emissions from passenger air travel (Gössling and Humpe 2020).

Academic air travel embodies this wider political economy of inequality and ecological breakdown. A study by Arsenault et al. (2019) focused on the Université de Montréal, for instance, estimates that academic air travel by itself is responsible for 30 percent of the university’s CO2 emissions. Among the professors who responded to the authors’ survey, the size of their work-related travel footprints averaged 10.76 metric tons of CO2 per year. (To provide a point of comparison, this exceeds the total per capita annual emissions of a typical person in Germany.) Another study found that the 28,000 attendees of the 2019 annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco emitted 80,000 tons of CO2 through their travel to and from the gathering. This total, they write, is equal to the average weekly emissions of the Scottish city of Edinburgh and represents about three tons per scientist in attendance (Klöwer et al. 2020). As an additional point of comparison, average per capita yearly CO2 emissions in Brazil in 2016 were 2.2 metric tons.Footnote 2

What a more socially and ecologically just and sustainable academia might look like is an open question, but Roelofs (2019: 269) offers some ideas in writing to fellow Africanists: “Redistribute funds for air travel to those who have historically been shut out of academic networks, with the aim of eventually reducing emissions. Or maybe we should prioritise air travel for those in countries with poor internet connections?” Roelofs goes on to ask and suggest, “What if the money saved by Western-based scholars flying less was devoted to supporting virtual communication? As scholars of Africa, talking to our Africa-based colleagues should be a part of everyday life, not just something we only do when we get a free holiday out of it. CVs and promotion criteria should include a section for virtual collaborations” (see also Anderson et al. 2020). One could imagine such transformations similarly happening in relation to endeavors associated with the study of forced migration and refugees. The coronavirus pandemic has only heightened the need for far-reaching change: like climate breakdown, it manifests (at least in significant part) the consequences of rapacious consumption—particularly in the form of wildlife habitat destruction, which helps to create ideal conditions for pandemics to arise (Shah 2020; Vidal 2020).

Among what can contribute to such transformation is an appreciation of how both forced migration and unequal international mobilities are often tied to depredations associated with empire in its various guises (see, e.g., Nevins 2017, 2019; Nevins et al. 2022). In this regard, “staying home,” particularly when it involves those who consume a disproportionate share of the earth’s resources and enjoy high levels of mobility, can be a form of anti-imperialist praxis (see Roshanravan 2012) in addition to climate justice. This also avoids the mistake of thinking that geographic travel—rather than epistemic “travel”—is the primary way one learns. In other words, one can “study abroad” while remaining at home (Roshanravan 2012). Academic courses undertake such epistemic travel all the time—through course readings and other material, for instance. But in embracing and celebrating courses that “go there” to gain what is seen as enhanced, more robust forms of (typically international) understanding—in this case, in relation to forced migration and refugee matters—academics make some dangerous missteps. First, in emitting considerable amounts of carbon dioxide to journey to and from the locale of investigation, travel courses help reproduce some of the very factors that underlie forced migration (see Miller 2017)—namely, intensifying climate change and associated forms of environmental degradation. Second, such courses give rise to the mistaken notion that one learns best by seeing and by physical presence. And third, travel courses normalize mobilism and associated forms of violence, effectively “teaching” students that the exercise of hypermobility and the consumption of a disproportionate share of the world’s resources are justifiable in the pursuit of knowledge.

Perhaps a more effective pedagogical approach to the investigation of forced migrations and refugees entails a deliberate decision to stay put, to not “go there” in a physical sense, and to include students in discussions about, and to allow them to debate that decision (Williams and Love 2022). This would help all those involved to grapple concretely with the ways in which high-consumption practices relate to the processes and actions that lead to displacement and constrained forms of mobility tied to “violent borders” (see Jones 2017) that prevent the displaced from reaching destinations of broad security. More broadly, it would illuminate the inherently and necessarily dynamic ties between agency and structure, between individual change and systemic transformation (see Jensen et al. 2022; Nicholas 2021). In addition, a deliberate decision “not to go there” would compel those involved to identify other, less ecologically and socially costly and violent means to engage their interlocutors abroad—through the use of virtual technologies, for instance, or by “slow” modes of transport that stay on the earth’s surface (see Williams and Love 2022). Such a decision would also contribute to the radical changes in lifestyle among the globally affluent required by climate change (see Nicholas 2021; Wiedmann et al. 2020) and to the making of a world—one of sufficiency for all and socioeconomic equality (see Millward-Hopkins et al. 2020)—in which forced migration and refugees are far less common.