Mobile utopias, politics of slowing down – research on young people on the move during the era of climate crisis

Mikko Piispa


This PhD thesis studies young people’s mobility and mobile practices, as they are currently in conflict with the climate crisis and the resulting worries caused by it. The analysis focuses not only on the individual choices being made, but also on utopian actions and ideals that could offer solutions to the dilemma. This opens up potential views on how mobility and travel could become ecologically more sustainable, while also considering if utopia as a method could shed further light on how young people seek to renew society. The starting point for the research setting was that, following the so-called mobilities paradigm, the world today is ‘on the move’, and thus, the practices and ideals that renew mobility also have the potential to renew society at large.

The study is set in a historical and social context in which people are currently living in an unforeseen era of mobility, but also where mobility and travel cause emissions that are warming the planet and where mitigating the climate crisis calls for broad and multi-faceted action. Young people have grown up in a society that expects them to be mobile, but also where they widely share an awareness and concern over the warming climate. The Covid-19 pandemic dramatically reduced mobility, but the effect it had on reducing emissions could well be short-lived. Nevertheless, the shock caused by the coronavirus may serve as a window into re-examining the cultures, practices, politics and technologies of mobility and travel. While this study recognises the coronavirus crisis as an unavoidable issue with pronounced effects, the climate crisis and how mobility conflicts with it is nonetheless a dilemma that spans a longer period of time than just the pandemic.

The research data consist of life-story interviews with surfer-travellers, collected during 2016 and 2017 (n = 20), and multi-sited ethnographic data on young climate activists – of which principally interviews (n = 18) with young climate activists are utilised in the analysis at hand – collected during the first half of the year 2020. As these datasets are analysed side by side, they offer complementary views and open up possibilities for comparison. While surfer-travellers and young climate activists share commonalities – such as an international and even cosmopolitan orientation – in principle they approach the conflict between the climate crisis and mobility from different angles. Simply put, the datasets shed light on how mobile youth (surfer-travellers) regard the climate crisis, and how climate youth regard mobility.

The thesis is based on four original research articles, two of which analyse the interview data on surfer-travellers and two the data on young climate activists. The summarising article utilises utopia as a method. The PhD thesis principally adopts a youth sociological orientation, but it is also connected to various other research traditions and discussions. The so-called mobility paradigm and utopian studies are theoretically and methodologically crucial to the study. Other important traditions include tourism research, social studies on climate change, research on climate activism and leisure studies.

The results demonstrate that mobility and travel are important for both the surfer-travellers and young climate activists, as they are a source of enjoyment as well as individual growth. Both surfer-travellers and young climate activists recognise the conflict between the climate crisis and their mobile habits, and solutions on an individual level include compromises and compensation. Additionally, analysis based on a utopian method reveals shared habits that carry broader social critiques, namely so-called everyday utopian practices. These include the practice of overland travel favoured and shared by young climate activists and a surfer lifestyle wherein the experiences and enjoyment of the lifestyle and travel it entails are often prioritised over career and other expectations of a ‘normal life course’. On the level of utopian dreaming, the surfer-travellers and young climate activists share the ideals of moderation and slowing down. Guided by these ideals, they call for cultural change, which they are at least partly already prefiguring, but also social and systemic political action to address the conflict and discord between the climate crisis and mobility.