Why I’m standing up for the right to fly

The co-founder of Modern Movement explains why they’re holding a pro-flight demo in London on Thursday.

Alex Hochuli

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On 15 January, the UK government finally gave the go-ahead to build a third runway and a sixth terminal at London Heathrow airport. The subsequent outcry from environmental campaigners and Nimby (‘Not In My Back Yard’) groups indicates that this has become far more than a mundane planning decision. It is for this reason that I founded Modern Movement with a group of friends to defend increased mobility and mass travel. We are organising a demonstration in London on Thursday to express our support for airport expansion and the extension of flying to all.

Over the past few years, environmentalists have increasingly problematised aviation, perhaps more so than any other human activity. Campaign groups have sought to portray flying as a major environmental and moral issue, demanding that flight be curbed for the sake of the planet. Opposition to curbs on flying is often met with shrill disapproval and the spurious argument that each flight reduces the life chances of people in low-lying countries in the developing world. At the tail-end of last year, anti-flying activism reached a new low, when a green campaign group invaded Stansted airport runway, causing delays, cancellations and nuisance for thousands of holidaymakers.

Now, with the decision to expand Heathrow, environmentalists have stepped up their campaign, demanding that the new runway not be built. More importantly, however, the debate over this expansion – which is tied up with several technical and local issues, not normally of concern to the majority of people – has been turned into an epochal battle in the fight against climate change. Andrew Gilligan in the London Evening Standard believes the Heathrow question has the capacity to rejuvenate the entire green movement. Elsewhere, a veteran of the anti-roads protest of the 1980s and a participant in the ‘Climate Camp’ believes runway-3 will be a ‘countercultural moment’. Even the UK environment secretary, Ed Miliband, who serves in the government that approved the Heathrow decision, has called for the ‘countervailing force of popular mobilisation’ to put pressure on the government to act on climate change – a call green activists and the anti-flying lobby have gleefully taken up.

The fact remains, however, that for the majority of people in this country, the ability to fly has been a liberation. Every year, people actively vote with their feet by stepping onboard aeroplanes. The cheapening of air travel with the advent of the ‘no-frills’ carriers in the 1990s has made flying abroad affordable for almost everyone. Seeing the world beyond one’s own patch is an experience that should not be underestimated – and most people recognise this. In spite of strident and continual attacks on aviation by green campaigners, people refuse, quite rightly, to have their holidays abroad taken away. This is a freedom gained quite recently, but one that has quickly been integrated into people’s lives and expectations.

Indeed, flying remains one of the few areas in which green behavioural strictures continue to come up against a sense of popular resistance – even if it is often muted, or simply expressed through the taking of flights in spite of instructions to the contrary. The latest British Social Attitudes survey, published last month, is instructive in this regard. It revealed that two-thirds of the population believe they should be allowed to travel as much as they like. However, when a vague clause about environmental harm was tacked on to the end of the question, the support for unlimited air travel collapsed to a fifth.

Although some commentators drew the conclusion that this demonstrated popular support for sacrifice in the name of saving the planet, we would see this differently. Firstly, etiquette around environmental questions plays a significant role in these surveys; people feel compelled to follow the line that we must all ‘do our bit’, and yet in reality behave much as they always do. Secondly, while campaigners have leapt on the revelation that 49 per cent of people support higher air fares (via taxation, for example) in order to reflect the supposed environmental damage caused by flights, this figure actually shows that the ability to fly retains a strong degree of public support.

In a context in which environmental problems dominate every decision at the level of personal behaviour and consumption, the fact that half the population thinks flying should not become more expensive is telling. Furthermore, this is in the absence of any formal popular opposition to green austerity. In the case of airport expansion, for example, the only positive case being put forward is the government’s half-hearted economic arguments.

This is salutary for anyone who believes in the extension of greater mobility to an ever-greater number of people, and who believe that people should actively resist flagrant attacks on their standard of living. But where does Heathrow fit in to this? Why is Modern Movement making a stand on a decision wrapped up with so many complications?

There is opposition to runway-3 for a wide variety of reasons: the effect of climate change on the Third World; the destruction of the village of Sipson to make way for the new runway and terminal; local noise pollution; congestion in West London; increased risk of asthma for West London residents; the decaying, overburdened state of Heathrow airport itself; the degenerate uses to which air travel is put (like the now infamous ‘stag nights in Prague’); the ‘wealth’ of Heathrow passengers (who have an annual household income of approximately twice the national average); and the fact that airports elsewhere would benefit from an extra runway.

The temptation for someone in favour of increased mobility, in the face of these objections, is to relent on the Heathrow question and focus instead on building elsewhere. But let’s examine these issues more closely in order to explain why we should staunchly support the Heathrow expansion.

Most of the problems listed above can and should be resolved with more development and better planning. Congestion and decrepit infrastructure are hardly arguments for building less. It is revealing of the environmentalist mindset that problems of under-development are misconceived as problems of development itself.

In relation to climate change, aviation accounts for only about five per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK and, with no alternative to flying (other than not flying), it makes little sense to make cuts here. Building a third runway would actually be a good idea, according to green logic. A new runway would mean less ‘stacking’ at the airport (circling while waiting to land), thereby emitting less greenhouse gases, as even the high-profile advocate for climate change action, James Hansen, admitted to the Observer.

Those few issues which do seem intractable – such as local nuisances – are indeed unfortunate, but they are not arguments against expansion altogether. Residents of Sipson should be fully compensated for the inconvenience of having to move. Living next to an airport is never that pleasant, but a sensible discussion on ways of minimising nuisance to residents is not even on the cards at the moment.

Indeed, the discussion today is not about how and where we should build, but about whether building should happen at all. At every step, anti-growth lobbyists will make new objections, as was evident in December over Stansted. Should runway-3 be blocked by a coalition of environmentalists and NIMBY-ists (who are not opposed to a new runway as such, only to one at Heathrow), it would represent a real blow against airport expansion, and more broadly against the idea that infrastructural development is a benefit to the majority.

In a sense, then, some environmentalists are correct in talking up the fight. Runway-3 is fast becoming a symbolic struggle. But it is not the one that greens think it is – between greedy corporates on one side and the interests of people and planet on the other. It is between those who value mobility and the freedom that flying affords, and those who wish to sacrifice freedom of movement and convenience for the majority at the altar of climate change. Modern Movement is unequivocally on the side of more for all.

The government and its friends in the business world seem singularly incapable of putting forward the case for growth on the grounds of increased mobility. The best they have done is to argue that it will create jobs. Meanwhile, many environmentalists seem incapable of viewing development – that is, making people’s lives easier and more enjoyable – as a progressive aim at all. Yet for all their anti-establishment poses, the anti-flying lobby is in many ways the activist wing of the government. It was Gordon Brown’s government, after all, that produced the Stern Report and has legislated for massive emissions cuts in the future. The green movement is simply giving explicit expression to the government’s own misgivings about development and growth.

Millions of people continue to fly and billions more hope to be able to do so one day. And today, in the face of the regressive and anti-democratic nature of the anti-flying campaigners, making a stand to defend runway-3 and a call for more mobility has become a progressive imperative. The only thing that is ‘plane stupid’ (sic) is anti-flying campaigners’ social and political horizons.

Alex Hochuli is co-founder of Modern Movement, a group campaigning for ‘faster, cheaper, better transport for all’. Modern Movement will be demonstrating in favour of runway-3 on Parliament Square, East Footway on Thursday 19 February, 17.30-19.30.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill condemned a Green travel firm’s promise of ‘chav-free’ holidays, witnessed class hatred at Stansted Airport and asked ‘Who’s afraid of Ryanair?’. Mick Hume was unimpressed by protesters’ hijacking at Stansted. Nathalie Rothschild slammed Virgin Atlantic’s attempt to shame passengers into onboard eco-penance and joined the not-so-happy-campers at the Heathrow protest. Or read more at spiked issues Environment and Tourism and travel.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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