Culture Guides

Interview With Eco-Activists Plane Stupid

On December the 8th, Stanstead Airport in the UK ground to a standstill as activists Plane Stupid infiltrated the airport and occupied the runways. Activist Wiz Baines agreed to explain to Road Junky just what they were up to.

RJ: How the hell did you break through security at an international airport? Did it require much planning? How were nerves on the night?

Wiz: Well, firstly, yes there was a huge amount of planning which went into the protest. This was a peaceful protest, so we’d had to check that there was no chance of us putting anyone in danger, either air passengers or ourselves. To get onto the taxi runway itself we simply cut through the fence and walked through – hardly rocket science! Airports have massive perimeters and it’s very difficult for security to be high in every place at all times.

As for our nerves, there was a lot of adrenaline prior to the event. I think people were less nervous than excited. There’s generally a lot of anxiety as to whether or not the protest will go well or not, and I think that’s what tends to be on peoples’ minds more than anything. There is a huge amount of preparation which goes into these events, and activists are always briefed about the legal consequences and how to behave with the police, as well as being prepared for the psychological consequences associated with possible arrest situations. The activists who were there on the night were well prepared and knew what they were getting involved in.

RJ: What legal consequences are you facing now?

Wiz: We’ve been charged with aggravated trespass, or ‘obstructing a person engaged in a lawful activity.’ Because there were so many of us (over 50), we’re all having to appear in court at different times. The first of the protesters will be in court this Thursday (December 18th). I expect we’ll receive fines – it was the first time that many of the activists had been arrested, so they’re unlikely to receive large fines. The millionaire who owns Lush has come out publicly in support of our actions and offered to contribute towards our fines, which is a big relief for a lot of us – I hope he pays mine!

As I said before, we’re always given as much information as possible about the legal consequences prior to an action. I know, for example, that with a criminal record I’ll be less likely to be able to secure a mortgage, get certain jobs, or visit countries such as the States (not that that’s very likely to happen anyway, unless I sail!…). The activists who choose to take part in these actions do so knowing as fully as possible what the consequences will be for their future. We don’t take these things lightly.

RJ: Does Plane Stupid believe no one should get on flights any more and use trains and boats instead?

Wiz: Our aim is not to cancel out aviation altogether; we are opposed to airport expansion and short haul flights. Aviation is the fastest growing contributor to the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, and this is occurring primarily off the back of the increasing availability of short haul flights. People in the UK also fly, on average, more than people in any other country in the world – twice as much as the average American.

Short haul flights are not only hugely damaging, they are also unnecessary; most short haul trips (i.e. under 500 miles in distance) could be travelled much more easily and with a much smaller environmental impact by train. The disproportionate tax breaks which the aviation industry benefits from mean that airlines are able to offer ridiculously cheap fares on these short haul trips, so the public are encouraged to take the most polluting transport option. This situation is ludicrous and must be addressed. So no, it’s not about telling people they can never fly again, it’s about readjusting our priorities so that many, many fewer trips are taken by plane.

George Monbiot recently said that, if we wish to reach our climate change targets, aviation must be reduced to 5% of what it is today. We can only realistically achieve reductions in CO2 emissions from planes by flying less. There are a lot of claims from the aviation industry about huge imminent improvements in fuel efficiency and emissions from air travel, but experts say these are wildly unrealistic, and even if achieved in full would still lead to a huge rise in emissions.

RJ: What about bio-fuels?

Wiz: Don’t even get me started. If these lunatics succeed in making jet fuel from plants we’ll need to turn over vast areas of land to growing fuel instead of food. We’ll be feeding engines while people starve. All of this stuff is basically science fiction. When they invent an environmentally friendly plane, Plane Stupid will be the first people to book flights on it.

RJ: What about all the people stranded? Was it really worth causing such misery to make a political point?

Wiz: Flash floods, droughts, famine, cyclones…these are the sort of climate change related impacts which lead to misery. “Misery” is too strong a word to be used in the context of the impact of our protest. Yes, we inconvenienced the passengers at Stansted, but the consequences of climate change are going to be totally devastating if we don’t start fundamentally reassessing our actions and if we fail to take responsibility for their impact.

We knew that we’d receive criticism for our actions, but we judged that these actions were justified given the gravity of the situation. Many of us have spent years campaigning, lobbying, writing letters and going on marches, yet we have still seen very little in the way of concrete change. The evidence on climate change is alarming, and if we fail to act on it immediately we may have no future to look forward to. In this respect I believe the inconvenience we caused was justified given the scale of the threat.

RJ: Every time someone eats a pineapple in England they’re creating a carbon footprint, are a few flights to go on holiday a big deal?

Wiz: Absolutely. Flying may only be part of a much larger picture, this doesn’t lessen its importance. At the moment, aviation accounts for 13% of the UK’s carbon impact. If the government presses ahead with the airport expansion plans set out in the 2003 aviation white paper, air travel will account for much more of this impact than at present

Added to which, if we are to meet the targets set out in the UK Climate Change Bill (i.e. 80% reductions in CO2 by 2050) then we have start reducing our CO2 emissions, not increasing them. If the aviation industry expands at the same time that the government is trying to reduce the UK’s C02 emissions, all other sectors will have to reduce their emissions disproportionately to compensate for those taken up by air travel. So what’s more important? Heating your house through the winter, cooking your food, or that weekend break in Malaga?…

RJ: There have been a lot of documentaries recently suggesting that climate change has been exaggerated, how can we know that fuel consumption by flights is making a difference?

Wiz: There will always be people who are intent on denying that climate change is happening. I think this is largely because accepting there’s a problem means taking responsibility and therefore, probably, changing the way you live your life. Climate change has not been exaggerated – if anything it has been played down. The IPCC are the most authoritative voice on climate change, yet even their reports are conservative due to the nature of how they are produced, and the fact that it takes so long to actually produce them. By the time the IPCC figures have been published, the science has moved on. Recent research shown that climate change is having a much faster impact than anticipated, and that we may have an ice free Arctic as early as the summer of 2011.

We know that the problem is serious, and we know what is causing it. Air travel is the single most inefficient form of transport we have. It pumps CO2 and other greenhouse gases such as NOx into the atmosphere at a much faster rate than alternative modes of transport, such as trains. Air travel is expanding, CO2 levels are increasing, and climate change is quickening. There’s a direct correlation.

RJ: Travel is an integral part of cultural exchange and sharing of knowledge. If we go back to walking everywhere is there not the danger that we’ll Increase isolationism?

Wiz: We’re not suggesting that everyone walks everywhere, or even that no-one ever takes a flight again. As I’ve said, we campaign against short haul flights and airport expansion. There is a level, beyond which air travel becomes dangerously harmful to the planet. Unfortunately, we’ve passed that level.

Of course cultural exchange and the sharing of knowledge form important parts of our lives. However, these are things which have occurred throughout history. The massive increase in air travel has only been characteristic of the last few decades. To suggest you can’t have cultural exchange without air travel is ludicrous!

RJ: Will Plane Stupid pull this kind of stunt again?

Wiz: Not if the government changes its policy on aviation…

RJ: What message would you like to send to Road Junkies, for many of whom travel is a way of life?

Wiz: It is absolutely possible and much more exciting to travel by means other than air. I myself have many travel plans for the future, none of which involve flying – sailing, taking the train and cycling are my preferred methods of transport.

Travelling has increasingly become focused around distance – people are encouraged to think that the further away you go, the more exciting your adventure will be. This doesn’t have to be the case. When you slow your travelling down, you see so much more, and your travel experience will be enriched as a result. When you decide not to fly, as I did several years ago, you gain a different perspective on distance. This doesn’t mean you can’t travel, you just have to be more creative about it, and in the end your experience will be much more enjoyable, and your carbon footprint much more respectable!