By Tim Sanderson
Jan 26, 2016
On Monday morning last week, my eldest daughter went on trial at Willesden magistrates court. She is 28, and this was the first day of a court case that lasted all week. She, along with 12 others, was charged with aggravated trespass and unauthorised entry to the runway areas of Heathrow on 13 July last year. She and her colleagues are all members of thePlane Stupid pressure group, who are engaging in direct action against plans to expand aviation capacity by building a third runway. Today she and her co-defendants were convicted and told to expect immediate custodial sentences.
I am proud of my daughter and I applaud her action.
I might seem an unlikely apologist. I have spent most of my life working in the oil exploration business. During the 1980s I was at the forefront of scientific research into commercial exploitation of the sensitive Arctic offshore. I spent the next 15 years working for one of the world’s biggest multinational oil companies, and I am now director of a small hi-tech company offering oil executives training courses in strategy and management. I drive an unnecessarily large BMW and I subscribe to the Daily Telegraph. And yet I was outside court last Monday, waving a placard and chanting: “No ifs! No buts! No new runways!”
Why? Because I am appalled by the apparently complete disconnect between what we know and what we do. This is not just about aircraft noise and Gatwick v Heathrow. It is about the global environment. There is now an overwhelming consensus that growth in carbon emissions could mean climatic disaster for our planet. Everyone knows this – the public knows and government knows. What do we do?
We, the general public, assiduously switch off mobile phone chargers and avoid overfilling the kettle. And then we feel so virtuous and pleased with ourselves that we book a flight to New Zealand and wipe out all our emissions savings before we have even reached cruising altitude.
Members of the 13-strong Plane Stupid group before the start of the trial. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Our government acknowledges the wise warnings of the scientific community, makes apparently sincere commitments to reduce carbon emissions, and its encourages emerging economies to take greater responsibility and exercise moderation. But then, with the next breath, it apparently forgets everything – and earnestly advises us about the importance of our own economic growth and how vital it is to expand aviation capacity to keep pace with growing trade.
I am sorry to say that this does not make sense. Life – whether business, personal or political – is all about choices. To claim that you can choose a booming aviation-based economy while at the same time reducing carbon emissions is a cowardly deception. Politicians should be brave enough to expose the real choices, which are quite simple: either continue with our destructive habit of dependency on air travel (and ignore climate change) or make radical changes to our frequent-flying lifestyle, rethink our strategies for economic growth, and – hopefully – preserve the planet in a habitable state for future generations. This, I believe, is essentially why these protesters took the action which has landed them in court.
There is a famous scene in The Railway Children by E Nesbit, where three young children avert a railway disaster by warning an express train of a landslide on the line. They do so by stepping on to the railway and waving improvised red flags. The train stops – just in time – and many lives are saved. The children are later praised by everyone for their prompt and courageous action. They were, of course, trespassing on the railway.
We are, all of us, on that express train. We are all hurtling towards climatic disaster. We have been warned by scientists. The authorities responsible for the railway are fully aware of the dangers. The passengers know, and the train driver knows. And still the train roars forward at full throttle, oblivious, yet knowing. The Heathrow Plane Stupid protesters have tried again to warn us. They have stepped on to the runway, and they have waved their red flags. They have trespassed, and we should be grateful to them.