Does Being Plane Stupid Make Any Sense?

Christina Farr talks to aviation activist Katrina Forrester

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Even if you haven’t heard of Plane Stupid, a group that aims to ‘bring the aviation industry down to earth’, you can’t have missed the widely publicized images of a group of young activists scaling the roof of the Houses of Parliament.

The issue that has recently brought this eco-friendly group to light is the incentive to build an extra runway at Heathrow Airport. Shockingly, an entire village known as Sipson, would have to be torn down in order to accommodate this runway, and the number of flights would increase from 480,000 to 700,000.

Furthermore, the residents of West London would see and hear up to 5 times more planes circling overhead. Many of these extra flights would be short haul, and Plane Stupid suggests that it would be easy to take a bus or a train, which are much less harmful to the environment.

However Plane Stupid’s objectives are no easy feat; a spokesman for the Department for Transport stated that “the government is committed to a third runway, providing strict environmental criteria can be met, and the government believes they can.”

Katrina Forrester, a spokesperson for Plane Stupid chats to Christina Farr on the future of the group, their current celebrity status in the press, and how optimistic we can hope to be about the future.

Plane Stupid has been in the press a lot recently, especially through the infamous Houses of Parliament incident. Is fame an important objective for Plane Stupid?

Fame and celebrity are not important to us at all and we’re trying our hardest to stop individuals from being in the spotlight. However, we use the media as a platform to shed light on the issues and promote the general problem of aviation and climate change.

Does the press pay more attention to your actions, than the message you stand for?

Of course for the first days after the Parliament stunt people were obsessed with the problem of security but now people are concerned with the issues, and there is a huge amount of anger at the Third Runway situation. Direct action actually allows us to have a platform as otherwise no one would listen to us.

Just out of interest how did you manage to climb the Houses of Parliament?

The Houses of Parliament is a public building, and anyone can come in if you have a visitors pass. We went in under the cover of hearing a talk about the problem of Palestine. No one really notices. Not that we’re suggesting everyone go and climb the Houses of Parliament!

Most of your members seem to be young, recent University graduates, why is this?

That’s not strictly true. Plane Stupid is a national organization. There are people who are graduates of course but it’s inter-generational. There is quite a big diversity in terms of age and background with our members.

There has been a lot of media attention on how posh Plane Stupid is with the seeming abundance of members who are Oxbridge graduates?

There’s only two of us who went to Cambridge, and one more that’s currently at Oxbridge. But that obscures the issue. We’re not strictly middle-class. Democracy is failing all of us, and it doesn’t matter about your class as climate change affects all of us.

Does Plane Stupid have the general public on its side?

Yes actually. In light of the stunt at the Houses of Parliament, we have received a lot of positive press. Climate change affects, and unifies everyone. 70% of the public are against airport expansion. People realize how impending the climate threat is, and are starting to get worried about it. As a result, we have a lot of support from residents, and we campaign alongside them. Residents care about wider issues such as climate change, as well as the noise pollution from planes in their back yards.

Why are planes being targeted when there are so many other sources causing CO2 emissions?

First of all aviation is the fastest growing cause of climate change. It accounts for 13% of UK C02 emissions and that is set to double by 2030. Also, 160,000 people are dieing a year because of climate change related diseases, which is a world health organization figure. Put that in mind your mind when you’re thinking about a weekend holiday of shopping in New York.
Gordon Brown has pledged to cut Britain’s carbon emissions, possibly as much as 80 percent, by 2050. As part of the plan airlines exceeding the limits would be required to offset their emissions by paying for equivalent reductions elsewhere. What are your opinions on this?

First of all offsetting is a farce and at best it’s a distraction. What it does is it means that people get to continue expanding but plant a few trees in an already deforested Amazon, which won’t do anything. The aviation industry supports the emissions trading scheme because they will be able to carry on with expansion, business as usual at 83% instead of 86%. We want to see action, and not just words.

Richard Branson has recently produced a bio-fuel plane, fuelled by nuts (Brazilian and Coconuts apparently). Is this a step forward in the right direction?

Well actually bio-fuels are an awful thing. They’re not a positive step and they lead to an enormous amount of deforestation. Companies investing in bio-fuels are a big problem. Richard Branson likes to think he’s ahead of the game in terms of green issues but actually until he accepts cuts on his industry, then he’s not doing anything really. Fuel efficiency is only increasing by 1% a year. Actually they’re not becoming more efficient and it’s minute in terms of the wider fight against climate change.

How could a student become more involved in helping the environment?

Take direct action. Join Plane Stupid, join Green Peace. Green consumerism has its benefits but what we need to do is get involved and talk to our government, and say that we need legislation. Doing our bit as individuals is great, but it’s not going to help with the great changes that we need.

How would you respond to the criticism that students benefit the most from cheap travel, so they would be affected most by the reduction in flights?

It’s not strictly true. The richest 18% of the country account for 56% of flights. Most flights are taken by people, who are much wealthier for students. It’s hard to say that actually you shouldn’t be flying on holiday, but within Europe it’s massively irresponsible to fly. I’m going to Berlin on the sleeper train and it’s only £100 return, which is a small price to pay for our planet. We need to get this message across to students and we are in a climate when students should to really think about their decision to fly.

Its very fashionable right now to be ethical and green, how much is Plane stupid riding on the trend?

It’s now fashionable to be green but so it should be! Hopefully it’ll get to a point in the future when people don’t think about being green as an alternative because it’s simply what we have to do and the way things are. It’s really good that the tide is changing.

And finally, what are your hopes and plans for the immediate future?

This is only the beginning. We will not let the Third Runway be built, it’s not just stunts. We will be standing there in front of the bull dozers and we hope that people will join us.

We have fifteen, affinity groups around the country and we hope that are numbers will keep growing. We realize that we only have between five and ten years to stop climate change which can mean extinction in the worst scenario and Plane Stupid promotes we need a total transformation of the way we live now.

Christina Farr

September 25, 2008