Plane Stupid? No, Spherically Barmy!

The title, for those who might miss the reference, is a small homage to Fritz Zwicky, a cosmologist who doubted the Big Bang theory.  I strongly suspect that his scepticism will eventually prove to have been fully justified, but his cause was not helped by his habit of referring to his colleagues as “spherical bastards”, that is, bastards whichever way you looked at them.  In return, they ridiculed his theory of “tired light“.  How to win friends and influence people, eh!  I suspect though, that Zwicky was doomed by being very much in the minority, whereas I reckon I can get away with a corny dismissal of the activities of Plane Stupid because on this one I am very much in the majority, notwithstanding Leo Hickman’s attempts to justify the group’s action.

Whichever way you look at it, the invasion of Stansted does the cause of saving the planet from global warming no good at all.  Here are a few ways in which it is daft:

1. It creates cognitive dissonance in the mind of the average punter, who is struggling with his conflicting desires to jet off to Dublin for a stag do and to preserve the planet.  Actions such as this latest jolly wheeze send the message that global warming is a cause for smelly privileged students, not the mainstream.  It’s not sensible to provoke this sort of reaction.  A far superior strategy is to create sufficiently widespread feelings of guilt that people put up with the necessary measures – taxes and so forth – that will encourage alternative technologies or patterns of travel and other consumption.  So in this regard, Plane Stupid’s actions are counterproductive.

2. The protest seems to have been directed at the proposal to increase Stansted’s capacity.  Hence the threat to move on to Heathrow, where a new runway is also planned.  Now, failing to expand these airports will simply focus the industry on using the space more efficiently.  What you actually want them to be doing is using fuel more efficiently. We need to change the technology, not slow the increase in flying in the UK, which is the most the protestors could achieve.

3. If Heathrow and Stansted do reach capacity, then businesses that generate a lot of air-traffic – financial services, say – will simply relocate where the protestors can’t bother them.  Dubai, say.  The global warming problem will not be solved by reducing transport capacity.

4. There is a complete lack of vision.  It may turn out that aviation can be decarbonised more easily than other modes of transport.  There’s certainly a lot of scope for short-term energy savings.  Flying is high value-add, so may attract investment in low- or zero-carbon technology more effectively than, say, legacy rail systems.  Obviously, if we don’t have enough airport capacity, we won’t be in such a good position to exploit any advances in aviation technology.

5. Back on the psychology of the issue, surely the public is more likely to support a positive vision?  Why not campaign for the full electrification of the UK rail network?  Or for new routes?  For example, Stansted is by far the most convenient airport for residents of Cambridge and the surrounding area.  But Cambridge has no good rail link to the North – you usually have to change at Ely just to get to Peterborough to pick up the East Coast main line.  Surely many, many journeys could be moved from air to rail were there a fast train route from Cambridge to Peterborough.

In general we’d be best off building plenty of transport capacity, and making sure that the price of travel reflects as closely as possible the cost of fuel and hence carbon emissions.  That way, people will reduce their emissions simply by choosing the cheapest way of getting from A to B.

Nope, whichever way I look at it I can’t avoid the conclusion that actions such as the occupation of Stansted airport are counterproductive.  Plane Stupid by name, plain stupid by nature, that’s what I say.