Over the past few years the airlines and airports across Europe have been putting aside corporate interests to work together on expansion. They've been pretending great rivalry between Frankfurt, Schipol, Charles de Gaulle and Heathrow, persuading each country that it's expansion or die for their beloved hub.
We decided to do the same, which is why Plane Stupid joined campaigners from almost a dozen countries at a European aviation campaigners' get-together. People came from all over: local airport groups, environmental NGOs, direct action networks, people campaigning on climate change, noise and those just trying to save their communty from destruction.
Two days worth of chatter and we were all agreed that not only was victory possible, it was looking ever more likely. It was clear that a bit of mutual aid was just what was needed to seal the deal. Expect to see joint and co-ordinated actions and demonstrations over the coming year - both fluffy and rather spikier.
At first sight it might have appeared a little strange. In one corner of Airplot, the Greenpeace field in Sipson now owned by over 50,000 people, stood three horses. In the other, elegant women dressed as climate suffragettes and a few smartly-dressed men with a camp fire in the background.
The Climate Rush had come to Sipson, the village which would be obliterated if a third runway goes ahead at Heathrow. The afternoon turned out to be far from strange; indeed, it became strangely significant. People fighting struggles against what out-of-control businesses are doing to their communities stood up, one by one, to tell their moving tales. And it felt great, and empowering, and like being part of something.
We heard how Shell is decimating communities and destroying precious habitats at on the West Coat of Ireland; of the way open-cast mining is shattering the peace and quiet of Merthyr Tydfil; of E-ON’s (failed) attempts to destroy valuable lakes in Berkshire. We heard from residents living in the sprawling council estate of Easterhouse in Glasgow and from the Vespa workers who occupied their wind turbine factory on the Isle of Wight. And, of course, we heard about BAA’s plans to destroy Sipson, to tear the heart out of a community which is about 1,000 years older than the airport which is trying to cover it in several feet of tarmac.
Different struggles but with huge similarities. Ordinary people linking up with climate activists to fight their battles. The next day the Climate Rush took to the road heading north. More stories, more struggles, more hope will doubtless follow as they wind their way towards Totnes.
It's a dilemma we all face now and then. I want a holiday and I don’t fancy Skegness. I want sun, sea and sex. I might even settle for two out of the three. Or just the sex…..if the person’s right. But not in Skegness.
This year three places take my fancy. Rome and then on to the Italian coast. A week exploring the delights of old Prague. Or a leisurely holiday in Austria. I’ve checked out the flights to Rome, Prague and Vienna. Even allowing for the hidden charges added by the likes of Ryanair, I can still get a bargain if I book in good time.
But then I start to read about what flying is doing to the planet. It is the fastest-growing source of CO2 emissions. In the UK it accounts for 13% of our greenhouse gas impact, if you include what is known as radiative forcing. That’s a lot from one industry - even if it does take me on holiday.
I check out Rome and Prague. I discover that a train would have to travel from London to Madras and back before polluting the air as much as a 747’s return flight to Prague and a tourist could drive around Rome on a scooter non-stop for more than six months and still produce fewer emissions than a flight from London. Not good!
I check out the trains. I go to The Man in Seat 61. I am surprised how quick the journey times actually are. I can leave London early afternoon and be in Rome, Prague or Vienna in time for breakfast the next morning. The cost is more of a problem: anything from £120 return to Rome to about £180 to Prague or Vienna.
But what does strike me is that, potentially, rail is an alternative for many flights to Europe. Where fast and reasonably affordable rail services have been introduced, people have switched from plane to train in sizeable numbers. For example, when the train journey between Paris and Brussels was reduced to about an hour, the air service ceased. Or take the Paris-Marseille route. Rail held only 22% of the air-rail market before TGV Mediterranean went into service (2001), but in four years that market share rose to 65% and in 2006 it was 69%.
Rail can provide an alternative for many air trips. The evidence shows that when journey times are no more than about 3½ - 4 hours, people like the train. That covers about 500 kilometres, the distance from London to the Scottish border. And the hard fact of the matter is that around 45% of air trips within Europe are 500 kilometres or less. But my exploration of The Man in Seat 61 shows that even for much longer distances trains become viable alternatives.
Life has changed a bit now that I’ve decided to avoid flying whenever I can. It means that quick weekend breaks to Bucharest, Belgrade or Budapest are off the agenda. But, realistically, they didn’t happen much anyway because I lacked the time and money. It also means I’ve learnt - or re-learnt – that the enjoyment of getting there is part of the holiday, be it a scenic train journey down the Rhine or a coffee in one of Europe’s splendid rail stations. I’ve even begun to explore some of the forgotten corners of the UK.
I admit that if I could afford to go to Australia, America or the Far East, flying might be the only option, but for the kind of holidays that are realistic for me – and most people – on a regular basis, the train, and sometimes the coach or ferry, is a real alternative. Even when the destination is not Skegness.
Is it ever possible to be really tacky and make a really serious political point at the same time? Probably not, but aviation campaigners from around Europe had a go on the day of the Eurovision Song Contest. On 16th May campaigners from six airports across Europe staged Flash Mobs in their terminal buildings. And sang their country’s entry to the Eurovision Song Contest!
Hundreds of people flashed their red t-shirts, emblazoned with the words ‘Stop Airport Expansion’ at Heathrow, Frankfurt, Schiphol (Amsterdam), Brussels, Dublin and Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. The result was a seriously kitch display of bad taste and bad singing. Check out the Flickr photostream if you don't believe me!
Over the past few years there have been growing links between aviation campaigners in the different countries of Europe. The industry is determined to play each airport off against each other, so we're building up a Europe-wide movement to resist them. These wonderfully tacky flash mobs, where campaigners gave ‘nul points’ to the aviation industry, were a very visible sign that this is beginning to happen.
I've just got back - by coach, thanks for asking - from meeting campaign groups opposing expansion at Frankfurt airport. The authorities want a fourth runway, and expansion is justified on the same sort of grounds as our third runway: Frankfurt's financial centre will collapse; it will bring jobs; flights will go to other airports; passengers will choose to change planes at other hub airports, etc.
The owners have already cut down a million trees to make way for it. This is a travesty of the highest order, and stirring up some emotional memories. Over thirty years ago the woods were the scene of some of the fiercest and most famous protests in German history, as tens of thousands of people fought to stop a third runway being built. There was virtually civil war when the authorities tried to remove the protestors. The protest had a profound effect in Germany, helping radicalise a generation and kickstarting the nascent green movement.
But it also left many campaigners dispirited. They had fought – and lost – the biggest and most dramatic campaign against airport expansion ever seen in Europe. This time round they have concentrated on legal challenges, but so far without success. And while the woods were occupied again, it was largely by younger environmental activists. They held out for nine months but were evicted earlier this year. There still is a small camp, which we visited, but is not on the site of the new runway.
This summer the young activists are planning a Climate Camp, like there was at Heathrow two years ago, in the woods near the airport to which activists from across Europe will be invited. The local residents are pursuing their legal challenges. There are major campaigns against airport expansion in other German cities - notably at Munich and Stuttgart where last year 15,000 people marched against a new runway - and a burgeoning direct action movement. If the Frankfurt campaigners can persuade these other campaigners to join them this summer, they have a fighting chance of success.
Heard about Nantes International Airport? You will if the Mayor of Nantes get’s his way. Forget the fact that the existing airport only operates at 30% capacity. Forget that Charles de Gaulle can be reached in a couple of hours on the TGV train. Forget that oil prices are rising and passenger demand is falling. What you must remember is that the Mayor of Nantes has one, big, enormous ego. That ego demands an international airport.
And, of course, forget that the new 2 runway airport and the proposed 4 lane highway would destroy swathes of beautiful countryside where lots of smallholders in their farmsteads are living sustainable lifestyles. Nowhere is the clash between sustainable living and a grossly unsustainable way of travelling more stark than in this battle between these rural people and the forces behind the plans to build the airport.
Plane Stupid was invited to speak at a big rally the protestors held towards the end of June. We met people determined to win by whatever means possible. They told us what the struggle means to them, in no uncertain terms:
“We know that this fight will be long and difficult. That’s why we are launching an appeal to all of France, to all of United Kingdom, and to the whole of Europe. We must support the movement against the airport in Notre-Dame-des-Landes, with all our force, and with means rarely used on the scale that we envisage; occupation of the site, civil disobedience, total and definitive refusal.”
The campaigners have already made common cause with a number of the radical movements in France. And they know they are part of the bigger battle against climate change:
“The world is sliding towards a frightening climate crisis, but our politicians continue to speak a dead language. People who defend the project of an airport at Notre-Dame-des-Landes are imagining the future with words from a past which will never exist again. They are the heirs of those who stood behind the Maginot line waiting for the German army only to be submerged by General Guderian’s tanks in just one night in May 1940. In the same way, they are mistaken, because they take one epoch for another.
“If it weren’t so serious, we might be tempted to laugh at the promoters’ arguments concerning the new airport. Like Toinette in Molière’s play, Le Malade Imaginaire, who replies ‘the lungs’ to every question about Argan’s health, they repeat ‘growth’, ‘growth’, ‘growth’, as if hypnotised. They don’t know, because they will never know, that our planet has already reached its physical limits in most of its vital domains, one of which is transport. In a finite world, only the dangerously blind are still advocating the destruction of spaces and species.”
Nantes is a winnable battle. The Mayor with the ego can’t find the funds to build the airport. And private developers may be put off by the rising oil prices and the coming recession. But the local campaigners remain worried. They are not rich and, because the area is sparsely populated, they are not numerous. But their battle could become a cause celebre. If the philistine airport developers even threatened to smash their sustainable way of life, Plane Stupid, and many others across Europe, would be straight back on that fast train to France. Allez Nantes!
The spirit of the Climate Camp lives on. I was at two public meetings this week, in the villages which will be destroyed if BAA's plans go ahead, to make way for tons and tons of tarmac: one in Sipson, the village that would be completely wiped out; and the other in Harlington, the adjoining village.
When local MP John McDonnell praised the Climate Camp as the most important event to have taken place for decades in the fight against Heathrow expansion, both meetings, packed with local residents, burst into spontaneous applause.
The mood of the meetings was so different to those held here just a year ago. The general mood then was downbeat: a feeling that the airport and the authorities always get their way and that the fight would ultimately be in vain. People here had given up, conceded that the runway was inevitable, and were now just protesting to make a point, not to win.
But now feelings have changed. Where people once felt resigned, now there was a belief that we might, just might, win. That against the might of BAA, of industry, of Government, we stood a chance. Make no mistake; the Climate Camp was the reason for their change of mood. John McDonnell, who had spent time at the Camp, said it had turned Heathrow into an international iconic struggle against climate change. Heathrow residents now know they are not alone.
You could sense that the people of the villages felt, probably for the first time, that they were part of a worldwide movement that even the power of the aviation industry cannot stop. It's going to be one hell of a fight...