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Targeting airports during the summer holiday season? That’s plane stupid.

By Adam Corner on September 1, 2015

Environmental campaigns targeting fun things like holidays and Christmas lights are doomed to fail. For now, enjoyment should be exempt from the carbon audit.

Acardia spider, Glastonbury 2017

I remember the worst idea for a climate change campaign I’ve ever heard.

It was November 2008, and a well-meaning friend – having just discovered how much household energy bills can rise at Christmas with all the extra lighting in use – suggested that the wastefulness of the festive season could be a great “hook” for getting people thinking about energy consumption.

Fortunately, his campaign against Christmas never came to fruition. But unwittingly putting out a counterproductive message can happen in more subtle ways too.

For instance, the Plane Stupid activists who disrupted Heathrow’s schedules in July in a protest against the airport’s proposed new runway are fighting an important battle. Increasing the UK’s high-carbon infrastructure is an irresponsible and short-sighted move. But while they may have been clear in their own minds that high-end business flights were the target of their intervention, this wasn’t how many commentators on social media saw it. Delays and cancellations to hard-earned summer holiday flights are about as popular as the fight against festive fairly lights.

In both cases, the problem is a clash between environmental sustainability and old-fashioned fun. Of course, people enjoyed themselves in the days before jet planes and illuminated Santas on their roofs. But from feasting to flying, hedonism has historically tended to be closely coupled to over-consumption.

So are environmental campaigns always doomed to land on the wrong side of the hedonistic divide? Or is there a case for leaving the “fun stuff” to one side for now – giving hedonism a temporary exemption from the carbon audit – and focusing on the more mundane (and far more common) examples of everyday wastefulness first?

Take the time-honoured late-night ritual of putting the rubbish out. Whichever way you look at it, it is boring. It was boring before councils started asking us to separate our recycling, and it is only slightly more time-consuming to put different items in different boxes. And yet many still don’t bother, even though doing the right thing environmentally is no real hardship. There are plenty more examples like it. Shouldn’t we exhaust these possibilities before we go after the things we actually enjoy?

The comedian David Mitchell expressed his frustration with environmentalists who claim that quitting fossil fuels will be fun in an episode of Soapbox. According to Mitchell, tackling climate change is less a fantastic adventure and more like tidying your room: annoying but necessary.

Mitchell’s logic could be extended to things that actually are fun, but feel compelled to present themselves as sustainable. Every year, there is collective handwringing over the mess left behind by summer festival-goers. Glastonbury comes in for particular criticism, as the disconnect between the projected values of the festival (peace, love and environmental harmony) and the detritus from 200,000 people getting drunk in a temporary town for four days can seem especially jarring.

In response, festivals have taken steps to clean up their act: cups are re-used, efforts are made to promote car-sharing; donations to environmental charities are encouraged. But none of this can do much to hide the fact that most modern festivals are a carnival of consumption, and for most people who attend them, this is a major part of the appeal.

For years now, the production team Arcadia have taken a giant metal fire-breathing spider around the British festival scene. This year, it forms part of Bristol’s European Green Capital celebrations, burning recycled biofuels rather than oil from the Canadian tar sands.

But this is still a giant metal spider that burns fuel for no reason other than that it looks amazing. And it does look amazing. But like posters at the Benidorm arrivals lounge that warn of the dangers of binge-drinking, slapping a “sustainable” sticker on the spider’s side feels like the worst of both worlds.

There is so much carbon expended unnecessarily: can’t we save the fun stuff until last?

In the same way that wealthy countries should be obliged to make more drastic cuts to their carbon budgets in order to make room for the development of nations that have done less to poison the well, we should prioritise cutting the carbon that gives no happiness.

From the metropolitan office lights glinting miserably at night, to the soul-sapping rush-hour traffic jams that could be eliminated by an affordable public transport system, there is no shortage of dull practices that could be vastly improved by a low-carbon makeover.

So let’s leave the Christmas lights for the time being, and enjoy the metal fire-breathing spider for what it is: a ludicrous, crowd-pleasing spectacle, not an exercise in studied ecological restraint.

Previously published in The Guardian.

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2 responses to Targeting airports during the summer holiday season? That’s plane stupid.

  1. Its good as your other blog posts : D, regards for posting . “Too much sensibility creates unhappiness too much insensibility leads to crime.” by Charles Maurice de Talleyrand.

  2. I totally agree, that any direct action which alienates the public is counter productive. Our overriding consideration should be to get the public on board, not stop the odd aircraft taking off. Christmas lights are clearly not a good topic on which to win people over, but we do need to recognise that “energy extravaganzas” like seasonal festivals and motor sports are a symptom of how no one is taking climate change even vaguely seriously, and their unchallenged existence does just promote that message in the minds of the public.

    On airports, I think there is a real issue on which many people could be brought on board. They are incredible un popular for the people who live near them – but the reaction is always – locate it somewhere else (Thames Estuary where only a few flocks of birds will be affected). This isn’t a Climate Change protest, but a “not in my back yard” protest.

    Trying to be more constructive on airports might help a lot.

    Issues are – why are there so many unnecessary short haul flights eg. between Heathrow and Manchester, Heathrow and Paris when the train alternative is just as quick and city centre to city centre. Why doesn’t Heathrow scrap these slots and reallocate them to the Business flights to the Far East which is a major part of their economic case. If anyone was taking Climate Change seriously then the completion of the West Coast mainline modernisation and the completion of the St Pancras HS1 link would have resulted in these flights being discontinued. The fact that people choose to fly by plane is just not a good enough reason for adding to the CO2 in the air and blocking valuable slots at an overcrowded airport. One plane is the equivalent of just two carriages of an Intercity Train – this sort of massive and totally unnecessary waste should just be stopped.

    But there really is no one prepared to stop it, and no one who thinks it is their job to stop it, and that’s the problem.

    I agree, no more pointless counterproductive anti-enjoyment stunts, but please, serious action IS needed to reverse (not contain) the growth in air traffic

By Dr Adam Corner

Adam Corner is a writer and independent researcher who specialises in climate change communication and climate/culture collaborations. Adam worked with Climate Outreach between 2010-2021, helping to build the research team, developing Climate Visuals and Britain Talks Climate, and establishing the centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST). Adam has published widely on public engagement with climate change, from academic journals and reports for NGOs to media commentary (including for the Guardian and New Scientist). Currently Adam’s work is split between strategic climate communication projects (like the Local Storytelling Exchange), writing and contributing to reports, and developing the climate communication evidence base into music and cultural spaces.

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