Plane Speaking: A response to Brendan O'Neill


The donkey jackets have been quietly retired and the Lenin busts wrapped in newspaper and stored in the bottom draw, while that once unshakable belief in the Hegelian dialectic is nothing more than an embarrassing dinner party anecdote. Now it's all sharp suits and bursting media contacts books.

Welcome to the curious world of Spiked Online, the internet home of the Revolutionary Communist Party, where members of that 80s Marxist sect now espouse free-market ideology while stuffing their Gap jackets with corporate booty.

I have had cause this week to take a closer look at this network of commentators after Spiked editor Brendan O'Neill described me, on Comment is Free, as "deeply conservative and censorious, wishing to hold society back, shut down debate and keep the uppity oiks in their place". The Spiked gang once thought society was held back by bourgeois tendencies. Now, it seems, the fault lies with environmental protesters - particularly those under thirty years of age who think tackling climate change might be, you know, a reasonably good idea.

I wandered into the crosshairs of Spiked's AK-47 after founding a direct action group to tackle the dangerous growth in aviation. Just to put it on the record, I and my friends did not do this because we were convulsed by a desire to force people to live in Hobbit-style grass huts, wear hair shirts, howl at the moon or listen to "One Way" by The Levellers on repeat. (We'll leave the cultural reprogramming to the Revolutionary Communist Party, eh Brendan?) No, we founded the group called Plane Stupid because the world's scientists are warning that the current growth in aviation threatens to destroy what hope we have of averting catastrophic climate change. Indeed, in recent months both Oxford University and the internationally respected Tyndall Centre have warned that if aviation expands as expected, even if Britain decarbonised the rest of its economy by 2050, we still won't even meet the prime minister's most conservative emissions target of a 60% cut. Reports in The Guardian this week make it abundantly clear that Tony Blair has no intention of paying heed to these warnings, only underlining the importance of groups like my own.

The growing and diverse movement calling for radical action to halt climate-changing carbon emissions won't be silenced by corporate-funded misinformation from recently converted, free-market, anti-green disciples like Brendan. This near cultish worship of the market, espoused by Spiked and those who fund them in the boardrooms, has blocked action on the most serious of problems for too long.

Brendan chides me personally, and the exciting grassroots movement of which I am part, as "anti-progress". Is his idea of progress a world in which there are180 million deaths from climate change this century in Sub Saharan African alone (as Christian Aid predicts)? Is his idea of progress a world in which sea levels swamp major urban conurbations? Is his idea of progress one in which hundreds of millions of people struggle to find fresh water? Because for me and my friends who campaign against the growth in aviation, progress has a very different hue.

It's time to put to rest some of the tired arguments that industry stooges like Brendan have taken to trotting out. It's important to make it clear that the battle against the unsustainable growth in aviation is not a reactionary middle-class attempt to get the hoi-palloi off "our" flights. Cheap flights haven't made it easier for poorer people to travel for the first time; they've just made it easier for the wealthy to travel more often. The Civil Aviation Authority's own data shows that the average person flying in or out of Stansted, a budget airport, earns in excess of £50k, whilst people in the bottom 20% of incomes never even set foot on a plane. Meanwhile, analysis by the industry reveals that second-home owners in Spain now take five or six flights a year. There's been an enormous growth in binge-flying with the proliferation of stag and hen nights to Eastern European destinations chosen not for their architecture or culture but because people can fly there for 99p and get loaded for a tenner. All good fun, but I can't help thinking of those 180 million Africans.

And woe betide anyone working in the UK's tourism industry. Thanks to the short-break phenomenon, Britain now has a £17 billion tourism deficit. That's thousands of smaller bed-and-breakfasts, seaside restaurants and cottage industries in Britain going under because the industry keeps telling us that flying to Barcelona is glamorous. Meanwhile government currently subsidies an Irish airline to buy American planes to enable British people to spend their pounds in Spain.

Plane Stupid has become used to scathing criticisms from people with vested interests. Debate is the lifeblood of our democracy and we're keen to engage with all the arguments but if Brendan wants to be taken seriously, he might at least try to base his case on empirical evidence. As it is, his rhetoric and statistics have all the credibility of those tractor production quotas he and his fellow travellers used to get so excited about.