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Captain Carbon says...

Jun 16

Written by:
16/06/2008 16:25  RssIcon

Come fly with me, come fly let's fly away. If you could do with some exotic booze in a bar in far Bombay...

There is a nuanced argument amongst climate activists about whether aviation is a sensible target at this stage of the game, which throws up some pertinent dilemmas for ethical consumerism.

Captain Carbon was interested to read how aviation activists Plane Stupid pitched their argument to the Guardian in a recent interview. It's worth quoting at length:


“The one golden rule of every action is to target the aviation industry, not its customers. "I fully appreciate that at the moment, for an ordinary person making choices on their personal circumstances, which is exactly what you would expect people to do, flying from London to Edinburgh makes sense, because of gross distortions in the travel market," Murray says. Urging anyone to alter his or her "consumption behaviour" is a total waste of time, he continues. "We need to change the conditions of choice - not individuals' minds about things."


What Plane Stupid are campaigning for is the removal of that choice - by the closure of all short-haul flight routes. But what about long-haul flights? These would be acceptable, only if they were "necessary". But who would be the judge of that? "We're not policy wonks," says Murray. "But we're calling for some kind of demand constraint."


It seems clear that what they are calling for is prohibitive long-haul airfares. But when pressed on the "equitability" of this solution - the rich would be able to continue flying, the poor wouldn't - they keep retreating behind the same disclaimer: "We are not a thinktank."


Firstly, the position that targetting consumer behaviour is “a total waste of time” is one that Ethical Consumer, unsurprisingly, would have some difficulties with. That said it is a common place of uninformed attacks on ethical consumerism that what it does is individualise social problems and address the political purely as consumption choices. Here is not the place to put the case against that misconception (check out our Manifesto if you don't believe us). Suffice it to say that 'choice editing' as the academics call it, or “the removal of [unsustainable] choice” is exactly what we are arguing for.


Ethical consumers, at best , can be the vanguard of that process, by making those choices increasing socially unacceptable. You don't see many libertarian arguments for the right to use CFCs, for example, and banning energy inefficient white goods is an example of successful choice editing in practice. Consumer activism and the kind of direct action of Plane Stupid, then, are not at loggerheads, they are tactics that are part of wider strategic spectrum.

And in the case of Plane Stupid, they are undoubtedly right. Targetting normal consumers with guilt trips about family holidays or transatlantic trips to see loved ones will surely only re-confirm the popular image of environmental campaigners as holier than thou puritans. Airport expansion on the other hand, as the Heathrow and Stanstead campaigns demonstrate, offers successful strategic alliances with communities blighted by the aviation industry.


The reality of super-cheap flights is that the rich get to fly even more than they did while the poor (in the UK and majority world) pay the price of climate change. An Oxford University study last year showed that in the UK the 20% of individuals with the worst carbon emissions were responsible for 80 times the emissions of the best 20% - and the vast difference is overwhelmingly due to relative amounts of travel.


The sticking point is that cheap air travel has transformed the average Westerners experience of the world, making annual breaks in the sun and gap years an affordable commonplace. Anti-greens are only too keen to use the stick of ordinary people's hard fought privileges to beat the environmental movement with. And we play in to it when we suggest container ship travel as an option to people who want to visit grandchildren on the other side of the world and have 20 days holiday a year. So Plane Stupid are right to strategically duck out of the argument here.


However with Goldman Sachs predicting oil at $200 a barrel within a year (just don't get me started on peak oil...) and airlines going to the wall from fuel prices rises (without a hint of adding 'green taxation' to the burden) there's another prospect on the horizon - “prohibitive long-haul airfares” arising from the market, not policy.


After the war a transatlantic flight cost the equivalent of half of an annual professional salary. Is it far fetched to imagine we'll return to those days before too long? As oil prices carry on going north perhaps we won't need to worry too much about airport expansion. And if air travel once again appears to be becoming the preserve of the rich anti-green arguments based on the 'democratisation of travel' won't wash with John and Jane Public.


When Old Blue Eyes sang his paen to the the romance of aviation its universal connotations were glamour, freedom, luxury and aspiration. In a world where school kids know that carbon emissions contribute to floods and famine the connotations will be very different.





2 comment(s) so far...

Re: Captain Carbon says...

MEND militants have shut down 345,000 barrels of oil production a day in the niger delta over the last few days, hitting offshore facilities the industry thought was safe - nigeria oil production is at its lowest for 25 years ( - compare that to the 200,000 barrels increase the Saudi's have promised (world consumption is about 80 million barrels per day UK oil and gas production is falling off a cliff - according to the government's own figures the cost of importing oil and gas to the UK ballooning to about $200 billion (£100 billion) per annum by 2013 - just 5 years away (
Gordon Brown has finally got the message that there's a crisis because truckers are demonstrating - this man's supposed to be good with figures - just what figures has he been looking at for the last ten years? Environmentalists are celebrating the oil price rises in complete ignorance of what a super-spike oil shock is going to do to the world's economy - where is the investment for a transitional energy structure going to come from when we're in a global depression? how are farmers in Africa going to get their crops to market when there's no fuel in the country? Forget about the third runway at Heathrow - it'll be overgrown with weeds in the next ten years. Fly now and see the world - nobodies going anywhere in a few years time and people will be wishing they had the carbon footprint they used to.

By Aelfric on   25/06/2008 09:10

Re: Captain Carbon says...

Aelfric says: Fly now and see the world. if we all keep flying therell be no world to see

By minniemore on   30/06/2008 12:47


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