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Laurie Penny: Watching the Arctic melt, I realise apathy must be frozen out

We can choose abject complicity, or we can decide that it's not too late to build a better world.

There's nothing like a glacier crumbling into the sea in front of your eyes to remind you that climate change is more than an abstract reason to recycle egg boxes and wine bottles.

Right now, I'm writing from a small ship's cabin in one of the most isolated, desolate places on earth: the northern tip of Svalbard in the high Arctic, where I have come on an expedition, part of the point of which was to see what I've just seen. Which was a shelf of translucent blue ice the height of a house falling into the water like wet cake.

It's not that I didn't believe in climate change before this. On the contrary: I am of the background and generation that grew up in the mid-1990s with the notion of environmental destruction as an inevitability.

I was raised on the animation FernGully: the Last Rainforest and traumatic colouring books full of sad baby seals and herons choking on plastic bags. This gentle indoctrination was supposed to motivate us to grow up and save the planet, but by the time we were old enough to object, the forests were disappearing and the oilfields burning fast enough for it all to seem too late.

I now realise that, even before the Copenhagen Summit 2009 put paid to the prospect of a green international deal, I had decided that there was nothing I could do. At some point, I decided that my special fight was simply to make sure, to the best of my limited ability, that whatever society is left after the floodwaters settle is as fair and free as possible. I have this luxury, of course, because I grew up in a hilly place in England and my house is not going to be underwater for a while yet.

This, for the generation that grew up after the collapse of communism, is the way the world ends: not with a bang, but a bonfire. When I tried to explain the sense of finality to a friend who is old enough to have collected vinyl records before they were niche, he laughed at me. "Don't talk to me about Armageddon," he said, "when I was your age, we had the bomb to worry about."

The bomb, however, was a very different apocalypse from the inevitable, collective entropy of climate change and it demands an entirely different sort of complicity.

The greatest threat to the future of humanity is now not political brinkmanship, but paranoid indifference: the certainty that the future is both finite and short and that all we can do is burn what little of the remaining money we have and hope civilisation outlasts us.

This is a terribly foolish way to live. The anarchist thinker David Graeber writes in Debt: the First 5,000 Years that in response to the blinding obviousness of economic and ecological world buggeration, "the most common reaction - even from those who call themselves 'progressives' - is simply fear. We can no longer imagine an alternative that wouldn't be even worse." Graeber adds: "About the only thing we can imagine is catastrophe."

Little rituals

There is a bitter paradox to this apathetic fatalism that somehow incorporates its own denial. The abstract enormity of climate change and economic meltdown encourages a sort of helpless liberal Calvinism, complete with little rituals of composting orange peel and purchasing sustainable lingerie, as if such devotions might somehow spare us . Which, in a way, they will - if we are lucky enough to live in the cosseted bourgeois west, where you have to be flown out to witness a melting glacier to appreciate the cold reality.

Of course, many millions of people don't need to be told that burning half a trillion tonnes of fossil fuels has had some dodgy consequences for humanity.

At the same time as I'm on a boat watching the Arctic ice-shelf contribute theatrically to rising global sea-levels, hundreds have died in flooding in Pakistan, and over five million have been affected.

There comes a point when you have to make a choice. When a colossal wall of thousand-year-old-ice explodes right in front of you, with a noise like a very large bomb falling very far away, and you feel the chill sting of spray on your face as the ice is eaten away by human greed, you realise that a choice is still possible.

We can choose abject complicity, or we can decide that it's not too late to build a better world. My boots are still wet, so I'm for the latter.


Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 26 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The fifty people who matter

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A third runway at Heathrow will disproportionately benefit the super rich

The mean income of leisure passengers at Heathrow in 2014 was £61,000.

The story goes that expanding Heathrow is a clear-cut policy decision, essential for international trade, jobs and growth. The disruption for those that live around the airport can be mitigated, but ultimately must be suffered for the greater good.

But almost every part of this story is misleading or false. Far from guaranteeing post-Brexit prosperity, a new runway will primarily benefit wealthy frequent flyers taking multiple holidays every year, with local residents and taxpayers picking up the tab.

Expanding Heathrow is not about boosting international trade. The UK is only marginally reliant on air freight to trade with the rest of the world. Total air freight traffic in the UK is actually lower now than it was in 1995, and most UK trade is with Europe, of which only 0.1 per cent goes by air. Internationally, as much as 90 per cent of trade in goods goes by ship because transporting by plane is far too expensive. And in any case our most successful exports are in services, which don’t require transportation. So the idea that UK plc simply cannot trade without an expansion at Heathrow is a gross exaggeration.

Any talk of wider economic benefits is also highly dubious. The Department for Transport’s forecasts show that the great majority of growth in flights will come from leisure passengers. Our tourism deficit is already gaping, with more money pouring out of the country from holidaymakers than comes in from foreign tourists. What’s worse is that this deficit worsens regional disparities since money gets sucked out of all parts of the country but foreign tourists mostly pour money back into London. As for jobs, government estimates suggest that investing in rail would create more employment.

As for the public purse, the aviation sector is undeniably bad for our Treasury. Flights are currently exempt from VAT and fuel duty – a tax subsidy worth as much as £10bn. If these exemptions were removed each return flight would be about £100 more expensive. This is a wasteful and regressive situation that not only forfeits badly needed public funds but also stimulates the demand for flights even further. Heathrow expansion itself will directly lead to significant new public sector costs, including the cost of upgrading Heathrow’s connecting infrastructure, increased pressure on the NHS from pollution-related disease, and the time and money that will have to be ploughed into a decade of legal battles.

So you have to wonder: where is this greater public good that local residents are asked to make such a sacrifice for?

And we must not forget the other sacrifice we’re making: commitment to our fair share of global climate change mitigation. Building more runways creates more flights, just as building more roads has been found to increase traffic. With no clean alternatives to flying, the only way to meet our climate targets is to do less of it.

The real reason for expanding Heathrow is to cater for the huge expected increase in leisure flying, which will come from a small and relatively rich part of the population. At present it’s estimated that 70 per cent of flights are taken by 15 per cent of the population; and 57 per cent of us took no flights abroad at all in 2013. The mean income of leisure passengers at Heathrow in 2014 was £61,000, which is nearly three times the UK median income.

This is in stark contrast to the communities that live directly around airports that are constantly subjected to dirty air and noise pollution. In the case of London City Airport, Newham – already one of London’s most deprived boroughs – suffers air and noise pollution in return for few local jobs, while its benefits are felt almost entirely by wealthy business travellers.

Something needs to change. At the New Economics Foundation we’re arguing for a frequent flyer levy that would give each person one tax-free return flight every year. After that it would introduce a charge that gets bigger with each extra flight, cracking down on those that use their wealth to abuse the system by taking many flights every year. This is based on a simple principle: those who fly more should pay more.

A frequent flyer levy would open up the benefits of air travel, reducing costs for those struggling to afford one family holiday a year, while allowing us to meet our climate targets and eliminate the need for any new runways. It would also generate millions for the public purse in an efficient and progressive way.

We have to take back control over an airports system that is riding roughshod over communities and our environment, with little perceivable benefit except for a small group of frequent flyers.

Stephen Devlin is a senior economist at the New Economics Foundation.