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2021 podcast series: Activism

Sel from Grow Heathrow, Ian from GALBA and Alice from Sky Rebellion talk to us about their experiences as aviation activists.

FlightFree UK
10 May 2021 8 min read

This is episode 5 of our 2021 podcast series. Listen to the episode here and find other episodes and previous series here.

Image shows Sel playing a banjo wearing a pointed hat, Ian standing infront of a waterfall and Anna in a forested area.

This month we’re joined by Sel from Grow Heathrow, Ian from GALBA and Alice from Sky Rebellion to talk about activism.

Flight Free UK

First up, it's Sel. Can you tell us what Grow Heathrow is all about?

Sel

Grow Heathrow started as a transition town to build a resilient community to transition away from fossil fuels. The community aspect was inseparable from the activism aspect.

We were based in Sipson near Heathrow, and it was all about working with the locals and resisting the Heathrow runway which would make that area uninhabitable. One village, Longford, would be totally annihilated. So the interests of frequent fliers are being put over people’s homes.

Flight Free UK

What drew you to Transition Heathrow?

Sel

I’ve always been interested in radical communities and environmentalism, but I was also in a bad housing situation so Grow Heathrow offered a way out of that.

Flight Free UK

What was it like living there?

Sel

The first few months were like heaven. You wake up to the sound of the wind turbines, the sound of the future, and the songbirds. I had a tent underneath a damson tree so I would wake up to the sound of birdsong each day. As time went on it was a little less Utopian but it's still better than living in the Capitalist system.

Flight Free UK

How many people lived there? Were you all there with a common goal?

Sel

You had people come and go. There was a hard core of activists who were fully involved in the protest and activism side of things, and there were some people who were more about living off-grid. Even me – sometimes I was just there to cook and to grow and to show people around.

You have to learn how to work together and disagree with people and how to deal with disputes. It's hard to be an activist and live in difficult situations because we can’t transcend society.

Flight Free UK

It sounds like you learned a lot during your time there. Would you say activism can be successful and that it was the best form of action against Heathrow at that time?

Sel

Yes, it absolutely was. I don’t see my experience there as a failure. It was amazing that we could have that space and live in abandoned greenhouses and grow crops and make music. If I hadn’t done it, my life would be ten times worse. I am so glad I did it. Even if it doesn’t last, even if you make mistakes it's part of the process. Let’s do what we can within the system.

Flight Free UK

You wrote a song which became a bit of a Grow anthem. Can you tell us a bit about the lyrics and the inspiration behind the song?

Cold the hearts of our foe but bold are the warriors\ Swords drawn carry on, carry on, carry on 'til your armour is torn\ Hold this line, this sacred grove, the elders that we call home, we call home,\ Long we sat here hearing their elder song\ Now only axes shall sing

Sel

It's about the excitement of Grow Heathrow, the sacred aspect, the ritual aspect of living in the woods, the courage of my friends. We were eco-warriors, we were fighting. The song ends with ‘now only axes shall sing’ which is a metaphor for the woods being chopped down. But we fought it and the legend lives on.

Flight Free UK

Let's meet Alice. Can you explain why you set up Sky Rebellion?

Alice

Many people aren't aware that there are 21 airport expansions on the cards across the UK and our emissions aren’t factored in to our net zero targets – or at least they weren’t when I started Sky Rebellion. Also, aviation fuel isn't taxed, and there are lots of industry workers with nowhere to go. Airport expansions are sold to us on a jobs-based narrative but actually, it’s more for the profit of companies abroad.

Flight Free UK

What drew you to aviation campaigning?

Alice

It's a justice issue. Only 17% of the world’s population fly and 1% of the most frequent cause 50% of the emissions from flying. That’s a severe global justice issue. Some element of social corporate responsibility needs to be built into business and investment. But our government policy thinks more in terms of economics.

Customers are more satisfied if they are sold an offset because they believe it absolves them of their responsibility, but that's not the case. But customers don’t have a deep understanding of the issues around flying and the elitism of flying and the consequences on the rest of the world.

Flight Free UK

What are the aims of Sky Rebellion and how are you going about achieving them?

Alice

To create a broader understanding of the issues to enable people to choose with full knowledge of what they're choosing. If people had that knowledge it would change behaviour. For example, the CEO of Heathrow says other countries are reliant on our tourism, but on the other hand, you have Mia Motley of Barbados saying that if high emitting countries don't reduce immediately, they’re committing climate genocide.

Flight Free UK

What have you learned from your involvement in Sky Rebellion?

Alice

I’ve had to learn a lot about aviation! As with everything, it all comes back to the same things about fairness, distribution of resources, lobbying by large corporations and shareholders, investment processes and regulatory processes.

I've learned a lot about the links to investment and shareholders. For example, with Bristol airport, the investment company is a pension company in Canada.

Flight Free UK

What can we achieve through activism?

Alice

Consumer-led change. And we need to place a lot of responsibility on corporations. They should factor into their business models the consequences of their actions for making that profit.

Flight Free UK

If you were Prime Minister what would you do?

Alice

I would go for regulation all the way as that’s the only way to make change happen fast.

Flight Free UK

Finally, over to Ian. Can you explain to us what GALBA does?

Ian

There are two groups involved in GALBA. People like me who are involved in the more direct action side of things, and local community groups who are more concerned about the noise aspect of expansion. In early 2020 the owners of Leeds Bradford airport put in a planning application for expansion of 75% by 2030. So that’s 75% more passengers, 75% more aircraft and 75% more carbon emissions at the point we need to be doing everything we can to reduce emissions.

We decided to fight the application on planning grounds because the only way we would defeat this is if we got the application turned down. So GALBA has been dealing with the application process for over 12 months. One of the first things we did was to raise money to employ a barrister. We employed Estelle Dahon, one of the country’s leading environmental barristers, who worked on the Bristol airport case as well as the Cumbrian coal mine.

Flight Free UK

Why should we oppose airport expansion?

Ian

There’s been an increase in understanding of climate change and the role of aircraft emissions in that. In 2018, the airport applied to build a new terminal building and that went through without anyone blinking. Expansion is ridiculous for many reasons, not least that Leeds City Council declared a climate emergency and are aiming to reach net zero by 2030. It’s impossible to do this if you have airport expansion. You’d think that they’d reject it on the grounds of having declared a climate emergency.

Flight Free UK

And what about you on a personal level – do you live under the flight path?

Ian

Not directly, and that wasn't why I got involved, but having said that, noise is a big issue and a big health problem. In fact, in our group, even though we came in for different reasons, we have started to understand each other. So I wasn’t so worried about noise before but now I can't help but hear it!

Flight Free UK

How is your campaign with GALBA going? How effective is the protest?

Ian

If it hadn’t been for GALBA, this application would have gone through 8 months ago. Two of the lead authors of the IPCC report are staff at Leeds University, so they have provided lots of scientific evidence about the impact of the expansion.

Flight Free UK

So is that the outcome then? What happens next?

Ian

We have the option of going for a judicial review. However, the airport is built on the greenbelt so even though the council has approved it, it has to go to Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State, for final approval. Jenrick could call this in for a public enquiry, meaning that all the evidence that we submitted would be examined by an independent body.

So that's where we are now – it’s with Jenrick, so all our efforts are on pressuring Jenrick. Logically, what should happen now, because the government has said that they are including aircraft emissions in the carbon budget, you’d think there would be a national review of airport expansion given that it has to be limited to 25% yet there are lots of airports with expansion plans.

Flight Free UK

What have you learned as a result of being in GALBA?

Ian

The system is stacked in favour of expansion. All of the talk against climate change and emissions is all talk. When push comes to shove our elected representatives are not prepared to challenge the status quo. I knew that 18 months ago but going through this process drills home that message.

The other thing I’ve learned is that when we as individuals come together we can change things. If it isn’t us who is it? We have to do things, we can’t just sit by and complain about it.

Destination of the month

This month we're choosing a mountain destination that you can reach without flying. Anna recommends the Cairngorms in Scotland, and the Atlas Mountains. Rachel recommends the Brecon Beacons and the French Alps. Sel says he has never actually beheld a mountain, which is quite dreadful as a nature-loving eco-warrior! Alice recommends Ben Nevis, and Ian recommends the Vercors in France.

Huge thanks to Sel, Alice and Ian for joining us today.

Listen to the full episode here and find other episodes and previous series here.

Voiceover: L. Sophie Helbig. Soundtrack: Chasing Balloons by Yeti Music.

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