If you happened to visit the cinema last December, you may have seen a very clever, if graphic, advert showing polar bears falling from the sky and slamming in to the ground, with all too realistic thuds and accompanying blood splatter.
"An average European flight produces over 400kg of greenhouse gases for every passenger," noted the advert, which was made by creative agency Mother for the anti-aviation expansion group Plane Stupid.
Since it was first aired, the advert has been labelled "despicable" by conservative US pundit Glenn Beck, withdrawn from The Guardian’s website after a string of complaints and viewed over one million times on YouTube.
Talking over coffee in a central London cafe, Plane Stupid activist Joe Ryle concedes "it is shocking" but counters that "we are going to need more and more shocking scare tactics to wake people up to act on climate change."
Established in 2005, Plane Stupid is a network of grass-roots groups that regularly carries out non-violent direct action in support of three core demands – an end to short-haul flights and airport expansion, a stop on aviation advertising and a just transition to sustainable jobs and transport.
While the government is always keen to advertise its green credentials, regarding aviation it has been business as usual, with the number of passengers using UK airports increasing 120 per cent between 1990 and 2004.
As aviation minister from 1999 to 2001, Chris Mullen MP said he learned two things. "First, that the demands of the aviation industry are insatiable. Second, that successive governments have usually given way to them."
But as the aviation industry’s greenhouse gas emissions and political influence have increased, so too has Plane Stupid’s membership, with groups now active in Brighton, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, London, Manchester and Southampton. Each group is non-hierarchical, with no leaders and it uses consensus decision-making during meetings and actions.
"The actions we do are always quite fun and spiky and in-your-face," says 19-year-old Ryle. "It helps to get the message out to a wider audience."
Previous Plane Stupid protests include throwing green slime over Business Secretary Peter Mandelson, hijacking Virgin Atlantic’s table at an awards ceremony and its February 2008 protest on the roof of the Houses of Parliament. During the latter demonstration they unfurled banners reading "BAA [British Airports Authority] HQ" and "No 3rd runway at Heathrow."
Ryle argues these high-profile, media-savvy actions have been very successful in "moving aviation up on the agenda – people are starting to recognise that flying has an impact."
"Thirteen per cent of our greenhouse gas emissions come from the aviation industry if you take in to account that it is released at high altitude," he adds, quoting the government’s own figures.
Ryle joined the London Plane Stupid group in 2007 after immersing himself in climate science and watching Wake Up, Freak Out – Then Get A Grip, a 10-minute animation about climate science and the tipping point. "That definitely kicked things home for me and made me realise we have very little time left to stop climate change," he says.
His first action was as one of the 57 Plane Stupid activists who occupied Stansted airport in December 2008. "I was arrested for aggravated trespass," he says. "We broke through the perimeter fence at two in the morning and set up a ‘fort’ on the taxiway and locked on to that."
According to news reports, the action led to 56 Ryanair flights being cancelled and 56,000 passengers being delayed.
How does Ryle justify disrupting so many people’s travel plans? "We do apologise to passengers inconvenienced by our protests," Ryle says. "However, Stansted airport is mainly short-haul flights and we don’t feel it is really justifiable to use short-haul flights."
More importantly, Ryle emphasises that the protesters "stopped the same amount of emissions on the Stansted action that we all would have emitted in our entire lifetimes. So we are directly stopping emissions. If the government isn’t going to do it, we will directly intervene."
But why take direct action instead of working through traditional democratic channels? "The democratic process is failing us," Ryle retorts. "I don’t think voting has given us much of a say when corporations and governments have all the power. With direct action it is all about taking back the power."
In November last year Ryle was also part of a group that gatecrashed the Architects of the Year awards to highlight how architects’ practice Pascall and Watson has been at the forefront of airport expansion.
"We presented them with our spoof award – the ‘We Don’t Give a Shit’ award, because they don’t give a shit about the impact on the climate or if people’s homes are demolished," he says. "We just walked past security in suits and ties, all dressed up. They even pointed us to the entrance. Two people got on stage and the rest of us gave out leaflets to the audience."
Plane Stupid has often been dismissed by the mainstream media as middle-class, white students protesting about a fringe issue. In contrast, the police and aviation industry take their activism very seriously.
Only last year Strathclyde Police attempted to recruit a Plane Stupid activist as a paid informer and the year before a mole from an international espionage agency was discovered in the London group. "I wasn’t involved in Plane Stupid then, but apparently it was quite obvious as he would turn up to meetings too early," Ryle laughs.
To counter this unwanted attention, Plane Stupid take basic precautionary measures. "The meeting location will go out on email and we all go there," Ryle says. "Then we take our phones out and take the batteries out of our phones. The technology, whereby you can listen in if the battery is in, even if the phone is turned off, is readily available online, so the police must have it. Once we’ve taken the batteries out we walk to another location just to be safe."
An earnest and conscientious young man, Ryle has built his life around his activism. Last year he moved into a house in Heathrow to set up Transition Heathrow, a community-based project working with local residents to fight the expansion of Britain’s largest airport.
The group aims to "create a more sustainable Heathrow through empowering the local community to build their own solutions to climate change," he explains.
What does he make of the Conservatives’ pledge to scrap the third runway at Heathrow if they win the general election? He is sceptical. "Who is to say in two or three years time that they won’t go back on their word?"
In addition he highlights how "the Tories are promising to drop the third runway, which is getting all the public attention, but at the same time they are planning to expand about 20 regional airports around the country."
For Ryle, the lack of government action twinned with the urgency of climate change "highlights the need for a growing and diverse movement willing to take direct action."
However, he believes success ultimately rests upon looking at "the root causes of climate change – capitalism and short-term growth. If we continue along this path we are never going to be able to live sustainably on the planet."
*Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London, UK. [email protected].