(image credit: John McLinden)
Happy news indeed. Bristol Airport’s latest round of airport expansion plans were rejected last week – for now, at least. Councillors voted 18 to seven with one abstention. The main reasons cited were: unresolved environmental problems, environmental harm outweighing economic benefits, the adverse effects on health and well-being due to noise and emission, climate change and carbon reduction policies.
I’m delighted by this news. Surprised, too, as I feared the expansion would go ahead. I spent the first 18 years of my life living directly under the flight path of what was then known as Lulsgate Airport. I was fortunate growing up and playing on nearby Felton common, with its earth works, flora and fauna, and vistas stretching from the Severn estuary to the Mendips and across Bristol. Despite parts of it being adjacent to an ‘A’ road, a quarry and a fast-growing airport, to me it was a magical place to hang out with friends and to roam with our dog. The land felt ancient and timeless, despite busy modernity threatening its boundaries.
One of my earliest bouts of activism was campaigning against the second round of airport expansion in my mid-teens. A fond memory from this time is my late Dad and I recording every dwelling within a mile of the perimeter fence, walking around, rain or shine. This information was used in the campaigning, but, alas, the expansion was eventually agreed and went ahead in 1988. According to airport figures 100,000 passengers per year passed through the airport in 1988. Fast forward 30 years and in 2018 8,699,529 passengers passed through the airport – a greater than 86-fold increase.
I consciously stopped flying in 2004. There were many reasons, one of the main ones was witnessing, first-hand, the degradation of my homeland; fields tarmac-ed into car parks, traffic flow hugely increasing and the relentless schedule of flights. I know that not flying is a drop in the ocean, carbon-wise, and yet, that decision has been radical enough to get me to re-think how I live. The no fly decision has rippled out and shaped other decisions – my partner and I now have one car between us. This is still a compromise, and a necessary one for now, given that I work part-time in a hamlet with no public transport. We think carefully about the journeys we make, aiming to walk or take public transport as often as possible – and we’ve shared some slower and very memorable journeys across Europe by train…
My decision not to fly has rippled out in influencing the decisions of friends and family who have subsequently decided not to fly – or to fly less, or to fly more consciously. Despite all of these changes, and as well as being vegetarian since I was 14 and deciding not to have children (which was, in large part, because I didn’t think it was what the earth needed), it’s still hard to live within my carbon footprint, given the proportion allocated to each of us to allow for things like military use and health care provision. I just about manage it – the last time I checked my lifestyle created 8.5 tonnes of carbon per year, but my lifestyle’s still very much work in progress, like most other people.
Opinion can often be split around whether individual changes are a useful focus in times of climate emergency and environmental degradation, with the argument made that change is most needed at a policy level. For me this isn’t – and never was - an either/or. It’s a both/and. Given the vacuum in leadership around tackling climate emergency, acknowledging the extinction catastrophe, the gaping gulfs in wealth, and facing the degradation of environments globally, we all need to start from where we are and act where and when we can, joining forces, campaigning and building community. Whatever happens, we need to change how we live – to simplify – whether we instigate the changes or whether the government does.
Last week Boris Johnson also gave the green light to HS2, the proposed high-speed rail link between London and Manchester which will see the threatening of 108 ancient forests, despite him proclaiming, the previous week, the importance of reversing ‘the appalling loss of habitats and species. It's only by repairing the damage to the natural world that we can address the problem of climate change’. There’s scant joined up thinking in so much government policy. So for me it’s doing everything we can do, with a sense of immediacy and connection.
And, of course, this isn’t just about carbon footprints. Thinking back to those childhood days playing on the common, and the play I still enjoy in forests and by the ocean, it’s about our living, breathing connection with the other-than-human and more-than-human world. It’s about the beauty of that. Living simply can be about re-realising that beauty, rather than being about something lesser and the giving up of things. It’s about re-membering, re-embodying, and being part of the web of life, one amongst several species, each needing our natural habitat to survive. It’s about our interdependence. The billions of other species on this precious earth deserve to thrive, and we also forget that at our peril.