Heathrow expansion? Plane stupid

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Protesters outside the Uxbridge Magistrates’ Court, 19 August 2015. © Plane Stupid

Prior to the 2010 general election in Britain, and recognizing that Heathrow airport expansion plans were unpopular with voters, Conservative Party leader David Cameron made his ‘no third runway’ promise (‘No ifs, no buts, no third runway’ were his exact words).

The Conservative Party won the election and formed a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. In 2012 the coalition created the Airports Commission, a supposedly ‘independent’ body, to report on how Britain could maintain its status as Europe’s most important aviation hub.

In July 2015, the Commission recommended a third runway at Heathrow in a report that was the culmination of 3 years’ work and £20 million ($31 million) of public money.  

The result was as expected: a stitch-up. Far from being an ‘independent’ body, the Airports Commission had a Chair, Sir Howard Davies, with multiple conflicts of interest.

The first of these is that Davies was a board member of Prudential, a life insurance and financial services company, throughout the time he chaired the Commission. Prudential spent £300 million ($369 million) buying up properties around the airport in the months before the Commission’s report came out.

Prudential, through its asset management business M&G, already owns Hilton Hotel at Terminal 5 and has planning permission to build a large hotel on land near the proposed site of the third runway.

Davies did not declare his financial interest in Prudential, although he has shares in the company and pocketed more than £370,000 ($578,000) in fees from them while chairing the Commission.

Secondly, immediately before becoming Chair of the Commission, Davies was an adviser to the Singapore-based company GIC Private – which owned an 11.2% stake in Heathrow Airport Holdings in 2014.

Thirdly, in February 2015 Davies was appointed Chair of the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), and is expected to take up the post in September. Both Heathrow and Gatwick airports are major clients of RBS.

Ultimately, who is to benefit from the expansion? It is estimated that only 5% of people globally have  ever flown, while in Britain, 15% of people take 70% of all flights. Flying is therefore a privileged mode of transport and frequent flying is an elitist activity.

The Heathrow expansion is thus more likely to cater to rich frequent flyers taking leisure flights, to the detriment of the planet and local communities around Heathrow, which are affected by pollution caused both by the planes and by the intense traffic to and from the airport.

Aviation also contributes to air and noise pollution, with serious health impacts for communities living next to airports and those under the flight path. Britain already has illegal levels of air pollution and those in London are worst affected, with poor air quality estimated to kill almost 10,000 prematurely each year in London alone.

In addition, the noise generated by planes is linked to stroke, coronary heart disease and cardiovascular disease.

Climate science is clear: we need deep cuts from existing levels of greenhouse gas emissions to maintain a stable, safe climate. Not only is the government not doing that, it’s actually promoting mega-infrastructure projects like expanding airport capacity, which will make it virtually impossible to meet the (inadequate) climate change targets set out in the Climate Change Act 2008.

Commenting on the Heathrow expansion, James Lees, from the Aviation Environment Federation, a leading NGO on aviation and the environment, states:

‘There is a recommended limit to the level of CO2 emissions from aviation that can be allowed in 2050 so that the UK as a whole can stand a chance of meeting its national climate change commitments. Unfortunately, the emissions from an expanded Heathrow, on top of those from other airports, will far exceed that limit according to the Airports Commission.’

He works out that in order to manage CO2 emissions and demand, prices will have to go up ‘around £500 for a return flight to New York’, spelling ‘an end to the ‘democratization of air travel’.
So, to the extent that the Airport Commission deals with climate, it’s relying on the fact that carbon pricing will be so high that only the rich will be able to afford to fly!

In July 2015, I was part of a group from direct action network Plane Stupid that occupied part of the northern runway at Heathrow Airport. We erected a tripod and fencing, and locked ourselves onto it. Our intention was to stay there as long as possible. In doing so, we stopped some flights and greenhouse gas emissions.

It has long been obvious that the democratic process has failed to deal with the climate crisis.

In these circumstances, direct action against unnecessary, fossil-fuel-intensive operations such as an expansion at Heathrow Airport is justifiable. In fact, given what’s known about the state of our fragile planet – our only home – taking action, where we can, is a duty that we owe to ourselves and to our children.

We must insist that our health and the viable future of the planet come before the greed and the profits of those in the industry and their friends in government.

The Plane Stupid activists involved in the Heathrow action had their first court hearing on 19 August at Uxbridge Magistrates’ Court. All plead not guilty to the charges of aggravated trespass and being in a restricted area of the airport without permission or reasonable excuse. The trial is scheduled for 18-29 January 2016.

For more information about Plane Stupid see: www.planestupid.com

Arms dealers on trial

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© Campaign Against the Arms Trade

Back in September 2013, having been arrested for blockading the entrance to the world’s biggest arms fair in East London, I would never have imagined that a few months later I’d be part of a group taking a private criminal prosecution against some arms dealers. But the opportunity arose and seemed too valuable from a campaigning perspective to let pass by.

In the days after our arrests, two arms companies, Tianjin Myway International Trading Co and Magforce International, were thrown out of the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) arms fair after Caroline Lucas MP presented evidence in the British parliament that they were breaking the law on arms control.  They were busted after a journalist at the fair challenged them for advertising torture weapons in their brochures – including electric stun guns, batons and weighted leg fetters.

We thought it would useful to know more about this so we submitted freedom of information requests to the authorities. Their response was, basically, ‘sod off’ – they refused to confirm or deny anything, despite widespread media coverage and a statement by the organizers of the arms fair.

But we kept pressing for the information, which was also important for our own criminal trials. We’d been charged with obstruction of the highway for various acts of resistance to the arms fair, and in our defence we intended to argue that we were intervening to prevent crimes against humanity, such as torture. A week before our trials in February, when it looked like the judge may force the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to disclose its investigations of the arms companies thrown out of the fair, the CPS suddenly dropped the case against us, without giving reasons. Interesting, we thought.

Since we’d collected a fair bit of information about these companies, and as the authorities had no interest in prosecuting them, we decided to get on with it ourselves.  

The first hearing was held in April and the next substantive hearing will be on 26 November at Thames Magistrates’ Court in East London. Tianjin didn’t turn up at court for the last hearing or send a representative, but French company Magforce – which is much bigger and mentioned in various UN reports discussing arms control violations – did, with a troop of lawyers including a London-based QC who is an expert in war crimes. This suggests that Magforce is taking the matter seriously. We’re pleased that we’ve already managed to cause them some economic damage. It’s possible that the actual trial will be scheduled in 2015; if so, we’re hoping it will cast a shadow over next year’s DSEI arms fair and send a message to all exhibitors and participants who trade in arms. We see these criminal proceedings as part of a wider strategy to discredit and ultimately shut down the DSEI arms fair for good.

Between now and the next court hearing, we need to popularize and publicize this prosecution. You can help us by writing about it, talking about it, coming to our fundraiser event in London (details will be announced on the website soon), creating memes and more! We also welcome donations to the legal fighting fund.  

Keep up to date with the case and the Arms Dealers on Trial campaign on Facebook and Twitter.

Walk to promote culture change, not climate change

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Bee happy: take part in a 'walking university' from Totnes to Carlisle © BuzzTour

A walking tour is planned to celebrate and connect up some of the many inspiring initiatives across Britain aimed at promoting sustainability. The tour will also help participants psychologically and physically to prepare for a future without fossil fuels. And you’re invited!

Whereas capitalist society encourages and rewards exploitative behaviours of people and planet, the Buzz Tour will celebrate people and projects working for positive change. It will bring people together, and help give them the motivation, skills and courage actively to dissent against this harmful culture, and join with others in building an inclusive one based on democratic and ecological values instead.

As well as visiting groups and projects in both rural and urban settings, like Transition Towns, organic farms and schools, the tour will have a ‘walking university’ including skill-shares, story-sharing and workshops on a range of subjects such as permaculture, conflict resolution, foraging, direct action and wild medicine. Participants can also practice mindfulness and learn directly from nature.  

The founder of Buzz Tour, Eve Carnall, thinks the tour is important because people do not yet have the will to bring about a world without fossil-fuel energy, nor do they have the skills that will be essential in a genuinely sustainable future. Eve is herself on a journey, having given up ‘normal’ work 2 years ago to focus on climate-change issues. She studied behavioural psychology at university, where it became clear to her that the causes of climate change are cultural and systemic – it is our culture that promotes and rewards harmful behaviours, which must be transformed. We are forced to participate in this destructive culture, she says, but that is different from consenting to it. Someone who is kidnapped may not actively resist out of fear, but they don’t consent to being taken hostage.

People who want to get involved in the Buzz Tour can do so at any time. There is no time commitment – anyone that wants to be part of a democratic and inclusive space can stay for an afternoon or a few months. There are also some practice walks coming up in Oxfordshire over the next few weeks.

For the initiative to be a success, many more people need to find out about it and join in, bringing their ideas, energy and enthusiasm. There are lots of ways to get involved other than joining the walk itself. Participants will be walking and camping together so donations of camping equipment, walking gear and waterproofs are gratefully received. It’s important to record the journey, so people with filmmaking and technical skills will be needed, as well as donations of audio-visual equipment. There are plans to make a short documentary after the tour is over, using footage that has been shot along the way. Small monetary donations will also help fund essential expenses en route such as venue hire, food and public transport to and from the walk for those who need it. The Indiegogo crowdfunder appeal is accepting donations until 14 April. Meals for participants are also appreciated.

The route is still evolving, but the Buzz Tour will start in the Transition town of Totnes on 18 April, taking in Bristol (28 April), Norwich (5 June) and Manchester (11 July). The tour will also visit Minehead, Stroud, Bradford and Carlisle. It will finish in Scotland in August. Find out more about the many ways you can get involved.

Protect human – not corporate – rights

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Free trade agreements allow powerful interests to assert their rights ahead of fundamental human rights. privacyinternational.org under a Creative Commons Licence

Today, 10 December, has been recognized as Human Rights day since 1950. The day marks the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. The UDHR reportedly gave strength to Mandela during his many years of imprisonment. The text is impressive – it affirms the fundamental rights of people everywhere, without discrimination; it recognizes that individuals and governments have a duty to defend the rights of others in global solidarity with humanity.

Certainly, the UDHR was a step forward in the struggle to protect human rights. It led to the creation of many other legally binding instruments such as the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act 1998. It also inspired the movement that has recently emerged in Latin America to recognize and protect the rights of nature, as an alternative to market-based climate deals pushed by so many governments and businesses.

Most people are familiar with the provisions of Universal Declaration as they relate to civil and political rights  – like the right to family life or to be treated equally and fairly in court. Fewer are aware that the Universal Declaration also contains economic, social and cultural rights – like the right to work and to be paid a decent wage, the right to a standard of living adequate for health and wellbeing, including adequate food, healthcare and housing; and the right to social security.

Right now the US and the European Commission are – behind closed doors and on behalf of all their citizens – negotiating a profoundly undemocratic free trade deal known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or TTIP. A lobby group called TheCityUK is pushing hard for an agreement that will be most favourable to business interests in the City of London. Transnational companies are demanding deeper ‘rights’ to make profit without ‘barriers’. All of this is done in the name of ‘free trade.

What are these barriers that investors are concerned about? To answer that, let’s examine how similar trade agreements work in practice:

Vattenfall, a Swedish energy company, is suing Germany for US$5.1 billion in lost profits following Germany’s decision to phase out nuclear power. This will result in the closure of two Vattenfall plants. Vattenfall is asserting its rights under the Energy Chater Treaty.  

The tobacco giant Philip Morris is suing Australia and Uruguay in lost profits, in the case of Uruguay it is demanding US$2000 million, following the decision by these nations to discourage smoking and to impose plain packaging of cigarettes. Philip Morris is claiming rights under bilateral investment treaties.

Lone Pine Resources, a US mining company, is suing Canada for US$250 million compensation and lost profits following the decision by the province of Quebec to impose a moratorium on fracking. Lone Pine is relying on rights it claims under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  

These are just a few shocking examples. What these agreements do is subject human rights to corporate rights. Powerful interests asserting their rights to ‘property’ above fundamental human rights is nothing new but the US-EU free trade agreement is striking in its breadth and depth. It will entrench corporate rights at the international level much deeper than ever before. It is the most audacious attack by capital on human rights and society. It will have a chilling effect on legislators and it will cost the public purse when transnational corporations challenge national laws designed to protect human rights and the environment.

In Britain, people may first notice this in relation to the National Health Service (NHS).The US-EU free trade agreement will turn the NHS into a transnational investment opportunity, making its privatization effectively permanent. Given that $164 billion is spent on the NHS each year, it represents quite a prize for investors. Our right to healthcare guaranteed by the Universal Declaration will take second place to the right of companies to secure contracts and make profits for themselves and their shareholders.  

Rights-based organizing is valuable and necessary but we need to demonstrate that we reject the notion of human rights as a marginal concern, subservient to the interests of capital. We need to make real the vision in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We need a movement which includes direct action to stop the US-EU free trade agreement. A Stop TTIP Occupy working group has just been set up – join forces with us.

Melanie Strickland is a solicitor and member of Occupy Law UK.

The New Putney Debates


Alice Walker said that the most common way people give up their power is by thinking that they do not have any. But in a genuine democracy all political power is inherent in the people. The task for progressive movements is to organize and keep coming up with creative ways to highlight the democratic deficit and offer solutions.

Power cannot stand sustained pressure, that’s why the Occupy movement won’t go away. We’re continuing to experiment with new ways to draw in the general public, inform ourselves of the problems, and collectively reclaim democracy for the people, and for the planet itself. It’s no insignificant task; this is a long-term game.

Occupy London’s latest project is a series of free public debates focused the democratic deficit, inspired by the Putney Debates of 1647. Many of the will take place in the same venue in Putney, southwest London: St Mary’s Church.

The issues discussed at the original Putney Debates are just as relevant today as they were 365 years ago – more so, given the global nature of ecological, social and economic challenges we face. Progressives in Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army wanted greater democracy and a new constitution for England. They wanted power to be shared more equitably. The Levellers in the Army were more radical: in the Agreement of the People they set out their vision for a more democratic constitution and demanded their ‘native rights’.

Back then, it was the wealthy property owning class that oppressed the people. Today, it’s multinational companies that have acquired vast wealth, rights and power. It is time to assert the rights of our communities and nature above corporate rights. It’s an illegitimate use of state power to push policies that are against the public interest – as this neoliberal coalition is doing. It’s illegitimate and unjust, even when the law allows it.

Another world is possible. Just as what happened in Putney all those years ago helped pave the way for future rights-based movements, we hope this series of 2012 debates will shift the political discourse, pave the way for progressive reforms and perhaps, compassionate revolution, that will result in better lives for all.

The New Putney Debates begin on 27 October at 1pm at the Oasis Centre, London. The full programme can be found at the website.

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