Louise Gold spoke to Graham Thompson from Plane Stupid, whose recent action on the rooftop of the Houses of Parliament was widely reported.
LG: Were you pleased with the media coverage?
GT: Pleased in quantity terms. You have to work with the media you have. In terms of quality it’s not always everything you might hope for. Overall we think our message did get through and has been heard. Some of the coverage was unhelpful and some of it dishonest, but overall we’re quite happy. That said, it’s annoying that they always tend to focus on the security angle — we tend to think that climate change is significantly more important than the associated threat from terrorism.
LG: What is Plane Stupid? What does it do?
GT: Plane Stupid is a direct action group. It is a network of people across the UK, but also has groups in other countries, for instance Canada and Australia. We are opposed to unsustainable expansion of the aviation industry which is threatening the stability of our climate. We believe that the failure of traditional democratic processes to limit this expansion requires us to take direct action. Plane Stupid is very much a single issue campaign group; the only thing that we all agree on is the danger posed by aviation to the climate.
LG: What is your own political background?
GT: I’ve never been a member of a political party or an explicitly political group. I suppose I’d describe myself as a typical Guardian reading lefty green.
LG: How do you feel about the way both the tabloid and broadsheet press made much of the middle-class backgrounds and education of the plane stupid activists involved in the Parliament action?
GT: That’s not a new thing. There is a general trend in the media to personalise everything and this time they thought the unusual factor was that we were all allegedly middle class. They would go for anything to make it a human interest story, but this is not going to become something prevalent in the climate change discussion.
LG: But it seems to me that the middle-classness has been used to legitimise your campaign, even by the tabloid press, who’ve surprisingly got behind the anti-Heathrow expansion message. How do you feel about this?
GT: We don’t mind being seen as quite establishment, because being considered radical and fringe can make your message easier to ignore. But that’s a double edged sword, because on the other hand whilst this might help us be considered by the press and public as “reasonable and sensible like us”, it can also be used to say we are spoilt children without real jobs or concerns.
LG: In the past environmentalists were caricatured as “Swampy” type characters. Now it “Otis Ferry” comparisons — they are seen as middle-class pioneers. Does this reflect real changes to the movement — the people and politics — or just the realisation by the media that climate change is a threat?
GT: There have always been a large number of middle-class people in the environmental movement. Why the media has chosen to focus on that I’m not sure. Maybe it’s because the movement has grown as a result of the urgency of climate change.
LG: Is Plane Stupid anti-capitalist?
GT: We don’t feel the need to comment on issues aside from the single issue campaign, but when applied to aviation, the capitalist model of infinite growth at any cost, is unsustainable. So we would not be surprised if applied in other areas it is also unsustainable.
LG: There would be far less sympathy, in most current mainstream papers, for a labour movement struggle. They seem to have conveniently ignored the anti-capitalist trend within Plane Stupid. Do you think this matters? And is there room for collaborative campaigns with organised workers and environmental activists?
GT: There is not just room but a requirement. We need organised labour to realise that the most vulnerable people in society are most threatened by climate change.
Christian Aid claims that climate change will kill 180 million in Sub-Saharan Africa this century; climate change has to be the number one issue for anyone who cares about social justice.
Equally climate change is the most catastrophic effect of unrestrained capitalism. It doesn’t make sense to complain about the traditional problems of the economic system and ignore the biggest one.