Small Steps and Big Problems: Why Southampton Airport Should Not Expand

Southampton Airport recently submitted to Eastleigh Council plans to expand the airport to accommodate double the amount of passenger numbers over the next 5 – 10 years. Local writer and activist Joseph Aylmer explains why he’s opposed to the expansion.

There are few topics that are a thornier issue in the fight against climate change than aviation. It provides those who would undermine the science with a certain amount of ammunition. These talking points have little value except as disruption tactics that muddy the waters and change the topic. Nevertheless, the effect is very damaging.

A common trope is to talk about how plane travel has shrunk the world. And it is of course true that a wider world was only opened to much of the population with the rise of mass aviation. It has allowed people to expand their horizons and experience other parts of the world in a way that was unthinkable a few generations ago. It has also allowed new migrations which enrich society culturally and economically. Even many of those that are fully behind the climate justice movement baulk at the idea of stopping flying.

But these are very poor reasons for supporting the continued expansion of the aviation industry. Few people know about the tax-exempt status of aviation fuel that allows the industry to provide cheaper transportation than you can get on the railways. Even fewer are aware that 15% percent of passengers make up for 70% of all flights, meaning it is those that fly regularly that are the problem, not the annual family holiday.

Cynical narratives about the climate justice movement wanting to stop working class families taking an annual trip to warmer climes not only trade in stereotypes but are patently ridiculous when it is serial flyers that represent the biggest problem. It is positively poisonous to use the language of fairness when climate change will have its most deadly effects in some of the world’s poorest communities, in South Asia by flooding, and in Southern Africa and the Maghreb by crop failure.

Certainly, a change of social priorities is urgently needed. Many of the most powerful seem to think the system could carry on with devastating climate change, and, indeed, if changes aren’t made it will carry on indefinitely until social collapse. The question for the rest of us is rather whether the current societal value structure is consistent with a habitable planet or democratic society, for the effects of climate change will certainly lead to increasingly authoritarian methods of controlling populations. As we have already seen by the way climate refugees have been treated on European and American borders, our disposable society treats people like it does last year’s fads. When society starts to do that, we only need to look at history to know where we might end up.

This is all too large a thing to lay at the door of expansion plans to a regional airport.  However, when Hampshire, Portsmouth and Eastleigh councils have all declared climate emergencies, it is enormous bad faith to make ‘economic’ arguments about the benefits the airport will bring to the region in terms of jobs and investments. One could make similar arguments about any number of socially harmful industries that wouldn’t pass any sensible scrutiny.

More important, is the question of values. Not only does any airport cause significant health problems for those it its vicinity due to increased mortality because of noise and disruption but in a world where climate change threatens to destroy entire ecosystems, with calumnious knock-on effects for all life, continuing to frame public decision making on the basis of ‘economic growth’ is an outrageous abdication of responsibility.

Rather we need to re-evaluate the entirety of the structure of needs of our society. The planetary imperative is now sustainability rather than growth, and will cause us to ask, what we are living for? Human civilisation cannot continue on its current path, attempts to pretend it can are a form of denial that will lead to terrible ends. We already have seen a glimpse of this when various populist movements blame refugees, environmentalists and others for the ills of society. This is the scapegoat mechanism of a society that will not reflect on its own conduct and values.

If we wish to secure a habitable planet, we need social movements and public officials to create a culture that reviews every decision based on its sustainability and reducing carbon emissions. Any attempt to expand airports will give exactly the wrong signal, from office holders to wider society.

So, while saying no to Southampton Airport expansion is a small step, it is a clear-eyed moral necessity.

Joseph Aylmer is a pseudonym.


Find out more

Southampton Airport Master Plan 2037: SA’s ‘growth path for the airport over the next 20 years, including key developments and the associated land use plans’

Airport Expansion Opposition Southampton: a campaign to oppose the expansion of Southampton Airport