The global emergency of climate change is hard for humans to get to grips with because, although it is urgent, it is not immediate. Thus we built some wind turbines but then the recession came and we decided that this was pushing our electricity bills too high. Similarly, there was once a green case against the expansion of Heathrow airport, but in recent years the debate has been crabbed and confined by a narrow view of economic growth.
The big problem with Sir Howard Davies’ inquiry into airport capacity in the South-east, the interim findings of which we report exclusively today on page 10, is that it starts from the assumption that there is not enough of it. Thus the whole debate has been about where in the South-east to build new runways rather than whether we need them at all.
The Independent on Sunday has always taken the view that we do not. This is not an anti-business argument, nor an attempt to deny the importance of market forces. Air travel is growing partly because aviation fuel for long-haul flights is untaxed, which is why aviation is one of the fastest-growing sources of global-warming gases. It could be said that the world’s taxpayers are subsidising environmentally unfriendly activity that would otherwise be uneconomic.
That is why we have long argued that building more runways to meet predicted demand would simply be to build a “better 20th-century infrastructure”. And that, in turn, is why we argue that we should use the airport capacity we already have more efficiently rather than build more. This has another important advantage in that it would use market forces to spread economic activity around the country. Instead of further reinforcing the advantages of the South-east, we should allow the pricing of scarce runway capacity around London to push flights into the under-used but excellent facilities at Birmingham airport and points further north.
This ought to be part of a greener future. There may be a conflict between making money and protecting the environment, but money is only one part of the quality of life, and the environment is another. This is a good time of year to recognise this essential truth, while we prepare for our annual festival of consumerism.
As the economy recovers and technology continues to amaze, educate and entertain – we should do more to ensure that our material advance does not steal from our children’s future. We also report today on the growing volume of electronic and electrical waste, as we constantly upgrade our phones, tablets, computers, consoles, televisions and white goods: this waste of high-end circuitry and heavy metals is at the same time both a threat – to human health and to the environment – and a resource that could be recycled and reused.
This is not a pious plea for self-denial but a pragmatic call for an understanding of a wider definition of the quality of life. We want to rediscover not the virtue of thrift but the quality-of-life benefit of thrift. Thrift is part of a better way of life: reducing consumption, reusing, recycling and even repairing things, rather than adding toxic and nearly functional products to landfill sites.
Just as we recognise that the acquisition of ever more material possessions is not the only measure of human happiness, so we should understand that ever-expanding air travel is not essential to human progress.