Rival candidates for London Mayor all joined forces last weekend at a protest in Parliament Square in condemning plans for a third runway at Heathrow Airport, and they were brave and correct to do so. You do not have to be a green-fingered environmentalist to fear mass air pollution in a capital already choking from poisoning by the aviation industry. The environmental costs of a third runway does not represent the end of the world as we know it, but they will only add to the atmospheric devastation that is ultimately unsustainable, and is making London the unhealthiest city in Europe for contracting lung disease.
It is tempting to dismiss the anti-Heathrow expansion brigade as a mob of naysayers and fear-mongers. But those accusations misunderstand the problem. Whatever you think of capitalism, it’s reasonable to believe that growth fuels cities, attracts migrants and can improve living standards. That much is evident after even the very briefest glance at international cities over the past three decades.
But we should not lose sight of the whole reason for promoting growth in the first place. Growth in itself, pursued as a goal unto itself, is a nonsense. We should fight for growth wherever it makes sense for human civilisation and human progress. It is out of this human-centred, empirical defence of growth that many oppose the third runway.
Of course, this line of thought is largely a Marxist one. Marx warned against the ills of alienation, wherein human powers are deployed to create and invest in things which become so powerful that they come to seem distinct from humans and even oppressive to human purposes. That is where growth can take us, and in the case of Heathrow we have a paradigmatic case of alienation.
Growth for its own sake has never been sensible policy, and yet that seems to be the mantra at the heart of the third runway project. It is high time that we pulled the breaks on such a project and recognised the costs to expanding an airport when the city of London does not rely on any further increased investment in Heathrow.
More than 1,000 homes in London must be demolished to make way for the new runway. This is an unacceptable and unjustifiable forcible mass eviction. It would serve only to make London noisier, more chaotic, and more saturated. The cynics are wrong to think that London is not bursting at the seams. But still we should discriminate between good and bad infrastructural changes to the city.
The Airports Commission’s insistence that Heathrow is a necessary investment is an exercise of bad faith with little attention paid to either human needs or environmental preservation. In insisting that there is some supposed urgent ‘need’ for a third runway, the Commission and the Westminster government have both lost sight of the central purpose of encouraging economic growth: the material improvement of people’s lives.
The rhetoric behind the third runway campaign is slippery and misguided. There is no ‘need’ to expand Heathrow. Instead, there are compelling reasons not to. Expanding Heathrow is bad for business, grounded as it is in a naïve and tactless ‘growth for growth’s sake’ mantra, which can only be counter-productive in industry. It is bad for Londoners, since it further threatens their health, and in some cases, their homes. And it is bad for Britain, since it represents the recklessness of our elected representatives in prioritising the haphazard pursuit of being the elusive ‘centre’ in some dramatised global economy, in place of focusing on striving for a more sustainable future.
Image Credit: Thomas Pitrou