“The future of our planet is at stake”: Eco-warriors fight Heathrow expansion
Grow Heathrow remains last man standing as UK government gives green-light for third runway project.
This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but with poor government decisions. After overturning plans to build a third runway at Heathrow airport six years ago, the UK government recently announced its renewal. The proposed project will not only affect residents of the surrounding area, but is also a major setback in the fight against climate change. An unusual group of eco-warriors have realised this danger and are taking a stand.
At Grow Heathrow (GT), a squatter community has reclaimed unused land in Sipson where the runway is to be built, and replaced 30tonnes of rubbish with a forest. In a suburban neighbourhood with white picket fences, GT lies tucked away incongruously with its hand painted gates, and 60s Woodstock vibe. I’m here to speak with Nyteshade*, 29, one of the pioneers of this movement. Led past crooked houses, flowerpots and a heap advertising “free dirt”, I enter the main den where he sits, with dreaded black hair, banging away at the piano. He smiles, offering to take me on a tour of the place immediately, filling me in on the trees; he’s less keen on the interview to follow: “Will this take long? I don’t really feel like talking today.”
A greener pasture
“I’ve always been interested in Nature, it’s in all of us just because we’re natural beings – to see life thrive and to be saddened by the idea of ecological destruction and ugliness. Coming here was to live that in principle and see the problems,” Nytshade tells me, meandering his way deftly through the forest-path.
I ask him if he’s the resident philosopher and he laughs. “No, I think there are lots of those around here. I’m a musician, mostly. I play piano, mandolin. I love organic farming.” He shows me around the apothecary, the make-shift music room full of pashmina rugs and anarchist flags, bike shop, and greenhouses. Surrounded by the forest, it’s hard to imagine any problems. “It’s not easy because we’re experimenting. We’re the first generation, from the six who climbed over the fence to set up this place.”
Activism has always played a major role in his life. Growing up in North London, he saw first-hand how inequality and poverty led to low-level crime and alienation. “I was in Carwash Collective for 3months, a squat in Greenwich where we opened a social centre and skate park. That’s where I first got interested in planting trees. Eventually we got evicted. I heard about this place at a party and I’ve been living here for 20 months now.”
I ask him about his life goals, and he leans in earnestly, “I would love to plant a forest”.
He’s aware of his precarious situation and fear of eviction. “My philosophy is the zen quote ‘chop wood, carry water’: having basic rituals of human labour.” But when ecological destruction is so imminent, is it not easy to be cynical? “Our movement is built on trust and solidarity. Giving in to fear destroys any community.”
The fight for our future
Climate Change is a classified Tier-1 threat to Britain’s security. Austerity and the resultant job crisis make the third runway seem like an easy solution, but with devastating long-terms effects. “Noise and air pollution alone will make life harder for so many people. The poisoned air affects our lungs, our skin. What warped mind wants to deprive people of clean air?” The UK Climate Change Act(2008) requires 80% baseline reduction of net carbon accounts from 1990, but the building of this runway, supporting 740,000 flights/year, seems inconsistent with that target.
However, Prime Minister Theresa May assured citizens that “air quality standards can be met”. The Airport Commission’s July 2015 analysis described the expansion as “crucial for the UK’s long-term prosperity”. When I tell Nystshade of 77,000 new local jobs from the runway, he retorts, “These jobs will cost us our long-time survival. Why is there a schism between the labour movement and environmentalism? Why not build an eco-friendly alternative?”
Additionally, the alarming demand for fossil fuel begs attention. There has been 8.8% increase in transport fuel consumption from 1st-2nd quarter, 2016(300,000 tonnes). “Living communally reduces resource consumption: our wood burner feeds 30 people everyday. We need community resilience to get off fossil fuels. Fundamentally, it’s about changing minds through lifestylism.” He’s right; 3/4ths of international flights from Heathrow are for leisure and most Hillingdon councillors oppose the expansion. “If the government wants to go ahead, there will be a legal battle. Protests will erupt and we will support the community, that is why we’re here, having survived 2 failed eviction attempts”, he says confidently.
Community support is crucial to their ongoing struggle, and the group has been involved in litter picking, local distribution of produce. As I bring up a possible GT eviction, he looks away. “It will be painful. At the last squat, the diggers came in to demolish within an hour of getting us out. If they get us out of here, they’ll start with the trees. It’ll be brutal- they’re irreplaceable.”
In crisis situations, resistance has historically been difficult, yet most necessary. With the government green-light, there are very few options left, but he is optimistic, “We have to believe the runway can be blocked. We will keep on.”
*Name has been changed on request
Report by Manisha