Saturday, 20 December 2008

In the Shadow of the Moon

I don't watch much TV but I've just seen two fantastic films on More4. The first, The Dish, was a touching dramatisation about the guys in Australia who beamed live TV footage of the moon landing into homes across the world. The second, In the Shadow of the Moon, was a documentary in which all the surviving astronauts from the Apollo missions are interviewed about their experience. It's one of the most profound things I've watched all year.

As someone born in 1983 I've always had a very post-modern view of the events that amazed the world on 20 July 1969. In some ways it's easy to take for granted the fact that men have set foot on the moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are two of the first celebrated names that I can remember so it's always been a kind of fact for me. Also there's plenty of other amazing things that we've accomplished in science, technology and medicine.

Sometimes when I stand and look up at the moon though, I find it absolutely impossible to believe that it could ever have happened, especially with the relatively rudimentary technology of 1969. Mixed with this are doubts fuelled by stories of mock ups in hangers. There's also a slight unease about the patriotic possessiveness implied by the symbolism involved and the knowledge that this was all part of the great arms race of the cold war.

These films cut through all of this and I think, for the first time really gave me a glimpse of the awe and wonder that people must have experienced when they watched these events for the first time. As Mike Collins (the third guy in Apollo 11) says in the later "My Father was born shortly after the Wright Brother's first flight but my son took it all for granted". It really makes you realise how amazingly fast things progressed during the 20th Century. What must it have been like to live through such times of change? Are the next 82 years going to be just as incredible?

The other amazing thing is what a universal achievement this was for the human race. While there were partisan and patriotic factors driving the mission, Buzz Aldrin recounts how when he travelled the world afterwards he was struck by how everyone said to him "We've done it".

Many of the most poignant words are at the end, when the astronauts discuss the spiritual and reflective side of the experience. In particular they all say that it made them realise how fragile the Earth is and how lucky we are to live on it. Something which we should all bear in mind given the current state of affairs.

All in all, a really thought provoking, awe inspiring documentary, with plenty of humour, quirky facts and incredible footage as well. Well worth watching if you get the chance (the preview below doesn't do it justice)!

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Who's with stupid?

I spent Saturday afternoon at the annual Campaign against Climate Change march in London. The rally in parliament square was attended by many and a number of speakers declared that we have reached the time for 'direct action' in response to the government's refusal to abandon plans for airport expansion - despite or perhaps because of the new climate change bill. Quite right I thought. In hindsight who can criticise the suffragettes?

On Monday morning Plane Stupid did just this and brought Stansted to a halt. Here a new runway has just been approved by the government. This overrules a democratic local planning decision to block the move which will flatten 9 listed buildings and disrupt a nearby ancient woodland. Heathrow and Skipton Village next.

One of the most interesting things to come out of this scenario, as usual, is an examination of the message of the protesters in light of the sentiment of the majority of news consumers i.e. the voting public (not that there's anything even remotely democratic about the government's decision here). So here we go:
"We sympathise with passengers, but any inconvenience caused is nothing in relation to that which will be caused by climate chaos" said Lily Kember, 21 Plane Stupid (rough quote from Today programme at 7am)

A BBC report based on interviews with those stranded by the direct action reveals an interesting range of views. Sadly, despite Lily Kember's eloquently put point, I fear that much of the population will side with the stranded passengers. While perhaps sympathetic to green concerns, and even secretly guilty about flying, the pain of these people 'like us' will resonate with many who have been stranded themselves at Heathrow etc.
"In the modern world we live in, people want to travel", says Vivienne Brinton, stranded passenger.

through reading comments expressed by like minded people, resonance is likely to turn media spectators against Plain Stupid's cause and re-enforce a belief that we are justified to fly. This belief, nurtured by expanding leisure, aviation and tourism industries decrees that flying to the sun is no longer a luxury, but in fact a necessity. Remember kids, we don't want to go back to the dark ages!
Shirin Memarizadeh, 27, from Manchester, said "I don't feel guilty about flying. It's the easiest way to get to see your family".

While I have a lot of sympathy for those travelling to see loved ones, I do wonder if one day people might accept that moving to the other side of the continent means that you might not see friends and family every five minutes. It is only through unsustainable 'magic' that the world has become a smaller place. Many of us live in this illusion fuelled by adverts, travel mags, TV holiday programmes and of course good old peer pressure. Where have you been on holiday lately? Anywhere nice?
Goncalo Souto, 22, from Portugal, said: "I don't agree with the protesters. Because low-cost flights are good for people to travel around the world and see new things."

Of course the trouble is that if all 6 billion of us flew because it's good for us to see the world, we be completely fucked. Ever heard of trains Goncalo? I wonder how people coped with life in the dark ages. And more to the point, who is it that currently benefits from this privilege? Rich Europeans or people in places like low lying countries with poor infrastructure like Bangladesh? And who stands to suffer worst from climate chaos?
Simon Harth a 24-year-old engineer said: "I do what I can at home for the environment, I car-share for instance. I've read the facts and air travel accounts for just 2% of carbon emissions. Climate change is going to affect everyone and we should be doing as much as we can, but this is not the right way to get the message across. It's made me bitter towards environmental action like this."

Simon is obviously a clever guy, but I wonder how much of what he reads has been couched in terms dictated by the aviation lobby and BAA's PR? And does he ask these questions? Facts are of course indisputable. Of course. Just like science. As an engineer he should know about the fact that emissions at high altitude are more damadging, and that if airport expansion is allowed aviation will soon account for 7 if not 15% of emissions. And that's before we try to make our 80% reduction. What would you rather cut - flying on holiday or heating in the winter? Somethings gotta give. Besides if Simon really gives a shit, what's he doing flying to Belfast?

It's all very well getting on my high horse about this though. One of my mates has just moved to OZ to get married. She wants me to go out. I can only go for two weeks. I can only fly. I haven't flown for 3 years now. I also have never been outside Europe. I've always seen Oz as once or twice in a lifetime if at all. Can I really justify it for 2 weeks?! Hmmm...

More comment:
Leo Hickman in the Guardian
David Millward - Telegraph