Geoff Hoon

Should we still be flying for art’s sake?

When Emma Thompson joined the protest against the third runway at Heathrow earlier this year, MP Geoff Hoon was scathing. “She’s been in some very good films,” he said. “Love Actually is very good, but I worry about people who I assume travel by air quite a lot and don’t see the logic of their position.”

I remember being extremely disturbed by what he said. Shocked even. Here was a former Defence Minister and Chief Whip, one of the tough guys, publicly coming out in favour of an excruciatingly meandering rom com. One of Richard Curtis’s worst, in fact.

Less surprising was Hoon’s attack on an actress for joining the ranks of the climate protestors. When artists lend their weight to a cause they open themselves to charges of hypocrisy. Who is she, an actress who flies across to Hollywood on a regular basis, to tell us not to fly?

The poets John Kinsella and Melanie Challenger are currently writing a work for the RSA Arts & Ecology website called Dialogue between the body and the soul, which grew out of both the poets’ decision not to fly to poetry readings. Now, even if every published poet in the world gave up flying, it would hardly make a major statistical dent in the world’s carbon footprint, but for each of them it is a major decision. Poetry is an endangered species of an artform, and practitioners have to take their audience wherever they find it. For Challenger, who is a new poet starting out, this is the kind of public commitment that could hobble her career for good.

Interestingly, there have been rumbings of unease elsewhere in the art community about the amount of too-ing and fro-ing required by the modern international art scene. Two years ago Gustav Metzger initiated Reduce Art Flights; a manifesto contribution to Sculpture Projects Münster that called for artists to go cold turkey on their addiction to international travel.

With full cognisance that it is ‘a drop in the ocean’, the RAF ‘manifesto’ nevertheless invites voluntary abandonment – a fundamental, personal, bodily rejection of technological instrumentalization and a vehement refusal to participate in the mobility increasingly endemic to the globalized art system.

And earlier this year artists Marc Garrett and Ruth Catlow invited colleagues to sign a “I will not fly for art pledge. Garrett and Catlow are the founders of furtherfield.org and HTTP Gallery. The Geoff Hoon in you might feel tempted to note that both are committed to the ideas of virtual art in networked space. Give up flying? Well, maybe that’s easy for them to say.

The point is there is no one-size-fits-all pledge. That’s the unfairness of Hoon’s jibe.  We may accept that air travel has been the UK’s fastest growing emissions sector in this decade, and carbon emitted by planes in the atmosphere is three times more damaging than carbon emitted by cars on the ground. We may perfectly reasonably oppose plans for further airport expansion. But that doesn’t mean we don’t want Emma Thompson to fly to the US to make Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang. (OK. Bad example.)

As Dialogue between the body and the soul winds to a conclusion, I’m going to use it as an excuse to ask writers and artists their thoughts on what they do — and don’t — feel comfortable to commit to .

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Bring on the electric cars?

Last week in New York the sculptor Seth Kinmont unveiled the first of three electric cars, bodywork made from wood. For three days he invited people to ride around the block in his new hand-built horseless carriage. Beautiful, huh?

I mention this because a) it forms a tenuous artistic link to the following story, and b) Kinmont’s work underlines the quixotic nature of electric transport.

The latest voyagers on this quixotic journey are Jeff Hoon and Peter Mandelson. Today they will announce a £250m scheme to kickstart the UK’s electric car infrastructure.  You might think they’re unlikely travellers on this road, given the fact that this are the pair who were most vocal about the impracticality the green movement’s objections to Heathrow expansion.

But no, Geoff Hoon in particular has retooled himself as the champion of green in this morning’s Guardian.

Hoon said yesterday that decarbonising road transport had a big role in helping the UK meet its targets of reducing CO2 emissions by 26% by 2020 and 80% by 2050. “Something like 35% of all our carbon emissions are caused by domestic transport,” he said. “Of that, 58% of the emissions are caused by motor cars.”

The implication is that electric cars will help cut that figure. And they might, but… Big but.

As a recent report commissioned by the Campaign for Better Transport suggests, if everyone in the UK moved to electric cars we’d need four times as much capacity in our electricty generation than we have at present, and even the government’s recently unveiled plans for nuclear generation aren’t enough to plug that gap.

Even a modest rise in electric car use doesn’t automatically reduce CO2 emissions – it just shifts emissions from the exhaust pipe to the power station. For those who use their cars only for short urban journeys, the CO2 reduction can be significant, but for average car use the figures are much less clear cut.

A few weeks ago the government let it be known that they were considering a scheme to encourage people to buy greener cars by offering an incentive for people to scrap their old ones. In reality, this was an attempt to boost the UK’s failing manufacturing sector, not a green scheme; given the embedded carbon costs of manufacturing, scrapping working cars in favour of newly built ones is about the least green strategy of all. That embedded energy calculation is the same for electric cars too.

This initiative is the start of Gordon Brown’s much touted green recovery plan; for a cabinet who have dismissed green concerns as impractical, they’re going to have to work extremly hard to demonstrate that this really is a practical scheme, not just another sop to industry.

Hat tip to Bad At Sports for the Seth Kinmont story.

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