10,000 people (and Emma Thompson) halt an airport's expansion with clever land purchase

As protests go, it's delightfully sneaky. Some of the vested interests at Heathrow, London's main airport, want to construct a third runway, obliterating a village in the process. While the airport-expansion forces were gathering, though, a group of protesters got together and secretly bought up a plot of land that sits exactly where the development is planned.

The Not So Friendly Skies

    Actress Emma Thompson and Greenpeace UK are trying to stop Heathrow Airport from building a third runway that would destroy the village of Sipson and lead to increased airport traffic and CO2 emissions.

    Samuel Kubani, AFP / Getty Images

    Thompson is just one of 10,000 people whose name will be on the deed for a plot of land that stands in the way of Heathrow's expansion.

    Matt Dunham, AP

    Greenpeace protesters tend to the land they helped purchase. The British government could seize the land to push through the development of Heathrow Airport's third runway.

    Matt Dunham, AP

    Air travel has declined, making the need for a third runway, which would run through the village of Sipson, come into question.

    Alastair Grant, AP

    A protestor in Heathrow's Terminal Five protests against the airport expansion.

    Oli Scarff, Getty Images

Actress Emma Thompson is one of the some 10,000 people who will appear on the deed to the so-called Airplot, which is about half the size of a soccer field, and because she's high-profile, she's one of the names on the top of the ownership paperwork.

Becoming a land owner sure beats breaking things, living in a tree for a few years, or standing around bearing signs (although campaigners have done that last one, too). It's also not so expensive when large numbers of people contribute a small amount of money to legally make a statement about something they believe in. And as far as charitable donations go, helping buy a plot of land is a direct way to see where your money is spent, even if you won't be able to build a summer home there.

Thompson went on British TV to rail at the government, "almost incandescent" with rage (the video is here).

"All of us in this country have been told for the last 10, 20 years by the government, 'Now could you please switch off your lights? And when you turn the water on, you've got to turn it off again. Unplug your things, wash out your cans... And while you, little people, are doing all those little things... we are going to turn around a build a socking great runway that will add 250,000 flights a year and make Heathrow the biggest CO2 emitter in Britain!"

Her sentiments illustrate why the anti-runway campaign, spearheaded by Greenpeace UK, is gathering supporters of in every class of society. Even though the government can always seize the land using eminent domain (in Britain, called "compulsory purchase"), the legal process will now be time-consuming, expensive, and not at all guaranteed. And because air travel has dipped, the need for another runway is no longer so clear-cut, the effort would now be politically unpopular, although backers naturally claim that jobs will be created.

The anti-runway campaign may just win this, and if they do, it will partly be because, like Obama's presidential campaign, it used lots of little donations wisely.

Update: The tactic seems to be working. A Greenpeace UK rep wrote me to tell me that the group is "on the way to 40,000 sign-ups now and the online promotion and advertising is only just starting to kick in."
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