The British government recently gave the green light for Heathrow airport’s third runway. It was heralded by its supporters as a vital boost for jobs and growth – and proof that the UK was “open for business”. The transport secretary, Chris Grayling, referred to the decision as “truly momentous” while for the prime minister, Theresa May, the planned expansion is “vital for the economic future of the whole of the UK”.
The decision has already been vociferously opposed by environmental campaigners. Simply stated, flying is a significant source of air pollution, and a carbon-intensive means of moving people around, despite technological developments and modifications. Airport expansions puts, as Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas describes it, “a wrecking ball through the UK’s climate change commitments”.
The decision to approve airport expansion is indeed “truly momentous” – because it shows just how far governments, but also trade unions, businesses and many individuals, are willing to go in denying that climate change and related ecological crises require us to significantly change the way we live. In fact, as a policy move, it arguably epitomises the phenomena of “hypernormalisation”, as described in Adam Curtis’s new documentary of the same name.
HyperNormalisation was commissioned by the BBC and released as an iplayer exclusive on October 16 2016 – you can watch it here. Curtis is a fascinating filmmaker. He weaves archive footage of events over the past half-century into provocative historical narratives. His commentary is informed by sociological theory, political economy and much more besides.
Are we living in the real world?
HyperNormalisation is no exception. It clocks in at just under three hours and takes in numerous people, places and events. Curtis’s overarching claim is that those in power have been increasingly incapable of dealing with a sequence of global issues with any meaningful plan. They are devoid of any vision beyond the maintenance of the status quo. He uses the term hypernormalisation to explain the prevailing response of politicians to this state of affairs, and the effect it has on the wider population.
Alexei Yurchak coined the term in his 2006 book Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation. He uses it to describe Soviet life in the 1970s, when the population was pushed to maintain the façade of a socialist utopia to the point that it was impossible to see beyond this system, despite everyone knowing it was an illusion.
This manically heightened state of fake normality – and collective investment in it – is “hypernormalisation”. Curtis uses the term more loosely. He argues that it can be used to make sense of the maintenance of a simplified, reassuring and fake version of the world in the face of unprecedented global challenges that incumbent governments and power alliances do not have the competence or inclination to address. Climate change and environmental disasters do not loom large in the HyperNormalisation film, but they are, for me, an extension of the phenomenon – precisely the kind of challenge we might expect to be “hypernormalised”.
The decision to approve Heathrow’s third runway is a government policy manifestation of hypernormalisation. Those in power simply do not have the capacity or willingness for leadership on climate change as an issue that demands societal transformation. The alternative, if we apply Curtis’s logic, is to strive to maintain a narrative in which these issues do not appear to really matter. Everything, we are told instead, is going to be fine.
Instead of dealing with the real issues at hand, we will instead be admitted to the fantasy land of accelerated mobility and consumption. In this alternate reality, the “environmental future” must not impinge on May’s “economic future”.
The dangers beyond the fantasy
But of course events are unfolding in the world outside the hypernormal narrative of business as usual: the well-documented forces unleashed by the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, the ongoing extinction and displacement of countless species, warming and acidifying oceans, deforestation and arctic melting.
These forces are the product of industrial society and capitalism, now exacerbated by the demands of a globalised consumerism. We know that the practices and pastimes that make up these societies, including frequent and long-haul flying, are unsustainable. Every government leader in the world knows this. But the psychological and social processes we engage in to avoid confronting the implications of climate change are now well documented in the social sciences – as individual and collective forms of denial.
It is even claimed that the closer a threatening event, the more manically we defend existing worldviews and associated ways of life. There is no reason to assume that these dynamics are any less prevalent in our leaders and decision-makers in business, government and trade unions.
These dynamics of denial and displacement are precisely those that reflect and maintain a state of hypernormalisation. So airport expansion can be heralded unequivocally as “momentous”, “correct” and “bold” in the same week that global concentrations of CO2 pass 400 parts per million. It is a policy move which simply does not make sense … unless we are operating in an atmosphere of hypernormalisation.
Defending it on behalf of our “economic future” is a grotesquely comic perpetuation of that fakery. If it goes ahead, it is likely that history will judge the expansion of Heathrow as an act of collusive madness, a desperate attempt to add another coat to the painted theatre set of the hypernormal.