Icon prepares for take-off
They're not yet calling it "the new DDT", "the new Brent Spar" or "the new Narmada Dam"; but Heathrow Airport's third runway is shaping up nicely for the lead role in the global storyline of environmental protest.
It has all the right ingredients. It's a single issue at a single site, with (ironically) good transport links to a major population centre guaranteeing easy access for activists and television crews.
The anti-runway campaign has the backing of intelligent, telegenic celebrities such as actress Emma Thompson.
Campaigners cast as the villain of the piece the government that according to its own expert advisers is adept at talking the talk on climate change but not so clever at turning its pledges and targets and ambitions into something as solid as the Heathrow tarmac - and which is itself divided on whether the runway is a good thing.
Most importantly, it has in the director's chair Greenpeace, the acknowledged master of turning an issue that could have died a quiet death into an "event", boosting the public profile and assumed importance by orders of magnitude - sometimes, beyond its true environmental significance.
So it is an important player on the climate field; but not as important as deforestation, which contributes a bigger greenhouse gas burden as well as having other major impacts, nor power generation.
But, for right or wrong, it is the runway that appears cast in this storyline as the touchstone issue whose resolution symbolises the UK government's lack of fibre on climate change ("the first big test of the Government's environmental credibility since the Climate Change Act became law last year. It has failed spectacularly," in WWF's phrase) - and, by extension, the lack of will among richer nations generally to diverge too far from the path of business as usual.
History tells us, though, that there is often something of a disconnect between the icon and the reality.
American farmers were using far worse pesticides than DDT when Silent Spring directed attention to the issue - aldrin, dieldrin, endrin - but it was DDT that people talked about, it was DDT that Joni Mitchell sang about, and so it became the iconic chemical, the one that's now embedded in the public consciousness whenever the spectre of "chemicals" is raised.
From the beginnings of modern environmentalism, activists concluded that the public would become interested only if messages were simple.
In the run-up to the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment, the organisers produced a large book - Only One Earth - that distilled the ideas of prominent thinkers in a challenging but rather wordy way.
The UN media people dealing with the summit decided they needed something simpler and sexier to grab public attention. Negotiations led to Friends of the Earth writing another book - slimmer, with far fewer and far simpler words - and far more pictures, many of emotive subjects.
Greenpeace honed the strategy to perfection. The organisation realised a simple video of its activists bravely blocking a Soviet harpooner would ramp up public awareness of whaling - and of itself - far faster than all the words in the world.
Issues grow to be iconic, too when celebrities are involved. To be frank, news editors like a bit of glamour with their environmental peril - and with most editors being male, an attractive female figurehead (such as the Booker Prize-winning author Arundhati Roy who campaigned vigorously against India's Narmada Dam) will always help move the story up the TV bulletin running order or nearer to the front page.
The tendency to draw public attention to simple icons obviously works - in part. It brought the commercial whaling moratorium, it has led to bans and taxes on plastic bags and, lately, incandescent lightbulbs.
Despite Greenpeace making (and later admitting) factual errors during its campaign over the Brent Spar oil facility, the campaign did result in reforms to the way such structures are to be disposed of in future.
But there is a counter-argument: that concentrating on the simple, easy, iconic target obscures the bigger picture.
So commercial whaling was banned, but the wider health of our oceans continues to decline. Plastic bag bans or charges may reduce their usage, but as (in the UK at least) they make up less than 1% of just the household waste sent to landfill sites, does focussing on them allow us to forget about the rest of the waste we generate?
You can, of course, argue it the other way round; that without a whaling ban we would not now be talking about tuna - the next marine icon - or that banning incandescent bulbs shines a light on the greater issue of domestic energy consumption, and opens up a path to legislation on other wasteful appliances (patio-heaters?) that will cumulatively have a major impact.
It's interesting, too, to look at some of the issues floating around that don't acquire that particular melange of activist protest, media interest, celebrity endorsement and political squirming that marks out an issue as iconic.
Here's an example. For several years, campaigners have been trying to raise the profile of gas flaring from Nigerian oil wells.
It's a contender for the title of Africa's largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions, and the gas wasted could help provide millions of local people with the energy they badly need.
Campaigners describe high-profile western oil companies such as Shell as the villains of the piece. But still, for some reason, the issue refuses to take off in the same way that Heathrow's new runway appears to be doing.
So how can we expect things to evolve? The government has said the runway can go ahead; but Greenpeace and the other campaign groups involved appear equally determined that it will not.
The issue offers plenty of scope for direct action - the familiar "bulldozer vs man tied to a tree" scenario that we saw regularly during the era of major anti-roads protests a decade and a half ago.
It also offers scope for legal battles, as the airport's owner BAA (presumably) tries to buy the land it needs, some of it now owned by campaigners, through compulsory purchase orders.
Perhaps the battle-lines will spread out to some of the same capitals where Heathrow's jets currently touch down; this is, by definition, a global issue.
We shall see. In 20 years' time, perhaps we will look back on this day as the birth of an iconic battle symbolising humanity's response to the warnings of climate scientists; or perhaps hindsight will show us an iconic distraction from the wider imperatives of curbing consumption and the growth in the human footprint.
Whatever history's judgement, I suspect the dispute over Heathrow's third runway really is going to be one that we'll remember.