In certain circles, there is the perception that the transformation to the ideal of the student as consumer is complete and that therefore the student activist and a radical student movement is a thing of the past. Although there was the anti-fees flashpoint in 2010, the argument goes, now the modern student is more concerned with getting their money’s worth from the education they directly pay for, than they are about changing the world.
Over the last four years there have been countless examples of campaigns that prove this thesis wrong. This series of articles seeks to explore those campaigns, what they have achieved and what they mean for the student movement and the Higher Education sector as a whole.
by Chris Jarvis
Launched in the USA in 2012 by 350.org, the Fossil Free campaign has spread worldwide, building an international movement on University campuses. The aim of the campaign has been to persuade public and civic institutions to remove any investments that they hold with coal, oil and gas companies and thus remove the social license the fossil fuel industry has to operate. Since its inception, Higher Education establishments, city authorities and religious institutions across the globe have cut their financial ties to the fossil fuel industry
Previous environmental campaigns that have popped up on campuses have focused on behavioural change or change within institutions
Fossil Free is inspiring, not only because of its seemingly never slowing expansion and development, but also because it has spawned the most dynamic student based climate movement that the UK has seen. While climate activism has steadily ticked away elsewhere, moving from Climate Camp through to Reclaim the Power stopping at power station occupations, mass marches and tent cities at fracking sites along the way, it has largely left the student movement untouched. Previous environmental campaigns that have popped up on campuses have focused on behavioural change or change within institutions.
Establishing food co-operatives and encouraging students to use less water, bike repair and rental schemes and moving towards sustainably sourced food in University outlets – all of these have been important and continue to have a real and tangible effect on the impact of HE institutions on the planet, but they haven’t attempted to tackle the issues outside of the confines of University buildings and the student body. Until Fossil Free.
Fossil Free instead takes the fight directly to the industry that is powering the path towards climate change. Through its slogan of ‘if it’s wrong to wreck the climate, it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage’, Fossil Free directly links the need for radical decarbonisation of society with an acknowledgement of the role our economic and financial systems play in both legitimising and encouraging those industries that are most clearly founded on socially regressive practices.
But additionally, the goal of the campaign is of importance in understanding why it has spread so far and so quickly. Divestment as a tool of activism has a long and powerful history, particularly within the student movement. Campaigns against Apartheid South Africa, the fight against the tobacco industry and the ongoing struggle against the arms trade have all adopted divestment as their weapon of choice.
It does not beat around the bush and its model is simple and easily replicable
Fossil Free, in choosing to target Universities’ investments in the fossil fuel industry, seeks for institutions to take action directly. Rather than pushing for inside track lobbying of companies involved in fossil fuel extraction, the campaign recognises the irreconcilably exploitative nature of the industry, both in terms of the environmental impacts of fossil fuels, but also in the social implications for communities directly affected by the activities of such companies. It does not beat around the bush and its model is simple and easily replicable: the industry is repugnant, and therefore institutions of ethical repute have no business offering the financial backing and accompanied social legitimacy to it.
From this, the radical nature of the campaign goal itself has been reciprocated by radical tactics from the activists mobilising under its banner. Across the UK, we have seen demonstrations, communications blockades and even the shutting down of building work of a new fracking research institute funded by BP. We’ve students resist being locked into a future of climate chaos, and refuse to take up their resistance quietly.
And the movement is now on the cusp of its most exciting moment. Having seen a wave of US Universities move towards divestment, the first British Higher Education institution, the University of Glasgow has now pledged to divest. Elsewhere, at Edinburgh and SOAS, divestment appears to be just around the corner. This shows that the momentum the campaign has is coming close to its climax, and we could be moving towards a snowballing of more and more institutions breaking their ties to the industry.
We are reaching a moment in history when it is no longer socially acceptable for corporate exploitation of the natural world.
The implications that this has for companies involved in the extraction of dirty fuels are wide-reaching. As a result of the victories Fossil Free is seeing worldwide, we are moving towards a moment in history where the paradigm in which the industry most responsible for anthropogenic climate change exists will shift. We are reaching a moment in history when it is no longer socially acceptable for corporate exploitation of the natural world.
And with it, we have also seen the emergence of a new generation of activists, radicalised by the movement who are equipped to take the next steps in building a sustainable future. Fossil Free’s success, therefore, is twofold. It has built a campaign that has repeatedly delivered results, but simultaneously built an activist base that can take its values into new spheres and objectives, which will help mould the new wave of climate campaigning that has moved across the country from Balcombe to Blackpool whose defiance is as admirable as its cause. It won’t quit until it wins.