You can’t buy fossil fuel divestment campaigners with pizza, and deploying heavy-handed security guards doesn’t work too well either. These are lessons the University of Edinburgh had to learn the hard way.
Three weeks ago, the university was digging in its heels, doubling down on years of refusal to listen to divestment campaigners. Then, on Thursday, it backed down. It agreed to dump coal and tar sands oil from its investment portfolio.
From early on, the University made it alarmingly clear that it had no interest in meeting our targets for full fossil fuels and arms divestment. Arms were the first item dropped from the conversation, and a full fossil fuel divestment measure soon followed.
Our student activist group, People & Planet, was offered a half-hearted reassurance from the university that it would partially divest from coal and tar sands. Although we were dismayed, we thought is was at least a good starting point.
But when the university dropped the hammer again, announcing it would take a company-by-company divestment approach, and planned to use its £9 million investment to change polluters from the inside, we knew it was time to take more serious action.
So we occupied.
Over the period of a 10-day occupation of the university’s finance department, we had a staff member liken us to Nazis, among many other disdainful comments directed at our cause and ourselves.
Despite our protest being peaceful, shortly after our arrival private security companies were brought in to be, in the words of the security guards themselves, “much more heavy-handed”.
Later, a security guard was charged with assault after a video emerged of him choking a student on the ground. As a response to the unsafe situation, the University met with occupiers and offered to buy them pizza.
The students who took action understand the challenges they will face due to systemic inaction on climate change and will not be satisfied by a university which considers buying pizza an apt response to an assault charge.
The reason the University of Edinburgh occupation was so successful is largely because of the resolve of students who can’t be deterred by verbal and physical threats and certainly won’t be appeased by party food.
The Fossil Free campaign and related actions have reframed questions regarding the role of a university in public discourse.
When a world-leading academic institution, which never fails to mention David Hume as a former student, demonstrates that Hume’s Enlightenment seems to have passed them by, it doesn’t require multiple degrees to understand the university has misinterpreted its role.
All that’s needed is an understanding of the dangers of climate change for our generation and the resolve to do something about it.
When it came down to it, what made the difference was that 30 students were willing to set aside their holidays and take a stand. Whether it was planned or not, in 10 days those 30 occupiers caused a movement to swell up outside the University of Edinburgh’s finance department building.
A Nobel Laureate and member of Scottish Parliament visited, Naomi Klein supported us from afar, we received backing from academics and people around the world. Locals brought us pastries and kindergarten children wrote us thank-you letters for not letting the university make money by sacrificing their futures to dirty energy.
Last but certainly not least, 300 alumni delivered the final blow by sending an open letter to the University of Edinburgh, announcing that they would no longer donate to the university if that money was to be invested in companies involved in climate destruction.
The fact of the matter is, divestment is inevitable – it’s just up to us to speed up the process.
Recalling how I cut my teeth with the divestment campaign at the Australian National University, I never imagined it would lead me to get involved in Edinburgh. But if there is global inaction on climate change it doesn’t really matter where we get involved, we just have to do it.
The key takeaway is this: organise.
Organise yourselves and connect to those similarly minded. Pretty soon you too could have the clout of Naomi Klein behind you, the support of hundreds of leading academics, the cheers of people on the street and at the very least, many new friends.
We are lucky to be representing a scientific debate that has already been won. It’s our duty to make sure that the politics catch up.
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