Students must use their collective might to get institutions to divest from fossil fuels, writes Lizzy Diggins, former OULC Co-Chair. 

Michael Gove has received an unusual level of praise recently as Environment Secretary for his self-declared war on single use plastic. While he has also attracted some derision for his new, multi-coloured Keep Cup accessory, the policy has undoubtedly had some impact, with high street chains like Pret announcing that customers using reusable cups will incur a discount on their coffee. While the government is yet to announce support for schemes like this, Gove’s war on single use plastics has become popular and fashionable. Similarly, the recent NUS ‘last straw’ campaign has worked to put an end to plastic straws, replacing them instead with apparently more recyclable paper ones. This has garnered huge press uptake and dominated the national (Twitter) conversation.

However, both of these strategies have had responses disproportionate to their actual success. While it is undeniably a good thing to shift away from using single use plastics, the minute focus of these campaigns mean they are largely irrelevant in the wider battle to save our planet. In fact, the appearance of environmentalism that these campaigns assume is dangerous. It can foster complacency: the ‘do-goodness’ of remembering to take your plastic coffee cup allows you to forget about the wider troubles of climate change as you have done your bit for the day. The fact that Gove has as yet refused to go as far as the plastic straw campaign by outright banning disposable cups is worse still. The ‘latte levy’ puts the onus on the individual consumer to remember their reusable coffee cup. Indeed, for many, the 50p punishment is worth not having to carry around a mouldering coffee cup for much of the day. The fact that you then lose 50p feels like punishment enough in itself; you forget the wider punishment that the environment suffers, as a result of both the production and disposal of the object. Indeed, the emphasis on things like recycling campaigns is similar – the impetus remains on the individual to change their own habits, and even when they do, the impact is largely negligible.

If such individual-focused efforts do more damage than good, then what is the appropriate solution? Instead of punishing the consumer, we need to focus on efforts that dis-incentivise producers from using processes and materials that contribute to climate change. Taking away the onus on consumer choice means that the future of the planet is reliant not on the whims of many individuals, but actually built into how the economy functions. Yet it seems hard to imagine that the current government will introduce anything like the wide-ranging reform and legislation needed to transform how we produce and consume ecologically sound goods and switch away from fossil fuels.

So how can we combine individual activist energies and a government unwilling to even ban plastic coffee cups in order to work towards a more environmentally friendly economy? The answer is a simple one: divestment. We as individual students can work together as a collective to lobby our institutions to divest from fossil fuels. This essentially means convincing our universities and other investors to stop investing in the target industry. As more institutions and the wider market begin to divest, it becomes less financially prudent for other institutions and the market to continue their investment. It also works to force the hand of fossil fuel companies and pressure the government to stop collecting fossil fuels. Indeed, through such activism, grassroots campaigners can pool their energy to ensure that government legislation and activity is radically transformed. The success of such schemes has already been demonstrated in South Africa in the fight against apartheid. An October 2013 Oxford study (‘Stranded assets and the fossil fuel divestment campaign: what does divestment mean for the valuation of fossil fuel assets?’) has also outlined the possibility of success when applying such tactics and methods to fossil fuels.

So what can Oxford students do? You can participate in OULC’s ongoing lobby of the university to divest; you can push for change in your college through JCR motions; and you can also join the Oxford Climate Justice Campaign, which has already achieved considerable success in getting some colleges to divest.

So what can you do?

  1. Join in with OULC! Divestment is one of our crucial focuses this term, and we will be looking at how to campaign and lobby together as a club.
  2. Lobby your own college – through motions to your JCR, or if you are on your JCR committee talking to your college directly.
  3. Join in with the Oxford Climate Justice Campaign – which has already achieved considerable success getting some colleges to divest!
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