Today in Cambridge, students and staff came together to march for divestment. This comes at a time of high tension in universities across the UK as lecturers strike to save their pensions. Only yesterday, Durham joined 62 UK institutions in divesting from fossil fuels in some way, with a national total of £11bn committed to divest. As a student at the University of Cambridge, I have witnessed first-hand the drive and commitment of those running the campaigns, and the passion of those who participate in the rallies and demonstrations. As one of the speakers at today’s rally said, it brings hope that the future really could look different. The university environment fosters activism, teaching students that it is possible to make a change. It is encouraging to know that such a spirit is alive and well in our universities today. Whilst my generation is often painted paradoxically as over-sensitive yet apathetic, the reality is that an ever-increasing number of students are standing up to fight for gender equality, racial equality, environmental justice, and change is happening. The solidarity shown across liberation campaigns and between striking staff and students today in Cambridge highlighted some of the key issues confronted by organisations such as WEN, which shall be drawn out in this blog.

So, what is divestment? Divestment is the opposite of investment – a pulling out of stocks, bonds or investment funds that may be unethical or morally ambiguous. Divestment campaigners in UK universities today are calling for management to divest from fossil fuel companies such as Shell and BP to challenge the social licence such sponsorship gives for these companies to operate. At the centre of these campaigns is the concept of climate justice.

Divestment march in Cambridge, November 2017

Divestment march in Cambridge, November 2017

Climate justice is a term that frames climate change as an overtly political issue, with effects distributed unevenly across the global population. As anyone familiar with WEN’s campaigning will be well-aware, women are typically more vulnerable than men to the adverse effects of climate change. Constituting the majority of the world’s poor, women rely more heavily on threatened natural resources for their livelihoods and face multiple socio-economic and political barriers that limit their capacity to cope. The underrepresentation of women in climate policymaking means that women, often the first affected, are the last to be consulted and struggle to make themselves heard. But of course, not all women are affected the same.

Women, and men, across the global south suffer disproportionately from the effects of climate change whilst corrupt regimes and transnational corporations (and the institutions that fund and legitimise them) exploit the natural world for financial gain. Floods in Bangladesh, drought in East Africa, typhoons in East Asia – ‘natural’ phenomena which are growing in intensity and frequency because of climate change and which amount to a death sentence for the planet’s most vulnerable populations. Such inequality ties divestment campaigns to decolonisation movements, drawing attention to the continued presence of exploitative (neo)colonial relationships across the global south, as well as between states and corporations and indigenous populations in countries such as Canada and the US.

Calls to ‘decolonise the curriculum’, often lambasted in the media, go further than simply introducing books by black authors into English courses. They call for an introduction of alternative epistemologies, or ways of thinking, into our learning – a move that should be welcomed by the environmental movement. If we can open our minds to different worlds and perspectives, both human and nonhuman, we have a chance to overturn established hierarchies of man over woman over animal over plant and rework our relationship with the natural world. Universities have much potential in driving these shifts in established knowledge and accepted socio-economic norms to realise a more ethical and just future. Students and lecturers fighting for decolonisation, gender equality, environmental justice and fair pensions are all key players in actualising this potential. As the protest chant goes: ‘the enemy is profit’. If states, corporations, and universities continue to prioritise profit over people, the promise of this ethical future withers away in front of our eyes. Luckily, there are people out there who will not let this happen. Divestment may seem like a unitary issue, but its implications reach far and wide. So, put some faith in the younger generation and stand together to fight for a better world.


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