The past week saw student occupations of UK universities across the country, from Glasgow, to Liverpool, to London, calling on these institutions to “Decarbonise, Decolonise and Democratise”. Occupiers insisted that universities stop actions which are fuelling the climate crisis and global injustices. Instead, they called for the development of new structures which create awareness and result in action regarding their responsibility as institutions, as well as empowering student-staff communities.
I joined the occupation at my university, Imperial College London, for some of the week and was amazed at how organised, creative and impactful the occupation was.
The occupation at Imperial focused quite heavily on oil companies, since the university works in partnership with many of them and its President, Alice Gast, sits on the board of Chevron. This was highlighted on banners, posters and information sheets displayed all around the space. Students occupied the main entrance of the university, camping overnight and hosting a wide range of talks, teach-outs and discussions over the course of the week.
As well as outreach and movement-building, the occupation featured a number of actions, starting with a protest and march around the streets of South Kensington entitled “Times up, Imperial!” on Monday. Wednesday evening was the president’s annual address. Activists attended the event and handed out ‘programmes’, the opening paragraph of which read,
“This evening will provide an opportunity to celebrate the external accolades and achievements of Imperial’s staff and alunmi – including their contributions to the climate and ecological crisis.
Our president, Alice Gast, proudly sits on the board of directors of one of the biggest fossil fuel companies in the world – Chevron.”
During the event, activists drank fake oil and called out Imperial for its complicity in the climate and ecological crisis. The action included a student dressed as the president being puppeteered by another who was dressed as Chevron. These actions certainly made a lot of important people feel very uncomfortable.
For many years, Imperial’s tireless divestment campaigners have been ignored by the college. However, there seemed to be recent progress after a Socially Responsible Investment panel was set up to discuss whether or not to divest from currently held investments. Upon conferring their decision to management, the president emailed all students and staff describing the resulting changes to Imperial’s investment policy. This email was, of course, the perfect occasion for greenwashing and turned out to be exactly that.
In her email, the president said that Imperial would divest from coal, tar sands, tobacco and illegal arms (?!), but would retain its investments in any company which was making efforts to meet the Paris Agreement climate targets. It later became apparent in email correspondence that College would only divest from companies who were solely involved in coal or in tar sands. Since Imperial has no investments in such companies, there will actually be zero divestment from these industries. It also means that BP, who have their fingers in many oily pies – including tar sands – are let off the hook.
Since many oil companies are doing some of their own greenwashing and claim to be cleaning up their act, the College will continue its close ties with BP, Shell and Chevron. In January 2019, BP launched its first global advertising campaign after the Deepwater Horizon disaster (a decade on) in which it made itself unrecognisable as an oil company and instead posed as a world leader in developing and implementing lower carbon technologies. However, as of January 2019, clean energy consisted of only 3% of the company’s expenditure.
Taking the Empire out of Imperial
As suggested by the call “Decarbonise, Decolonise, Democratise”, occupiers did not only have concerns about environmental destruction, but also the exploitation and harm of humans. As one example, Chevron, whose board Alice Gast sits on, is connected to human rights crimes in Ecuador, Myanmar and Nigeria. Another example is that, whilst declaring that it would divest from ‘illegal arms’ (which one would hope they also didn’t have in the first place), Imperial will retain investments in ‘non-illegal’ arms corporations, such as the £2.2 million currently invested in Lockheed Martin.
Founded during the times of the British Empire, Imperial College has long benefited from colonialism and continues to do so by investment in and partnership with exploitative corporations. The main entrance, where the occupation took place, is also home to a statue of Queen Victoria, holding a rather odd pose with an outstretched hand. This was turned into a striking piece of art, revealing one of the figureheads of colonialism as a thief, extracting money from every corner of the Earth, leading to the demise of both people and planet.
Colonialism isn’t something that only existed during the times of empires – it continues to this day and manifests itself in a number of ways. For example, the fact that the ways in which Western companies act elsewhere in the world goes largely unreported, even when they involve illegal practices which would be reputation destroying if done in the West itself. Another example is bargaining for extremely low prices for the natural resources of poorer countries – who themselves need them – which are then sold for large profits elsewhere.
It isn’t just corporations who continue colonial practices, but educational institutions, too. Universities of the Arts London (UAL) has been called out in a series of zines over the fact that its curriculum of recent years has been almost entirely focused on what has happened in Europe and the US post-Industrial Revolution. Despite centuries of development in art across the entire planet, students have been implicitly told that all that matters is what happened in these places during this period of time.
Another example is the British Museum, many of whose collections comprise of stolen artifacts from foreign lands, taken during times of empire and never returned. For the recent opening of an exhibition on Troy, sponsored by BP, the activist group BP or not BP hosted an action within the British museum which highlighted its colonial history and called on the museum to reject sponsorship offers from such companies. As with Imperial’s student occupation, the action involved lots of striking art, including a Trojan horse decorated with the BP logo, lots of people in costume and a rewrite of a Trojan song which was sung in the main hall by hundreds of people as the protest’s climax.
Of course, the colonial ties the British Museum and BP have are shared by Imperial College. As well as currently having £9 million invested in fossil fuel companies, the university has taken £24 million in donations and nine of its departments have links to the industry, including my own department. Through sponsoring PhD students and advertising at careers events, fossil fuel companies seek to enlist their next generation workforce, enabling them to continue their destructive trajectories. In opposition to its meddling in the education system, students at the University of Cambridge recently created an open letter stating that those undersigned pledged never to work in the fossil fuel industry.
Given the current COVID-19 pandemic, it looks unlikely that inspiring, creative occupations such as those described above will be able to take place in the near future. However, whenever the time may be, it is essential that we have more of them. Not only do they put powerful people and organisations in the limelight and make explicit calls for immediate action on important causes, they also act to motivate activists and provide spaces for thought-provoking, movement-building discussions.
The following statement from College will certainly be useful in enabling future occupations:
“We respect the right to peaceful protest and have no plans to remove protestors from the Main Entrance. We understand the depth of feeling among our community about this important issue and will continue to engage in discussion with our staff and students.”