By Breana Macpherson-Rice, SRC Environment Officer
“FCK HARVARD JUST DIVESTED”
The message in our group chat flashed onto my screen and some expletives escaped my lips before I could stop them. My eyes scanned back and forth across the screen, trying to eliminate the chances of being duped. No, too late in April to be fooling around. And my friend Keith isn’t one to be misinformed about this stuff. Could it be real?
“Excuse me –“
A group of people jostled past me and I realised I had been standing in the middle of the corridor, softly muttering into my phone screen for the past minute. Shaking myself into reality, I walked outside, thinking through the implications of this: Harvard University, one of the most prestigious institutions in the world, had finally divested from fossil fuels after an incredible five year campaign from students. The hope I felt bubbling in my stomach was undeniable.
See, for anyone else, this news might be interesting and positive, but probably not something that would momentarily paralyse them with excitement. But for myself – and the 60 or so other students who currently spend a lot of time working on the Fossil Free UNSW campaign, asking our university to divest – it is momentous.
When the Fossil Free campaign first began in 2013 on our campus, Harvard’s was already more than a year underway. And so in late 2014, when UNSW’s then Vice-Chancellor Fred Hilmer rejected the views of 78% of UNSW students and 150+ academic staff calling on the council to divest, he actually quoted the president of Harvard, who had a similarly recalcitrant view and was trying to shut down this US campus movement.
But these discouraging signs deterred neither our campaign, nor Harvard’s. If anything, it made us campaign harder; if our universities were really this resistant to taking the most basic stand against fossil fuels, it meant that we were on the money with our targets. Our petitions amassed while we held debates, rallied, formed human signs, orchestrated banner drops and executed open day stunts. Still, there was no move from our universities.
After a few years, their stubbornness can get pretty old.
You see, you can only use these tactics for so long without success before there comes a time to make a decision: give up, or escalate.
And as young people talking about nothing less than the very future of the planet in our lifetimes, giving up wasn’t really an option. So we escalated.
That leads us to last year, when a dozen UNSW students sat on the floor of the council chambers in sleeping bags to occupy in protest of the university’s continued ignorance of our campaign. During the occupation, we amused ourselves and drew strength from watching footage of students just like us at Harvard, on the other side of the world, who were occupying hallways of their admin buildings in numbers of 50 or more.
Taking this sort of action leaves you vulnerable to so many criticisms – people told us that this was not the right way to achieve change, that our actions were counterproductive, that we were naïve and that fossil fuels are around to stay.
So it means a lot to remember that, while we may have been a relatively small number in our huge university, we are joined by thousands of students at universities globally who are similarly putting their bodies (and adherence to student codes of conduct) on the line in the hope that we might actually be able to challenge the immense social and financial powers of coal, oil and gas.
However, sometimes, even considering this, it can be hard to stay positive. I got involved in the Fossil Free UNSW campaign when I started university in 2014, and after three years of devoting my time to this campaign – which sometimes feels like shouting at a brick wall – it can be hard to remain hopeful.
But then I remember that it took over 10 years of student activism and escalation to see the wins in the campaign to divest from South Africa’s apartheid in the 80s. And now, seeing the Divest Harvard campaign break through – after so many years, and so much strategic civil disobedience – I remember that we’re not losing here at UNSW after all.
After our escalation last year, the Vice-Chancellor had no choice but to start taking us seriously – and we have now had opportunities to meet with him, and more recently, to sit at the same table as the university council and present our case for divestment at UNSW. There are murmurings amongst the council, and the document we prepared has been spreading around the desks of decision-makers and representatives of the university. It feels like things are finally shifting.
But we’re not letting down our game. If anything, this shift means that we need to mobilise now, more than ever – to show our Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor and council members that we, as students and staff of this university, no longer accept the continued support of an industry whose continued operations are killing our reef, swallowing the Pacific, and committing us to a future of extreme weather events and insecurity.
We need to show them that there’s no more time to waste.
So this week, we’re getting real. It’s the week of the Global Divestment Mobilisation – a week where people from the Philippines to Germany, Australia to Nigeria, will all be taking bold action to cut the ties between our institutions and the fossil fuel industry.
On campus, Fossil Free UNSW students and staff will be sending this message loud and clear – on the Library Lawn on Thursday, to be precise.
I hope, like Harvard, we are close to a breakthrough.
If you want to be on the right side of history, now’s your chance. Join us.