There was recently another earthquake in student politics. It registered a cool 5 on the nichter scale (the Richter scale for things that don’t matter) and was caused by the launch of The Stepford Student – possibly the first group ever to embrace a moniker given to them by Brendan O’Neill. Yours truly wandered over to their webpage to find their mission statement: “Our lack of experience and naivety is what makes us so powerful. We are not hollowed out with despair at the futility of effecting change”.

Okay, first things first, your naivety is what makes you annoying and is what will make you embarrassed by yourselves when you finally grow up. You can get an idea of where they’re coming from if you substitute “grossly over-estimated sense of self-importance” for “lack of experience” and “impotence” for “naivety”. Whether it’s solving the Israel-Palestine conflict via an NUS motion or subverting power structures through a Facebook status, I do think these people somehow see themselves as capable of effecting more change than most nation states could achieve in their wildest dreams. To take a recent example on the Oxford campus: the actions of the “Oxford University Fossil Free Divestment Campaign”. Quite a mouthful, isn’t it?

So a couple of alumni started hanging a banner about fossil fuels around the Bod, visible from Broad Street (you can catch up on this in an excellent story right here). Upon investigating this, I discovered that it was connected to a larger campaign to get alumni to hand back their degrees in protest if the University doesn’t drop its investments in fossil fuel companies.

'Oh no. People are "handing back" their degrees. There are THREE of them now. How will we cope?'

‘Oh no. People are “handing back” their degrees. There have been THREE of them now. How will we cope?’

On the website of this campaign, however, one finds out that its bite is remarkably toothless: “We’re looking for alumni prepared to stand up and ‘hand back’ their degree in protest. This is a symbolic act – you can’t actually give it back”. Once the smirk had disappeared from my face at the end of that, it struck me that this whole “handing back your degree” thing is really a great way to describe all the possible outcomes of eco-activism in Oxford: symbolic.

You see, there’s nothing people like better than feeling like they’ve made a difference; like they’ve changed the world for the better, even saved the world, as is the case with the eco movement. Now, I’m no James Delingpole. But building a few more wind farms off the coast of England is not the solution. There isn’t really any solution which we can bring about in this country, and getting Oxford University to change its investments will change nothing – no matter how good it makes you feel, no matter how great that sense of achievement is when you successfully bully an academic institution. What is needed is a global perspective, if we’re to assess our goals in reducing fossil fuel consumption.

Any enquiry into global emissions must surely begin with China. That country is the world’s largest emitter, sending 8,715 million metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere in 2011. It accounts for 50% of global coal consumption all on its own, and in the years 2005-11 it built two 600-megawatt coal plants per week (in the light of that, you could say Thatcher did a great favour for our national conscience and carbon footprint…). Looking at the global Total Primary Energy Supply (TPES), in between 1973 and 2012, the share of TPES generated by coal increased from 24.6% to 29% and the share generated by Natural Gas increased from 16.0% to 21.3%.

One more half-arsed campus demonstration and this will be us, guys!

One more half-arsed campus demonstration and this will be us, guys!

In the same time, the combined amount generated by geothermal, solar, wind, and other renewables went from 0.1% to 1.1%. These are disheartening figures for any environmentalists, and those relating to China are simply astonishing. And the ability of the Western world to do anything about this is diminishing every year. Members of the OECD in 2012 only produced 39.2% of TPES (compared to the 61.3% they used to produce 30 years ago) – and that’s only going to decrease as more nations industrialise.

The future of climate change is not in our hands, since the greatest emitters of CO2 are the newly industrialising nations. And having the odd protest at Oxford University is not going to change any of that.

If our collective impotence hasn’t hit you yet, then you could at least protest against the right people and have some rallies outside the Chinese and Indian embassies. Maybe you could lobby for the building of more nuclear power plants. But you can’t save the world by hanging a banner on Broad Street. It doesn’t work that way. When you talk about climate change as a student, you are coming up against what those Stepford Students describe as “the futility of effecting change”. You could at least acknowledge that.

Nobody likes being told they’re powerless, but when the alternative is harassing a university just so you can feel like you’ve done something to help, I feel like we should all be reminded of those words spoken so well by Hugo Weaving at the end of the (criminally underrated) Cloud Atlas: “No matter what you do, it will never amount to anything more than a single drop in a limitless ocean.”

This article has 6 comments

  1. Oliver, you seem to be arguing that it’s futile to get the University to divest and that the divestment makes no difference globally. I would say that both points are flawed.

    Without the ongoing campaign its unlikely that the matter of divestment would’ve even been discussed or considered. As it stands the decision on the issue has been delayed, but let’s be glad that we’ll have that decision made in the future, thanks to the divestment campaign.

    As for the second point: How is a 2 billion pound divestment going to make “no difference”? Clearly every pound invested in fossil fuels has a negative impact. Of course the developing world will put a huge strain on our carbon budget, but to shift all responsibility to China (which as a matter of fact is putting more R&D into solar and thorium than the rest of the world combined) and to say it is hopeless for little old Britain to change her ways is exactly the kind of irresponsible, naive, self-righteous proclamation that this article attempts to attack.

    I would agree with you, Oliver, that in a lot of student protest movements there are those who are in it for their own karma and/or CV. However this issue is not, in my opinion, one of those.

    • apologies, “no difference” shouldn’t be a quote!

    • Oliver: Yes, student eco-activism is largely futile, especially when it’s focused on meaningless feel-good symbolism. But bashing the movement is even less likely to make a difference to climate change, and just as much about the self-gratification of yourself and your readers.

      Ali F: In an efficient financial market, as long as there are enough investors who don’t mind owning shares in fossil fuels, even a very large divestment is likely to have minimal results.

  2. Symbolic actions do matter.
    I agree that 3 alumni handing back their degree in protest seems futile. And yes, student eco-activists want to make a difference but it’s a bit useless in comparison to China’s CO2 emission and all the newly industrialised nations.
    BUT: if the university was to decide to divest from fossil fuels it might not make the biggest difference at first but it would start a movement. a handful of eco-activist students seems futile, but the university of Oxford isn’t. And that’s what we must hope: that institutions like our university can make decisions which will have an influence on the long run. It might be symbolic at first, and we might think a lot of ourselves, but that’s what the campaign is striving for, so it’s not that futile…

  3. Pingback: VERSA | In defence of people: I actually still like some of you

  4. Divest from fossil fuels; put it all into payday lenders.

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