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Divestment and the Return of Direct Action

By May 30, 2015 No Comments


This week, Edinburgh University announced its intention to end its investments in coal and tar sands. The news is a massive victory for the thousands of Edinburgh students who have been campaigning relentlessly for fossil fuel divestment since 2012. Edinburgh also holds the UK’s third largest university endowment. Its divestment therefore represents the toppling of a significant domino in the chain of universities teetering over their ethical investments policies, providing huge momentum for the wider UK movement.
However, the most striking aspect of Edinburgh’s success story is that it arose, ultimately, from direct action. Earlier this month (and prior to this week’s announcement), the university gave what it believed to be its final answer to three years of demands for divestment. This comprised of a waffley and anti-climactic promise to divest from companies involved in the extraction of coal and tar sands, but only where feasible alternative energy sources existed and where companies did not invest in low-carbon technologies. Roughly translated as: no.

And so, the students occupied. For ten days, around 30 students refused to move from Edinburgh University buildings until it changed its stance on divestment. This Tuesday, the university caved under a barrage of condemnatory headlines and the protestors received the victory they had been hoping for.

This marks a surprising success for direct action. In recent years, the formerly standard practice of D-locking oneself to corporate railings and trailing en masse through corrupt streets has been laid aside. Amongst older generations, there are whispers that a plague of inertia and ‘lad culture’ has gripped Britain’s young people. And, as a twenty year old undergraduate in the UK, I can confirm that, from my experience at least, the rumours are true.
In part, this may be down to the accepted generational trend of rejecting your parents’ values. Just as those before us scoffed at archaic notions of no sex before marriage and Johnny Mathis, so we spurn our parents’ worn CND t-shirts. In 2015, it just isn’t cool to care. After all, why shout when you can dismiss sarcastically and keep your quiff in place?

However, a darker explanation for today’s apathy is the underlying sense that none of us are really capable of making a change. Any protests that do take place are quashed beneath a rhetoric of economic necessity. Take, for example, the recent campaign against tuition fees which was rejected with the government line on austerity.

But divestment is different. Rather than trying to tackle the huge power of the government, the divestment movement is made up of many small groups, focussing on their own institutions. It is here that impassioned pressure comes into its own. Though the government may easily resist the dissent of a few thousand, localised pressures are not so simply dismissed. The racket caused by Edinburgh’s 30 occupiers, backed by a long-fought and well-researched campaign, was enough to make the university rethink its commitment to fossil fuels.

What the rest of the UK divestment movement should take from Edinburgh’s success, therefore, is that direct action can still work. Of course, without the three years of hard campaigning which preceded Edinburgh’s student occupation, this week’s victory could not have happened.
However, it was the necessary final push.

About Freya Palmer

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