Direct action is empowering, but negotiations with your opponents are key: A Fossil Free campaigner reviews a successful year of activism

“What do we want? Divestment! When do we want it? Now!”

As the new academic year commences, I look back with satisfaction at what Fossil Free UCL has achieved in its campaign to push UCL to quit the fossil fuel industry and reinvest its endowment. Our group was founded seven years ago but our momentum has grown considerably over the past months. Particularly, new waves of environmental activism have bolstered our action. Like the seas, we’re rising.

As our members returned to campus at the start of last year, we reenergised the campaign with a series of die-ins and banner drops. Their aim was to decry our university’s corporate management under provost Michael Arthur, who has recently announced his resignation.

Face-to-Face with the Financiers

Term two brought the first climate strikes, for which we helped organise joint marches with other London universities. We also had our first meetings with UCL’s investment committee, which makes recommendations on the university’s investment portfolio. The committee shared our concerns regarding the environmental, human-rights and governance records of Big Oil. However, they said they believed in pressuring companies from within. Hence, they were reluctant for the university to divest, thereby losing its ability to perform shareholder activism. Nonetheless, they set up meetings for us with the university’s asset managers, CCLA and Sarasin & Partners, which, in July, announced the divestment of its ethical fund.

In these meetings, we gained a better understanding of how UCL’s endowment is invested. We also seized the opportunity to make the case for divestment to prominent financial institutions. They also constituted an all-to-rare exchange between idealistic environmental campaigners and influential City investors. It was hard to say who was more uncomfortable in the meeting. For our part, meanwhile, it turns out we were far more at ease shouting into a megaphone than trying to see the world through the lens of the financial sector.

These interactions opened my eyes to the importance of human connection in any negotiation. Notably, the small-talk we made in the elevator seemed just as important as the figures we employed to support our argument.

Much as the left enjoys depicting financiers as driven only by greed. But our time spent in conference rooms overlooking St Paul’s showed me how simplistic this view is. It taught me this view is counter-productive to finding common ground. In short, we cannot achieve anything without the assumption of good faith from all parties.

“Under review”

In this day and age, political polarisation is decried ad nauseam. I’d always believed the problem to be primarily (if not entirely) the product of rightwing bigotry. This campaign was my first encounter with a form of cynicism among environmentalists. It considers the crises facing society as the responsibility of malign individuals, rather than the toxic systems which make up globalised capitalism. Consequently, I think some environmentalists don’t recognise that their opponents approach problems differently, based on their education and social circumstances.

This is not an attempt to excuse the financial sector for the cruelties it perpetrates. But it encourages anyone wishing to combat them to drop views of a world split between good and evil.

Our group recently had a follow-up meeting with the investment committee, who confirmed that their policies are “under review”. If UCL do divest in the coming months, I’ll see it less as a victory for Fossil Free against the university than an espousal of the progressive values on which the college was founded. We would be adjusting our policies with the current climate.

Charles Stevenson studies Environment, Politics and Society at UCL and a member of Fossil Free UCL.

Learn more about Fossil free UCL and how to join here.

Photo credit: Fossil Free UCL, with modifications.

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