The Point of No Return

This is the text of a speech given by Sophie Monk at Fossil Free Warwick’s demo on Thursday 12th.

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A few days ago, audio emerged from negotiations between university management and members of the Free Education occupation of Rootes Building from last term. The recording features our Academic Registrar Mike Glover and head of security Mark Kennel telling students that the only way to make their complaint heard is through something called the ‘democratic channels’ of the university.

In other words, if you have a problem, it can only be mediated through the student’s union. We are certainly lucky to have an SU that supports and sympathises with our aims, but how is it that the terms of our dissent are now being dictated to us by the object of that dissent – by the very structure we oppose?

This is problematic firstly because the notion that the university is responsive and cooperative with our legitimate concerns, is patently a lie. Since presenting our reasons for fossil fuel divestment to the university’s finance managers last spring, followed by submissions of letters of support from members of our sabbatical team and university staff, we have been persistently ignored and stalled at every turn. Every attempt at dialogue has been met with shallow attempts to distract and repress us, and the promise of these issues being taken to Council has been repeatedly postponed, from February, to May, to July.

The climate movement talks a lot about tipping points – points of no return in a biophysical sense – and I think we’ve crossed one here, politically. What we’ve realised is that negotiating on the university’s terms consists of being offered meetings over 100 days from requested and exclusion from discussions about investment strategy. This is not the extent of our democratic agency, and that the so-called ‘legitimate channels’ we were promised are coming rapidly undone. Globally, it is obvious that solutions are not to be found in board rooms, summits, parliaments, and least of all markets. They come from us, here, gathered in a space, making a demand.

After the December protests, students of this university were served an injunction that prohibits ‘occupation-style’ protest on campus. Think about that: a ban on occupying the space around us with our bodies. The way this campus is organised around centres of power and capital like Senate House, University House and Warwick Conferences, explicitly excludes us from governance. I’d invite anybody who still believes their university cares about what they have to say to wander up to University House right now and see what response you get.

The neoliberal university is saturated in oil. The fateful Browne report that precipitated the £9k fees we see presently was drawn up by BP’s chief executive, Lord Browne. Why does big oil have a hand in engineering our education system? Warwick specifically has a torrid relationship with fossil fuels, and our investments are only the tip of the iceberg. Look at the campus around you. This university’s aspirations for what an educative institution might look like completely orbits a logic of endless expansion, development and growth mechanised by oil. We might not have pipelines running through our campus (yet!) but we do have BP’s name plastered on our Modern Records Centre, we do have fossil fuel-sponsored PhDs in our manufacturing centre, and we also have approximately £1m invested in fossil fuel companies, perpetuating their social license to operate – a flow of social and financial capital that runs straight through the heart of this university.

It’s one thing to wear an orange patch as a mark of solidarity with communities on the front-lines of climate change, but I believe we also have a responsibility to seek out our own front-lines, the zones and enclaves in which we see the fossil fuel industry operating around us, on our campus, and to say defiantly that this is not okay.

Democracy is you and me stood here with all our manifold concerns and fears and experiences rising to the surface and communicating back and forth with one another. I’m so glad our sabbatical officers are behind us, but how can we possibly distill the many facets and nuances of our collective anger at the fossil fuel industry down into one or two student representatives on a university committee?

There’s a time for asking nicely, but that time has run its course. We no longer ask for divestment, we demand it. This is our baseline objective and nothing less is acceptable.

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