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Have Zero Carbon Cambridge gone too far?

Are their recent actions alienating or uniting the students who agree with their aim?


It's almost been over a week since Cambridge Zero Carbon Society activists sprayed chalk slogans over the Old Schools building (along with the occasional star or heart sign). The slogans were removed on Saturday, following a week of Zero Carbon defending their actions in the face of claims that the chalk damaged the Grade I-listed building.

While Zero Carbon offered to wash the chalk off "when the University stops investing in this destructive industry" (read: we're not washing it off), the reaction to this protest has been nothing short of severe. This is unlikely to persuade the University; more importantly, it is alienating many students who had previously supported Zero Carbon.

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'Aesthetic' graffiti

A step too far

As someone who is interested in the ongoing debate surrounding divestment, I have been discussing the developments in Zero Carbon's work with my friends and other students for some time now, and this recent protest has been universally condemned by those I've spoken to (bar one student, who is admittedly a member of Zero Carbon and unsurprisingly took part in the protest). While Zero Carbon were clearly hoping to storm the metaphorical Bastille and take the fight to the University, rallying their fellow students in solidarity, they appear to have instead lost a significant portion of their support base. More June Rebellion, less French Revolution.

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Liberty leading the people, or a vain attempt at radical PR?

Passing Old Schools, I've heard friends, students, tourists and townsfolk alike tut, and cast around a lot of the same words: "disgrace", "embarrassment", and even "criminal". I spoke with a Natural Scientist recently who described divestment as "the most logical move possible", before stating that the spray chalking of Old Schools was "disgusting and disrespectful". While I haven't carried out a comprehensive poll of the University – Gallup or YouGov, hit me up – what I've seen so far has indicated an overwhelmingly negative response. When Zero Carbon discussed their potential actions at Divestment HQ (which I like to imagine as a Busted Year 3000-esque underwater lair), how did anyone expect defacing a historic building to go down well in one of the most heritage-focused Universities in the world?

What next?

This latest act, and Monday's protest, have followed a gradual escalation of Zero Carbon activism. I was at the Zero Carbon demonstration during the Boat Race, which involved flares and banners on Hammersmith Bridge as the men's race passed. This has been followed by the spray chalking of Old Schools, a hunger strike (during Ramadan…) and the occupation of Greenwich House. At this current rate of intensification, what will Zero Carbon do next? Spray chalk Stephen Toope himself? Take hostages in the UL's tower – Die Hard style? We're left guessing by these 20th century Ches and Fidels.

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Starring Stephen Toope as Cambridge's newest action hero

Zero Carbon's hunger strikers are demanding "no punishment for the students who have engaged in recent direct action for divestment". Qhile they are likely referring to Stephen Toope's suggestion that those involved may be disciplined by the University, they should instead note their good fortune for not being arrested for criminal damage.

One of the rallying slogans of Zero Carbon to date has been the vitality of democracy in divestment, and have often referred to divestment as "the democratic will of the members of the University". However, the response to their latest actions has made me question if they truly do speak for the University's staff and students. If divestment was put to a democratic vote, would Zero Carbon triumph? I honestly cannot say – but, after this week, I'm far less certain about their chances than I used to be.

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The spray chalk has been washed off, and the hunger strike is over, while other protests proceed following Senate House's indecisive ruling on Monday. But for how long?