How Green is Cambridge really?
Committees or community?
The events of the last twelve months have been a turning point in raising public awareness of environmental issues. The warnings of the IPCC of an imminent “environmental breakdown”, plastic filling the world oceans, and the record heat of last summer all exhibit the urgency of addressing our relationship with the natural world. But where does Cambridge fit into this?
In many ways it wouldn’t be irrational to condemn the University as an enemy of the environmental cause. A look at the investment policies of the University Council and various college endowments show that the colour green can have "multiple meanings", with profit maximisation taking precedence over environmental and ethical concerns. It recently came out that two members of the Divestment Working Group were directly linked to considering sizeable donations from BHP and BP, highlighting the corruption at the heart of supposedly democratic processes on environmental policy.
However, it would be an oversimplification to assume the attitudes of a committee represent the attitudes of the wider university as a whole. Cambridge is not just an institution, but is a diverse community comprised of students, societies and departmental staff all committed to limiting their impact on the natural world. The undeniable passion and hard work of these individuals should not be overshadowed by the actions of such a committee. Movements at the grassroots of the university have been taking the small steps that are fundamental to the shift needed if we are to fully integrate sustainability into our environmental approach.
One of the central issues of the fight against climatic breakdown is the issue of power and privilege, the type of privilege associated with institutions such as Cambridge. The indulgence that takes place at lavish balls and formal halls exhibits the privileges rooted in Cambridge life that reinforce the ability of a minority to consume limited resources at the expense of the many.
However, a close examination of the characteristics of these events reveals a more complex picture. This narrative is being rewritten by students dedicated to seizing these traditions and reformulating them in a way that is more adapted to the spirit of the environmental movement. The growing incidence of vegan and ethical formal halls is more than just a growing “trend” amongst the colleges but represents students taking an active role in challenging the privileged status of these events.
These movements amongst the student body extend to acting against the very structures of the university itself. In the last twelve months there has been an undeniable increase in student action challenging the university to fully commit itself to the realisation of climate justice.
The actions of the Zero Carbon Society in their campaign for more ethical investments by the University Endowment Fund exhibit the passionate support amongst the student body for putting environmental issues on the agenda. The university may not have yet divested but the widespread participation of students in actions such as the occupation of Greenwich House, numerous marches and the painting of the Corpus Clock demonstrate the growing ecological concern in the student community.
This support for a shift to more ethical investments has garnered support in other corners of the University, with the campaign for divestment receiving the support of over 200 fellows in an open letter last year. While the investment choices of the university are tainted by profiting from the actions of fossil fuel companies, it is vital to recognise the green spirit of those opposed to this injustice.
This green spirit is not confined to radical action. Activism incorporates a larger section of the university community within the sphere of environmental concern.
The recent university-wide Green Week organised by CUSU Ethical Affairs brought together the diverse array of societies and students active within the ethical and environmental spheres. A ‘squash’ featuring the numerous ethical societies active within Cambridge captured the numerous ways in which students are taking action for a fairer and sustainable world. High turn-outs at specific panel events aimed at exploring the links between gender and race with environmental degradation show that concern is for more than just ‘the polar bears’.
There have also featured several events focused on challenging unsustainable consumption habits, with a second-hand sale, sewing workshop and vegan potluck encouraging more positive food and clothing choices. So many students from across the university coming together to explore and act on climate justice by pressuring the university to commit to a 2030 carbon neutrality target is a display of the REAL attitude of the Cambridge community.
The student body is not alone in taking steps towards a more sustainable future. The University Catering Service has taken some remarkable steps through the implementation of the Sustainable Food Policy. The policy commits the Catering Service to several positive goals including the removal of ruminant meat, waste reduction, promoting more vegetable options and refraining from selling unsustainable fish.
This has been taken further in a University wide crusade against plastic cups and bottles, with the various outlets across the University selling reusable ‘Keep Cups’ and utilising biodegradable Vegeware packaging for food and hot drinks. Cambridge may be an institution that lacks environmental consciousness in its investments, but by recognising that institutions are made up of individual people making improvements within their sectors, it is undeniable that a green spirit does exist.
So, if someone were to ask you again about environmental sustainability at Cambridge what would say? Hopefully you would talk about the real Cambridge and not the institutional one: the Cambridge made up of a thriving community of individuals passionate about working towards living sustainably within and not against their planetary home.
It is this community that includes a diverse range of societies, students, staff and departments willing to work together for a positive future.