This interview was conducted by Oxford Sustainability with Oxford Climate Society.
So, who are you?
Anisha Faruk: Anisha Faruk, History, She/Her, Queen’s.
Ellie Milne-Brown: I’m Ellie, I use she/her pronouns, and I’m a third year English student at Exeter College. I’ve been on Exeter’s JCR committee for two years, until the end of 2018, first as Secretary and then as President.
Ivy Manning: My name’s Ivy (she/her), I study PPE at Wadham.
Do you consider yourself an environmentalist? Why?
Anisha: I’m an environmentalist because I am invested in the future of our planet. The welfare of our environment has a direct impact on socioeconomic inequality across the world. Fighting economic injustice is one of my key motivations and this cannot be done without also fighting for environmental causes.
Ellie: Absolutely. I think safeguarding the environment is vital to our continued existence as a species, and even if it weren’t, protecting the natural world around us is essential. I’m really passionate about engaging with environmental issues and making a difference in the world around us, and I think Oxford SU is an incredible tool to do just that. I keep talking about ensuring students thrive at Oxford and improving access beyond admissions – I don’t think there’s any access or any thriving without putting the environment first.
Ivy: Yes, 100%. The environment is so important. It’s one of the most politically neglected issues facing us as a society. I’m really lucky that my parents are committed environmentalists; it’s always been something on my agenda. My dad took me to see this documentary film the Age of Stupid when I was quite young: it’s about the last man alive in 2055, looking back and asking why we didn’t stop climate change when we had the chance. It terrified me but that’s useful, I think, to realise that the worst case scenario is really awful. We try not to let it scare us because in our minds it’s only affecting future generations, but that’s totally the wrong approach.
What have you done to reduce your own environmental impact?
Anisha: To reduce my own environmental impact, I took part in Veggie Pledge last term where I reduced my meat consumption. I buy groceries in bulk, take public transport/walk when I can. I re-use bags to reduce waste and, at home, we compost food waste.
Ellie: I’m a vegetarian for all but two meals a week, and vegan for as much of the week as I can manage – the main limiting factor is that I suffer from coeliac disease, and pretty much all gluten free bread (bizarrely) contains egg. I wish I could say that’s something I’ll change as SU President, but it’s tragically beyond the powers of the office. As well as that, I use entirely cruelty-free and primarily-vegan toiletries, and I’ve made a real effort to cut down on plastic waste, especially for fruits and vegetables. I think it’s really important to get engaged and to assess what you can do to help the environment, even if it’s not a lot – any change helps.
Ivy: I’m a vegetarian for environmental reasons – I cut down on dairy for veggie pledge, and at the moment I don’t think veganism’s sustainable for me within Oxford, but I’m trying to head in that direction. I’ve started always carrying my keep cup; and trying to avoid meal deals and anything which uses unnecessary plastic. But it’s tricky, and I worry about the narrative that individual action is the solution to climate change. We need governments, corporations, and big institutions like our university to take it much more seriously than they do.
How have you supported student environmental efforts during your time at Oxford?
Anisha: I proposed a motion at the Labour Club Termly General Meeting in Michaelmas of 2017 which mandated the Co-Chairs to write to figures at the University calling on them to support divestment. In Trinity of 2018, as Co-Chair of the Labour Club, I helped organise a divestment stall as part of our campaigning efforts to promote awareness of the issue. In Hilary of my second year, I was copyeditor and graphics designer for the Oxford Climate Society’s journal Anthroposphere.
Ellie: I’ve repeatedly lobbied for divestment within my College, talking with the Finance and Estates Bursar and with the Rector about ways it could prioritise ethical investment. As well as that, I worked with the Oxford Climate Justice Campaign and student campaigners in both the Exeter JCR and MCR to propose a motion mandating the JCR to support and lobby for divestment. So far, Exeter hasn’t divested – and I think that highlights exactly why University-wide work, led by OCJC and the SU, is so vital to make a difference. Individual common rooms are absolutely vital to making a difference, but they can’t do it alone.
Ivy: I’ve been pretty involved in environmental efforts at Wadham, especially last year when I was JCR treasurer. I sat on college’s sustainability committee and was actually pretty impressed by their recycling strategy – they’ve got to the point now where students not separating out recycling is their biggest obstacle and I think that’s a great shame. I also got them to implement a trial scheme of not stocking paper towels in bathrooms on student staircases. I’m not sure it’s been massively popular but people do recognise that it’s a massive source of waste. But college aren’t doing nearly enough on divestment. When I was on the JCR committee we managed to set up a divestment working group with student representatives, but it’s still a live issue. Our Bursar used to work for Shell, and thinks fossil fuel companies cancel out their negative environmental impact with all their R&D. I think he’s wrong, but Wadham’s going to need some persuading. And the problem with the Oxford system is that process has got to happen at all of its colleges and at a central level before the university will be good enough on its investments. I’d lobby hard to make this happen if I was on your SU.
Why do you think environmental campaigning is important work for the SU?
Anisha: Whilst individuals changing their behaviour to lessen their negative impact on the environment is beneficial, fighting for the environment requires structural changes and large institutions like Oxford University making changes like divesting from fossil fuels. The SU is a vital body that can lobby the university to divest and therefore environmental work is crucial to the work the SU does.
Ellie: I think environmental campaigning is important for everyone, but the SU has a unique place within Oxford to make the change students want to see happen. Students are so passionate about the environment, and they can drive that change, and the SU has the relationships – with staff at colleges and the University, and with students, campaigns, and common rooms – to facilitate that and make the difference. As well as that, it can be difficult for common rooms to keep a long-term focus on something as relatively abstract as environmental campaigning – I think an underrated benefit of the SU is that it has that long-term focus on issues which are vital, but don’t seem as urgent day-to-day.
Ivy: Oops, I might have just covered this! Climate change affects all of us; we shouldn’t ignore it. Universities, especially Oxford, are massive investors and so as students lobbying them we can make real change which goes beyond individual action.
What do you see as the SU's relationship with existing environmental groups in Oxford?
Anisha: I believe the SU is well placed to help coordinate environmental groups in Oxford and act as a forum for discussion and exchanging ideas. Furthermore, the Sabbatical Officers can amplify their voices because of the access they have to university officials that students often don’t.
Ellie: I think the SU should act as a platform for students to make change happen, whether that’s through Council, campaigns, or common rooms. Environmental groups should be able to engage freely with the SU and its resources, and cooperate to build a better, more sustainable Oxford. The SU should look to facilitate their work and allow students to get engaged and make a difference.
Ivy: I want the SU to work really closely with Oxford Eco Societies group. The SU has long had an environmental campaign and that seems to have been unsettled by its recent review of campaigns, and by the fact that the various groups within it have been really working out their specific aims in recent years (which is great to see). I want the SU to provide a high level of staff support, advice, and resources to environmental groups, and keep communicating, because the sabbs are the ones who get to sit on the university committees.
In terms of environmental work, what do you think Oxford's SU has been good at?
Anisha: The SU brings together environment reps from different common rooms. Furthermore, the SU’s own behaviour, such as the paper free council policy, displays best practice. However, the most important work the SU does is through the Climate Justice Campaign which has been lobbying members of the Socially Responsible Investment Review Committee to get them to support divestment.
Ellie: I think student-focused campaigns, like Veggie Pledge and the Student Switch-Off, have been amazing tools to get students engaged in environmental issues while making a difference. A vital part of the SU’s work should be to engage with students and get them participating in becoming active voices for change, and I think it’s really succeeded with that on environmental issues. It’s been particularly good to see the Veggie Pledge get expanded to include plastic waste, which is, if nothing else, indicative of its previous success in getting students to go vegetarian/vegan.
Ivy: I think veggie pledge is a great start – more in terms of getting students thinking about environmental issues than its direct achievement. Veggie pledge was definitely my gateway to actually putting my environmentalism into practice and trying out vegetarianism. And the SU is in general a good forum for environmental issues – Rosanna (VP C&C) is running a whole timetable of events for Climate Justice Week this week, which is great.
On the other hand, where do you think the SU has failed in relation to sustainability?
Anisha: The SU could improve the visibility it gives to the work done by students to push for the university to divest from Barclays as this is an important cause and deserves more support.
Ellie: I think the student-focused campaigns have been great but haven’t been sufficiently been complemented by a focus on University-scale change. If every student went vegetarian and switched lights off when not in use, that would be excellent, but the University would still be a massive polluter, and that needs to change. The SU can play a fantastic role in advocating for both college-specific and University-wide divestment and emission reductions, but it needs to step up and be more vocal on both these issues.
Ivy: I don’t think the SU is always strong enough on environmental issues. Firstly, it needs to exert really strong pressure on the University and its colleges on divestment. And secondly, I think although it’s pretty good at catering to students who are already interested in sustainability, I think it could do more beyond veggie pledge to convince all students that it’s something they should care about. It’s good at coordinating initiatives between students who already care, but there should be more outreach.
What do you see as Oxford University's greatest environmental failings?
Anisha: Oxford University’s greatest environmental failing is of course its failure to divest from fossil fuels. On top of this, the University has a close relationship with Barclays which is a major investor in fossil fuel infrastructure around the globe.
Ellie: I think the fundamental thing is the University is just not doing its part in reducing carbon emissions. It’s got a target to reduce emissions, but it’s only 33% by 2021, against emissions in 2005 – and that’s not nearly enough. The University has to step up and realise change on that scale isn’t ‘ambitious’, as it describes it, but negligent. Furthermore, there’s far too little emphasis on what colleges can do to reduce emissions – and colleges are responsible for such a high proportion of emissions University-wide. Coordinated action beyond just central University facilities is necessary.
Ivy: Its investments. The university has so much financial power, and at the moment it’s not taking that responsibility seriously.
How do you plan to press for efforts within the University to reduce its own emissions?
Anisha: The SU should hold the university to account and ensure they take all possible steps to reach their own target of reducing carbon emissions by a third by 2021. It must also ensure that the University’s investments prioritise social and environmental impacts.
Ellie: Engaging with students. Too many people don’t know how little the University is actually doing on climate change, and that needs to change; and I think the SU working seriously with students and turning discontent into a unified voice will really make a difference. As well as that, the SU can put pressure on the University in committees and meetings, and that can really make a difference.
Ivy: Keeping the pressure on for divestment. I hope we can use competition between colleges to help this – often when we manage to achieve greater transparency on these big college failings, it forces the worst offenders to change. But even the better performing colleges could be doing better. The University and its colleges need a much more hard-line ethical investments policy.
How do you plan to tackle Oxford's food waste problem?
Anisha: The SU should campaign to raise awareness of the food wastage problem in Oxford and highlight the fact students can consume food after ‘best before’ dates.
Ellie: Student-led action to make sure food waste bins are in place in every hall and every kitchen. Colleges are starting to sit up and listen to this issue; at Exeter, we recently got food waste bins in the JCR kitchen and hall, and the new building at Cohen Quad has had food waste bins since it opened. Change can happen on this through engaged students campaigning and getting themselves heard, with the SU representing them and amplifying their voice.
Ivy: All colleges and departments should have a strategy for leftover food. Wadham has a partnership with the Gatehouse, which is great, and I’d like to see schemes like this expanded. If food can’t be used, it should be properly disposed of as food waste. And we need to ensure we’re buying and preparing the right amount of food in the first place. I’d also like to see more colleges have food share schemes, for example at Wadham there’s a Facebook group where you can give your food away if it’s about to go off and you know you won’t eat it, but someone else will. It works really well.
What can be done by the SU to reduce material waste such as plastics?
Anisha: To reduce material waste at the university, the SU could push for common rooms to pass motions to go paper free.
Ellie: Again, working with students to get their voice heard is essential. The University will so often opt for the easiest option, and that frequently means using wasteful plastics. We’ve got to make it more difficult for the University by putting pressure on them; if we do, we can make them listen and change their ways.
Ivy: Continuing to encourage everyone to cut down on single-use plastics. I think Rosanna already has some partnerships with local food outlets where they will give you a discount if you bring your own Tupperware. More schemes like that would be great – we need to make not using single use plastic the new norm. That also involves lobbying plastic users in Oxford to reduce how much they are selling. As students we’re big consumers in the city so if there’s enough pressure we can encourage retailers to switch to cardboard food packaging. I’d like to think we could get the kebab vans to switch from polystyrene to card.
How do you plan to support the Climate Justice Campaign and their efforts for divestment in Oxford?
Anisha: Having spoken to a representative from the Climate Justice campaign to learn what their priorities and concerns are, I know the SU can support the campaign by encouraging more students to join and providing the campaign with more visibility especially on their work lobbying the university to break ties with Barclays. Furthermore, the SU can encourage more common rooms to pass divestment pledge motions.
Ellie: Listening to them. I think a vital part of SU work is working with the campaigns and common rooms who will know more about the specifics of what’s going on than the SU. They’ll know what resources are needed, what work needs to be done; and I’ll make sure I, and the rest of the SU, are there to give them the support they need when they need it.
Ivy: In all ways possible. I want a dialogue between the sabbs and the Climate Justice Campaign, so that we can work effectively together. The SU and CJC have slightly different leverage options, so we can coordinate that to maximum effect.
Are there other environmental programs or projects you think the SU should start?
Anisha: One issue that I would like to see the SU take up is lobbying the university to use more green energy. There would be a lot of potential with this project considering the university’s large energy consumption.
Ellie: I think the SU has to start a real collaborative project with the Oxford Climate Justice Campaign to make change happen around divestment and emissions at Oxford. We can’t depend on student volunteers at the OCJC – who do incredible work – to do all of this on their own, and have to be there to support them in a committed and coordinated way. I’ll make sure I’m there alongside the campaign whenever it’s needed.
Ivy: I’d like to see Student Switch Off be as big as Veggie Pledge, which currently it isn’t. Also, the SU has this year set up its own online platform for students’ second hand items (https://oxfordsu.paperclip.co/). This is a great idea but it now needs better publicity! And a greater culture of swap shops / using platforms like this to get rid of things for free if they’re not really worth money, but still can be avoided being wasted. But any ideas that Oxford Eco Societies group has for SU action, I’d like to make those happen. We’ve got some really informed and passionate students at this university, and the SU should be there to facilitate the change they want to see.
This interview was conducted by Oxford Sustainability with Oxford Climate Society.
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