The Urbane Ecologist

UCL’s Definition of “Sustainable”–World Class Researchers in the Field, but Investing in Fossil Fuels

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I take pride in the fact that I attend a university that attracts some of the best students, faculty, and researchers in the world. I do not take pride in the fact that University College London still has a long way to go before truly representing the sustainability a segment of its faculty is world famous for promoting.

As a student at the Development Planning Unit pursuing a Master’s in Environment and Sustainable Development, I am exposed to researchers and specialists who are part of—indeed, often lead–global conversations of what it means to be “sustainable” and question notions of “development”. Robert Biel, for example, has built a career on questioning the very foundations of modern society—capitalism—and whether or not you agree with him, you cannot accuse him of lazy or uncreative thinking. David Satterthwaite is known for development work that truly services the poor and marginalized. Despite the fact that I grew up surrounded by failed development, the work of many researchers such as these inspired me to give the field a chance and at least try to understand it. So far, I have found my program challenging, thought-provoking, and every bit as personally and intellectually difficult as I hoped it would be. At the same time, my university as a whole leaves me disgusted. Specifically, I’m ashamed by and angry at its promotion of fossil fuels and its inability to put its money where its mouth is.

To those who are completely new to environmental issues, as I was less than two years ago, this issue matters because our consumption of fossil fuels—such as oil, coal, and natural gas—are the source of a huge number of environmental problems, such as pollution and climate change. We don’t only consume fossil fuels by putting them in our cars; they are hidden in most of the products we use every day, from the fertilizers that grow our food and to the plastic that surround us and now resides in our bodies. Most consequences of using fossil fuels are negative and our use of them alters our environment in one or many ways that then make it less habitable for us and other organisms.

But why are environmentalists picking the fight with these companies and not with the people who consume their products? Fossil fuel companies actively engage in activities that are unethical. By virtue of the huge amount of money at their disposal, they have made it virtually impossible for anyone to make choices that do not, in one way or another, support the industry. The fossil fuel industry also has ties to related industries—such as chemical and agriculture—and are so powerful that they even control worldwide governance in their favor. Furthermore, they frequently rely on “dirty” tactics—bribes, or other subtle methods—of getting what they want. They are known for actively going to great lengths to hide the consequences of their actions and even refuse to take responsibility for it. (Examples here and here.) They spend unimaginable amounts of money manipulating the way the average person perceives the world and the role of fossil fuels in it, either in the form of raw political power (e.g. rigging elections, having a close relationship with politicians) or in the form of advertising. I see this myself at UCL, and I’ll come to that shortly. But to summarize, the people who are generally in favor of taking care of the physical environment—for the purposes of deriving benefits from it that last beyond this year or the next, or simply for the sheer joy in a clean environment–are generally opposed to the fossil fuel industry.

This has led to many student groups in the West promoting fossil fuel divestment. Universities make investments in various industries and companies as a way of making money to fund research and other functions. Students who are opposed to fossil fuels take part in divestment campaigns in order to demand that their universities take part in bringing down the fossil fuel industry. Glasgow University recently became the first academic institution in Europe to commit to divestment. Many American universities have divestment campaigns or have already committed to divestment. On November 10, the Fossil Free group at University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) submitted its divestment petition with over 1,000 signatures.

So here we come to UCL, which invests over £14.5 million in fossil fuel companies, including BP, Shell, and Total, and has recently come under a lot of criticism for these investments. The university’s relationship with BHP Billiton, however, has gone beyond simple investments and has been particularly notorious.

BHP Billiton is not a name commonly known to people who aren’t into “this environmental thing”. But it is a huge mining company—one of the world’s largest producers and marketers  of coal—whose effects are global and far-reaching. And while fossil fuel companies more frequently refer to oil and natural gas companies (Shell, BP, Exxon, etc), coal is a fossil fuel and mining companies are accused of many of the same things fossil fuel companies are accused of. It has mines in Australia, South Africa, Colombia, and the USA (to mention just a few places). It is currently working on opening more mines in conserved rainforest area in Borneo.

In 2011, the company donated $10 million (£6 million) to UCL to establish the Institute for Sustainable Resources on the London campus and the International Energy Policy Institute (IEPI) on the Adelaide (Australia) campus. It also funds scholarships at the Australian campus and the “BHP Billiton Chain in Sustainable Global Resources” on the UCL London campus. This led to Professor Jane Rendell, then Vice Dean of Research at the Bartlett, to resign. While both institutes and the company claim that BHP Billiton’s connection to UCL has no bearing on the integrity of the university’s research, there is ample evidence to believe that this is untrue, and even “laughable”.  For example, UCL Australia has published papers in support of the company’s objectives.

I saw these dynamics at play myself at a conference about a week and a half ago titled: Stewardship for Planet Earth: Sustainable Resources & Governance – Evidence, Challenges & Solutions. It was hosted by the Institute for Sustainable Resources and organised by the current BHP Billiton Chair in Sustainable Global Resources, Raimund Bleischwitz, who took the position in August 2013.

The first speaker, anthropologist Jerome Lewis, lit a glimmer of hope in me by saying “we are mining planet Earth”. I was disappointed, however. His “we” was not the insatiable demand of Western society for the products of mining, nor the companies doing the mining, but was the individuals that populate the globe. Thus, the responsibility for solving the problem lay with them. In addition, rather than introducing a genuine discussion of the effects of mining companies on human society, he completely “other-ized” the issue. He framed environmental issues as something that tribal African people in the forests do, and played on Western notions of “development”: his rhetoric made it seem as if the only people affected by a damaged environment are “indigenous” communities in some far away land that most people can’t and don’t empathize with. His rhetoric is frequently employed by people and groups who skew environmental issues by making them seem like something crazy hippies who like to smoke strange substances in the forests of the tropics do.

Dr. Philip Andrews-Speed was another memorable speaker whose chief goal seemed to be selling his most recent book (co-authored with Dr. Bleischwitz). His talk focused on the overuse of environmentally damaging fertilizer in China (and consequent waste and overuse of water), which he squarely blamed—in an incredibly patronizing tone—on ignorant Chinese farmers. But, as we shall see, being patronizing seemed to be a unifying thread of this event.

The aspect of the conference I found the most shocking was the complete lack of discussion about multinational corporations. Despite the fact that “BHP Billiton” was plastered on the slides and was more than simply visible, the speakers and discussion revolved around discussions of grassroots communities on the first day and top-down governance on the second day. I did not hear the words “multinational”, “companies”, “corporations”—consequently, there was no way to have a discussion on the role of industries and multinational companies in the current “sustainability” crisis and how these companies intend to contribute to taking responsibility for or getting us out of it. When the general issue of responsibility for environmental degradation was mentioned, it was presented as a grassroots effort, purely based on individual passion and motivation. The paradox was so enormous that when the speakers spoke of grassroots efforts, their statements were generalized and simply repeating cliched ideas without any substance—and were often clouded by a patronizing tone.

That tone was no surprise. UCL has shown that it does not care much for the plight of the people and communities affected by BHP Billiton. When campaigners came to UCL to draw attention to the destructive—environmentally and socially—activities of BHP Billiton in their home countries (Colombia, Indonesia, and the Philippines), their room booking at UCL was mysteriously and unexpectedly canceled, meaning that they were not allowed to appear on campus. UCL Provost and President Michael Arthur also refused to meet them when they attempted to deliver letters detailing their concerns, meaning that the protesters could only leave their letters to a security guard.

My master’s class is going to Lima, Peru in the spring as part of a project to alleviate water poverty. As part of our research in preparation for this work, we have been discovering that environmental problems, which are so often framed in a physical way, are often more social problems than environmental, driven by power dynamics and associated with the legitimacy of some groups in contrast with the lack of recognition of others. In our case, water scarcity in Lima is portrayed as a consequence of having too little water when in fact some groups are denied access to clean, affordable, and sufficient water as a consequence of political and economic policies and other social issues.  I’m getting to the point in my research where I realize that the mining industry—so crucial to Peru’s national economy—is a huge factor in the water scarcity and the poverty of most of Lima’s population. It so happens that BHP Billiton owns a third of the Antamina mine, the largest mining project underway in the world, where workers began striking recently. Many environmental activists opposed to mining activities have lost their lives in Peru.

So how am I supposed to feel when I go to Lima? I am a naturally optimistic person, but I cannot help but think that, despite my excitement to see a new city and to contribute to practical development work as part of a world-class academic program known for its forward-thinking research, I will feel dirty and hypocritical inside.

UCL, divest from fossil fuels and end your partnership with BHP Billiton, which lasts until 2016. Make me, and all of your students proud: we want to attend not only a university that has a long history behind it, but is as forward-thinking and courageous as it prides itself on being.


Edited: 18 Nov 2014, 19 Nov 2014


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