The Urbane Ecologist

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“We will…reawaken the power that belongs to us. We will divest, boycott, march, scream and shout.” – reflections from the Climate negotiations

Pekka Piirainen is a former UCL student and has been at the forefront of UCL Fossil Free over the past two years. He just came back from the Climate negotiations as part of the UK Youth Climate Coalition. He wrote this inspiring reflective piece — take a look!

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Happy Divestment Day! (Update)

As divestment campaigns are kicking off around the world, let’s spend a few minutes celebrating them on Global Divestment Day!

I haven’t been as involved in UCL Fossil Free’s divestment campaign as I want to (because learning about the environment has been so intense I haven’t been able to spend as much time actually protecting it as I would like…) but they have been doing an amazing job! They recently had a “Love-In” where they covered themselves in oil and staged an orgy involving Shell, BP, and the UCL Provost, Michael Arthur. Here’s a summary article, and here is an interview. Naomi Klein talks about the relationship between divestment campaigns and the carbon bubble in this interview with here.

Worldwide, events are going on to promote divestment from fossil fuels–check them out and try to get involved! Get inspired by checking out how Fossil Free UK–in the form of carbon bubbles–got in Shell CEO Ben Van Beurden’s way as he tried to make a speech at the International Petroleum Conference. Read about how the Metropolitan police, the Greater London Authority, and the Westminster city council are getting in the way of climate change protesters’ freedom to protest.


Update on events (16 February 2015): 

The Go Fossil Free website has compiled some great stats, media reports, and multimedia things showing the massive global support for divestment.

Fossil Free UCL’s activities alone were highlighted in a variety of publications, including this mention in the Guardian feature “Global Divestment Day: ‘We are ready for urgent action on climate change’:

Guinevere Carter, UCL Fossil Free Activist


Londoners, if you are in town on March 29, try to participate in BP or Not BP Flashmob at the British Museum, which is sponsored by BP. (The company also sponsors many other art and culture institutions in and around London.)

In browsing the interwebs, I found this PhD studentship on the “Sustainability of Manufactured Water” at UCL, funded by BHP Billiton! How lovely. (If you are confused as to why that’s strange/wrong, I wrote a piece on it here.)

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

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


What is development?

I’ve started my one-year master’s at UCL in Environment and Sustainable Development! The move to London was filled with excitement and I don’t feel quite moved into my bedroom yet, but I definitely feel the closest thing to “home” (whatever that is) in this city. But I’ve noticed that a lot of people outside of my program have been asking me “what is development?” As a matter of fact, one of my first lectures this week tried to address this. I think a fitting way of restarting updates on my blog is to (try to) answer that question.

Development is like a fly–the harder you try to pin it down, the more elusive it becomes. In no way will my blog post come close to fully capturing the tomes that have been written on how to define it and think about it. But I hope, for those of you who have no inkling of what the title of my master’s program means, this blog post will be somewhat informative.

At its most simplified, “development” is the attempt to reduce inequality and bring everyone in the world to some acceptable standard of living (i.e. to “eradicate poverty”). When most people think about development, they think of UN or other NGO workers going to developing/Third World/poor/Global South countries to do work like setting up schools, bringing up water pumps to villages, or promoting women’s rights. One author has described it as a “global promise of generalised happiness” (1). People from Médecins sans Frontiers, UNICEF, WHO, and similar organizations who go to countries in crisis from war or famine or some other catastrophe are known as “aid workers” and their job is different from development. Aid workers swoop in during or shortly after a catastrophe in an attempt to patch up the worst damage and try to get people (often literally) back on their feet. Development workers are committed to more long-term efforts to help get countries more educated and industrialized and less poor–although they are often funded by Western “aid” money as well.

Although aid and development work is most commonly associated with international NGOs such as the UN, there are many avenues by which to perform this type of work, including private companies, university-related work, or individual efforts. Although most people think of development as something that occurs when people from richer, industrialized countries go to poorer less industrialized countries, it can occur locally within poorer countries or even within richer countries. Working with people who live in slum areas in London, for example, would classify as a type of development work.

I struggled internally when applying for my program because I grew up (in Abuja, Nigeria) seeing and listening to the parents of my schoolmates, many of whom were “development people”, and I did not admire what they did for a variety of reasons. I thought them too optimistic and unrealistic. I saw how projects were often started and left unfinished or unmaintained. I witnessed so many opportunities being missed due to basic cultural and situational misunderstandings. I resented how they lived in what I perceived as disrespectful wealth (they have pools in their compounds?!) while going out in the morning to supposedly help people who didn’t even know how to read or had never gone to sleep without worrying about the following day’s food. My emotional and cerebral attitude to development has changed and become more complicated since I was a schoolgirl, but it is interesting that many of my criticisms growing up are actually many of the criticisms that many other people have made of development work.

Criticisms of development include:

  • Development work can impose Western cultural values upon other communities. It can also have a homogenizing effect upon regional cultures–this can be related to, but is not the same as, Westernization.
  • As an industry, development work promotes capitalism. Capitalism, in turn, cannot solve inequality or poverty because it needs a certain proportion of people living in poverty to sustain itself. The World Bank is particularly notorious for it pro-capitalism policies.
  • People from developed/First World/rich/Global North countries who move to less developed/Third World/poor/Global South countries to perform development work can fall into the old trap of glorifying poverty or the exotic, thus hindering their ability to perceive things clearly and help properly.
  • Despite decades of development work, the majority of people living in many poor countries are not that much better off than they were before.
  • The development field lacks a sense of its own history. When many people describe it, they place its origins after World War II, with efforts like the Marshall Plan. However, the efforts of groups of people and governments to improve the living conditions of lower socioeconomic classes go further back than that. By seeing the field as so new, we may be missing out on the lessons of history.
  • For the people who are the targets of development work, the field defines them based on the things they lack or the things they are not. And when development professionals come in to help them, they can be left with the impression that the solutions to their problems belong to other people and ways of thinking (2).

There are, of course, counter-arguments to all these complaints about development. They include:

  • Development work doesn’t just boss people around and impose its whims upon people from other cultures. Many communities in less developed/Third World/poor/Global South/I-need-to-figure-out-a-way-of-saying-this-concisely countries around the world have shown agency and are getting development work done on their own, without backing from international or foreign organizations and without spectacular funding.
  • Culture naturally changes over time, so pressuring cultures to change in a particular fashion is not always unnatural or does not always spell the death of a way of life.* For example, I firmly believe in gender equality. I fully support equal rights for men and women, and I believe that people of a non-strictly heterosexual mindset or lifestyle have the same rights to determine how to run their lives as heterosexual people. I encourage means to change cultures that do not promote those same ideas. However, I don’t think that the way to go about it is to come in and keep screaming until something happens–because it won’t. Framing arguments in a sensitive way and taking action in a way that makes sense locally or regionally is crucial.
  • Development is not a homogenous, negative, overpowering force. It is done by a variety of people from a variety of places and in a variety of contexts. Some development work is quite good.
  • In other words, we can be so focused on all the ways development has failed us in creating the perfect society that we lose sight of the many material benefits and other good development has given to a lot of people who would have not had these things otherwise. A common example is immunization programs. As one author put it: “There is a disturbing tendency…to see poverty in terms of the social construction of a deficient world rather than the material reality of absolute deprivation in a deficient world.” (3)

To reiterate, I can in no way hope to elucidate all the definitions of development, and explain all the back-and-forth that has gone on since its existence. This is just the bare bones. However, a good source to introduce yourself to the history of criticisms of development–and the criticisms of these criticisms–and to learn all the -isms and philosophical movements that go along with these ideas is McGregor, A. (2009). “New Possibilities? Shifts in Post-Development Theory and Practice”, Geography Compass, vol. 3, no. 5, pp. 1688-1702.

* Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explains this quite eloquently in the last quarter or so of her famous “We Should All Be Feminists” TED talk.


Literature Cited

(1) Rist, G. (2007). Development as a buzzword. Development in Practice 17 (4-5), pp. 485-491.

(2) Esteva, G. (1992). Development. In: Sachs, W. (ed.) The development dictionary: a guide to knowledge as power. London: Zed Books, pp. 6-25.

(3) Peet, R. and Hartwick, E. (2009). “Critical Modernism and Democratic Development”, Theories of Development: Contentions, Arguments, Alternatives (2nd edition), Guilford Press, New York, Part III Ch. 8, pp. 275-291.