People would go to a rally wanting to hear from someone argumentative, persuasive, and powerful; I didn’t think I was any of those thingsLouis Ashworth

I have been passionate about environmental conservation for as long as I can remember, but coming to Cambridge, I was afraid of getting involved in activism because I didn’t think I fit the mould of what your typical campaigner would look like. To me, the checklist went something like: loud voice, sufficient eloquence, experience in a debating or political society, and a willingness to engage in comment wars.

People would go to a rally wanting to hear from someone argumentative, persuasive, and powerful; I didn’t think I was any of those things. I would listen to endless podcasts and TED talks about climate change, unsustainable fishing practices and illegal wildlife trade, wishing I would one day wake up with the same confidence to speak up about the changes that we needed to make to save our Earth. In a campus that attracts intellectuals who know exactly what they believe in and won’t hesitate to point out where they think you’re wrong, it can all get a little terrifying.

I was afraid of getting involved in activism because I didn’t think I fit the mould of what your typical campaigner would look like

I spent my first few weeks in Cambridge listening to exchanges full of words I had never heard before and feeling unsure of how my own terms could fit into the conversation. Meetings and actions and rallies and talks blurred into one; each time leaving me feeling simultaneously excited and clueless. I wondered whether I could ever contribute anything constructive and considered giving up trying.

But somewhere in between campaigning for meat-free Mondays in my college dining hall, a long conversation with my Earth Sciences supervisor about the department’s ties to British Petroleum and making a speech at a rally for the University to divest from fossil fuels, I started to find my voice. I realised that the message I wanted to put across was worth me getting over my timidity, worth the uneasy tiptoe into a crowded meeting room, worth stopping someone rushing out of a lecture to ask them to come to a rally. I am still finding my voice. Rather than an end in itself, it is a process of discovering what I really believe in and want to make a difference in.   

Back home, I confined my campaigning to the spaces that I felt comfortable in. I kept quiet because I did not want to be offensive or disrespectful, but also because I was afraid of how people would respond if I did say anything contentious. I would share a news article about citizens of Kiribati being forced out of their homes because of sea level rise on my news feed, but leave it uncaptioned because I did not want any of my own views about the inequality of climate change to stir up any opposition or disagreement. I hosted a talk on how plastic pollution is plaguing our oceans, but only invited people that I knew were open-minded and willing to listen, or at least cared about me enough to feign interest. Now, I know that radical change can only come out of controversy, and that can sometimes be a scary thing.

I realised that the message I wanted to put across was worth me getting over my timidity

Ask me four years ago if I would ever be interested in politics, and I probably would have scoffed and replied: “no, what does that have to do with the environment?” Now I realize that science will never have any impact without policy, while policy needs to be grounded in sound science. This is something I am grateful to Cambridge for; this melting pot of disciplines and interests has allowed me to broaden my view of environmentalism to see the structural injustices that have contributed to the environmental issues we are facing today.

While I’m not quite at the stage of changing my degree in the sciences to a humanities one, the past year of dialogue surrounding all sorts of aspects of climate change and conservation have shown me how the debate is necessarily political, cultural and social. Just 10 per cent of the world’s population is responsible for over half of all carbon dioxide emissions. ‘Forced riders’ such as Pakistan, Mozambique and Bangladesh are countries with some of the lowest greenhouse gas emissions and yet bearing the brunt of the devastating effects of climate change. Small island developing states (or large ocean states) are in a similar predicament, with the changing state of the oceans depriving them of food, destroying their homes and affecting their health. Britain and the United States are the two biggest importers of cattle raised on land that has been deforested in the Amazon, with cattle farming contributing to more than 80 per cent of all deforestation in the region.


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Mountain View

No one should feel afraid to get involved in student activism

So, do I consider myself an activist? If there’s anything I’ve come to accept in the past year, it’s that I’ll never be able to ‘make’ myself something I’m not, but rather I am working through the preconceptions that held me back from becoming as involved as I wanted to be. I am acutely aware of the insularity of this campus, and frequently feel frustrated at the mismatch between my idealistic goals of impacting the wider community and limited capacity to even make a difference in Cambridge.

There will always be a nagging voice in the back of my mind, telling me I’m not doing enough, that there are other people who are better and more experienced than me. I still might not check any of the boxes of the “Activist Checklist” that I had written for myself, but I know that there is a cause that I need to fight for, a calling to reject the status quo and make as much of a change as I can. There is so much to get involved with in Cambridge, but more importantly, it can’t end here. It doesn’t matter what you look like, or how you speak, as long as you have the passion to fight for something, you can make a change.

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