Miell, Bhargava and Margolis have been seated along King's Parade for an hour every day since they began strikingComposite: Noella Chye

I’m sitting in the same room as what may be the sharpest pressure point of a three-year-long effort to push the University to remove its present investments in fossil fuels.

In the lead-up to Wednesday, when the hunger strikes began, the dialogue between University and campaigners had lurched to a point of escalation in which, on campaigners’ parts, the personal had to be symbolised by the more personal, a grand spectacle collapsing into the body of the striker, stripping away the theatricality for the intangible but disconcertingly real: hunger.

They paint a pertinent picture – the hunger strikers – just for an hour every day, seated outside Senate House in the direct line of vision of University administrators peering outside of the Old Schools building’s archaic glass windows, where the historic decision on Monday will be made.

“It’s a want of energy rather than an active feeling of pain,” Beth Bhargava, one of the three hunger strikers, tells me about her growing hunger.

It’s very consciously making the effort to focus on something, but it’s just impossible.”

Four days into the hunger strike, on Saturday morning – with the University Council decision on Monday just two days away – she says: “It’s kind of just… hit. It’s tiredness, more than anything else.”

Sleep, Beth and the others tell me, is getting harder to come by. Paradoxically, it’s precisely the lack of energy that is forcing their bodies to stay awake at night.

“I suppose part of going to sleep is trying to empty your mind in some way,” Sam Warren Miell – the second of the strikers – says, “but... everything in your mind is saying: you need to eat, because you haven’t eaten yet. ...That’s what it is – your body saying no, no, it’s not sleep time, we haven’t got energy yet, we can’t go to sleep yet.”

Picture that, then amplify it. Their experience thus far is but a trace of that of the victims at the hands of climate change, they tell me.

Should Cambridge decide not to divest on Monday, the trio says they will strike on without an end-game in sight, pledging not to eat until the University commits to divesting fully from fossil fuels. I ask how one makes that choice.

“From the few square miles in this town, we can change the lives of people thousands of miles away,” Margolis, the third of the strikers, remarks. The global south, him and Miell say, has been unacceptably out of sight and out of mind.

“I... see climate justice as the defining cause of our era”, Miell says, and adds, “I think if you’re interested in any large social change movement, then climate change affects all of those things.

“It’s not just irreversible, it’s happening now.”

“It will have a huge knock-on effect on our capacity for anything else because of the catastrophes it will cause.”

Bhargava notes, “It’s not just irreversible, it’s happening now.” In the focus on what divestment can secure for the future, it’s easy to miss its importance for the present. Bhargava points out flooding, rising sea levels, and the economic degradation they’re symptoms of – an infliction critically overlooked.

Why students have been pushed to hunger strike raises questions unravelling the system of democracy under which the institution has functioned for years, but which is starting to fray: how can we situate human lives in questions of financial risk?

Allied with movements against privatising higher education and for racial justice, it’s apparent that the push for divestment has tugged at the threads of transparency, accountability and internal democracy, all of which have been pinned recently on the vice-chancellor.

Cambridge’s internal structure, should it choose not to divest, Miell says, would come to light as “a very base idea of what democracy is”, given the support from JCRs, CUSU, Regent House and faculty representatives. He says, “university democracy, for us, is not something that is negotiable or can be brushed aside.” The hunger strike, he says, is “about making the University Council see that we will not allow them to ignore that.”

Yet prospects, thus far, seem dim. A leaked copy of an earlier draft of the divestment working group report from which the Council will make its decision on Monday revealed the group recommended partial divestment. Just this week, the vice-chancellor was forced to substantiate his belief that climate change is “the fundamental, crucial claim of our generation” at the second of two open meetings he agreed to last term. His comments, Miell remarks, painted a “catch-22 situation in which Cambridge is simultaneously too small and too big to divest.

“We’re told that Cambridge is too big to divest because it has a larger endowment than other universities that divested. [Then] we bring up the fact that the City of London pension fund, the [Church of Ireland] fund et cetera have divested with vastly larger endowments than we do, and we’re told that Cambridge is too small to divest because its endowment fund is smaller than those, so we have less control over where the money goes.”


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Margolis adds, “There must be something ideological here, because there is no good reason for anyone looking at the evidence to say that divestment isn’t a good idea.”

Ahead of the decision on Monday, one question surges forward: If not now, then when?

Parts of the strikers are ebbing away. Miell notes, “I’m constantly distracted, and [have] no mental energy to focus on... anything, really.

“I think everyone knows the feeling of reading a page, realising they haven’t taken anything in, and having to read it again. It’s very consciously making the effort to focus on something, but it’s just impossible,” he says.

To hear them speak of themselves beginning to wither begs a question painfully unanswerable: how much more can they take? It was haunting, then, when Bhargava said about the University, “It’s important for them to note that this isn’t going to go away. It’s just the start.”

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