“As often seems to be the case, the last defenders of the status quo are the bureaucrats, and so it is here”Louis Ashworth

On 6th November 2015, Cambridge Zero Carbon Society staged their first action, dropping sloganeer bedsheets from Clare and King’s bridges. The demonstration didn’t last long; the activists quickly acquiescing to a slightly peeved porter. On Monday morning, nearly three years later, Zero Carbon led 200 students on a march through the streets of Cambridge, a mass of righteous anger demanding that the University divest immediately from fossil fuels.

Their wish was not to be fulfilled. In something of an anti-climax, the University Council failed to make its expected decision, announcing that it would meet again later in the month. The divestment working group report was an anticipated disappointment to climate activists in Cambridge, essentially providing an in-depth account of partial divestment documented in an leaked earlier draft of the report.

But it is important to acknowledge this as the victory it is. The working group report paints a picture of a University seriously engaged with the issue of man-made climate change, with an eclectic approach to reform including: long-term commitments to carbon neutrality; previously promised divestment from thermal coal and tar sands; a new drive behind academic work on climate change, including the establishment of a centre for a carbon neutral future; a suggestion that 10% of indirect investments go to ‘positive investment’ funds; and increased transparency on behalf of the University Investment Office.

Tempting as it is for the activists to make Toope a bogeyman, we should acknowledge that he isn’t the main problem

This is a quantum leap from the first working group report, which promised little more than a ‘blacklist’ on investments in coal and tar sands. When that report was released, Zero Carbon was still in its infancy, determine to escalate climate activism beyond what had previously been a conciliatory approach.

While the activists who came before Zero Carbon undoubtedly laid the groundwork for Monday’s report – I remember many of the working group’s proposals being discussed in 2015 by Positive Investment Cambridge – Monday’s result is proof of the power of Zero Carbon’s vocal, vibrant, democratic campaign style. While their publicity stunts, which sometimes resemble an avant-garde theatre troupe more than a political campaign, might cause some eyes to roll, they have succeeded in creating a powerful public discussion around the University’s complicity in the climate crisis.

Confronting the University publicly, rather than attempting to persuade them on their own terms, has forced it to take this first step toward embracing its social responsibilities. Yet there is still work to be done. We don’t know how much of this report the University Council will ratify, but the fact that full divestment is not suggested indicates that it is – at least for now – off the table (what that means for the three students on hunger strike, I cannot say).

This opacity allows the University to claim that There Is No Alternative

Against the authority of Regent House, the University’s official governing body, Cambridge has once again wriggled out of a commitment to full divestment. And yet it is hard to explain why or how because the power structure at the University is so diffuse and the rationales given by University spokespeople so opaque.

Tempting as it is for the activists to make Vice-Chancellor Toope a bogeyman, we should acknowledge that he isn’t the main problem. A cursory glance at Stephen Toope’s record indicates that he is sincere and well-meaning in his desire to combat climate change, and his open meetings are a refreshing splash of democracy. Power at Cambridge does not lie with a presidential vice-chancellor or with the academic community at large. It lies instead, so it would appear, with the money.

As often seems to be the case, the last defenders of the status quo are the bureaucrats, and so it is here. Every time the University is forced to defend its investments we are assured that the issue is complicated, yet nowhere are these complexities fully explained. At his open meeting with students last week, Stephen Toope indicated that the University’s investment portfolio was in some way unique; too small to divest fully without losing its privileged status.


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The student and academic body demand divestment and our University, offering its good intentions and public spirit, parrots the line of the accountants. We are told that divestment is impossible or impractical for the University. We are told that our investments are too complex for such a black and white decision.

This opacity allows the University to claim that There Is No Alternative, that fiduciary responsibility is always unquestionable. But there is always an alternative, even if it sacrifices the Universities high return on investment. Perhaps this sacrifice would not be worth it to many. But if students and academics are deprived of the opportunity – or the information necessary – to make that value judgement, then the supposed democratic spirit of the University is rendered meaningless.

Hannah Arendt said that if tyranny is defined as power without accountability, then bureaucracy is the most pernicious tyranny of all. Bureaucracy is the rule of rules, which is to say the rule of nobody. This is why Zero Carbon’s theatrics are significant. Their loud, public activism forces a fundamentally bureaucratic institution to explain itself, and in doing so brings onto the horizon the possibility of a truly democratic University.

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