“Our social ties to people on the receiving ends of ‘research’ are just as real as any investment, except they are ties the university deems acceptable to cut”Hugh Llewelyn / Flickr

Back in October 2020, Cambridge University announced a plan to divest from fossil fuels, with the aim of reaching ‘net zero’ by 2038. The University cited a ‘pressing environmental and moral need for action’. Despite the fine words, however, the University’s proposals ultimately fail to extend beyond reshuffling investments. ‘Energy-sector partnerships’ with the same companies remain. We’ve accepted nearly £15 million from oil companies alone since 2017. Beyond this, the University’s investments are deeply tied to a broad range of inhumane industries. Last year, a report by Action on Armed Violence revealed that the university had accepted £20 million from weapons manufacturers since 2013. These links are more than research funding; they manifest in named professorships, conferences, specialised buildings, even the leasing of land to the very corporations producing technology used ‘to squeeze every last drop of efficiency’ from the Earth’s oil wells.

Even in the face of accelerating climate breakdown, comprehensively cutting ties with these corporations is considered a step too far. Why is this? A university with consolidated assets of nearly £12 billion (around 120 times that of the average UK university) can’t suggest it needs external funding for sustainable research. Regardless, a corporation responsible for leaking 205.8 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico is hardly a safe pair of hands to handle the energy transition.

“Our social ties to people on the receiving ends of ‘research’ are just as real as any investment, except they are ties the university deems acceptable to cut”

Cutting ties with ecocidal corporations is viewed as a radical proposition because they themselves are perceived to have mastered the art of cutting ties. Marketing is essentially storytelling and the power of the storyteller is to reduce the world into a narrative, privileging certain perspectives and ignoring others. In our discussion of cutting ties, we often internalise this carefully-created narrative, as a Varsity opinion piece from earlier this year demonstrates: ‘Is [research funding] really worth sacrificing’, its author asks, ‘for the abstract idea of giving these companies a social licence?’

Cutting ties, according to this narrative, is about the relationship between university and fossil fuel companies, student activists and STEM students and an ecosystem of Cambridge-based actors. Broader concepts of ‘social license’ or responsibility are consequently deemed ‘abstract’, irrelevant to the numbers-game we’re playing.

In focusing on the benefits of the university’s research ties to BAE Systems, for instance, we forget the university’s ties to those people on the receiving end of this ‘research’. People in schools, working in Red Cross hospitals, attending the wedding of a loved one, all killed by BAE-branded bombs. Our social ties to these people are just as real as any investment ties, except they are ties the university deems acceptable to cut, leaving us with direct responsibility for enabling the destruction of human life.

“That collaborating with these corporations is seen as a morally-conscionable position is testament to how thoroughly we have cut ties with the global majority”

We cut our ties with the Palestinians in occupied Gaza whose lives are torn apart by Boeing-built small-diameter bombs, families in East Jerusalem whose homes are demolished by Caterpillar bulldozers. With entire communities in the Niger Delta living with water and soil poisoned by Shell. With communities who will continue to be the unspoken ‘cost’ of expansion of fracking and other cataclysmic extractivist projects worldwide as the climate commitments of nation states ring increasingly hollow.

The fact that continuing to collaborate with these corporations is seen as a morally-conscionable position is testament to how thoroughly we have cut ties with the global majority.

Commendably, the university has committed to cutting ties with the Russian Federation in the wake of their invasion of Ukraine, but we must ask ourselves why this solidarity has not been extended to other peoples — predominantly people of colour — in war-torn countries and disaster-zones worldwide, those whose suffering continues to be facilitated by BP, Boeing and the other imperial projects we call ‘partners’.

When we say ‘Demilitarise Cambridge’ or ‘Schlumberger Out’, therefore, we’re not just talking about ending our ties with massive corporations, we’re talking about remembering the ties we have to one another. If climate breakdown shows us anything, it’s that we’re all connected by capitalism’s global ecology. The research conducted in a hideous tent-building in West Cambridge can facilitate the poisoning of communities thousands of miles away, making millions for its executives, and all-the-while accelerating the collapse of global life-support systems. This is why I’m so encouraged by the Schlumberger Out! Campaign, because it’s not only demanding that the university ends its relationship with a corporation responsible for inestimable global harm, it’s urging the university and Schlumberger to repair that harm. To simply cut ties would be to continue ignoring the global majority who have suffered for our endowment and reputation.


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Changing this narrative means realising that the tragedy of all this is as much in what isn’t happening as what is. The transformative research being prevented by corporate interests, the land which is being gatekept from the community, the way a relationship which could be based on reparation and international solidarity instead remains a relationship of neocolonial violence.

None of this is ‘abstract’ in the least — the possibilities which come with cutting ties are almost endless. A climate emergency centre in a building which once housed an oil company. Research directed by scientists not corporations. Reparations directed by frontline communities. Education through grassroots international collaboration. These are the ties which really bind, and no amount of gaslighting from our marketised education system should make us forget them.