On Wednesday evening 12 students from Durham University People and Planet staged a die-in at a public presentation on ‘the role of oil and gas in the future’.
The event was hosted by the University, who had offered a platform to Olaf Martins, the Global Engagement Manager for the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (IOPG), whose members produce 40% of the world’s oil and gas. Dressed in black we marched into the lecture theatre and collapsed onto the floor. As Mr Martins tried to continue his talk, we lay on the ground, calling for the university to ‘THINK ABOUT YOUR LEGACY,’ and chanting ‘BULLSHIT, COME OFF IT, THE ENEMY IS PROFIT,’ until the talk was brought to a standstill. ‘FOSSIL FUELS HAVE GOT TO GO,’ we yelled.
We dressed in black, collapsed on the floor, and chanted
After a while, the audience left (they went to another room where I expect the talk continued). We had the chance to speak to the security guards who had been called in to bring us under control. ‘How do you guys feel about the issue? How do you feel about the fact that we are irreversibly destroying the planet for your children, your grandchildren?’ we asked.
‘This is our job,’ said one. They reminded us that it’s not in their job description to engage with these issues and their consequences. ‘We come to work to make money, to put food on the table for our families’. Another piped up. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I actually agree with you guys.’
Of course he does. We are all thinking beings. Most of us are aware that the way that we are living is unsustainable. The question is: how can we work together, within the limitations of the system, to build a sustainable future? As students, we are in a privileged position – we get a loan, we are given a few years in which we have some degree of separation from the realities of working life, and the compromises that must be made in order to survive. This is how I justify our actions. If the role of reminding everyone that there are problems with how things work falls on anyone, it falls to the students: we have the capacity, the time, the youthful energy. It is so important that we shout out and make a fuss.
Most of us are aware that the way that we are living is unsustainable
The ‘die-in’ provoked a great deal of rebuttal online. ‘Childish!’ cried the Facebook critics; one comment, later deleted, read: ‘They should have dragged these fascists out kicking and screaming’. Any old insult, pulled from the insult jar. Social media is changing the way that we relate to each other: it separates, dichotomises, and allows us to say things that most wouldn’t dare to say to someone’s face, until we’ve hurled enough nastiness at each other that we forget the humanity that we share. It’s a shame. This is a planet for all of us.
I want to write this honestly. Don’t get me wrong, I passionately believe that Durham University should divest from fossil fuels. Many other universities have, and it seems a straight-forward way to assert the importance of sustainability from a top-down position. But divestment is a symbolic act on the road to change. What really needs to change is the way that we all live our day-to-day lives.
I leave the water running and buy clothes unethically. I am a hypocrite
As a participant, the die-in on Wednesday actively challenged me. As I left my house this morning I thought, ‘Hang on, how can I kick and scream on the ground at someone doing their job, but leave on that light above the bathroom sink?’ I am a hypocrite. When doing the washing up, I often leave the water running for whole time. I buy clothes unethically. I have branded myself an environmentalist, but how much of the time am I really thinking about the effect that my actions are having on the environment? The answer is this: not enough.
My hope is that the discussion the die-in generated might serve as a reminder to people: to those who were present at the presentation, to the security guards who chivvied us out, to those who witnessed the action on social media, and to us as the participants. We need to change the way that we live.
Photograph: Jo Chandler