By Cameron McIntosh
“Durham University, think about your legacy” were the forceful words chanted by a dozen protesters from Durham’s People and Planet society, as they executed a ‘die in’ to protest the University’s association with the oil and gas industry.
A video published by Palatinate showed the group of environmental campaigners strewn across the floor of a lecture theatre, faces obscured by masks, disrupting a guest lecture on “The Role of Oil and Gas Tomorrow”. Following mixed reaction to the demonstration on social media, Palatinate takes a closer look at the issue.
A statement from the society in the immediate aftermath of the event, which took place on Wednesday 24th January, made their motivations clear: “The response we received from the host at tonight’s lecture was patronising and disappointing. To suggest that we should ‘be quiet’ and ‘listen to the debate’ entirely misses the point of our demonstration.
“The time for debating is over. We cannot continue to drill for oil and gas whilst keeping the planet below the crucial 2oC threshold.
“We are really pleased at the disruption we caused. We want to attend a University that is paving the way for a sustainable future rather than hosting drinks receptions for oil and gas lobbyists on our campus.”
People and Planet is a student campaigning organisation that boasts over 50 branches on university campuses nationwide. According to their website, they are the “largest student network in Britain campaigning to end world poverty, defend human rights and protect the environment.”
Durham University currently has £1.5 million invested in fossil fuel companies and the lecture in question was being given by Olaf Martins, who has 30 years experience in the industry. Moreover, the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (IOGP), for which Mr Martins is the Global Engagement Manager, are responsible for 40% of global oil and gas production.
Before the arrival of the protestors approximately 20 minutes into the lecture, Mr Martins told his audience “we need oil and gas for decades to come” and further claimed that change will take time because “the energy market is not the internet”. Although he spoke of the growth of new, “more colourful”, forms of energy, his major contention was that fossil fuels will be necessary for many years.
We are very aware that what they are doing is contradicting their own research and we want them to know that students are not okay with it
Speaking to Palatinate after the execution of the ‘die-in’, a Durham resident and self-described ‘climate change campaigner’, Susan Wesley, said: “It’s all nonsense what [Mr Martins is] spouting, it’s all about profit. We’re trying to get them to stop drilling it.” During the protests, Ms Wesley spoke passionately of the existential threat posed by climate change and addressing Mr Martins directly, she asserted “people come before profit”.
For anybody with a stake in academia, this is troubling
A fourth year student from St Cuth’s, Pj Cameron, responsible for helping to organise the protests, explained the group’s actions as an attempt to make the University listen to their concerns and to challenge them for “perpetuating the myth that oil and gas has a role in our future, when it shouldn’t.”
She continued: “The point of a University is to be at the forefront of social change and the future, and they are actively promoting something archaic.” Another protester, who wishes to remain anonymous, cited the rising costs of college accommodation fees and added “it’s our money, it’s student’s money [being used to invest in fossil fuels]”.
After video footage of the demonstration emerged online, the protestors received criticism from fellow students for their behaviour. Nathan Cinnamond, a second year Durham student, questioned the purpose and form of the protest. He told Palatinate: “It was such a compelling argument that the only way to express it was to lie on the floor and screech like a drove of pigs off to slaughter.”
Why did those partaking in this moral and courageous act of dissidence not wait until the conclusion of the lecture to ask questions?
He continued: “For anybody with a stake in academia, this is troubling. I did not attend the talk, and I have no greater knowledge of what was being discussed than most people reading this. But the point is that I don’t have to. I don’t have to understand nor presume the next words you say, publicly or privately, to defend your right to say them. Indeed, the protestors share this right, and if the lecturer was inclined he could have protested their protest. That he didn’t do this is what makes him better than them.
“Why did those partaking in this moral and courageous act of dissidence not wait until the conclusion of the lecture to ask questions? I hope the answer is obvious. The litmus test for a feeble argument is the way it is presented: dirty and cheap tactics often indicate a last resort. But I also hold it to be true that some of the brave protesters believe genuinely that their hashtags and unwavering subscription to the Guardian trumps the Durham Energy Institute’s years of research into energy provision. Expect things to get a lot worse.”
Many others commented on the video to express their opinions. Robbie Travers, who yesterday spoke at the Durham Union, said jokingly: “Fossil fuels, oil and gas defeated by brave souls stamping on the floor like tantruming spoilt brats.” Meanwhile, Freya Palmer commented: “Did they shut down the talk? – Yes. Did they achieve high levels of social media engagement across campus? – Yes. I’d describe the stunt as successful rather than childish.”
A spokesperson for Durham People and Planet told Palatinate: “As an organisation we don’t think it’s acceptable for the University to promote activities that are destructive, unsustainable and not in keeping with the vast majority of global research suggesting the continuation of burning fossil fuels will be catastrophic.
“We want the University to know that we are listening and watching. We are very aware that what they are doing is contradicting their own research and we want them to know that students are not okay with it.”
We don’t think it’s acceptable for the University to promote activities that are destructive, unsustainable and not in keeping with the vast majority of global research
Professor Stuart Corbridge, Vice-Chancellor of Durham University, said: “Durham University is committed to freedom of expression within the law and encourages free expression and debate amongst our staff, students and visitors. This reflects our core values as a university.
“We recognise the right to protest. However, action that prevents the free exchange of ideas is unacceptable. We will be investigating the circumstances that led to the Durham Energy Institute debate being closed early, with urgency.”
The video published by Palatinate on the day of the event can be found here.
Photographs: Cameron McIntosh