Writing: Paula Lacey
Illustration: Hazel Laing
People and Planet began as the then-named “Third World First” in 1969, by students involved in Oxfam, raising money for overseas projects. Students would pledge 1% of their student grants as a form of self-imposed tax, a groundbreaking fundraising method at the time. They democratically renamed themselves People and Planet in 1998, in order to reflect that whilst most charities at the time were focusing on poverty alone, social, political and environmental issues were not separate and must be tackled as one.
Over the last 30 years, the organisation has been at the forefront of student campaigning on various political issues, including pressuring the USS pension fund to invest responsibly in 1999, helping to secure the UK government's commitment to the world's first climate change act in 2006, pressuring the government to provide universal and equal AIDS treatment, and even taking the UK government to court over their carbon-intensive investments in 2009. Currently, the organisation runs three main campaigns; Fossil Free, pressuring for divestment and responsible investment; Undoing Borders, a migrant rights campaign; and Sweatshop Free, which urges universities to commit to ethical supply chains.
People and Planet has a long and turbulent history here at Edinburgh University, most notably the five-year divestment campaign that came to a triumphant close this February. Student campaigners began pressuring the University to withdraw its endowment fund investments from the fossil fuel industry in 2011, when the vast majority of UK universities hadn’t even begun to consider divestment as an option - let alone an ethical imperative.
The first wave of this campaign culminated in a ten- day occupation of Old College courtyard in May 2016, an effort that received worldwide support from the likes of author and activist Naomi Klein and climate change economist Graciela Chichilnisky. And, despite insisting that the decision had nothing to do with student pressure, the University pledged to divest from coal and tar sands within a week of the occupation coming to a close. Whilst this was a huge victory at the time, but it was by no means a complete one, with over £6 million still invested in oil and gas.
I joined People and Planet in my Fresher’s Week last year, in the midst of efforts to revive the campaign for full divestment and responsible reinvestment. I had absolutely no experience in any form of activism, other than occasionally sharing petitions half heartedly on Facebook. Within weeks I was totally swept up in campaign planning, meetings with university management, and a community of expertise and enthusiasm unlike anything I had ever been a part of before. We aimed to get the University to publically commit to full divestment, and for transparent and accessible information on the university’s investments to be made readily available online for students to access.
Through undertaking research into the university’s investments, I quickly became aware of the sheer monetary power this institution wields. With its nearly £400 million endowment fund, I began to understand the magnitude of the statement that would be made if the university stopped financially condoning the destruction of our planet. The meetings with the University management were long and tiring, with representatives skirting around the question by citing empty promises, that Edinburgh was a “green” university, devoted to reaching “Zero Carbon by 2040”.
But, we persisted, and in February this year the University publicly announced its commitment to withdraw all direct investments in the fossil fuel industry. During our celebrating, we had to work hard to make sure that the influence of student campaigners in bringing about this decision wasn’t erased, a frustrating habit Edinburgh seems to have acquired. And although the circumstances of divestment weren’t perfect, being involved in the campaign was the absolute highlight of my first year.
Despite appearances, this is not an advert for People and Planet (although if you would like to find out more about us in particular, we’re on Facebook), but rather a call for you to consider how you integrate your political opinions into your actual life, and whether there could be space for more. Many students have strong political leanings, but bridging the gap between opinions and actions can be tough. This becomes particularly challenging when trying to balance university, a social life, and good mental health - often being politically active is an extracurricular that takes a backseat. Now, I don’t think you should sacrifice anything important in order to take action, much less put your mental health at risk for the sake of a cause, but it’s possible to weave activism into your life in so many constructive and positive ways. Joining a group with a long term organising goal, canvassing for an upcoming political event, attending fundraising events, or even starting your own campaign to fill a need in your community are various ways of getting involved in politics in the real world, with varying levels of time and workload commitments.
And there are so, so many reasons why you should make time to get involved in activism.
There’s the obvious: that you’re actualising your political convictions, standing up for something you believe in, and you’ll hopefully make changes and be a part of a movement that you will look back on with pride for the rest of your life. On top of this, being in activist circles means rubbing shoulders with more experienced activists, which opens you up to incredible learning opportunities. Campaigning alongside such passionate and well informed people has arguably taught me more than university has, and I’ve learnt so much about event organising, engaging with people that disagree with you, and how to think critically and independently. And lastly, activism means becoming a part of something, of a community of dedicated, inspiring and like-minded people, in which I’ve found some of my best and kindest friends. In such a volatile political climate, grassroots movements need support more than ever to keep the vulnerable safe, and getting involved to make that possible might just be one of the most rewarding things you’ll do at university.