Roseanne Steffen from Transform Sussex writes to celebrate the research and activism on climate justice that has emerged at the University of Sussex.

On the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day, we should celebrate the incredible work of activists and academics at the University of Sussex who are showing what a just response to the double crises of a global pandemic and climate breakdown would look like.

Who invented Earth Day?

Many have laid claims to the invention of Earth Day, but the strongest one is Democrat Senator Gaylord Nelson. He came up with the idea in 1969 originally calling it the ‘national environmental teach in’, and drew inspiration from the series of ‘teach- ins’ held on United States college campuses by Vietnam War protesters. He imagined the day as a time for  people to learn about the environmental issues, and to demonstrate to politicians how much public support there was for protecting the environment. However, since then, it has been massively greenwashed and taken over by the advertisement industry, with companies using it to sell everything from phones to trainers. On the eve of the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day, it is high time we as students reclaim it, and use it to highlight Sussex activists and academics whose work can help us look for alternative ways of living and organising our massively unequal socio-economic system.

Archival pursuits: past student activism at Sussex

Inspired by  Sussex ‘teach-in’s, which took place during the industrial action by the University and College Union (UCU), we at Transform Sussex decided to host an online book club, digging into the history of powerful student activism at the University (see Transform Sussex page for upcoming ones). We discovered stories of massive, successful rent strikes against unsustainable housing developments, assessment boycotts to decolonise and democratise the curriculum, and huge Sussex Assemblies with over 400 students and staff present discussing issues in the workplace, and how to improve the University to benefit everyone. Despite drawbacks, we as students and staff have massively benefitted from these campaigns and actions, and must respond to current magnified pressures with equal resourcefulness, organisation and creativity.

Today, we are here to appreciate the contemporary climate research and activism occurring, that often unknowingly, builds on a past tradition of radical and visionary change-making at the University.

From Airports to PC’s: Sussex students face up big polluters!

Sussex students have gained national recognition in their opposition to shady, big polluter industries and the unjust socio-economic system within which they freely operate. In 2017, a group of students formed  the student society the Climate Action Movement as a place to discuss effective and creative ways to combat climate change. From here, student’s launched a campaign, together with tiny legal charity Plan B Earth and other NGOs, to block the expansion of Heathrow Airport –  and they won! They developed the argument used in the Royal Courts of Justice, that this expansion was incompatible with the target of limiting warming to  1.5 degrees, as set out in the Paris Agreement. According to Paris Palmano, a student involved (and the incoming officer for Student Wellbeing at the  SU!) : ‘W???’? ???? ???? ????????, ?? ???? ???? ??? ??? ??? ? ????????? empowering  ????????? ????? ?????? ??????? ??? ?????????? ??????? ???? ?????’? ???????? ??? ????? ????????? ??? ??????? ??? ????? ?? ? ???????? ??????’.

Other students set up the Sweatshop Free campaign in 2018 as part of a national student network  organising for environmental and migrant justice, People and Planet. They spent months raising awareness of the dire conditions faced by workers in mostly global South based electronics factories. The campaign hit home by highlighting that these are the workers who make the PC’s we use in our library and demanding transparency in the supply chains. They have also celebrated a brilliant win this February, after two years of lobbying, to sign the University up to Electronics Watch, a worker led monitoring organisation aimed at improving working conditions in the global electronics industry. These are just two of many campaigns on campus from the Food Waste Cafe to community garden society Roots that show the power of student organising in a higher education setting.

Research with real world implications for climate justice

Through organising with the Youth Strikes in Brighton I’ve had the pleasure of meeting inspiring academics such as Vinita Damodaran from the Environmental History department. She has amongst many other things, produced hard-hitting research that looks critically at the Sustainable Development Goals to ensure that projects to achieve them by the United Nations do not end up perpetuating environmental justice conflicts, and actually benefit the local communities they’re meant to provide assistance for. In global studies, International Relations professor Peter Newell has conducted an internationally- recognised project to develop a ‘Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty’, modelled on the historic 1968 ‘Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons’. This was presented recently at the United Nations Security Council by the Irish Prime Minister and aims to pressure countries to opt out of extracting more fossil fuels in order to keep the 1.5 C globally agreed climate target, something that has become even more significant now that the annual climate conference COP has been postponed to 2021.

A climate emergency declaration fulfilled?

On the 1st August 2019, the University of Sussex followed hundreds of other institutions in declaring a climate emergency. Students, academics and unions need to work strongly together to ensure that these are not just empty words. Similarly, Earth Day cannot be left as the one day when environmental issues are discussed. This is, and has been, a long-term struggle. We need to have a Student Union capable of amplifying the work of students engaged in these important issues, that is properly supported and funded by senior management. The University of Sussex must live up to its founding principles and guarantee secure staff contracts so globally transformative research and action can continue to take place. 

The strong tradition of activism at Sussex gives me hope that we can continue to effect change at Sussex and beyond. WE are not the virus, the socio economic capitalist system within which we live is parasitic, and it has never been more vital to reclaim Earth Day and progressive student activism at Sussex.

Recommended Earth Day reading 

Student Radicals: an incomplete history of protest at the University of Sussex

Earth Day: The roots of our current environmental crisis go back 12,000 years

Arundhati Roy: ‘The pandemic is a portal’

Illustration by Aidan Jesra-Evans

[Image description : Colourful drawing representing climate justice. Showing a globe surrounded by environmental threats- wild fire, planes and rising sea levels. However, red figures represent strength in solidarity principles.]

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