Credit: Direct Action for Divestment
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St John’s Occupation, one year on: college have “failed to keep their promises”, campaign says

One year on from the pitching of tents on the front quad of St John’s College, the group behind the occupation, which called on the College to remove its investments from fossil fuel companies, have argued that “St John’s have failed to keep the promises they made.”

In recognition of the one-year milestone, Direct Action for Divestment (DAD Oxford) have sent an email to St John’s President, Professor Maggie Snowling, and the College’s Finance Bursar, in which they request an update on the progress of the College’s divestment plans.

In the email, seen by The Oxford Blue, and published on the DAD Oxford Facebook page, students acknowledge that the College “agreed to increase student representation on the Ethical Investments Working Group,” as well as “to cease inviting BP and Shell employees to advise on College investment practice.”

In a report to the Governing Body dated 16th June 2020, the Ethical Investments Working Group noted that “A discussion with representatives from Shell was postponed at the firm’s request.” However, in the report’s conclusion, it states that “It is hoped that a direct discussion with Shell can be arranged, in particular to test the Oxford Martin Principles for climate-conscious investment with Shell.” It is unclear whether these discussions have since taken place.

In an extended comment given to The Blue, DAD said: “When we left our occupation, we took with us the promise that the St John’s investment working group would make a recommendation to Governing Body regarding divestment at the end of the academic year. The College has still not divested. Neither have there been any positive steps towards ethical investment of any kind, as far as we are aware from public information – though we hope to be proved wrong on this.”

“In the past year, other Colleges have moved towards divestment and ESG [Environmental, Social and Governance, i.e., ethical/sustainable investment] funds, and – even more historically – Oxford University’s Congregation voted in favour of a divestment and engagement process for their endowment. We are baffled as to why St John’s is apparently falling behind.”

Whilst acknowledging that “the pandemic is slowing everyone down,” the group urged: “St John’s needs to commit time and effort to severing their ties with the fossil fuel industry: an industry that has irrevocably damaged the Earth, and that has exhibited irredeemably criminal disregard for human rights, and for the lands and local communities that it exploits. And St John’s needs to commit that time and effort now.”

The email marks the first anniversary since a group of students brought a four-metre-long model of ‘RSS Sir David Attenborough’ onto the lawn of St John’s, and occupied the front quad for five days, sleeping in tents and relying on food donations brought in from members of the College and the wider University.

During the occupation, the group were engaged in discussions regarding divestment and climate justice with St John’s students and staff, and were even cheered on from students outside the college on Magdalen Street, who were banned from entering College grounds.

The direct action was taken to highlight the investments which St John’s, Oxford’s wealthiest college, has in fossil fuel companies, with direct investments of £3.5m and £4.6m in the oil giants BP and Shell, who are among the top ten most carbon-dioxide emitting companies in history.

DAD told The Blue that they have “already received a brief reply from President Snowling, reassuring us that divestment is still on the agenda. Over the course of our renewed conversation, we hope to hear more specifically what steps the College has already taken, and what firm plans they have lined up. And we intend to see this conversation through to its conclusion.”

Professor Snowling has been contact for comment on the issues raised in the DAD email.

Image credit: Direct Action for Divestment

Max (he/him) was formerly Environment News Editor and Climate Columnist at The Blue. He is in his final year studying History and Politics at Balliol.