Jesus College student activists take on Big Livestock

9th Jun 21 by Guest Post: Harvey Brown (Jesus College Climate Justice Campaign)

The Jesus College Climate Justice Campaign on why we need holistic divestment, which looks beyond fossil fuels and includes Big Livestock.

Feedback is working across the UK and Ireland to mobilise students to take action against industrial livestock. Below, Harvey from the Climate Justice Campaign at Jesus College, Cambridge, outlines why universities must look beyond fossil fuel divestment when cleaning up their finances. If you are a student (or not!) and would like to get involved, you can find more information here and get in contact with our campaigner, Mia, here.

We thought it would be easy. When we started investigating our College’s current investments, we wanted to find out exactly how much we were investing in fossil fuels. Full divestment, we supposed, needed to confront the big-name extractors and polluters and challenge their social license to operate. What we realised early-on in the research process, however, was that fossil fuels are just the very large tip of a very large iceberg: conventional divestment simply wasn’t going to cut it.

We were shocked by what we found. Our new report Investing in Exploitation and Extinction: Why Climate Justice Demands That Jesus College Goes Beyond Divestment exposes the College’s £807,000 in the fossil fuel industry. It also finds, however, a minimum of £4.3 million in additional worst-offending exploiters and polluters, which would remain ignored by a traditional divestment announcement.

Through just one of the 22 funds in its portfolio, Jesus College is currently investing £37,482.51 in major dairy distributor, Mengniu Dairy Company. While this may seem insignificant in comparison to the £124,689.27 that it invests in Shell alone in another of its portfolio funds, the  ecological impact of this investment may be on par with the oil giant’s. Indeed, Big Livestock and fossil fuels are responsible for an equal share of our annual methane emissions. Methane is 28 times more powerful than CO2, meaning that its production through industrial animal agriculture, which often involves the twin process of deforestation and ecologically destructive monoculture, is accelerating our trajectory towards a 3-4℃ rise in global temperatures – in contrast to the IPCC’s recommendation that we must limit global heating to a maximum 1.5℃ rise. Methane levels are at the highest they have ever been – and they continue to rise. Greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture are now estimated by the UN to contribute at least 30% of total net anthropogenic emissions. The corporations  take no responsibility for their skyrocketing methane production. “Few of these companies are even reporting their emissions”, says Shefali Sharma, European director at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and author of a recent report which found that just 13 dairy firms were associated with emissions equal to those of the entire UK. In other words, responsible financial practices must involve moving away from financing industrial animal agriculture if they are to be ‘responsible’ at all.

Leaving aside the well-documented health consequences of our meat and dairy consumption, the industry threatens our future wellbeing.  As we begin to recover from the devastating effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, the bankrolling and legitimisation of industrial animal agriculture by institutions like Jesus College is increasing the likelihood of future pandemics. According to a recent white paper by Humane Society International (HSI), the industry’s corporate negligence is providing the perfect conditions for viruses to develop and spread. Expansion of farms (which often involves large-scale deforestation) brings wild and domestic species into contact with one another, potentially causing ‘viral spillover’. Novel viral strains are also created through cramming vast numbers of stressed animals in a tiny space. Around 75% of infectious diseases are now zoonotic (jump from animals to humans), according to the United Nations Environment Program. Should investors and consumers continue to finance Big Livestock, another global health crisis surely awaits.

An acre of rainforest is deforested every second, frequently for cattle grazing, with countless species displaced from their homes or even driven to extinction. Those who stand up to the corporations which continue to perpetrate this violence are ignored or silenced. More than 1,100 Indigenous activists, small farmers, judges, priests and other rural workers have been murdered in “land disputes” in the last two decades alone. This is an industry whose bottom line is built on violence. And yet it is an industry that remains ignored by most of the divestment announcements from Cambridge colleges and other institutional investors.

True, effective divestment will never be easy. As we found out when researching our report, the scope of the climate crisis is large, encompassing and intersecting with many other social injustices worldwide: from modern day slavery to the arms and mining industries. Looking back, it is easy to wonder whether we would have been better off remaining convinced that fossil fuels were the beginning and end of the climate breakdown. It is overwhelming to think how many other industries and systems of oppression need to be confronted before we can begin to comprehend what climate justice will look like.

That is not to say we should give up, however. We have an obligation to use our privilege to do everything we can. This means reframing the way we think about divestment. As our report proposes, we need to move away from passive public-equity investing, and start actively investing in real change, through impact bonds and other schemes which will actively utilise our financial capacity to have a positive social and ecological impact. This is a time-intensive, ethically treacherous process.

The changes we need to see in the way we invest will not happen overnight. But the first step towards actualising climate justice is simple: it’s time we knew our enemy. It’s not just fossil fuels. It’s exploitation: of people and of planet. It’s violence: landgrabs and the suppression of Indigenous resistance. It’s profiteering from environmental collapse. We know that, even now, we have much more learning to do, but that’s what ‘beyond divestment’ means: we are calling on Jesus College and other higher education institutions to learn with us, to explore just how embedded the climate crisis is in not only the way we invest, but also in the way we work, study, and eat.

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