Text Felix Landsman
Some eighty people attended a meeting in the Omnia dialogue centre to discuss WUR’s collaboration with the fossil industry. WUR president Sjoukje Heimovaara listened and responded. ‘This half-hearted meeting was precisely what anti-Shell students did not want, but may be all they can have at this time’, says student editor Felix Landsman.
Several Dutch universities and institutes have announced their intention to sever their ties with the fossil industry. WUR is not among them. In response, the Scientists4Future group submitted a letter to the board, requesting that all research funding by fossil businesses be stopped.
This resulted in a meeting entitled ‘Let’s Explore: Collaboration with… The Fossil Fuel industry’. Corporate Director of Communication & Marketing Inge Wallage facilitated the afternoon and was organised along the Soft Shoe Shuffle approach. This is an approach where everyone moves somewhat uneasily through the room and physically sides with the person with whose opinion they agree. An interesting concept.
The die was instantly cast when Wallage, in an effort to get a sense of the crowd, asked who was associated with Extinction Rebellion, a major player in the discussion. This question caused friction; a relatively large group complained about negative framing and polarisation since the “climate activist” label can easily cause people to be taken less seriously or even be criminalised. Many solid arguments were brought to the floor, and there was a reasonable amount of shuffling. The activist group, however, continued to put forward collective positions, accompanied by gestures of agreement and rounds of applause. Some participants felt intimidated, as was later mentioned.
This type of discussion is not what we need and is ultimately a smoke screen to distract us
So, what arguments were put forward? The anti-Shell side argued that Shell has no future. ‘It is as if you were to collaborate with Goldman Sachs in 2006’. Moreover, corporates are not to be trusted since ‘everything they do is done for profit’ and ‘sustainability is no more than a bandwagon on which businesses can jump’. Furthermore, ‘as long as we continue to collaborate with them, we lock ourselves within their framework’, and ‘collaboration is contributing to greenwashing’.
On the other side, there was a nuanced approach to the fossil industry, arguing that collaboration enables us to ‘influence Shell’s agenda’ and ‘steer them in the right direction’. Moreover, ‘companies such as Shell have the means to achieve the energy transition’, and ‘humanity can use all the innovation power it can get’.
The discussion, which kept moving in a circle, was finally torn open by a single person standing alone on the far side of the room, who made a point that caused almost the entire audience to run towards him. ‘This type of discussion is not what we need, and is ultimately a smoke screen to distract us’. Grunts of agreement and dissatisfaction followed.
Shortly thereafter, WUR president Sjoukje Heimovaara addressed the audience with a slightly too obvious media-trained attitude as the dissatisfaction reached its peak.
The meeting remained at the level of “Explore” and never made it to the “Decide” stage. In many ways, this half-hearted gathering was not what the anti-Shell student wanted, but perhaps all they could get for now. Two more similar meetings on this issue are planned for April and May (dates to be announced shortly on the Intranet/agenda). To be continued…