We speak to Felipe and Sara, End Fossil activists in Barcelona who pushed their university to be the first in the world to enforce a mandatory climate course.
“Don’t be scared. Don’t think ‘what can I do against a university?’ There’s nothing to lose,” says Felipe Martinez, a student activist with End Fossil at the University of Barcelona. The institution has become the first university in the world to announce it will introduce a mandatory course on the climate crisis for all 14,000 of its undergraduate and postgraduate students, since End Fossil activists staged a seven day occupation of its grounds.
End Fossil is a global organisation inspired by the Penguin Revolution against the privatisation of the education system in Chile and Primavera Secundarista in Brazil for its occupations – a method at the heart of the group’s strategy which it deploys for instead of regular protests.
At the University of Barcelona, the End Fossil branch was created before the summer break, and real plans began to be put in place for its first occupation at the start of the new year in September. By November, a week-long occupation of the university grounds had already taken place and one of their key demands subsequently met by university management – to put together a compulsory climate course, which the university has committed to rolling out from 2024.
The course will take 50 hours of in person teaching per year, to be delivered by professors largely recommended by the activists themselves thanks to the strong negotiating position they found themselves in. The End Fossil group requested that the rector pay an external commissioner, and chose 60% of the teaching staff made up to take the course, comprising specialists in various areas of what they describes as the “eco-social crisis”.
Some may argue activists should try to discuss ways to meet their demands with the body before delving into such drastic action as an occupation. But Felipe told The Glasgow Guardian that the group only found itself in a powerful position from which to launch discussions with the university, which were successful, since they had no communication beforehand, and shocked it with their action: “It means you start from a point of pressure being put on the University and this gives you more legitimacy to pressure them.”
Whilst the course was a success, being the first of its kind at a global level, End Fossil’s demands to the University of Barcelona were not completely satisfied – it also wanted the institution to cut all funding ties from fossil fuel companies. The group will continue organising in the new year to follow this goal, going back to the End Fossil strategy of occupation.
Other universities across Spain also have End Fossil groups, with students in Madrid launching an occupation on the same day as those in Spain’s next biggest city, Barcelona. However, things proved tougher in the capital, and the students were not able to enter into their campus, instead staging an occupation outside. Whilst the occupation in Madrid, as well as ones at universities in Galicia and Asturias in the north of Spain have achieved small steps in making their learning spaces more ecological, none have managed to achieve one of the concrete demands, decided at a national level between branches, as the University of Barcelona has done with its climate course.
Catalonia, the region of which Barcelona is capital and in which there is a large separatist movement to be independent from Spain, is generally seen as more left wing than the rest of the country, so I asked Felipe whether he felt this may have made the University more likely to be receptive to topics such as climate justice, to which he replied: “It is true that there is a greater tradition of protest and social movements in Catalonia, but this is not to say that in other parts of spain there is not also a consciousness of these issues.”
On the experience itself of spending seven days in the university, Felipe told The Glasgow Guardian: “It was a really enriching experience, at least for me. We were split into groups, each of which was in charge of working on a certain area – study documents, others prepared food and maintained the camp. Then there were also more chill spaces to do yoga and talks with experts to learn more, and music sessions. It was a full on and intense week.”
On advice for other students who would consider staging an occupation, besides practical advice like making sure you have someone outside the occupation who can deliver enough food to sustain your group, Sara gave The Glasgow Guardian her top tip: “Don’t believe everything the university tells you. They will tell you things aren’t possible, but there are always ways.” She gave an example: initially when negotiations began, the University of Barcelona tried to say it already offered a course related to the climate crisis, which was about sustainable development, and which in reality very few students enrolled in: “Although they are public bodies, they have their own interests so they don’t want to organise things which are going to be complicated for them.”
Sara continued on the importance of informing yourself of the behaviour of your own university: “Universities like to portray to society that they are doing things, and place the topic of environmentalism in their values, but in reality we can see many contradictions in our own universities – in the companies they take money from who pollute so much emissions, damage forests and violate the rights of indigenous communities – this is directly inside our own universities. This does not fit with the model the university claims it wants to follow “.
On the question of advice, Felipe added in the value of finding professors who are on the side of student activists, which the Barcelona activists say helped them be able to hold meetings more effectively with University management.
With regard to further occupation, Sara says the group is watching how the University is making progress on the agreements already made: “whether it is genuinely taking us seriously or just trying to make a mess of it.”
The University of Glasgow became the first university in Europe to announce a commitment to divest from fossil fuels in 2014, which it said at the time would involve a divestment of £18 million over a ten year period. The Glasgow Guardian learned via Freedom of Information Request (FOI) one year ago that the University of Glasgow’s management Investment Advisory Committee recommended that it reinvest due to financial concern, but management rejected the idea due to student pressure. This recommendation was made despite a consolidated surplus after tax being made by the University in that year of £161,978.