This Tuesday, the UvA and HvA concluded their Green Weeks period (21 April – 31 May) with a big final event, featuring a roundtable debate with representatives from the universities’ boards. Although roundtable debates can be quite a stuffy affair, this time it was different as multiple audience members, visibly emotional and enraged, expressed their disappointment with UvA’s passive approach to climate action policies. ‘Why is there not a mandatory course on climate change and ethics?’ asked one teacher. ‘Good question’ replied a board member.
The event, titled ‘Climate Change: Are we doing enough?’, started out peacefully, with a video showing some highlights of the Green Weeks. Feel good music accompanied a montage of enthusiastic speakers and students repairing torn jeans with pieces of cloth featuring our Planet Earth and the text ‘je moeder!’ (‘yo momma!’). This video was obviously meant to show how much was accomplished throughout the past few weeks. However, later on during a heated debate, many audience members contended that far too little was accomplished.
Before that debate, Talitha Muusse, the evening’s M.C. known for hosting the Dutch talkshow Op1, introduced two keynote speakers, weatherman Gerrit Hiemstra and NGO-ambassador Mary Bezabeh, who gave short and intriguing talks. Bezabeh spoke about her NGO, Justdiggit, which tries to re-green Africa. How? By digging ‘bunds: half circles that collect water. I like to call them earth smiles.’ These bunds lower the surface temperature and increase biodiversity, while also providing work for local communities. Hiemstra, who just arrived from a lunch with King Willem Alexander at his palace, spoke about what you can do to make a difference. His take-away message was short and snappy: ‘Just do it. Eat vegan, use no car or plane, lower your heating. It all matters.’
After those two speakers the atmosphere became more tense and less friendly. Muusse was joined by, among others, HvA board representative Hanneke Reuling and UvA Facility Services director Bert Zwiep, and the audience subjected them to a tough inquisition. One audience member even came prepared with a sheet of notes, trembling in his fist. The agitation began with questions about the UvA-HvA’s decision to avoid a meat-ban from its catering. ‘Banning meat top-down would be useless, because students, especially in the city centre, have many neighbouring options that do sell meat’, according to Zwiep. ‘So we would simply lose customers. We want to focus on raising awareness.’
This triggered an angry response from the crowd: ‘So you are focusing on keeping customers and profit, is that what you are saying? Because that is not the important issue here. UvA-HvA should take a stand, and ban meat altogether. It’s about principles’,said one audience member. Another added: ‘What raising awareness? I see very little and subtle signing in the restaurants, but that’s it. It’s not threatening and could be much, much bigger, if only the problem would be taken seriously.’ Zwiep replied that they are working with multiple pilot project and researchers to influence customers, change signing, and nudge them into sustainable buying.
But the audience wasn’t done grilling the board representatives. One person, who came prepared with notes, asked Zwiep: ‘The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) released its bleakest rapport yet this year, and concluded that humanity has a smaller and smaller window to take effective climate action in order to prevent a global irreversible tipping point. During talks with the UvA-HvA Food or Logistics suppliers, do you feel this pressure? Is it actively discussed?’ Zwiep’s response was short, and thunderstruck: ‘No, not really… but there are a lot of things that we already do!’ Then a student in the audience described a life-changing HvA course on the ethics of sustainability. ‘Why, if UvA-HvA is so proud of the impact of its knowledge, isn’t such a course made mandatory for all?’ Then Hanneke replied: ‘Good question. However, we also value that each individual degree has it’s specialization, and that might get lost then, a bit.’
After the panel was over, Zwiep hastily sprinted to the back of the stage, as two performers for the satirical news website ‘De Speld’ – the Dutch ‘The Onion’ – took the spotlight. They provided some much needed comic relief, which was a smart move from the programmer’s perspective. Some people, though, were not in for the comedy. They left the room early.