[Column] Fossil ties

TU Delft should be pleased when students are critical and socially aware rather than regret it when they take action, argues Bob van Vliet.

Bob van Vliet: “Comparing everyone with the same yardstick also depoliticizes the whole thing.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

Earlier this month, TU Delft held a ‘deliberation’ on the question of whether we should cut the ties between researchers and the fossil fuel industry. The meeting was not supposed to be called a ‘debate’ – not even a ‘discussion’. Nevertheless, the conversation was structured around a set of rather simplistic statements, which made the discussion less nuanced than it could have been. And where it would have been useful to word things explicitly, this was not done. For instance, the topic was mostly discussed in terms of the woolly phrase ‘collaborating with’ instead of focusing on the more concrete – and much less defensible – ‘funding by’.

That said, the room was packed and the tone was more critical than I had expected. Awesome. But what really amazed me was the way in which large companies were talked about.

For example, Sustainability Coordinator Andy van den Dobbelsteen said, paraphrasing Margaret Thatcher: “Companies don’t exist. They’re groups of people.” As if economic structures and financial interests are totally irrelevant. Another panel member described her pleasant working relationship with someone at Halliburton and confessed that she found it hard to think about that company as a whole.

Others did refer to companies as a whole, but in a way that I think is very naive. The Shells of the world were discussed as though they were humans themselves – people with a conscience, the capacity to regret, and the ability to show self-sacrificing behaviour. One panel member kept insisting how mean it would be to not help someone who feels sorry for what they have done and genuinely wants to turn their life around.

‘As though those naive kids should just leave it to the adults now’

But a publicly traded company is not a person. Its interests are the interests of its shareholders: profit and growth. And however well-intentioned and capable the people who work there are, they can never do anything that would jeopardise those interests. As long as we make research into a sustainable future dependent on collaboration with the very parties who have an interest in continuing to pump and burn for as long as possible, and as long as we as engineers do not even name – let alone question – the economic system that rewards this destruction, we may be closer to holding back the change that is needed than moving it forward.

At the very least it is hard to maintain that you are independently serving the public interest if you limit your work to what is compatible with the interests of Shell et al.

TU Delft has not announced any further steps or activities after this event. Our management calls it ‘regrettable’ that End Fossil Occupy is therefore planning an occupation. After all, they are always willing to ‘listen’ and ‘open to dialogue’. I find that a bit paternalistic. As though those naive kids should just leave it to the adults now.

I am glad that End Fossil Occupy is keeping up the pressure. In fact, I think that as a university you should welcome it when students take action. If you want to educate critical, socially aware engineers, you should not start complaining the minute that critical awareness leads to a bit of friction.

Bob van Vliet is a lecturer at the 3mE Faculty and is specialised in design education. Reactions are welcome via B.vanVliet@tudelft.nl.

Bob van Vliet / Columnist

Columnist Bob van Vliet

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