Divestment: the Symbol of a Jesuan Identity in Protest

Isaac Castella McDonald 13 October 2020

On the 12th of October 2020, the Jesus Climate Action Campaign group filled the college’s First Court to protest for two clear demands:

– Complete divestment from harmful industries by 2022
– Net zero emissions by 2030

The Campaign protests against the slowness of the action the university announced last week, when it agreed to aim at complete divestment by 2030. While the Campaign appreciates the complexities of managing a large investment portfolio, the chosen time frame of 10 years seems to prioritise the reduction of losses over alleviating the human suffering related to climate breakdown already being experienced by the global south: According to the WHO, 150,000 deaths every year can already be attributed to climate breakdown. As the decade elapses, and the University of Cambridge all too carefully and quietly disintricates itself from the businesses and industries directly producing these deaths, this number will only rise. This aim is simply too slow, and is not proportionate to the scale of the crisis at hand. Because of its wealth and prestige, Jesus College needs to set an example that surpasses what can be expected of institutions that are less financially able.

The protestors on the field arranged themselves around Barry Flanaghan’s Horse, the recognisable sculpture that everyone who walks into Jesus College sees. Put there in 1983, the Estate of Barry Flanaghan describe it as ‘beautiful, majestic, and powerful’. A rider without a horse, with one foot mid stamp; a symbol of nature’s masterless power. Or, perhaps, an ode to the old college stables and a worthy continuation of the well-known and much-respected tradition of British equestrianism.

Whatever this sculpture stands for, the much-postcarded college uses this figure as a means of differentiation, and it stands most of all for the endemic identity of the college as a distinct organisation in the university. As a result of this, it also stands for the identity of the students that this organisation produces and is produced by. It is undeniably a hallmark image of Jesus College; the talisman of a ‘Jesuan’ identity.

This is why the students wearing horse masks covered in fake blood, arrayed around the sculpture’s four poles, was a striking symbol of the specific protest of the Campaign. It stated the simple fact that students at Jesus are all part of this organisation, and that they too have the blood already shed by climate breakdown on their hands. Around the five standing bloodied figures the bulk of the protestors lay on the grass; around the beneficiaries of the Jesuan identity lies the majority whose lives are at stake.

The horse masks also stated the simple fact that Jesus College is not a singular institution, a single sculpture, but that its presence multiplies in the world around where it acts, that it sets an example which others follow, that one head becomes five around it. It stated the simple fact that, beyond being mere bronze, an institution rendered into an artistic and aesthetic artefact by its prestige and history, its most important aspect is how it impacts people, students and global citizens alike.

Jesus College is an organisation that inhabits old buildings, dazzling in their beauty and the cultural memory attached to them. This sometimes makes it hard to remember that it is really an institution most meaningfully existent in the present, breathing day. It is much more potently comprised of the people that make it up now than the many that have come before. This present, influential and affluent organisation must take responsibility for its actions in the world, and the real impact, beneath whatever bronze decorations it flaunts, these have.

Its actions in the world, today, are contributing to the suffering of countries least equipped to deal with climate breakdown. Most affecting nations, indeed, that this country colonised with the very power of the industrial technologies that climate breakdown is the ultimate end of. There is a horrible injustice in the congruence of colonial and ecological travesty in the last two hundred years. This injustice must be addressed with all possible speed by Jesus College, and economic losses must become less important than this attempt. Jesus College must commit to full divestment in industries connected to climate destruction by 2022.

Jesus College must commit to full divestment in industries connected to climate destruction by 2022.