Independent journalism about VU Amsterdam | Since 1953
13 July 2024

& Culture

Scientist rebellion members campaign against the expansion of a coal mine in Germany.

‘When are we going to take over the university, for real?’

Activism is the only way to save the planet. That’s what the majority of participants in a debate on climate activism agreed on last Tuesday.

With the recent occupation of a building by activists at University of Amsterdam, the debate seemed well-timed. A little over thirty people joined the meeting organised by Scientist Rebellion in 3D, the debate centre of VU Amsterdam. The attendees, mostly young academics and some students, addressed one main question: should scientists engage in climate activism?

Civil disobedience 

Twenty-two statements, voiced by host Miranda van Holland, served as  conversation starter. The rules were simple: if you agree, you stand up, if you disagree, you stay seated. When in doubt, you got to do a free workout: you had to squat. The statements ranged from “civil disobedience is a no-go for scientists” (two people agreed) to “activism is the only way to save the planet” (more than twenty people agreed). Meanwhile, VU researchers Koen Lemaire and Niels Debonne gave their opinions on the statements. 

Earlier during the debate, the two explained why they have joined Scientist Rebellion. “As scientists, we have already tried everything else, and nothing happened”, said Lemaire, who is a movement sciences teacher and researcher. “I literally couldn’t sleep, and I owe it to society to take action.” Debonne, who studies sustainable land use, has a similar story. “Also, I have a bag filled with privilege. You don’t get to choose how privileged you are, but you can choose what you do with it.” 


One of the questions that arose during the debate is whether activist scientists are still credible. Debonne: “If you know the climate facts, and you don’t do anything about it, then to me, you’re not very credible. Especially if you’re working in climate and environmental sciences. Not everybody can do something about it, but if you have the privilege to do something, just do it. That doesn’t have to be something drastic, writing a letter can also make an impact.” Someone in the public asked whether Debonne wasn’t credible enough when he was not yet an activist. “Yes, sure, although I wasn’t doing nothing”, Debonne responded. “Again, you don’t have to block a coal mine. But please do block a coal mine”, he said laughingly.

Koen Lemaire hand in hand with an Italian Scientist Rebellion member during the coal mine campaign in Germany.

One of the attendees said he thinks that Debonne’s words are quite dangerous. “Many religious people all around the world have made that mistake again and again, telling people what they should be doing. I think it’s better to do good, set a good example, and not point your finger at others. That mistake has been made so many times and has led to many wars.” 

Taking over VU Amsterdam

Then, a woman stood up and said: “I have one simple question to solve everything. When are we going to take over the university, for real? What is the purpose of dialogue, when dialogue has led us to just look at each other and not respect each other?” Climate researcher Marthe Wens, who opened the debate with a mini-lecture on climate change, answered that she first wants to try everything she can through dialogue and discussion. “And if that doesn’t work, only then I would take action.”

Are these actions actually changing anything, someone in the public asked. Lemaire: “That’s very difficult to prove empirically, but after our protest action at Schiphol , Amsterdam’s city council is checking whether they can legally ban private jets.”

At the end of the debate, Chief Impact Officer Davide Iannuzzi stepped forward. He explained that the Executive Board wants to know the opinion of the VU community on collaborating with the fossil industry. Currently, they are gathering opinions around the campus, and later there will be a VU-wide dialogue. “For now, you can write a one-pager to me with your opinion, and I promise that I will read every letter.”

The VU-wide dialogue will take place on 23 February between 12:00 and 14:00. 


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