Achieving this award is not a reflection of my own success, but the failure of those with which the future of our planet lies — governments, corporations, institutions — and (to a lesser extent) people as individuals. Their failure to respond to our climate emergency.
I started as a bystander, witnessing the destruction of the planet, and whilst I tried to make my own lifestyle choices the “right” ones, I didn’t dare question or change others, especially whilst sitting on college committees. I fell into the academic system and spent most of my undergraduate almost entirely focused on getting a good degree. Looking back, I see that academic environments can lead to extremely distorted priorities in what is worthwhile. To anyone waiting for change to happen around them — I’d recommend them to step up at the first opportunity rather than wait like I did. By the time I finished, I had convinced myself that doing a PhD in green energy was the most impactful choice I had available and was my contribution. But within weeks of being in a laboratory (even within a world-leading university), I soon felt entrapped in a system in which people saw environmental damage as inevitable. This is where I first embraced that mass system change is needed.
Thanks to my incredibly supportive and progressive supervisor, Dr Alex Forse, I created the role of Sustainability Officer in my research group, hoping to transform the department. Despite the enthusiasm of my environmentally conscious group, it was a slow and arduous process to establish the first department-wide scheme: nitrile glove recycling. However, once initiated, not only did 25 research groups across our department voluntarily sign up at the launch of the scheme, but four further departments and another University got in touch with me about joining. I have found that where you seek allies, people are willing to act, but our society is driven towards being static, and complacent.
It is apparent we need more people providing a driving force for change, and a platform from which other people can speak, which is what I’m trying to achieve. As a result, I have also been an MCR Green Officer in Selwyn College for the past two years and have worked to create the first Sustainability induction and guide for Freshers, as well as providing opportunities to make sustainable choices easier, and appealing, in college. This year the college has also joined Green Impact for the first time, and it’s been a pleasure to work alongside a small but enthusiastic group of college staff on this.
However, it was through the work with Plant-Based Cambridge (a climate campaign working with the university to transition to 100% plant-based catering in response to the climate and biodiversity crises) that I have felt my impact become more tangible than ever. Through this, together with my partner, I built a large network of people including students, university staff and academics, who want to achieve meaningful change with a clear and ambitious goal which embraces current solutions to obvious problems. With over 600 supporting signatures, we have so far passed an SU vote supporting our negotiations with the UCS and from this term I will sit on the Cambridge Zero-Cambridge Colleges Sustainable Food initiative as part of our widening efforts to support a transition to sustainable plant-based food in colleges. Transitioning to a plant-based food system would reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production in high-income countries by 61% (Sun, 2022), as well as freeing up 76% of global farmland for carbon drawdown (Poore and Nemecek, 2018).
Since becoming more active in the environmental movement, I have tried to be an ally wherever possible and have joined the Cambridge Zero Postgraduate Academy Steering Committee as Green Labs lead, and Ethical Affairs as MCR Green Officer Representative. Holding these positions has allowed me to maximise impact of like-minded organisations through cross-co-ordination, but it is devastating that roles across the University like these are being left unfilled. Whilst my time is now split between so many different committees, I have had the honour to meet and work with so many people as passionate as me about undoing our damage to the planet. Without them, I doubt I would have much hope left.
I’m now in the process of creating a Sustainability Committee in Chemistry, and an Environmental Society in Selwyn to promote engagement and make a lasting difference beyond my time as a student. However, attitudes have a long way to go. Priorities must change and we must become willing to embrace the current solutions for a liveable future. I believe that we, as the privileged few, sitting back enjoying a world-leading University of the global North, owe the planet our best efforts.