Alumni Stories: Careers in Environmental Activism (among other things) with Roc Sandford

By Ellen O’Donnell, Second Year Geography, with many thanks to Roc Sandford, BSc Bristol 1979

Roc Sandford studied Geography at Bristol, graduating in 1979. Since then, Roc has had a varied and fascinating career – he worked at Pennsylvania State University and University College London, before becoming involved with environmental protesting and advocacy. Through this, Roc has presented on the climate and biodiversity emergencies at the World Economic Forum Davos, protested the UK Government with Extinction Rebellion and Ocean Rebellion, stood as a Green Party candidate for Westminster City Council in 2010, 2014 and 2018, and campaigned against factory salmon farms. He has also worked in farming and estate management, as well as the arts and music. All of this guided by his geographical training at the University of Bristol, Roc is also a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. 

Roc’s impressive work in environmentalism extends beyond his career – Roc owns the Isle of Gometra in the Inner Hebrides, where he lives, when not in London, off-grid with a close-to-zero carbon footprint. Gometra has no electricity or running water, and Roc grows much of his food himself, washes his clothes in a bucket of water and generates power using a solar panel. 

Gometra // Photo courtesy of Roc Sandford

To learn more about his career, and his life off-grid, Brycgstowe conducted a brief interview with Roc.

Firstly, if you could give a brief overview of your career. How has your study of Geography helped in forging your career? 

I’ve done lots of different things but almost all of them have been informed by geography.  Fictional writing, where sense of place is very important; farming and land-management, where an understanding of geographical systems is crucial; protesting and advocacy likewise where my geographical background has helped me speak the technical language of those I am trying to influence.   

Gometra // Photo courtesy of Roc Sandford

What advice would you give to those wishing to pursue a career in activism? And for those not necessarily after a career in activism, are there any more general words of wisdom you could offer in regards to getting involved in environmental activism?

First thing to say is that I’m not sure there is an option about environmentalism, protest and activism.  Given what we now know about collapsing climate and biodiversity, plus knock-on social collapse, and the fact that no government is doing anything near what it will take to survive this, then we all have to do our bit to accelerate change.  And it’s very do-able.  Government people are beginning to understand how serious it is—it’s just they don’t know what to do about it.

“Given what we now know about collapsing climate and biodiversity, plus knock-on social collapse, and the fact that no government is doing anything near what it will take to survive this, then we all have to do our bit to accelerate change.”

Regarding a career—more or less the whole of our civilisation will have to change in the shift away from fossil fuels and the destruction of nature, so there is a huge amount for geographers to contribute.  Protest is an important add-on to speed it up—both with visions about what could be and data about what has to stop.  But Geography proper can help tell us what options we have as to where we want to get to—and what options we don’t have, that is things we will have to do whether we like it or not, like cap the oil wells.  

There’s a huge amount of greenwash and wishful thinking going on, and geographers often have the expertise to detect this. And there are lots of ideological presuppositions which need to be flagged and worked round if need be.

Gometra // Photo courtesy of Roc Sandford 

Could you explain the motivation behind your decision to live off-grid? Did your study of Geography at Bristol affect your outlook and your decision to go off-grid, and if so, how? 

I think living off-grid wasn’t really driven by my Bristol experience.  I grew up in out of the way places like Exmoor and the Brecon Beacons, riding my horse to school across the wilderness, and was also always interested in the kind of autonomy represented by living off grid and in boats and camper vans.  You can do it in a city too, it’s really fun and it’s much cheaper than having lots of utility bills.  It’s interesting that a lot of the changes our societies will have to make, like travelling less, eating less meat and fish, heating our homes less, buying less products, are also cheaper and therefore liberate us from having to work so hard.

What advice would you have for students who have aspirations for a more ‘conventional’ career but still want to influence and make changes ‘from the inside’? Is such change even possible, in your opinion?

Changing things from the inside is key to succeeding in averting total disaster. We are working on that in Extinction Rebellion—how to subvert organisations from the inside.  I’m told the US had a sabotage programme in the 2nd World War which was about encouraging sympathisers in the Axis states to hold lots of pointless meetings where no decisions were made and to promote incompetent people.  We’re also trying to add a positive inflection to that with what I call holacratic subversion.  That is ways of leveling hierarchies within organisations so that they are not dominated by a few voices and the quality of decision making is improved.  

“Changing things from the inside is key to succeeding in averting total disaster.” 

In more conventional settings, consider saying what you really think because it is likely others are secretly thinking it too.  And often nobody knows what to do, so if you do, you can capture the agenda.  This is especially true for the young, who seem better able to grasp that the fossil fuel economy is over, something which most people in industry and government are still in denial about.

Many thanks to Roc Sandford. 

For more information, and to check out what Roc is up to, follow the links below:

TED Talk: https://youtu.be/uI3-aerwaY4

Guardian Article: The man orchestrating climate protest … from a shed in the Hebrides | Activism | The Guardian

Website: http://www.rocsandford.com/

Twitter: @rocsandford

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