Student Spotlight: Alexis McGivern

Image description: Alexis McGivern smiling, wearing a green scarf and a black shirt 

In our final week of Michaelmas Term, our ‘Student Spotlight’ series features Alexis McGivern, an aspiring conservationist and 1 + 1 MBA student at the University of Oxford. Her passion for climate change has taken her to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), where she worked for three and a half years prior to studying at Oxford, as well as the Oxford Climate Society and the COP26 climate conference. She has a particular interest in plastic pollution and hopes to pursue a career which focuses on improving waste literacy. 

Alexis provided a really insightful account about plastic pollution, the most effective means of intervening in climate change and her thoughts on Oxford’s decision to divest from fossil fuels. 

You’ve described yourself as a ‘conservationist with a passion for trash’! What fostered your interest in plastic pollution? 

I first became interested in plastic, and waste more generally, as a tangible way to measure my own environmental footprint. It was an easy way to measure my progress on sustainable patterns as I observed my shrinking trash can over time. However, I believe my interest in plastic pollution has persisted over time because it’s a fascinating window into so many other current social and environmental problems: insufficient waste infrastructure sheds light on how governments choose to spend money, modern day waste colonialism exists in the trade of garbage from the Global North to the Global South, patterns of environmental racism are evident in where we choose to dispose of waste and industry putting the onus on individual consumers is a familiar trend we see in climate change as well.  

Over the years, I’ve seen how this problem can be tackled at so many different angles, and I’ve found great joy in each of them: I’ve felt inspired by the energy of families at workshops I’ve run on reducing your personal plastic footprint, I’ve delved into fascinating research alongside brilliant scientists working to better understand how policy interventions affect the flow of plastic into aquatic environments, and I’ve even gotten the chance to see the machinations of the global policy machine at work at the UN level. I’ve been working on this issue for almost eight years and still am learning new things every day! 

Plastic pollution, as you’ve said yourself, has gained some public attention like few other environment crises. What do you think the average person still isn’t aware of when it comes to this issue? 

It’s been pretty incredible to see how much the tide has turned on this problem in the last few years. I love how enthusiastic so many people are to help work on this issue, but I do think the narrative has been somewhat oversimplified in the media to be mostly a problem for our oceans and a mission to preserve the natural environment. I care deeply about the environment, but I feel we are leaving out of our frame of focus the humans at the heart of this pollution crisis: from communities in Louisiana who live in areas clustered with toxic petrochemical plants making them sick, to waste pickers in China who, for decades, were sorting waste dumped from high income countries. I think it’s so important to acknowledge these stories, which are often absent from discussions about plastic pollution. From acknowledgement and recognition, we can then create programmes and action that are more all-encompassing of the full spread of issues, rather than the ones that make for good PR for environmental organisations. Environmental problems can rarely be decoupled from social inequalities.  

From being part of grassroots movements to making important policy changes, what do you think are the most effective means of intervening in climate change? 

I go back and forth between where I stand on this pretty much every day! I believe that people-powered grassroots movements can be incredibly powerful in shifting the Overton window: that is, the range of policies that the public deems politically acceptable. I marched in many ‘Fridays for the Future’ marches last year and was in awe at the feeling of solidarity and action from the people on the ground. However, it can sometimes be hard to keep the momentum going on or to move (sometimes immovable) policymakers. I believe good policy is essential, and I think constituents have more power than they think: when you go to a march, follow up with your local representative to see how they’re voting on the policies you care about. It’s amazing to show up on the streets, but we need to apply that same pressure to the people we’ve elected to represent us and future generations. 

I also think it’s important to contextualise your own consumption choices: for example, zero waste living, as I initially started out working towards, is truly not evenly accessible to all. It poses many financial and physical barriers to families and folks trying to reduce their footprints. There is then an unfortunate entrenched sense of morality and judgement towards people for not participating in a “movement” that has not been created with them in mind. So I would implore people to check their own privileges when asking why someone may not be participating in green behaviours as much as they “should” be. 

You’re currently studying the 1 + 1 MBA course at Oxford, how do you see the intersection of business and conservation?

I wanted to do an MBA to get out of my comfort zone and understand how the other side thinks. In my job as a conservationist, I’d only had two types of experience with business: either receiving requests to “partner” to do something highly visible but ultimately pretty inconsequential, like a beach cleanup, or trying to really change destructive practices but ultimately not having enough capacity or expertise to fully challenge these well-resourced big players. I’m looking forward to starting my MBA next fall and learning the language of business to see how the not-for-profit world can better tailor our relationship to end up with better outcomes for people and the planet. 

I must say, I’m already terrified at the prospect of leaving my comfortable bubble of classmates from the Geography Department, who all fundamentally agree on climate science and the necessity of climate action, to interact with a wide range of players who may not be on the same page at all – but I think it’s important training! I’m already apprehensive of buzzwords like “conscious capitalism” or “sustainable business” – those feel like oxymorons to me! I hope I come out of the MBA experience with as much of a critical eye as I have going in. 

Before coming to Oxford, you spent three and a half years at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world’s oldest and largest environmental organisation. What did this position entail and how did it shape your current research? 

I was phenomenally lucky in that my position at IUCN was funded by a small philanthropic foundation, Gallifrey Foundation, which gave me a lot of flexibility in what I wanted to work on. I spent time supporting my boss in the Marine and Polar Programme, putting together project proposals to bring in funding to headquarters so that we could re-assign that to our regional offices, which taught me a lot about how to pitch projects to funders. I also worked on convening a report on the impact of deep sea mining, which was a really interesting experience in how to garner public attention on “unsexy” environmental issues (ugly fish  and features at the bottom of the ocean don’t exactly have the “cute” factor, but they are so essential to our entire existence on land!). Finally I worked to set up “Plastic Free Campus”, a project to help school campuses go single-use plastic free. I adored this part of my job as it allowed me to work with amazing young people and future leaders. Ultimately, I think my job taught me the importance of knowing how to work with a wide range of stakeholders to further environmental goals: from first graders to UN officials! 

I have two research projects I’m working on at the moment: the first is a follow up to a recent paper in Science where we modelled the impact of policy interventions on the flow of plastic waste into aquatic environments. I’m working with some brilliant researchers from that group (Plastic Pollution Emissions Working Group) to look at the positive and negative externalities of specific interventions: for example, beach clean ups are inefficient at dealing with plastic, but produce co-benefits like stronger community ties. I’m also working on my MPhil research, which examines the relationship between social deprivation to the siting of waste incinerators in the UK, looking at what kinds of communities are able to successfully resist incinerators. 

At Oxford, you’re a trailblazer in student climate change movements! I noticed that you are Education Director of the Oxford Climate Society, former Director of the Regenerative and Circular Economy Lab and also student liaison for COP26, the climate conference happening next year in Glasgow. What are some projects that you have enjoyed getting involved in with these different commitments? 

My absolute favourite project I’m working on is the School of Climate Change, which is an eight week “Climate 101” course taught by leading Oxford academics. I took over the position as Education Director right before the pandemic when I knew what I’d need to do to deliver this School: advertise to student groups, organise the timetable with Profs and manage the logistical side of room bookings etc. When coronavirus hit and we knew we’d likely not be able to meet in person, I saw it as a really cool opportunity to expand the reach of this information: this term we’ve had 500 participants from around the world, from teenage climate activists in China to retired lawyers in the US! We also introduced a capstone project, placing people into small groups to work on a group project on a specific environmental problem. It gives me such pleasure to see climate education reaching far beyond Oxford and its ivory towers, and making the knowledge in academia more accessible to a wider audience. 

This year the University of Oxford announced that it would divest formally from the fossil fuel industry. What are your thoughts on this landmark decision? Do you think that following this, the University is at risk of falling into complacency? 

This was a huge win, and I was proud to have some amazing friends working on this divestment campaign. Oxford is also an unparalleled hub for net zero innovation, leading to this new world (for example, the recent release of the Oxford Principles for Net Zero Aligned Carbon Offsetting). 

Divestment is an important symbol of where the University sees its future, but it’s so important that we don’t stop here. I’d love to see the University critically engage with its own historical impact and reconcile that with their strategy moving forward. We’ve also seen friends at Oxford Climate Justice Campaign do great work in pressuring the University to stop bringing polluters on campus to recruit our best and brightest and also to discourage the University from researching the extraction of fossil fuels. 

I’m biased as Education Director at OCS, but I think the University needs to seriously invest in the provision of climate education to every student at Oxford. It would be incredible if every student was equipped to understand and act on what I believe is the greatest challenge of our times. 

With so many achievements already under your belt, where do you see your future in plastic pollution? What upcoming projects can we look forward to? 

That’s so kind! After Oxford, I would love to work on waste strategy for a city and get into the nitty gritty of why certain strategies work (or not). My dream job would be working with communities to improve waste literacy – that is, working at the first port of call to ensure that people are putting their waste in the right place and making the whole waste infrastructure flow more easily. 

I’m passionate about making academic information accessible to non-academics, so I started a TikTok account to summarise learnings on climate change from academia – you can check me out there @ClimateMadeCool, otherwise I upload them to my Instagram @noplasticplease1. I’m probably too close to 30 to have a TikTok account, but you’ve gotta roll with the punches…! 

Quick-fire questions: 

What is something every student should know?

Information is power – when it comes to waste, knowing where your waste is going and how you are contributing to this problem will help you fix it. Get to know your local council’s regulations on waste and become comfortable falling down the rabbit hole!

What is something every student should do?

Get out of the Oxford bubble. This town is so much more than the University, and holds much more history, personality and energy. I would really encourage students to get involved in activities outside of the University ecosystem. 

What is something every student should read/watch/listen to?

Global Witness released an excellent report called “Defending Tomorrow” which details how many land and environmental defenders were killed last year. It’s essential reading for anyone impassioned by climate justice.

Image courtesy of John Cairns Photography