Foto: David Meulenbeld

VU lecturer Petra Verdonk: ‘Criticising your own organisation is frowned upon’

Marjolein de Jong15 May 2023

Senior lecturer Petra Verdonk is proud to call herself a climate activist. Not only did she take part in the demonstration on the A12, but she is now also fighting the climate crisis during office hours.

This week, posters were put up in VU Amsterdam’s NU building that asked whether the university is doing enough to address climate change in its degree programmes. Was this your doing?

„No, not at all. But if I had been there, I’d definitely have partnered up with Scientist Rebellion and drawn elephants in the lecture halls with them. I support the idea that all students should be prepared for the future and should contemplate the role of their field."

How is your faculty, the Faculty of Medicine, doing?

„About three years ago, a group of students dubbed themselves the “CO2 Assistants” and started lobbying for a greater focus on planetary health. The climate crisis is the single largest, most comprehensive public health crisis there is. At the same time, the climate crisis is gradually ushering in more and more health problems and diseases in the Netherlands. The hay fever season, for instance, is growing longer, with the first cases now emerging as early as December or January. Moreover, about 250 people die in the Netherlands every time there is a heat wave, so it is high time for organisations, health facilities and other stakeholders to start thinking about heat plans. Insulin works differently when temperatures rise, so what do you do then? All of these issues have direct implications for research and practice."

„To make a truly well-informed choice, doctors need to know about things such as how specific drugs affect the environment."

„On top of that, it should be noted that the emissions of the healthcare industry are sky-high, accounting for about 7 to 8 percent of the Netherlands’ greenhouse gas emissions. Energy consumption for lighting and heating are mainly to blame, but pollution caused by medicines should also be factored in. To make a truly well-informed choice, doctors need to know about things such as how specific drugs affect the environment."

Do you think enough is being done across VU?

„Let me put it this way: as long as economics undergrads are still being taught that economic growth is paramount, then we are behind the times. After all, we know that our unbridled growth mentality will see us cross all sorts of planetary boundaries. At the very least, degree programmes should carve out space for critical perspectives on the economy, on what it should look like and on the consequences for the climate and ecological crisis."

„We’ve found ourselves in the remarkable situation in which everyone is a layperson: none of us know enough, with the notable exception of climate scientists. Academics in other fields are only now discovering how the climate and ecological crisis will impact their disciplines, which means that both students and their lecturers are not yet up to speed. The required shift will almost have to be facilitated laterally: a top-down approach is practically impossible."

When did the climate become an important part of your life?

„I have had two major ecological epiphanies, as I call them. In the summer of 2018, I experienced two heat waves in quick succession. The first was when I was visiting my daughter in Australia and got very sick from the heat. Shortly after, I found myself in Italy during a heat wave, staring out at an olive grove. I was deeply moved by what I saw, realising that this could all just break down. If there’s no more rain now, this will all break down, and soon we won’t have any food."

„My husband and I went straight to the garage and swapped our two fossil fuel-powered cars for one EV."

„The consequences unfolded before my eyes, as did the realisation that there was no plan. No one had a bigger plan. It was a massive wake-up call, and I had to come to grips with how naively trusting I’d always been of the government. I’d always had faith in the people in charge, until it suddenly dawned on me that they weren’t doing a thing. Around that time, the IPCC published a report, which was the last straw for me. My husband and I went straight to the garage and swapped our two fossil fuel-powered cars for one EV."

Did your epiphanies prompt you to take immediate action?

„At first, I had trouble sleeping and felt awful. Unfortunately, that’s just one of the consequences of facing this problem, and I don’t think it’ll ever pass. When Greta Thunberg announced her climate strike in the autumn of 2018, I joined the Dutch branch of Extinction Rebellion. Together with a few others, I started a local group in Brabant, where I live. I’ve actively taken part in climate protests ever since and provide training courses to prepare activists for civil disobedience and being arrested."


„Slowly but surely, activism has also become a bigger part of my job, and I spend a lot of time thinking about how it affects my position as an academic. How should my research and teaching relate to my activist pursuits? And what are the limits to activism? What boundaries am I willing to cross?"

And where are the boundaries, in your opinion?

„There’s a constant and important debate about whether you should be an activist academic or academic activist. Critical thinking and research are part of my academic career anyway, and they are sometimes a subject of discussion. The harsh truth is that we apparently need activism to increase awareness of scientific findings among the general public. People do not yet appear to fully grasp the severity of the climate crisis, highlighting the major flaw in our current approach to scientific research. Although one of the aims is supposedly about advancing society, the ivory tower of academia is all too real."

„For as long as I’ve been an academic, I’ve been told that I couldn’t possibly be objective."

„For as long as I’ve been an academic, I’ve been told that I couldn’t possibly be objective. I’ve been researching gender and diversity for a long time and I am often accused of being an activist, while I have compelling scientific reasons for pointing out that there is ample room for improving the quality of healthcare for women, for example. That is a feminist position by definition, but the fact that believing in the fundamental equality of men and women is portrayed as activism is all the proof you need that we are living in a patriarchal system. I’m very critical of that notion. For me, arguing that activism is inherently non-academic is a political and therefore non-neutral position. Approaching the climate crisis from a public health perspective meets with similar forms of criticism. Even though there is scientific proof – hard physical evidence even – to back it up."

You appear to be taking it all quite lightly, but I imagine that being an activist in academia is not always easy.

„That’s right: it can be incredibly stressful. I’ve had to cross the line several times and there have been a few occasions on which I felt sure that I would be kicked out, especially when we came across Shell’s request to collaborate with VU. I had never expected our column in Trouw to have such an impact. On the one hand, academics are told to be critical, but at the same time, levelling criticism at your own organisation is frowned upon. It’s regarded as fouling one’s own nest."

„Someone had posted the picture on Twitter with the caption: 'Love is... grounding a private jet together.' After that, the cat was out of the bag."

„I’ve been transparent about my activist exploits from the start, but it was a lot easier when they were confined to my spare time and were levelled at third parties. Instinctively, I felt there was a clear line between my professional life and private life. Increasing my visibility within the university was a bigger step for me, much more so than protesting on the A12 motorway. And that also happened more or less by accident."

Also because you’re a prominent demonstrator and have already been arrested six times.

„There’s been no denying my activism since a photo of me and my husband protesting against private jets at Schiphol was posted online. Someone had posted it on Twitter with the caption: 'Love is... grounding a private jet together.' After that, the cat was out of the bag."


Image: Eeke Anne de Ruig 

Do you have to be arrested to get on the news?

„It’s tempting to draw that conclusion, isn’t it? Just look at the massive demonstration in London last week, which saw 60,000 people protest for four days. It didn’t even make the Dutch or British news. But if one person lobs a can of soup at a Van Gogh painting, as happened in London last year, the video gets 50 million viewers."

In your opinion, does the end justify the means?

„Not all means. We are non-violent, but I agree that we have to be clear about the question: what is violence and what is not? Does cutting a fence constitute violence? Peaceful protest is needed, but if it leads to arrests or disruptions... well, disruption is essential, because we can’t just continue the way we are. Besides, when I watched the video of the protesters throwing soup at the Van Gogh, I saw right away that the painting was protected by glass. It was clear that the protesters had put a lot of thought into it. The shock effect was enormous, but the whole thing had been meticulously planned and executed. Do I want art to be destroyed? No, of course not. I do think that it was an unusually successful act."

„Our campaigns require a kind of sacrifice: we take risks and have to give something up. Even if it’s just your Saturday off, your Certificate of Conduct, or professional consequences. I have no idea how my climate activism will affect my career, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take. I refuse to stay on the sidelines."

Want to know more? Join us at Déjà VU festival on June 15 to see Petra Verdonk take a deep dive into the topic during the ‘Act now!' talk show. The summer festival for the entire VU community is jam-packed with knowledge sessions and talk shows, but you’ll also have plenty of opportunities to dance among the students to performances by famous artists, browse the festival market and enjoy delicious snacks and drinks served by the best food trucks. Don’t miss out! Order your ticket now at