The assault on the humanities

Philosophy at Middlesex University under threat.

This week the Dean of the School of Arts and Education at Middlesex University announced, point blank, that the University is to close all of its philosophy programmes. In an email sent to staff, the reason given was "simply financial". The decision -- described by one academic blogger as "venal idiocy" -- has generated a growing online campaign, as did earlier efforts to cut into the intellectual fabric of UK universities at Kings College London and at Liverpool.

Given that this election campaign has been notable for a dearth of meaningful ideas, the timing of these latest cuts is as ironic as the act itself is cynical. British universities and our world-renowned arts and humanities departments in particular, are fundamental to a vibrant polity and society, and to the quality of debate within them. And yet they are increasingly under threat.

The philosophy department at Middlesex is a case in point. This is one of the leading lights of continental philosophy in this country, with an international reputation for furthering our understanding of the classics of European thought -- be it Kant or Hegel, Sartre or Badiou -- alongside a concern to re-appraise those works in light of present day political and ethical dilemmas.

It is, moreover, the highest Research Assessment Exercise-rated subject at Middlesex. Which means that even by the increasingly ridiculous standards used to measure and to monitor academic work in this country, the department is about as "relevant" as you could want philosophy to be. And as a former polytechnic that was holding its own alongside the Russell group of top twenty universities, one wonders quite what else such a department might have been expected to do.

There are some, of course, who think that academic departments ought primarily to be income-generating cash cows. I see no reason why this should be the case. But even so, Middlesex's philosophy department could hardly be said to have been slacking: of late, it appears to have been handing over more than half its own income, generated through teaching and research activity, to the university. Perhaps this is why the university's website trumpets the department's "lively and active research culture, with staff producing important and groundbreaking research, much of which features in the undergraduate course".

Was this just doublespeak? If Middlesex University really stands by what it says on their website, then they have no business closing such a department at all. They are strongly advised to reconsider.

As they do so, the rest of us have something to think about too: is such narrow-mindedness what the future holds for academic life in this country?

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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