Shouting down David Willetts

Last night a lecture at Cambridge by the minister for higher education was cancelled following a stu

The minister had scarcely stood up before the shouting began. "Dear David Willetts" announced a student protester, at the top of his voice, as he began to declaim a lengthy prepared statement. His every sentence was repeated by a chorus of fellow enragés seated strategically throughout the hall. There were three of them sat behind me, all shouting at the top of their voices. It was a decidedly uncomfortable experience.

Initial amusement at the unexpected interruption turned to annoyance and then exasperation as the protesters (who called themselves Cambridge Defend Education) droned on and on. Their "epistle" was low on facts and heavy on pretentious verbiage and painfully mixed metaphors. Its theme was the opposition between genuine knowledge and the marketplace -- "you cannot quantify knowledge" -- something that would have made a good subject for debate after Willetts had finished speaking. But there was to be no debate. Instead, rant (for the time being) over the protesters started up a shout of "Willetts Out!" and occupied the stage.

A few minutes later, the chairman Professor Simon Goldhill -- who appeared completely wrong-footed by the turn of events -- announced that the lecture was cancelled and that David Willetts had left the building.

Introducing the lecture, part of a series on the theme of "the idea of a university" organised by Cambridge University's Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, Professor Goldhill had stressed that it was to be a robust exchange of views. "Things will be said on both sides that will be difficult to hear," he predicted. After a fairly short address by Willetts there would have been a longer question-and-answer session at which the minister's thoughts would surely have been subjected to intense scrutiny by students and academics in the audience.

It's unlikely that minds would have been changed in the process. Government policy is not made in public meetings. But the event nevertheless represented a valuable opportunity to examine the consequences of the planned changes to university funding and student finance. As a recent Guardian profile by Decca Aitkenhead suggested, Willetts is a politician with a genuine (and sadly rare) passion for intellectual debate. In an era when most political events are phoney, stage-managed affairs with hand-picked audiences and pre-arranged questions, here was a minister willing to take part in a live, unpredictable and well-informed public meeting. Even if you disagree with his policies, this is surely something to be welcomed.

Instead we were subjected to a tedious monologue by a bunch of self-satisfied protesters unwilling to listen to any point of view other than their own. A supporter of the protest, Lawrence Dunn, said afterwards that beause the government had ignored previous protests "it was therefore time to ignore what Willetts had to say". He is of course at liberty to ignore Willetts. But the people who were ignored last night were the majority of the audience who had come to listen to -- and challenge -- the minister. Their views and wishes were swept aside by the actions of an immature and intolerant minority. No doubt they genuinely care about education. But they appear to have no understanding of or interest in the process of democratic debate.

I contacted Professor Goldhill afterwards for a comment. He told me that while protests had been expected, no one anticipated that the lecture would have to be abandoned, something that "did not happen even in 1968". He regarded the events of last night as "an extraordinary opportunity missed" -- an opportunity for many of Willetts' "most articulate critics" to challenge him directly. He also described the form that the protest took as "an absolute abuse of the freedom of the university".

The university is nothing if not a place for the free and frank exchange of critical ideas. This was an attempt to stop the exchange of ideas, and was done against the overwhelming wish of the majority of people in the hall. It was made in the name of the values of the university, but distorted and destroyed those values. It was politically not just misguided by giving all the strong lines to Willetts, but the sort of totalitarian behaviour that we all should hate. In the name of giving voice to their so-called non hierarchical and open views they refused to let anyone who disagreed with them speak. You cannot shag for chastity.

Of course Goldhill is right, as is Cambridge Students' Union president Gerard Tully who released a statement accusing the protesters of violating "one of the founding principles of University education", that of freedom of expression. It was not Mr Willetts' freedom of expression which was pointlessly disrupted last night: he is, after all, not short of platforms on which to speak. Rather it was the freedom of everyone in the audience who had their own questions to ask him or who were interested in what he had to say.

It was a sad day for Cambridge and for the principle of peaceful protest, which in a democratic society we all rightly value.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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How “cli-fi” novels humanise the science of climate change

The paradox is that the harder climate-fiction novels try, the less effective they are.

When the Paris UN Climate Change Conference begins at the end of November, the world’s leaders will review the climate framework agreed in Rio in 1992. For well over 20 years, the world has not just been thinking and talking about climate change, it has also been writing and reading about it, in blogs, newspapers, magazines – and in novels.

Climate change fiction is now a recognisable literary phenomenon replete with its own nickname: “cli-fi”. The term was coined in 2007 by Taiwan-based blogger Dan Bloom. Since then, its use has spread: it was even tweeted by Margaret Atwood in 2013:

It is not a genre in the accepted scholarly sense, since it lacks the plot formulas or stylistic conventions that tend to define genres (such as science fiction or the western). However, it does name a remarkable recent literary and publishing trend.

A 21st-century phenomenon?

Putting a number to this phenomenon depends, partly, on how one defines cli-fi. How much of a novel has to be devoted to climate change before it is considered cli-fi? Should we restrict the term to novels about man-made global warming? (If we don’t, we should remember that narratives about global climatic change are as old as The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Biblical story of the flood.) If we define cli-fi as fictional treatments of climate change caused by human activity in terms of setting, theme or plot – and accept there will be grey areas in the extent of this treatment – a conservative estimate would put the all-time number of cli-fi novels at 150 and growing. This is the figure put forward by Adam Trexler, who has worked with me to survey the development of cli-fi.

This definition also gives us a start date for cli-fi’s history. While planetary climatic change occurs in much 20th-century science fiction, it is only after growing scientific awareness of specifically man-made, carbon-induced climate change in the 1960s and 1970s that novels on this subject emerged. The first is Arthur Herzog’s Heat in 1976, followed by George Turner’s The Sun and the Summer (published in the US as Drowning Towers) in 1987.

At the turn of this century, Maggie Gee and TC Boyle were among the first mainstream authors to publish climate change novels. In this century, we can count Atwood, Michael Crichton, Barbara Kingsolver, Ian McEwan, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ilija Trojanow and Jeanette Winterson as major authors who have written about climate change. The past five years have given us notable examples of cli-fi by emerging authors, such as Steven Amsterdam, Edan Lepucki, Jane Rawson, Nathaniel Rich and Antti Tuomainen.

Creative challenges

Cli-fi is all the more noteworthy considering the creative challenge posed by climate change. First, there is the problem of scale – spatial and temporal. Climate change affects the entire planet and all its species – and concerns the end of this planet as we know it. Novels, by contrast, conventionally concern the actions of individual protagonists and/or, sometimes, small communities.

Added to this is the networked nature of climate change: in physical terms, the climate is a large, complex system whose effects are difficult to model. In socio-cultural terms, solutions require intergovernmental agreement – just what COP21 intends – and various top-down and bottom-up transformations. Finally, there exists the difficulty of translating scientific information, with all its predictive uncertainty, into something both accurate and interesting to the average reader.

Still, cli-fi writers have adopted a range of strategies to engage their readers. Many cli-fi novels could be classified as dystopian, post-apocalyptic or, indeed, both – depicting nightmarish societies triggered by sometimes catastrophic climate events. A future world is one effective way of narrating the planetary condition of climate change.

Some novelists are also careful to underpin their scenarios with rigorous climatic predictions and, in this way, translate science fact into a fictional setting. Kingsolver, who trained as an ecologist, is the best example of this – and Atwood and Robinson are also known for their attempts at making their speculations scientifically plausible. Also, cli-fi novels, particularly those set in the present day or very near future rather than in a dystopian future, tend to show the political or psychological dimensions of living with climate change. Readers can identify with protagonists. To some extent, the global community is represented in fictional everymen or everywomen. Or, often, it is through such characters that science is humanised and its role in combating climate change better understood.

Can cli-fi lead to change?

Could cli-fi affect how we think and act on climate change? The paradox is that the harder cli-fi tries, the less effective it is. Many writers want to inspire change, not insist on it: the line between literature and propaganda is one that most novelists respect. Literature invites us to inhabit other worlds and live other lives. Cli-fi at its best lets us travel to climate-changed worlds, to strive there alongside others and then to return armed with that experience.

In Paris, the UN will seek a global agreement on climate action for the first time in more than 20 years. There is plenty of climate change fiction out there to help provide the mental and psychological space to consider that action.

The Conversation

Adeline Johns-Putra, Reader in English Literature, University of Surrey

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.