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2 October 2019

Letter of the Week: Scientists against Brexit

A selection of the best letters received from our readers this week. Email to have your thoughts voiced in the New Statesman magazine.

By New Statesman

I wonder what Mr Cummings makes of the lack of enthusiasm for Brexit in the scientific community? A letter to Jean-Claude Juncker dated 19 October 2018, signed by 29 Nobel laureates and six Fields medallists, states: “Creating new barriers to such ease of collaboration will inhibit progress, to the detriment of us all. Many of us in the science community therefore regret the UK’s decision to leave the European Union.”

A 2018 survey of staff and scientists at the Francis Crick Institute, the UK’s largest biomedical research laboratory, reported that only 3 per cent felt that the concerns of the scientific community were being listened to.

Claire O’Beirne
Chesham, Buckinghamshire

The Gospel truth

I enjoyed reading John Gray’s review of Tom Holland’s book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (The Critics, 20 September). However, his comments on the credibility of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s life do not reflect the views of many theological circles today.

I studied theology at the University of Cambridge in the late 1960s. Then, there was quite a widespread belief that the Gospels were written as late as the second or third century AD. Many theologians would have echoed Gray’s view that “the received Christian picture of Jesus and his teachings may have only a passing resemblance to the historical actuality… The religion that came to be called Christianity was mostly an invention of Paul and Augustine and would likely have been unrecognisable to Jesus himself.”

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It has been fascinating to observe over the past 50 years the growing confidence that the Gospels were written earlier than originally thought, and reflect the culture and religious beliefs of the Jews in first-century Palestine, prior to the destruction of the temple and the city of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD.

For the Jews, everything changed: the way of life that existed before was destroyed.  The scholar EP Sanders wrote in his book Jesus and Judaism: “The dominant view today seems to be that we can know a lot about what Jesus was out to accomplish… [and] what he said, and that these two things make sense within the world of first-century Palestine.”

A growing number of scholars are becoming convinced that the way Christians passed on stories of Jesus in the centuries following the birth of Christianity was by patterns of memorisation and paraphrase dominant in rabbinic circles (many rabbis had the entire Old Testament committed to memory). It was common for a rabbi to gather round him disciples who took note of everything he taught and remembered as much as they could.

This is the environment in which the disciples of Jesus lived. They also believed their rabbi was the Messiah; that he was also in some unique sense the divine son of Yahweh; that he claimed an authority for his teaching no other rabbi would ever dare to claim.

Is it credible that these same disciples would dare to put words in his mouth that he had not said, or suggest he had done things he had not done? Such behaviour would fly in the face of their culture.

Peter Russell

Plastic menace

Plastic is everywhere. It’s in the food we eat and the air we breathe. It’s in the rain, the snow and in the depths of the ocean. And it’s always on the news, in our local coffee shop, or in a cheery slogan on a tote bag professing its lack thereof. For some, hipster coffee cups and witty cotton bags can make the anti-plastic movement seem like a tiresome fad that distracts from the “real issues”.

But these are the real issues. Plastic is made from fossil fuels. It is predicted that by 2050 plastic will account for up to 13 per cent of our total carbon budget. Plastic production is increasing, which is inconsistent with meeting our Paris Agreement commitment to limit global heating to 1.5°C.

Getting rid of plastic is a problem, too. One of its benefits is that it’s long-lasting and durable – but that is also its curse. Plastic can be sent to landfill and take hundreds of years to decompose; end up as pollution, killing our marine wildlife; or be incinerated, releasing into the air the toxins within it. Some types of plastic can be recycled – but only a handful of times. Only 9 per cent of all the plastic ever made has been recycled.

In his recent piece, Leigh Phillips told us the real challenge with plastic is “poor waste management systems in developing nations” (Observations, 13 September). But the UK is so incapable of managing it that it ships two thirds of its plastic waste abroad: this comment therefore seems misjudged.

Phillips argues that plastic serves a vital purpose as an industrial material that’s both durable and lightweight. No one is arguing otherwise. But using a durable material to make a throwaway item is nonsensical. The British supermarket sector alone produces more than 800,000 tonnes of throwaway plastic packaging every year. This has to stop. Trying to solve our plastic pollution crisis by improving waste management is like trying to shovel snow while it’s snowing. If your bath was overflowing you’d turn off the tap before fetching a mop.

Plastic reduction must not be a trend. The government and businesses must turn their back for good on excessive throwaway plastic.

Louise Edge
Head of Ocean Plastics
Campaign, Greenpeace UK

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This article appears in the 02 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit revolutionaries