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Letters

Vol. 37 No. 7 · 9 April 2015

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When the Anthropocene Began

Discussing the global cooling of around 2°C in the mid-17th century, David Parrott notes that ‘the Little Ice Age is today more likely to be appropriated by climate change sceptics than by historians: humanity survived global cooling, they argue, so we need not worry about global warming – just another part of the cycle’ (LRB, 5 March). This sanguine view is undermined by evidence that the 17th-century global cooling was itself anthropogenic: a consequence of the arrival of Europeans in the New World. ‘Besides permanently and dramatically altering the diet of almost all of humanity,’ Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin write in a recent paper in Nature,

the arrival of Europeans in the Americas also led to a large decline in human numbers. Regional population estimates sum to a total of 54 million people in the Americas in 1492, with recent population modelling estimates of 61 million people. Numbers rapidly declined to a minimum of about six million people by 1650 via exposure to diseases carried by Europeans, plus war, enslavement and famine. The accompanying near cessation of farming and reduction in fire use resulted in the regeneration of over 50 million hectares of forest, woody savanna and grassland with a carbon uptake by vegetation and soils estimated at 5-40 Pg [a Pg, or petagram, is a billion tonnes] within around 100 years.

Lewis and Maslin use this evidence in support of a plausible dating of the onset of the Anthropocene epoch at 1610 ce, marked by a historic atmospheric CO2 minimum. They also note that ‘post-1492 humans on the two hemispheres were connected [and] trade became global,’ citing Immanuel Wallerstein’s Modern World System theory. The onset of globalisation, marked by the voyages of Columbus (1492), Vasco da Gama (1498) and Cabral (1500) and accelerating through the 17th century, was also the beginning of the rise to global ascendancy of Western European empires, powered by the plundered riches of the New World. Nowhere and for no one was the 17th century sadder than for the surviving one in ten or so of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

Chris Sinha
Norwich

Learning My Lesson

Marina Warner makes some very important general points about the state of higher education in England and Wales (LRB, 19 March). It is essential that the objective good of education is continually argued for, especially when managerial language tends to dominate how HE is discussed and experienced. However I felt somewhat left out of her broadside against the direction of the sector. As an administrator at one of the London universities mentioned in the article, as well as a self-funded PhD student, I have first-hand experience navigating the byways and back-channels of these confounding institutions. I also have a great deal of experience dealing with high-handed and unco-operative academics, who feel that their administrative responsibilities are an offence to their genius. Marina Warner’s complaints about forms, timesheets and grant applications are familiar, but I feel that her conflation of these duties – familiar to anyone who is a part of a large, public institution – with an over-generalised narrative of decline in the sector is a counter-productive contribution to the debate. Her negative experiences are not uncommon but nor are they typical, and her romantic imagining of academic labour is quite a long way from the experiences of most scholars under the age of forty.

The idea that universities are analogous to a ‘public coastal path or an urban park’ is entirely wide of the mark. Indeed the bucolic language and romantic source material deliberately ignore the enormous volume of precious public and charitable money that is pumped into universities every year. The fact that academics have to ‘play ball’ might be inconvenient, but it is not a ploy by a rising army of administrators and managers to undermine academic freedom. It is a result of the fact that funders require transparency and accountability with the use of their funds. Administrators exist to ensure that salaries are paid on time and contractual obligations are met, while scholars do their bit under the work description.

Universities in England have historically been bastions of privilege and elitism; a finishing school for the establishment or a playground for the children of the middle classes. This had to change, and many of the frightening turns towards privatisation and scholarly decrepitude that Warner identifies were designed to improve accountability and fiscal responsibility and to protect students from the worst excesses/incompetences of the academics that hold the keys to their future. We can debate the extent to which this has been achieved, and the extent to which this new culture has had negative side effects, but the HE sector was disgracefully ill equipped to deal with the students of the 21st century – and still is in many places.

Tom Hennessy
London E8

Academics moan a good deal about the destruction of academia, but they seem to do little actively to resist it. Capitalists and conservatives realise what, I think, liberals and intellectuals do not: when it comes to getting what you want, reasoned argument will not win the day. We have to start protesting, to start shouting our complaints, to start making a great deal of noise – we must become an unvanquishable number.

The sad fact is that the way the universities are set up can no longer work: the system was built to support a smaller number of university-goers. It is utterly unsurprising that capitalism and business, always rapacious and happy to debase whatever they can to make money, have rushed in to offer (or force) alternative means of funding. But if we want to resist their dehumanising depredations, we must organise, scream, demand and assert. It is the only way.

Emily Bernhard Jackson
University of Exeter

In September 2013, Coventry University was graced by the arrival of the world’s leading defence contractor, Lockheed Martin, which has given the world the Hellfire missile and the F-16 fighter, is in the process of unleashing the F-35, and supplies the UK fleet with Trident. What it is doing in Coventry University’s Technology Park is open to speculation. How much money it is giving the university I do not know; neither do I know how much cost-free use it is making of the university’s resources. Still, it provides local anti-war campaigners with a very convenient opportunity to organise demonstrations.

After the first such protests, however, Lockheed Martin became a bit nervous about letting its presence be known and removed its name-plate from the entrance to its building. Since then, I have made it my business to replace the name at every opportunity, using strips of paper and two small dabs of Blu-Tack. (This has come to be regarded by the university as ‘defacement’. So at least we seem to agree that the name ‘Lockheed Martin’ does, indeed, count as an ugly and unwelcome addition to the campus.) Eventually, my luck ran out and I was spotted by a member of the security staff, who took me to task for inflicting ‘mental scars’ on Lockheed Martin’s staff with my suggestion that they might be involved in the cluster bomb trade. They might not be: they were simply asked to answer the question, which was based on recent evidence. But so far they have chosen not to answer.

Asking and answering questions seems no longer to be what universities are for. Coventry University’s Centre for Peace, Trust and Social Relations (I’m not joking) runs so-called ‘public’ lectures, but requires pre-registration. The purpose of this is to vet applications to attend, so that the university can exclude people who might disturb the prevailing ethos – which may mean nothing more than making a well-framed observation. Consequently, the university spends extra money on assigning security staff to prevent members of the public from entering ‘public’ lectures, the latest one given by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Paul McGowan
Coventry

Marina Warner quoted the following from a gagging order: ‘You agree that you have not and undertake that you will not (either directly or indirectly) make, publish or otherwise communicate any disparaging or derogatory comments.’ This contains a grammatical error of such proportions that I’m surprised it managed to get by the discerning eyes of the pedants who must have been part of the group of poor saps forced to sign this wretched clause.

Paul Caddle
Dursley, Gloucestershire

Marina Warner’s criticisms of the management of higher education will strike chords with many who work in it. I’m not sure, though, that I would include the expression ‘generating an output’ – where she would prefer ‘writing a book’ – as an example of coercive management-speak. Warner’s colleagues may not be writing books, but choreographing performances, curating exhibitions or filing patents. ‘Generating an output’ covers such diversity without privileging any one kind of work.

Warner’s account of the ‘cruel optimism’ by which we all so easily become complicit in processes leading to harmful change is well judged. There is a Turkish proverb that also captures it: ‘When the axe first came into the forest, the trees said: “At least the handle is one of us."’

Gabriel Egan
De Montfort University, Leicester

The Suitors

Stephen W. Smith says that the US and EU will continue to be significant players in sub-Saharan Africa for some time to come (LRB, 19 March). That is true: the US, for instance, has some military involvement in almost every African state; security concerns ensure the West still seeks to keep Africa in the Western orbit. Similarly, China may be very visible in Zambian copper mines, but when the mines were privatised, Western agencies made sure the lion’s share went to Western companies on tax terms scandalously deleterious to Zambian interests. But it has gone largely unnoticed that Western agencies such as the World Bank have in effect abandoned their ‘good governance’ programmes, the seemingly endless series of conditions imposed on African governments that could neither be implemented by Africans nor monitored by Westerners. They are now seeking to ‘work with the grain’: that is, to find a way of working in Africa ‘as it is’, rather than engage in wholesale cultural conversion.

Eoin Dillon
Dublin

In Stock

Will Self’s reverse-technology trip from computer to typewriter fetishism to ‘propelling pencil’ reminded me of my terrifying but miraculous DEC Rainbow 100 computer (acquired in 1986 and nicknamed Natalie, for reasons I’ve forgotten), and made me feel slightly guilty that I hadn’t searched harder for a ribbon for my beautiful green portable Royal typewriter, c.1934 (LRB, 5 March).

In the cosy retro mood Self’s piece has induced, I must also say that an excellent mechanical (as we call it in the States) pencil, a Pentel Twist-Erase, can be purchased for $5.45 at the hundred-year-old A.J. Hastings office supply shop in Amherst, Massachusetts (across from the Common and just south of the Amherst Typewriter shop, which is run by a New England version of Shalom Simons and – I just made a phone call – keeps the vintage typewriter ribbons I need in stock).

I wonder about the legibility of Self’s handwriting. It’s probably better than that of the average American. The sensible and elegant italic script that is taught in the UK holds up much better than the ridiculous Palmer Method that swept American schools in the early 20th century and, sadly, is with us still.

Kitty Burns Florey
Amherst, Massachusetts

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