Former Oxford students participated in more than 100 intellectual and practical sessions at the popular annual event this September
By Dr Richard Lofthouse
I decided this year to focus on Very Serious Talks about Very Grave Topics and got my fill very readily, to the point where I had to retreat for comforting coffee and overconsumption of beef lasagna at Rose’s in the High.
I was merely acting as predicted by Dr Jonathan Jong, who in a brilliant two-up with Dr Sophie Duncan argued that we are all driven in our behavior by a suppressed fear of death. Why some sociopaths don’t adhere to the theory, he emphasized that most of us want to leave behind a legacy and joked at the outset about the underlying ‘immortality project’ of Oxford, drumming up cash from its alumni. His first slide was a hand grasping a huge wad of dollar bills.Drs Jonathan Jong and Sophie Duncan (standing) speak about how almost everything we do is driven by a fear of death
On the subject of overconsumption he pointed out that there was a lot of rash consumption that followed the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York. People spent with greater abandon, and over-ate, celebrating their mortality with gallows humour. But they also bought Rolexes and other ‘status symbols’ in a bid for something very durable, something ‘immortal.’Overqualified rubber ducks?
The subtitle of Jong and Duncan’s talk was ‘how death drives religion, culture and everything.’ Jong is Research Coordinator at the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, but he’s also the Assistant Curate at St Mary Magdalen Church in Oxford. What a combo! Neuroscience and experimental psychology have both, between them, he argued, shown again and again what Ernest Becker argued in the 1970s in The Denial of Death, that we have a tendency to suppress our fear of death through various types of ‘immortalization’ delusions. Why organized religion is ‘the most obvious cultural construct for acquiring immortality,’ the same impulse can lead to having children (the most mundane of passing on oneself) to philanthropy, hero worship, consumption and the pursuit of celebrity or notoriety. Duncan, who is the Calleva Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Magdalen College, followed up with an amazing tour of Shakespeare’s many deaths, categorizing them in a way that logically extended Jong’s thesis. In the comedies, death is a playful way of bringing us back to the art of living, but in Richard III and Macbeth we have protagonists whose immortality project is to ‘outkill death’ through killing and murder. A bit like going to church, stage deaths make us all feel a bit jollier about life and living. They unlock our death suppression a bit. A good model, noted Duncan, is Hamlet. His immortality project is essentially one of reputation.
Apart from enjoying a good biff-about with Mark Damazer, former controller of BBC Radio 4 and Master of St Peter’s College, who kept joking that he would reveal this or that secret about the BBC in exchange for donations to the college, I kept the levity strictly to a minimum and headed instead to a talk about Universities and what they mean today, by Professor Keri Facer of Bristol University, formerly of Oxford’s Department of Education.Prof. Keri Facer speaks about the purpose of universities in the 21st century
There was loads of positive stuff there yet a terrible sense that the government just Doesn’t Get It, with the requirement for universities to show Evidence of Impact often completely at odds with the sort of blue sky university research that might have the biggest true. A medical researcher in the audience noted that you can’t just set out to solve antibiotic resistance. It’s far more complex and haphazard than that. But Facer also said that universities including Oxford have to work a lot harder to communicate what they do and improve their relationship with society.
My favourite talk, of the five I attended, concerned the very many ‘elephants’ in the room of global energy provision, current and future. This was delivered brilliantly to a packed room by Professor Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith, (New College, 1961) Director of Energy Research at Oxford. It’s probably no secret to any well informed alumnus of Oxford that the essential problem of climate change boils down to a sub-question concerning provision of energy to the world. Yet besides the environment, the governing constraints are security and cost.
The biggest ‘elephant in the room’ is that for all the chatter and hype, fossil fuels account for 80% of global energy production at present. Demand will rise 25% by 2035. This led Smith to conclude that the recent COP 21 Paris agreement to restrict the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees centigrade is simply not plausible. Neither is 2 degrees. We’re going to likely be left with 3 degrees plus and a runaway climate change scenario – although he didn’t say that exactly. But it is what may very well happen, he noted. He noted that if the entire planet was completely depopulated of human beings tomorrow, existing CO2 in the atmosphere would only lead to an equilibrium in the climate by around 2100, followed by very gradual absorption of excess CO2 into igneous rocks over the next millennium before returning to ‘normal.’The Blavatnik School of Government where the alumni reception took place
With business as usual and global population growth, we’re instead embarking on a great big unregulated experiment whose outcome remains unknown. Smith noted some incredibly exciting discoveries such as a patented solar concentrator, that has the ability to transform lives in the here and now as well as reducing emissions. It wasn’t by any means gloom and doom. But he said that Hinckley is a rum do and that German solar is just 12% efficient, and where it is better than this (the Sahara, the Middle East) there is as yet little infrastructure for storing and transmitting what energy could be produced. This is why lots of people are researching massive, power station size batteries, to store renewable energy for when it is needed. Smith ended by telling everyone that his hopes for realisable energy from nuclear fusion had faded markedly in the past few years. And he told everyone that at a recent private dinner with BP, it was agreed that if you have children clamouring to work in the energy sector, it would be better if they were aiming to be CEO of a solar company than an oil company, by 2050, if not before.
Dr Richard Lofthouse (LMH, 1990) is the editor of Oxford Today