Hope and hard facts

BRLSI lecture groups are creatures of habit, meeting (where possible) at the same time each month. The Philosophy and World Affairs groups share a liking for the first Tuesday, which over the years has led to some interesting coincidences of high thought and global pragmatism on the BRLSI’s first floor.
It happened again tonight, with the Elwin room host to a Philosophy Group lecture on Utopian Thinking while next door, in the slightly more utilitarian Duncan Room, the World Affairs group heard how rational decision-making can aid progress towards a Green Economy and help to avoid the looming trade-off wars over water, energy and habitat.
Prof David Halpin, of London University’s Institute of Education, is an unabashed Utopian thinker. He described Utopian thinking as being about hope rather than fantasy, a way of breaking out of the feedback loops of negative thought that blight these “profoundly depressing times”. Proud to have once been described as a “silly Utopian” by a conference co-attendee, he took swipes at some fairly high-profile targets, including fellow philosopher Roger Scruton for his understanding of Utopianism, and scientist Richard Dawkins for his attitude to religion. In return he took some critical questioning from the ever-active Philosophy Group audience, especially over the role of Utopianism in his specialist field of education, defending his view that teaching students to think creatively about what can be achieved would help to reverse the current ‘narratives of decline’ in in ecology, morality, economics and intellect.

Prof Tony Simons
Meanwhile in the Duncan Room Prof Tony Simons (left), Deputy Director General of the World Agro-Forestry Centre in Nairobi, Kenya, gave his audience some distinctly non-Utopian hard facts and asked them to consider how they would deal with them. One example was the use of agricultural land – or, more specifically, the crops grown on it. A hectare of land in the developing world can produce three tonnes of maize per annum, which can be turned into enough biofuel to power a family car for a year.  This sounds an excellent idea  until you consider that three tonnes of maize is also enough to feed eight rural families in Malawi for a year, and that there aren’t enough hectares to do both. Prof Simons’ message was that we have to face up to realities – particularly the one that we can’t keep on taking from the Third World what it needs for itself, and that a rational, scientific approach to decision-making is the one most likely to stop us from stumbling on towards disaster.
Blue sky thinking or hard facts and rational decision-making? It’s a tough choice, and one that will no doubt be occurring again on First Tuesday nights in Queen Square.

• Exceptions that prove the first-Tuesday rule: BRLSI’s World Affairs Group is back in action on Monday July 19th, when Richard Poynton will speak on Routes To Sustainable Consumption. The Philosophy Group is now on its summer break, but returns on Thursday September 16th with a lecture by Professor A.C.Grayling of Birkbeck College.