An Independent Forum for Comment
Issue 418: 15 November 2001
Editor:-   Adrian Pickering

  • University of Southampton Green Group   Denise Baden
  • Wither retirees   Bernard Naylor
  • An Emeritus professor writes  
  • The "Natural Selection" of the Taliban   Muhammad Akhtar
  • Caption competition  
  • The Vice-Chancellor's visit to New college  
  • Book Review   Alan Thomas
  • Viewpoint ARTS PAGES
  • Letters -
  • University Road developments  
  • .. and a response  
  • Suitably embarrassed  
  • A tribute  
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    Denise Baden

    When I joined the university a couple of years ago, I was shocked at the lack of environmental awareness. There seemed to be no facilities for recycling paper, the occasional can banks that I did notice were never emptied and lights and computers were left on all night. I soon realised that I was not alone in my concern. I work in the psychology dept, and, like many other departments, it is made up with many staff and students from other countries to whom recycling is second nature. The Europeans, Americans and Canadians are often to be seen wandering round with sheafs of paper, asking 'where do I recycle this?' They can't believe at first that there isn't a system to deal with it, after a while, they shrug their shoulders and chuck it out like everyone else.

    My first response to this was to search for the University's environmental policy. I tried looking on the University web site, but there was nothing there. I typed in 'environmental policy' into the search engine, with no joy. Eventually after a tortuous route I ended up on the Estates and Buildings page, which led me onto the next closest thing – the utilities and environmental policy. For your interest it reads as follows:

    'The University seeks to provide a safe, comfortable and fit-for-purpose working environment with appropriate reliable sources of energy and water and facilities for the management of waste. It seeks to procure and manage these requirements with due regard to economic and environmental considerations and in a manner consistent with the University's wider objectives.'

    This policy is worryingly general, and does not in itself suggest an earth-shattering commitment to the environment. However, it does go on to list some more specific objectives and strategies arising from this policy statement, for example: 'promoting energy and environmental awareness by means of high profile initiatives across the University' and by 'creating an attractive and informative website devoted to energy and environmental matters.' If this has been done, it is certainly not 'high profile'. I have seen no sign that the University is seriously concerned with environmental issues.

    However also, as part of its aims and objectives, it mentions appointing an energy manager, and also a Sub-Committee to oversee the implementation of this policy with an identified annual budget. These two objectives have been achieved. Mark Turner is employed as a design and energy engineer, and he sits on the Environmental Management Sub-committee, which proposes energy-saving and other environmental initiatives to the University management. Unfortunately, this committee has no power to impose any of its recommendations, and in general the University currently supports environmentally friendly projects only when they are cost-effective, which is frequently not the case. For example, with regard to the new sports building which is planned for construction next summer, a pool cover would significantly save energy. However the low price that the University pays for its gas and electricity means that the pool cover would not pay for itself despite its environmental benefits. Unfortunately the financial case has won the day and a cover has been dropped from the project. Another example is the proposal to treat waste water from the 65 showers as well as the toilets and wash basins in the new Sports Building and to use this to irrigate the green houses in the valley gardens below. This would substantially reduce the consumption of water and discharge of sewage; both of which would otherwise have to be treated remotely and pumped many miles. Again, the University, as a large user of water, pays a substantially reduced rate and this means that local treatment, whilst environmentally beneficial, is cost neutral at best. The cost argument has of course held sway.

    Another strategy listed is to 'Introduce a Waste Management System, which reduces disposal costs through promotion of reduction, reuse and recycling of consumable materials and equipment.' So why is this not happening? Well we do have a waste and disposal manager, Peter Davis, who is involved in trying to organise some sort of recycling scheme. However, after many years of fitting in the job of waste management around his building project duties, it has only just been officially recognised as a specific part of his job description and the amount of time he is able to devote to recycling initiatives has yet to be settled. He is, though, in the process of organising a paper recycling scheme as an extension of the one that has run successfully in the administration building for over a year as a trial. However, this depends on resources which are not available to the wider scheme, so it will not achieve comprehensive coverage of all departments and campuses. As paper forms the major part of our waste, this will fall very short of the potential to save hundreds of tonnes of paper a year. Peter Davis would like to see more recycling on campus, not just because it saves energy and resources but it also saves on the cost of general waste disposal which rises every year, not least because of landfill tax increases. Again, the Environmental Management Sub-committee encourages these measures but unfortunately cannot fund them itself.

    Other bugbears include the worrying trend in the catering outlets towards the exclusive use of bottled water, and more and more and more disposable items. Whereas there used to be mains water taps providing water in the piazza, for example, now students have to purchase bottled water. Mains water has by law to be of safe drinking quality, but members of the University are not offered this option and have to rely on bottled water which has presumably come from some far-away mountain, been bottled and then transported down the M3 in large lorries. In addition to the specific environmental cost of this, it also risks developing the attitude in all those who pass through the University, that bottled water is the best water to drink.

    There is some good news: the University can be proud of a number of projects. The flagship one is its plans to introduce a Combined Heat and Power plant (CHP) linked to the main district heating system that serves the majority of the buildings on the Highfield campus. CHP is a way of generating electricity on site and using the heat generated in this process to warm the buildings and provide hot water to taps. Whilst there are a number of hurdles to jump before the final conclusion of this project it is now underway with the initial enabling works project starting on the West Highfield site next summer.

    Overall however, I believe I will echo many people's sentiments when I express my disappointment at the University's record on environmental policies. It seems that the attitude of the University is that 'if it doesn't save money, it's not worth doing.' Personally I am losing patience with this assumption that all 'green' projects have to be justified in terms of cost alone. I would like to see a shift in priorities, where environmental concerns come at the top of the list of priorities, not at the bottom.

    After all the university is not here to make money, it is a publicly funded institution, with the express aim of educating students and advancing knowledge for the benefit of society. Shouldn't we be leading the way in the development of environmentally friendly policies and practices at an institutional level?

    It has been argued that issues such as recycling of paper are minor in terms of environmental impact, but this misses the point. The problem is not simply that the paper gets thrown away, rather than recycled – this is a drop in the ocean – the real problem is the shift that happens in our priorities. I've seen it happen in myself: at home I collect cans, glass and paper for recycling – it's a bit of effort, but I'm in the habit of doing it. However, after a few months of throwing away large amounts of paper at work, my attitude shifts. It seems pointless to recycle at home when I can't at work – an all-or-nothing approach perhaps, but it's human nature to seek consistency. Thousands of minds are shaped by what they learn at this University. Wouldn't it be nice if this University was sending these minds out with a heightened, rather than a diminished sense of environmental responsibility? Let's set an example to other institutions, rather than lag behind them.

    It seems that no identifiable person or group has both the means and the responsibility to resolve these problems, and so surely by default it falls to the Vice Chancellor to address our concerns. We have a new Vice Chancellor now and I would like to invite his comments on how he plans to tackle these issues.

    A green group has been set up which meets weekly. We desperately need some more recruits who can contribute some energy and commitment to improving the University's environmental policies. Please mail me: if you want to be put on the green group mailing list. You will then be kept informed of the times and dates of future meetings. Currently we meet at 12.50 pm every Tuesday in Seminar Room 1 in the Nuffield Theatre.

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    Wither retirees?

    Bernard Naylor
    University Librarian 1977-2000

    When I retired at the end of last year, I dropped off the edge. I knew I was going to be "something else" for a year, President of the Library Association in fact. So I'm certainly not mooning around wondering what to do with myself. Maybe that feeling cuts in in 2002. Nor did I ever plan to embarrass my successors by gratuitously commenting to them about how the Library was being run since my departure. My predecessor but one (not my immediate predecessor; he was the soul of gentlemanly propriety) did that to me from time to time, and I found that a salutary warning as to my own future conduct. What has surprised me has been the finality of it all. A few years ago, my older brother took early retirement from one of those much-vilified "big banks" where he had worked for more than forty years. To be honest, they didn't treat him very well in the last few years, but when he did retire, he was drawn into an informal system they have for "looking after" their retired staff, and now he visits two or three much older bank pensioners a couple of times a year, for a cup of tea and a chat. And if he finds they are struggling for some reason, he will let the bank know. By contrast, virtually every contact I have had with the University since I left has been initiated by me, with the exception of the Retired Staff Club. My experience so far tells me I can live with that, and so can the University, I expect. The question in my mind, on looking at the matter pragmatically, is whether it makes good sense for the University to do so.

    When I worked for the University, I welcomed and applauded the efforts to build an organisation of alumni. I even tried to do my bit to help, with privileged access to library services for them, after they had gone down. But, worthwhile though it is, that has to be seen as an exercise in throwing bread on the waters, speculating in the hope of return in some relatively distant future. Most students are with us for a short and admittedly impressionable period when they are emerging into full adulthood. But they have so much life ahead of them. They may do postgraduate work somewher else, sooner or later. They will get jobs that take them far away from Southampton, possibly to the other side of the world. They may marry and have children, who themselves will go to University; and I can tell you, as a father of five graduates, begging letters to dad may well follow. They may come across attractive charitable causes which they think are suitable as beneficiaries for any spare money they may have. They may make a lot of money, or none at all. In short, they are a rather uncertain speculation.

    The position with retired members of university staff who stay in Southampton is really rather different and less speculative. They have already given proof of loyalty to the University, in some cases over decades of service. Working for the University is unlikely to have made them really rich. But a decent house in the Southampton area is now worth a couple of hundred thousand, and if they've chosen to invest their retirement lump sum rather than buy an annuity, they may well be worth over a quarter of a million. That's non-trivial money. They will have worked through most of the vast domestic changes. Any children will have clearly made their way – or not. They may have a wary eye on their own eventual need for expensive sheltered accommodation. Notwithstanding that, ten per cent of their estate could be worth quite a bit, and it would not seriously abate what they might be planning to pass on to their children. And in any case, with a house and a lump sum, they may well be required to think about Inheritance Tax, from which, of course, gifts to the University, as to any Charity, are exempt. Finally, let's be blunt about it; compared with present day students, they (I mean, we) will probably die sooner.

    On the assumption that a ten per cent share of a "professorial estate" is likely to be worth £20,000 at least, what has the University to lose by making a pitch to former members of staff at that level? Having said that, and stuck my neck out (as usual), you will probably find me lamenting shortly the flood of pleading paper which has since come through my letter box. But if it is accompanied by other clear practical signs that the University doesn't think I've just dropped off the edge, and would welcome my continuing interest, I think that might be a fair exchange. As for what they might do to demonstrate their continuing interest, I don't intend to offer a list of suggestions on this occasion. But, just as an example, I recently went to the Turner Sims Concert Hall and picked up the October issue of The Dolphin, with interesting news about the University. Otherwise, I don't think I would ever have seen a copy. And I'm sure there's some other things could be done at comparatively trivial cost, and – "in the fulness of time", of course – it just might earn the University a bob or two.

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    Another retiree caused this to pass through the Editor’s e-mail box

    It’s a great honour when Senate confers the title of ‘Emeritus Professor’ on you. The gilt begins to come off the gingerbread when you discover that all this means is that you get Library borrowing privileges and Staff Club membership.

    The gilt disappears entirely when the ID Studio deny all knowledge of Emeritus status, and tell you that you are not on their database :-(

    Luckily, I also have the status of ‘Visiting Research Fellow’. On this basis the ID Studio have given me a card that is supposed to work in the Library, but doesn’t include Staff Club membership :-(

    When I was offered the insulting status of Visiting Research Fellow (you would have thought that in the circumstances they could have risen to ‘Visiting Professor’), Personnel gave me a chit that was sufficient to get my restricted badge. Might it not be an idea to offer a similar chit to those who have been offered the apparently exalted status of Emeritus Professor?

    Or do we not want to give adequate recognition to those who have devoted a lifetime of service to the Institution? Things were very different in the good old days in Cambridge: the elders were genuinely honoured.

    (Happily retired)

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    The 'Natural Selection' of the Taliban


    Emeritus Professor Muhammad Akhtar FRS

    There is a general consensus that once an organism has been created, from first principles, by some mysterious chemical process – or for that matter through creation! – its survival is governed by natural selection. Put simply, the latter means that an organism would be selected if it can gain survival advantage over its competitors or predators. Natural selection is one aspect of the dynamics of biology, which operates from relatively minor instances to the most profound level. My contention in this article is to argue* that existence of a
    * Science is used here in an allegorical sense only; the same argument can be developed from common sense considerations.
    unique brand of religious fundamentalism in Afghanistan is a modest example of the workings of the principle of natural selection. The fundamentalism is there, because it has been selected – through a combination of artificial means and the innate Afghan orthodoxy.

    Time had stood still in Afghanistan for centuries until the late 1970s. Then in 1978 the Soviet Union gained a foothold in Afghanistan, after a bloody overthrow of the regime of President Daud, in which 30 members of his family were assassinated. The pro-communist Nur Mohammad Taraki became the prime minister of the renamed Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. Taraki was to be overthrown by Hafizullah Amin who in turn was overthrown by Babarak Karmal and the latter by Dr Mohammad Najibullah. The communist influence lasted, in all, for nearly 14 years. Despite this frequent change of the figurehead, not uncommon for Afghanistan, the Soviet Union through generous financial assistance and dedicated support of the country's education and health institutions managed to drag Afghanistan into the 20th century. A 29-year-old female doctor, Saira, who recently fled from Kabul to Pakistan told Jasen Burke of the Observer, ' Life was good under the Soviets. Every girl could go to school and university. We could go wherever we wanted and wear what we liked. A lot my friends wore miniskirts but I liked my long summer dress which was more comfortable. We could go to cafés and cinema .......'

    The social changes in urban Afghanistan were unacceptable to the traditionalists living in villages, who started armed opposition against the modernist central government. In order to help their comrades in trouble, in 1979, the Soviet army, with nearly eighty thousand troops, entered Afghanistan. Although, the USA and a number of other countries vehemently denounced the intervention, the Soviet Union justified its action on the basis of an existing defence treaty. It is the arrival of these godless communists on the Afghan soil, which was to provide the glue for uniting rival Islamic factions, and led to the start of the 'holy' war. A Pakistani army General recently remarked that, 'Afghans are only happy when they are fighting' – their happiness must have been that much the greater since the fight now was against the infidels. Initially the rebel groups, operating under the name of Mujahideen, meaning those participating in Jihad, had the support of the Pakistan government. Soon the West, in particular the Anglo-Americans realising that the anti-communist zeal of the Mujahideen could be used to embarrass the Soviet Union joined in.

    Following low-key guerrilla incursions, from their bases in Pakistan, the Mujahideen began to inflict heavy losses on the Soviets, an outcome greatly relished by the West. The newspaper headlines of those years spared no adjectives to eulogise the Mujahideen achievements.

    During the nine-year period of Soviet military involvement in the Afghani war some 15,000 Soviet troops were killed and a further 37,000 wounded. Not willing – or able – to sustain any further loss, the Soviet Union agreed to sign the Geneva accords, in April 1988, which stipulated the complete withdrawal of its forces, a process which was fully implemented by February 1989. As the events were to unfold, the withdrawal marked the beginning of the end of the Soviet Empire. It is ironical that such a momentous historic process should have been triggered by the people of one of the poorest countries.

    Once, all Soviet troops had left Afghanistan, President Gorbachev proclaimed his country's full adherence to the Geneva accords and appealed for a cease-fire and end to arm deliveries to the Mujahideen and, the last pro-Soviet, Najibullah regime. However, the then recently inaugurated US President George Bush announced in February 1989 that the USA would continue to support the Mujahideen for 'as long as the resistance struggle for self-determination continues'.

    Najibullah left to fend for himself proved vulnerable and as the Mujahideen made territorial gains, it all started to go wrong for the intelligentsia as remembers Saira, the Afghani doctor, ' They (the Mujahideen) were uneducated peasants who used to kill teachers and burn schools'. It took another three years before the government of Dr Najibullah finally fell and with that occurred the systematic and gradual decimation of whatever liberal opinion had been implanted by the Soviets in Afghanistan. During the cold war years, the West was solely driven by its obsession to humiliate the Soviets. The last relics of the Soviet influence removed by the defeat of Najibullah, the West turned its back on Afghanistan leaving the war-torn country in a miserable state – only to return a decade later to complete the destruction of the little that remained.

    It is often the case in biology that the selection of a particular trait is accompanied by the pleiotropic selection of several others. In the case of Mujahideen their communist phobia, for which they became the darling of the West, arose from their deep-seated conservatism and a somewhat crude interpretation of Islam. Their hard-line attitude and inability to compromise are highlighted by the fact for three years after the historic victory, the Mujahideen were unable to form a stable government. In the process they also showed that religious fervour is not necessarily accompanied by piety or commitment to a high code of moral behaviour. In fact, as rulers the Mujahideen proved to be rotten human beings as was noted in an Amnesty International report published in December 1994 in which it accused the Mujahideen groups of mass murder, torture and rape of women and children.

    Afghanistan, ill-served by the Mujahideen was then to turn to their children the Taliban (students), the plural of Talib-ilm, literally translated as the 'seeker of knowledge', meaning a student. Afghan children who had studied in religious schools in Pakistan – while their parents were fighting the war – were converted from boys into men when they were appointed as bodyguards by Pakistan to protect, from looting by certain Mujahideen groups, a convoy trying to open a trade route between Pakistan and Central Asia. In less than two years from this humble beginning the Taliban captured Kabul (September 1996) and were soon to control 90% of Afghanistan. The Taliban's popularity with many Afghans depended on the fact that like their elders, the Mujahideen, they were deeply religious but unlike them the Taliban were puritanical, austere and certainly less corrupt. The Taliban – and for that matter Osama bin Laden – continue to believe in the dogma, which suited the West during the cold war years – the West has now changed its position, not the Taliban. A bizarre consequence of West's hostility toward Taliban, and the recent military action, has been the return to Kabul of the very same leaders, who were criticised by Amnesty International.

    Dear reader, in Afghanistan whatever is on offer is the Taliban clone, a breed selected and nurtured by the West at the expense of the liberal intelligentsia. That the West should now be so furious with its own choice is a phenomenon which would be incomprehensible to that, infinitely objective, being from Mars!

    Finally, a corollary from the line of reasoning above is, that the hope of finding a broadly based post Taliban regime, half acceptable to the likes of Polly Toynbee of the Guardian, is likely to turn out to be a mirage.

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    Caption Competition

    The Editor's favorite entries for the cartoon Issue 417