For many of us, our greatest childhood fantasies always involved candy stores and unlimited supplies of sweets. Our fantasies grew with us, but I never imagined that one so far-fetched as studying at the University of Oxford with a full scholarship would be realised. The Weidenfeld Hoffmann Trust (WHT) scholarship granted me a once in a lifetime opportunity to further my studies in an area I am passionate about, Water Science, Policy and Management, in a world-class university.
I had these thoughts on my mind the morning of Saturday the 2nd of November 2019, while, too excited to even feel the cold gushes against my cheeks, I was waiting for my very first ride to London to attend the Battle of Ideas Festival, an annual debating event held at the Barbican Centre in the heart of London.
At first, I thought my presence at the debates would be questioned; isn’t that for philosophy and art students? However, looking at the other WHT scholars I felt reassured. There were students from fields such as Social Science of the Internet, International Health and Tropical Medicine, Biodiversity and Conservation Management, Computer Science, Public Policy and Business Administration; an indication of the academic diversity within the cohort, one of the strong points of the WHT programme.
The first session I attended; “Who are the Establishment?” was a debate about “power”, Steve Richards opened the floor with a passage from a book by Charles Moore (Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography) about power lying in the hands of a narrow group of people. I could not help but think about the power dynamics in my own field and reflect on both the social and structural inequalities that exist in water access and the implications of these on an already crippled economy. I was inspired by calls to make “the powerful” less alien by requiring accountability and transparency; the kind of leadership the WHT is always trying to reinforce in us.
Another interesting session I attended was “Does the world need a government?” As a student of the environment, I quickly linked this to climate change and how pollution does not respect borders: international cooperation is needed if we are to tackle one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. Amidst the intense debates, I realised how difficult it is to deal with issues such as climate change because “out of sight, out of mind” and how for this reason such problems do not get the urgency they deserve. This debate session also addressed the very critical question of how to pursue democracy at an international level even while it is failing dismally at a national level.
Although free speech was allowed and encouraged, speakers were always asked to be courteous. Unfortunately, not everyone was able to engage respectfully: this was the case in the last session I attended “From Bugs to Beef-free burgers: What’s the future of food?”. It got awkwardly intense and a farmer who strongly felt vegans were “hypocrites” had to be excused from the debate. Nevertheless, the session was a definite eureka moment for me as I was able to draft my Food Ecologies elective essay from it. I am looking at how markets drive or impede sustainable practices and at the connection between meat production and water management.
The debates were closed by drinks accompanied by a live band, it was time to call it a day and head back to oxford. On the inbound journey, I had time to reflect on my own personal biases and how, beyond the events of that day, I could promote debate, scrutiny and exchange of beliefs and policies in a non-toxic environment back home. I will be forever grateful to WHT for such a fulfilling experience.