pink umbrellas in a town with people in a climate change protest
pink umbrellas in a town with people in a climate change protest

Nature provides services worth over $125 trillion per year globally

The planet’s species population sizes have decreased by 70% since the 1970s. Yet while scientists have proven that biodiversity loss is intimately linked with climate change, it continues to be kept in the shadows of the climate agenda

As the Nature-based Solutions Conference kicks off at Oxford University this week, we speak to Professor Nathalie Seddon about why boosting biodiversity is essential to building the resilience of our ecosystems in a warming world – and why planting trees is not the catch-all solution some think it is.

LUX: The mass of living creatures in the world is undergoing a dramatic diminution. What are the effects of this?


Professor Nathalie Seddon

Nathalie Seddon: The statistics are startling. We have lost about 80% of wild fish from the oceans and 82% of wild mammals on land, so our habitats and natural ecosystems are basically empty. 97% of vertebrates on the planet are people and their livestock; only 3% are wild creatures that we share the planet with. 9 million hectares of tropical forest are cut down a year; and we’ve modified over 50% of land use.

Biodiversity is important for multiple reasons – material, cultural and spiritual. Our health is intimately linked to the health of all these ecosystems that we are currently destroying. Our nature systems support us in countless ways, providing clean air, water, food, and genetic resources. Over half of GDP depends on natural ecosystems, which generate over $125 trillion worth of ecosystem services each year – from reducing the impacts of droughts and protecting coastlines from flooding or forests from wildfires. These services are dependent on the species and the diversity of the species within them, and are incredibly important to our resilience in a warming world.

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LUX: Why is there so little awareness around biodiversity loss?

NS: Climate still doesn’t get enough attention or funding, but it is considerably more prominent in discourse than biodiversity is. Our economy has also been developed on the assumption that nature’s resources are infinite. People assume that, with enough money, technology will come to the rescue. I think there is a fundamental reason to explain all of these: the age-old idea that humans are not part of nature but rather separate from it; that we must conquer nature rather than flourish as a part of it. This disconnect between humans and nature is the root cause, and therefore also part of the solution to the trouble we face.


Deforestation contributes to increases in temperatures and changes in rainfall patterns across the world

LUX: Are we at a turning point of the understanding of the importance of biodiversity – not just as a desirable end in itself but as an essential part of combating climate change?

NS: In principle, yes. In the international policy and business community, there’s a lot more talk about biodiversity and climate change as two sides of the same coin. But a lot more work is needed to make sure that there is a robust understanding of what that means in practice and how that translates on the ground. For instance, agriculture or commodity production are the biggest drivers of biodiversity loss and also the second biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Protecting and restoring our biodiversity can help reduce emissions, but about 23% of our emissions come from changes in the land use sector in agricultural and forestry and other land use, so improving what happens in those landscapes can also have important impacts on warming. It’s only still quite a small part of the solution.

There has been a step up in terms of the prominence and emphasis on nature as part of the negotiations on nature-based solutions. But there are huge misunderstandings, including a big conflation of commercial forestry with nature-based solutions. You can’t just plant trees and then delay decarbonisation and transition to renewables.

The Glasgow Science Centre played a key role in last year’s COP26 discussions

LUX: What are the most important steps leaders in business and wealthy individuals can take to combating this?

NS: A lot of businesses and governments are making net zero pledges, covering 90% of the global economy. But you look under the bonnet, and most of them are not underpinned by a really robust science based plan or any funding to enact it.

Talking about how nature, biodiversity and climate are connected is good, but we need to ensure that decision makers who are acting on that basis understand what that actually means in practice.That doesn’t mean offsetting carbon emissions by investing in cheap forestry plantations. It means doing everything they possibly can to reduce those emissions and reduce the damage that they’re doing to ecosystems within their supply chains whilst also investing in projects that are biodiversity based and community led and ideally doing that within their supply chains, which is a process that’s called insetting rather than offsetting.

Read more: Cary Fowler on Protecting the Biodiversity of our Planet

Offsetting is when a company will calculate its impact on climate or emissions so it will invest in probably some trees somewhere that probably shouldn’t be there and feel like it is addressing the problem. Insetting is looking within your own supply chain and investing in high quality, valuable projects within that supply chain, so insetting your damage to the biosphere and the climate within your supply chain. In doing so, you are not only meeting your ESG requirements but also increasing the value in resilience of the supply chain itself. It’s about investing in nature in your supply chains to reduce risk, operational risk, supply chain risks as well as reputational risk.

There is a real need to engage fully with the research community to ensure that those pledges can be met in a sustainable, ethical, biodiversity community-based way and so that’s where the work is. Public-private partnerships between researchers and businesses are really important. Companies in general should adopt a generative, circular economy model and then embed proper robust accounting on natural and social capital in their accounting procedures.


Humans have identified just 3 million of over 12 million complex life forms on the planet

LUX: Is it true that we are still discovering exactly how different species, seemingly unrelated, can have a dramatic impact on the health of the planet and the human race?

NS: There’s upwards of about 12 million complex life forms on the planet, and we have only named around 3 million of them. We don’t know what functions all those species play in the ecosystem, we just know that all species matter and that we can’t afford to lose the predicted 1 million species by the end of the century.

That diversity gives ecosystems the resilience they need in a warming world. It’s like having a diverse investment portfolio – the more different sorts of investments you have, the more likely it is to be able to weather the storm, in that case, a financial storm. In a natural world, the more species you have, the more likely it is that that ecosystem can deal with whatever is coming.

LUX: Are there any causes for hope, or is your feeling that we are doing too little too late?

NS: On one hand it’s all very frustrating because we’ve known for a very long time what causes climate change and what drives biodiversity loss, yet very little has been achieved. Put it into perspective: we have lost about 70% of species populations since the 1970s, despite a huge increase in the coverage of protecting it.

But there are lots of countries that are pledging to do the right thing: community and biodiversity based investments and nature-based solutions, at the same time as big commitments to renewables and reducing emissions. Costa Rica is leading on climate policy and the practice of renewables, plus large areas of land are under recovery and protection. [The same goes for] Moldova, Brazil, Chile and Cape Verde, at least on paper, in terms of how they’re incorporating nature into their climate change pledges.

There are also various companies that are taking a high integrity approach to tackling net zero. Netflix is an example of that: they are reducing emissions across all of their operations as fast as they can, as well as investing in projects that are truly verified in terms of their carbon, biodiversity and social benefits. That’s the real point. You can’t invest in nature if you’re not also doing everything you possibly can to reduce emissions.


Nature-based solutions involve the sustainable management and use of natural resources to tackle socio-environmental challenges

LUX: Who are the laggards?

NS: Most of the main fossil fuel companies are talking about decarbonisation but they’re not making enough progress. We need to keep fossil fuels in the ground and we need to invest in nature. It’s not ‘either or’, and some of those big fossil fuel companies are just greenwashing their operations by claiming to invest in so called nature-based solutions which often just turn out to be short rotation commercial forestry plantations. That’s a live issue that needs to be fully addressed.

At the government level, many countries are investing in tree planting, while not ensuring that their existing biodiversity and intact ecosystems are protected properly, and in fact actively opening them up. Decisionmakers seem to think that growing a tree is the same as a tree which is in an intact ecosystem, yet science is really clear that there is no equivalent: you can’t recapture the carbon lost through destroying our intact ecosystem in a timely or sensible way through planting trees. .

Read more: Julie Packard: All In Together

LUX: How would you explain to an intelligent but distracted business leader that the loss of a seemingly trivial habitat in one part of the world can have a fundamental effect on people in the other?

NS: The earth is a big, interconnected system. Deforestation rates in the Amazon are increasing to meet global demand for beef and soya, but because Amazonia is a big water pump, this can cause changes in global patterns of rainfall, therefore compromising food security and causing supply chain issues. For the intelligent but distracted business leader who thinks that it doesn’t really matter if we lose all the monkeys or toucans from a forest, it does, because those species play a critical role in the ecosystems and we need to extract carbon from the atmosphere to keep all of us safe.

Ultimately, we need systemic change in how we run our economies. Our economic system prioritises material wealth and infinite growth on finite resources. Unless that changes, we won’t avert climate change and biodiversity. We need to think about circular and regenerative economies, and we as individuals need to enact big behavioural change as part of that. Otherwise, you’re just rearranging chairs on the Titanic.

Nathalie Seddon is Professor of Biodiversity in the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford.

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Reading time: 9 min
Abstract artwork of microbe type shapes floating in a colourful background
Colourful illustration of corn cobs against a pale green background

Art by Grace Crabtree

Genetically modified organisms have courted controversy since they were first developed. Mark Lynas’ new book explores the surprising extent to which politics has trumped science in the GMO debate, says Shannon Osaka

When Mark Lynas slouched onto the stage at the 2013 Oxford Farming Conference, he looked decidedly uncomfortable. After all, the British environmentalist and science writer — known for his well-researched and detailed books on climate change — was about to face his peers in a format best resembling a confession. ‘My lords, ladies, and gentlemen,’ he began. ‘For the record, here and upfront, I apologise for having spent several years ripping up GM crops.’

Lynas wasn’t speaking metaphorically. In the late 1990s, dressed in a black hoodie and clutching a machete, Lynas took part in ‘direct actions’ against geoengineering, in which he and his fellow activists dodged police and landowners to destroy GM crops. Their call to action was a milieu of anti-corporate sentiment, anti-capitalism, and resistance to the modification of nature. In advance of one early action, Lynas wrote on a flyer: ‘Huge corporations…are using genetics to engineer a corporate takeover of our entire food supply. There is still time to stop them.’

From the beginning, the producers of genetically modified organisms (GMOs or GMs for short) – including such unsavoury companies as the US-based Monsanto – have been embroiled in a war of attrition against environmental activists. Those ideologically opposed to genetic modification spent the late 90s and early 2000s planning protests and spreading misinformation about the dangers of the new crops. They called GMOs ‘Frankenfoods’. They demonised the scientists and researchers who developed them.

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And they were overwhelmingly successful. In 2005, a Gallup poll found that a third of the US population believed that crops made with biotech posed ‘a serious health hazard to consumers’. By 2015, over half of the countries in the European Union, including Germany, France, and Italy, had enacted bans against the cultivation of GM crops. While GMOs are still grown today in the United States, their spread has been slowed or halted in Europe, Asia, and Africa.

To date, however, the deleterious effects of GMOs remain merely speculative. Ninety percent of scientists think that genetically modified foods are safe. The American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, the Royal Society of London, and many other science organisations worldwide have stated that GMOs are safe or, at the very least, not any more dangerous than organisms developed through conventional breeding methods.

It was the realisation that his position was not only unsupported by, but in fact the antithesis of, the scientific consensus that led Lynas to his emotional confession before the Oxford Farming Conference. It also led him to write Seeds of Science: Why We Got It So Wrong on GMOs (2018), a book that is at once memoir, polemic, and technology explainer; it is at times frustrating and at other times revelatory.

It is also timely. In an age that has been called ‘post-fact’ and ‘post-truth’, trust in science is on a decline amid a deluge of internet-spread misinformation, partisan politicking, and privately-funded denialism. A BBC documentary in 2010 declared that science was ‘under attack’ and the March for Science, founded last year in response to the inauguration of Donald Trump, attracted 100,000 participants in Washington, D.C. alone. On both sides of the Atlantic, doubt has spread on every scientific question from the veracity of anthropogenic climate change to the safety of vaccines.

Amid such conflict and uncertainty, Lynas’ recantation seems hopeful: a triumph of reason over emotion, of evidence over partisanship. But the real story is more complicated. As [Shawn] Otto explains in his lengthy and thorough The War on Science (2016), scientific reasons for supporting one position or another all too easily bleed into ideological ones – whether the issue is conservative opposition to climate change or liberal distrust of GMOs. Yes, Lynas changed his mind: but was he motivated by fact or ideology?


The story of GMOs begins with a misnomer. All organisms that we eat are, in one way or another, ‘genetically modified’. We have crossbred similar species of plants and animals to select for particular, idealised characteristics. That’s why carrots are orange, large, and sweet rather than small, white, and woody. That’s also why we have domesticated dogs that range in size and shape from the dachshund to the Great Dane.

But it can’t be denied that GMOs have an extra ick factor. Genetically modified organisms, in the sense that we use the word today, contain genes that have been extracted from some other, often completely unrelated, organism. Donor DNA which codes for a particular useful protein is removed and implanted into the recipient, imbuing it with the superpowers of (in the case of food) pest or herbicide resistance. This type of genetic engineering is cool, but also frightening. As Lynas said in his conference speech, ‘This absolutely was about deep-seated fears of scientific powers being used secretly for unnatural ends … We employed a lot of imagery about scientists in their labs, cackling demonically as they tinkered with the very building blocks of life.’ There’s something about modifying the genome itself that smacks of technological overreach.

Abstract artwork of microbe type shapes floating in a colourful background

Art by Grace Crabtree

It doesn’t help that GMOs are a poster child for the corporatisation of farming. Monsanto, a multinational conglomerate formerly based in St. Louis, Missouri, was one of the first companies to produce and commodify genetically engineered seeds. (Monsanto no longer exists as an independent entity: in June 2018, it finalised its sale to German chemical giant Bayer). Lynas traces how Monsanto engineers stumbled upon a highly potent, surprisingly safe herbicide called glyphosate, which the corporate eventually dubbed ‘Roundup’. Combined with a soybean genetically modified to resist glyphosate – aka the ‘Roundup Ready’ soybean – Monsanto could sell farmers seeds and herbicide simultaneously, ensuring a steady stream of profit.

Although the company touted its ethical bona fides at every opportunity, its business practises looked suspect. GM crops had promised to help the environment by removing the need for toxic herbicides and pesticides – but Monsanto’s first big biotech release required an herbicide: one that was produced only by Monsanto. The company had also pledged to reduce poverty in developing countries with its new crops. But it aggressively patented its products to lock out competitors, and seemed to seek a kind of monopolistic control over the world food system

Lynas and his fellow activists exploited this narrative to the best of their ability. Companies like Monsanto, they argued, were ‘playing God with DNA, and using customers as guinea pigs’. In one press release from 1997, Lynas claimed that under the biotech company ‘the natural world is being redesigned for private profit’. In these communications, multiple forms of GMO opposition were intertwined and blurred. Were Lynas and his colleagues worried that ingesting GMOs would cause illness, disease, or death? Were they reacting to the commodification of agriculture, food, and nature – a long-standing environmentalist raison d’etre? Or was it a purely philosophical opposition against human technological hubris?

The answer matters. The recent twist in Anglo-American politics has created an illusion that all science denial emerges from the right. Denial of climate change has become a near-fundamentalist belief from pro-industry conservatives, while right-leaning religious groups and conspiracy theorists contradict evolution and (in some bizarre cases), the fact that the earth is round.

But, as Otto argues, distrust of science is equal opportunity. It affects thinkers on the left and the right, when science conflicts with dominant ideologies. The anti-vaccine craze, beginning in England with now-discredited physician Andrew Wakefield, began as a movement of well-educated liberals who inherited the holistic health fad of the 1970s. Other historical leftist anti-science positions have included fear of fluoride in tap water, or suspicion that mobile phones and microwaves can cause cancer.

One of the mysteries of GMO opposition, however, is how the same left-wing environmentalists who espouse a 97% scientific consensus on climate change ignore – or even criticise – the similar consensus on the safety of genetically engineered foods.

Read more: Inside one of the world’s most exclusive business networks

Lynas was once one of them. Lacking a scientific background and propelled by green values, he wrote blithely in the 90s about the dangers of GM crops, with little empirical evidence beyond anecdotes shared among eco-advocacy groups. But over the next decade his focus changed. Inspired by what he saw as rampant rejection of global warming science (he once pied climate denier Bjørn Lomborg in the face during a book tour), Lynas started pouring over the research on climate change. He wrote two popular books explaining climate science: Six Degrees and High Tide.

In 2008, shortly after winning a science book prize for Six Degrees, he was asked by The Guardian to write an op-ed on GMOs. He was startled to find that he couldn’t locate any legitimate peer-reviewed sources to back up his usual claims that genetically modified crops could contaminate local environments, or that they led to the use of more hazardous chemicals in farming. ‘Facts are stubborn things,’ John Adams once wrote, and Lynas, overwhelmed, felt he was at a crossroads: all his environmentalist colleagues opposed GMOs. ‘I could betray my friends, or I could betray my conscience,’ he writes. ‘Which would it be?’


In the end, Lynas prioritised his conscience. In the first half of Seeds of Science, he attempts to debunk every wrongheaded GMO belief he ever harboured, from claims that GM crops cause environmental devastation to the moral culpability of Monsanto. In some places, such as in his polemic against ‘fake news’ peddled by the environmental movement, his interventions are long overdue. In 2008, news outlets widely reported that thousands of Indian farmers had committed suicide because they couldn’t afford to pay Monsanto for genetically-engineered cotton seeds. The story was pushed by Vandana Shiva, a high-profile Indian activist who has called GMOs a form of ‘food totalitarianism’ and referred to the introduction of insect-resistant Bt cotton into the state of Maharashtra as a ‘genocide’.

But, as Lynas points out, all available evidence shows that suicides among Indian farmers are no higher than other countries in the developed or developing world – including Scotland and France. Journalists, including Lynas himself and New Yorker correspondent Michael Specter, travelled to Maharashtra and found no evidence of the massive suicide waves Shiva and anti-GMO campaigners pointed to. Lynas writes, ‘The Indian farmer suicide story is a myth, built … by those like Vandana Shiva with an ideological axe to grind and little concern about the true facts.’

In other places, however, Lynas seems blinded by his own enthusiasm. Eager as he is to debunk GMO fears, he conflates the connection between GMOs and health – a question that science can answer – with more philosophical oppositions. We can think GMOs are safe to eat, but still question whether humans should be modifying genomes in the first place. We can believe GM crops are safe for the environment, and still critique Monsanto’s patenting process and its monopolisation of the global food supply. When Lynas writes a chapter lionising the history of Monsanto, he sounds less like a rational man of science, and more like a man who has traded one ideology for another.

And while science itself may not be ideological, its interpretation, and the public’s belief in its findings, certainly is. Otto argues that the role of values and ideology in scientific trust has plagued communication (and democracy) for decades. The British philosopher and scientist Francis Bacon put it best when he wrote, in 1620: ‘…What a man had rather were true he more readily believes. Therefore he rejects difficult things from impatience of research … [and] things not commonly believed, out of deference to the opinion of the vulgar. Numberless, in short, are the ways, and sometimes imperceptible, in which the affections colour and infect the understanding.’

While Lynas initially wanted to believe that his change of heart was based on cold, hard, scientific facts, modern psychology has proven the opposite. Science communication is often based on an ‘information deficit model’; if only the public were more informed, scientists argue, they would accept findings from anthropogenic climate change to the safety of GMOs.

But the truth is more complicated. For example, on the issue of climate change, studies have found that greater scientific literacy actually increases polarisation. According to a 2008 Pew Research Center Study, highly-educated conservatives in the US are less likely to believe in climate change than their less-educated counterparts. Otto attributes this to an educational model overly focused on critique, combined with never-before-seen political polarisation. He writes, grimly: ‘We are inculcating the attitude of scepticism without teaching the skills of evidence gathering and critical thinking needed to discern what is likely true.’

Read more: Knight Frank’s Chairman Alistair Elliott on research and tech

The problem is that in the human mind, values run hotter than evidence. Essential knee-jerk moralisms (like opposition to sexual taboos) and partisan ideologies, whether pro-corporate or anti-establishment, take centre stage in the battle for our minds. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind (2012), argues that when faced by evidence contradicting a deeply-held belief, people ‘reason’, but not to find truth. Instead, they reason to support their emotional reactions. ‘If you ask people to believe something that violates their intuitions, they will devote their efforts to finding an escape hatch – a reason to doubt your argument or conclusion,’ Haidt writes. ‘They will almost always succeed.’

When it comes to the politics of science, a set of ideologies divide the public on controversies. Otto, with a chart that resembles a tuning fork, separates science sceptics into two broad camps. On one side, an odd couple of ‘old industry’ (oil, chemical, and agricultural companies) and ‘old religion’ have banded together to form right-wing anti-science. Otto calls it a ‘marriage of convenience’. ‘The fundamentalists needed access and legitimacy and the business interests needed passionate foot soldiers,’ he writes. Together, this right-wing group doubts the science of climate change, evolution, and reproductive health. On the other side, pro-environment liberals have joined with anti-corporate activists to question mainstream medicine, the safety of vaccines, and worry about the deleterious effects of GMOs.

This is certainly an oversimplification of a problem that is more granular than Otto lets on. Anti-science doesn’t split so neatly along partisan divides. (For example, while liberals tend to be the most active anti-GMO activists, many conservatives are suspicious of GM crops as well.) But his premise helps to unlock the puzzle of why climate change believers like Lynas are often also GMO sceptics. For an environmentalist, belief in science is not the tantamount value, but rather belief in preserving a particular vision of ‘nature’, one that is external to society but vulnerable to human influence. Within this worldview, anthropogenic climate change makes sense, but so do the dangers of genetic engineering. When value-centred beliefs clash with science – and with an increasingly entertainment-focused news media that, as Otto argues, is no longer a ‘marketplace of ideas’ but a ‘marketplace of emotion’ – consensus and evidence take a backseat to more heartfelt beliefs.

That’s a deeply troubling sign for a democratic society. Otto believes that science is essentially anti-authoritarian, that it relentlessly challenges received wisdom through a rigorous system of peer-review and hypothesis testing. What are we to do, then, when research shows that both the left and the right are unable to set ideology aside when facing scientific questions?

In the final few chapters of Seeds of Science, Lynas begins to understand the real reasons behind his change of heart. His polemic against anti-GMO activists gives way to a sincere exposition on the role of partisanship in science belief. His recantation came, he notes, on the heels of his acceptance into a community of scientists and science journalists, and thus into a new ideology (albeit one that placed science first). ‘Deep down,’ he writes, ‘I probably cared less about the actual truth than I did about my reputation for truth within my new scientific tribe … It wasn’t so much that I changed my mind, in other words. It was that I changed my tribe.’ It’s a dark takeaway from a book ostensibly written about the importance of facts and evidence.

Read more: A journey to the Kimberley with Geoffrey Kent

There are still reasons to oppose GMOs. One of Lynas’ friends, the Oxford-based environmental journalist George Monbiot, believes that the consensus that GMOs are safe changes little about the movement against them. ‘For me, it was all about corporate power, patenting, control, scale and dispossession,’ Monbiot told Lynas. In short, many of the villains countered by the environmental movement. Monbiot thus understands what Lynas initially ignored. Science can tell us about risks, benefits, and safety, but the decision about whether to genetically modify organisms (or, for example, whether to geo-engineer the climate to prevent catastrophic climate change), is a social and political one. It can only be made through use of all-too-human values and deliberation.

What is needed, then, is science as a platform, a foundation on which politics can be built. ‘Wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government,’ Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter in 1789. At the end of his book, in a section optimistically titled ‘Winning the War’, Otto suggests science debates, a scientific code of ethics, journalistic standards for science coverage, and much more. He is a cheerleader for an evidence-based democratic society.

In the ‘post-truth’ era, where expertise is scoffed at and fact held in disdain, Otto’s scientific city on a hill seems a long way off. Humans that we are, we prefer narrative to evidence, linear stories to complex truths. We accept science when it aligns with our worldview; we doubt it if it does not. But, despite his flaws, Lynas represents the faint hope that under the right conditions we can change our minds. That, over time, the stubbornness of fact can – and might – outweigh the obstinance of ideology.

Shannon Osaka is a postgraduate student in geography at Worcester College, University of Oxford. She writes about technology, science, and climate change.

Reading time: 15 min
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Logo reading Secret Diary of an Oxford UndergraduateIllustration of a woman wearing an elaborate eye mask

Oxford University is the world’s best, according to august publications like The Times. Oligarchs, CEOs, kings and presidents clamour alongside ordinary people to get their daughters and sons in; and for generation after generation of ambitious, intellectual kids, Oxford is among a handful of names that represent the ultimate in academic aspiration. But what’s it like to actually be there? Our anonymous diarist reveals all

November 2nd, 2018

Day 38 at Oxford. It’s 8am. Sunlight is pouring through my flimsy, green curtains, which may as well not be there at all for the light-blocking they achieve. In ten minutes my scout* will burst into my room, stomp across the carpet and empty my bins with all the subtlety of a rhinoceros, taking special care to slam my door on her way out. As I rub my eyes I think about what the day ahead has in store for me. Lecture at 9am, class at 2pm, tutorial at 4pm. And every hour in between? The library. With a yawn I roll out of bed and open the curtains. I can see the college library from here, and it can most certainly see me. I feel judged. (Note to self: go to library first thing tomorrow.)

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I begin to get dressed, now unbothered by the fact that everyone outside can see me in all my glory, my window conveniently overlooking the college chapel and quad; the Chaplain certainly gets an eyeful most mornings. I put the kettle on and prepare my ‘just add hot water’ porridge pot. Thirty-eight days, thirty-eight porridge pots. It is even more depressing than it sounds. In this moment I realise I no longer feel like a fresher at all. In fact it feels as though I’ve been here a lifetime. Yes, I feel like a proper Oxford student now. And this is in no small part due to my buying that bike I was talking about. It was the perfect solution to my near-existential crisis. Of course, I still feel just as out of my depth here as I did on my very first day, but I now pedal around the city, other students whizzing about me, aggressively ringing my little bell at all those spatially unaware pedestrians in the road – and I feel like I belong.

To be a true Oxford student, I have decided, one must have a bike. Perhaps more importantly, however, we have now been matriculated. That is, the freshers have been officially enrolled to the university and experienced the madness that is Matriculation Day, going through the rituals of signing the college register, attending the ceremony and partaking in the famous ‘matriculash’ celebrations thereafter. I think back fondly to Matriculation Day as I eat my porridge, which has now set like cement in the bowl. I have to admit I enjoyed the pomposity of it all, not least because we got to wear sub fusc** for the very first time. I spent a shamefully long time inspecting my new look in the mirror before we went to the ceremony: the academic gown, complete with elaborate shoulder streamers, looked like something from Harry Potter. The academic cap was another novelty, although these were made redundant from their head-covering capacities due to an old Oxfordian legend which dictates that it is bad luck to wear your cap before graduation (needless to say we found an astonishing number of alternative uses for it: drinks coaster, drinks container, frisbee, you name it). It was in this attractive academic get-up that we trotted down to the Sheldonian Theatre for the ceremony, tourists snapping photos and shoulder streamers flailing in the wind as we went. While some of us felt empowered by the costume, others felt like little more than misplaced penguins. And for A, that indefatigable workaholic I mentioned in my last entry, the sub fusc proved too much altogether: she tore her skirt while jumping for a group photograph and was sent running to the nearest H&M for a replacement with ten minutes to go. What a day that was.

My reverie is interrupted as someone opens my door and strolls languidly in. It’s not my scout, but a friend from the floor above. We’ll call her M. I met her at the offer holders’ Open Day in April and we hit it off immediately. Effortlessly edgy, make-up free and unnervingly intelligent, she is far too cool to be friends with me and I absolutely know it. I clung onto her like a limpet on our first day and we have been inseparable ever since. From essay crises to boy crises, all-nighters at the library to all-nighters at the club, we have packed years’ worth of friendship into no time at all. She doesn’t even knock on my door before she comes in anymore. (Note to self: lock door while changing.) It’s astounding how quickly relationships have developed since we’ve been here. I spend all hours of the day with people that I didn’t even know a month ago, and yet I now can’t fathom a life without them. What’s interesting is that I haven’t had to unmake a single friend that I made in Freshers’ Week: the people I spent those precious first days with are the same people that I spend all my time with now. Although, that isn’t to say I’ve got it completely right. I was that person who, attempting to establish themselves as the ‘fun’ and ‘outgoing’ one in the first week, invited everyone to their room each night for pre-drinks, my door left permanently unlocked so friends could come and go as they pleased. Big mistake. People now knock at all hours – yesterday I was dragged out of bed by a drunken rugby boy who felt compelled to have a deep and meaningful conversation at 3am – and it is exhausting. Oh, the price one pays for friendship.

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Standing in front of me now, M looks tired. With her laid-back nature comes a dangerous lack of academic productivity, that is, right up until the minute before the essay deadline. For someone who is notoriously uptight when it comes to work – I’m not proud to admit that my friends back home call me a ‘know it all’ – this is particularly stressful for me to see. Indeed M and I are total opposites. She works relatively little and achieves the highest results; I work all hours of the day and receive far less satisfying feedback. She invariably wears tracksuits and no makeup; I won’t leave my bedroom without making sure I am presentable for fear of running into someone on my way to the toilet. And at this very moment, as I fuss about tidying my bedroom, she’s lying on my rug lackadaisically, humming songs and watching videos on her phone without a care in the world.

The hot topic on everyone’s minds at the moment is houses. Students at my college live out during second year, and we’ve been told to start hunting for accommodation as soon as possible. We’re only in our fifth week of university, and yet we already need to decide who we’d like to live with. You can only imagine the politics. It feels like a huge leap of faith to be predicting who we’ll still be friends with in a years’ time – without really knowing whether we’ll all be friends next term. And there is, of course, the additional concern of trying to work out who you might have future romantic relations with: the second years have warned us against living with potential love interests because, after all, by this time next year they might be exes. In college, then, there is an atmosphere of trepidation. (Am I in the group? What if they don’t want to live with me? What if I don’t want to live with her?) Fortunately for me, there seems to be a group of us forming, slowly but steadily, and the house-hunting can get underway. But that’s not to say that we haven’t had to have a few awkward conversations. One boy, a PPE undergraduate, has proved frustratingly persistent in trying to wheedle himself into the group. We have nonetheless unanimously agreed that he cannot live with us on account of his questionable behaviour on nights out (he lacks an awareness of personal boundaries and the knowledge of how not to inadvertently harass girls).

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On the other end of the scale we have BFG, who I mentioned last time; he is in such high demand that hasn’t had to think twice about houses. Indeed, he has become something of a big name at Oxford. First division rugby player, writer and director of the college play, enthusiastic yoga-goer and probably the best-loved person in the entire university, BFG has friends everywhere – and he is completely oblivious to his fame. Since we study the same subject, he is a regular and welcome fixture in my life, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve got my eye on him as my potential college husband. (Note to self: propose to BFG.) I wonder if I can persuade him to live with us?

M has just arisen from her horizontal state on my rug and is now dragging me by the arm out of my room. It looks like the time for daydreaming is over, not least because our lecture starts in ten minutes and we’re going to be late. I really must stop worrying about the politics houses and start worrying about that unwritten essay that’s due at 5pm tonight. Wish me luck.

* college cleaner
** official outfit for university ceremonies
Our diarist is an undergraduate at an Oxford college. Can you guess who she is? Read her Freshers diary entry here: The Secret Diary of an Oxford Undergraduate and check back in for the next instalment soon
Reading time: 8 min
Vintage library scene with wooden bookshelves and a table and chair at the window

Illustration of a woman wearing an elaborate eye maskOxford University is the world’s best, according to august publications like The Times. Oligarchs, CEOs, kings and presidents clamour alongside ordinary people to get their sons and daughters in; and for generation after generation of ambitious, intellectual kids, Oxford is among a handful of names that represent the ultimate in academic aspiration. But what’s it like to actually be there? Our anonymous diarist is going to reveal all, in real time, in a series of entries, starting with her first night

October 6th, 2018: Freshers’ Week

I arrived at Oxford University a few days ago, a mere, defenceless undergraduate desperately in search of someone to latch onto and call my best friend. This orientation period, known as Freshers’ Week in the UK, has become a rite of passage for universities that is all too closely associated with excessive drinking, partying and regretful sexual antics. And now I find myself in the midst of it all. When I first arrived at my college, which shall remain nameless, an army of second year students rushed over to help me and unloaded my father’s car. They settled me into a surprisingly spacious bedroom with an enviable view of the college chapel, and in a matter of minutes I was set up and ready to go. But where to? I crept out of my room and nodded half-apologetic hellos to those on my corridor, trying rather superficially to deduce who I might get on with based on first impressions. I had to remind myself not to do what I did at interviews – that is, quite literally throwing myself at some poor French girl in the stairwell and begging her to go to dinner with me. Note to self: play it cool.

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Oxford: the university everyone has heard of, and everyone desires. Made up of thirty-eight colleges, it is renowned for its gargoyle-adorned buildings and immaculate green quads. My college is no exception, nestled right in the centre of Oxford, and it feels as though time here is stood still: I can almost visualise my grandfather walking around the city as I do today. This is especially apparent when I see photos of my friends at less traditional universities; their world of video tutorials and soaring tower blocks is incomparable with my experience here. What many people fail to realise, however, is that this privilege is uncomfortably contrasted with an astonishing number of homeless people who literally live on the doorsteps of these privileged institutions; it is a sobering thought indeed.

I wandered down to the college bar – a dingy, dimly-lit room with a floor so sticky your shoes adhere to it – and was met with an astonishing mix of people. Impossibly posh private-school students were hobnobbing about their gap years – ‘oh you know, I did a ski season and then I was in Botswana with an indigenous community for a while’ – whilst misanthropic intellectuals could be seen frantically scanning the room for the nearest escape route loud-mouthed egoists were bragging about the full marks they achieved at A Level whilst the humble sufferers of imposter syndrome struggled to convince themselves they should even be here at all. Naturally we were all searching for people who look like ourselves, and we clung to each other uncomfortably like wet clothes to skin. I have since come to realise that this taste of adult life and social interaction is entirely alien for some; namely the boy who was unable to open a can of beer at pre-drinks because he had never done it before. Others are true veterans of the party lifestyle, like the philosophy student who reportedly had her ‘tongue down someone’s throat’ on the first night: eyebrows were certainly raised at breakfast the next day. Academic achievement is the only common denominator in our Oxford cohort; and whilst there are as many obscure and socially inept people as I had anticipated, there are approachable ones by equal measure.

Vintage library scene with wooden bookshelves and a table and chair at the window

I was also introduced to my subject tutors, the leading world academics who will be dissecting and scrutinising my essays in our one-on-one weekly tutorial meetings. One tutor, a bearded and bespectacled man, is terrifyingly accomplished for his barely three decades of existence (except when it comes to a sense of humour, a department in which he is unfortunately lacking). I can only cringe at the prospect of having to sit in his office each week, a deceptively inviting room filled with comfortable armchairs; in reality it is a lion’s den. Another tutor almost managed to put me at ease in her company by encouraging me to ‘down’ the prosecco she had poured me during a formal – that is, until I visited the library the ext day to take out a book and found her name plastered in capitals across the cover. Shortly after I had another rude awakening: an essay and a hefty reading list appeared in my email inbox. Four books and ten secondary texts to be read by next Monday? Freshers’ at Oxford, I have learnt, is as much about the work as it is the play.

Panic levels now through the roof, I looked to my peers to see how they were coping with the culture shock. One girl, who we will refer to as A, felt the need to text me at 3am last night asking me a question regarding our first assignment. Should I too be working at this ungodly hour? Who even works at this time? Note to self: avoid A at all costs. My knight in shining armour, however, came in the form of a boy who shall be known as BFG, the Big Friendly Giant no less. During a library induction, BFG disregarded the opportunity to discuss the vital academic resources at our fingertips in college, instead feeling compelled to initiate a conversation with the librarian on the comfort levels of the chairs. He’s got his priorities straight.

As I lay in bed on my third night, wandering absent-mindedly how many desperate drunken boys had used my bedroom sink as a urinal, many revelations became clear to me. Oxford has its own space and time; it is its own world, whole and complete in itself. It also has its own language – and it is baffling. How do you wear sub fusc? What on earth is a bop? How do I pay my battels? The nightlife, I’m afraid to admit, is sorely lacking. But the college food is spectacular. Oh, and I need a bike.

On the last night of Freshers’ we had our very first bop. An Oxford tradition, bops are college parties that take place in the college bar. Last night’s theme required everyone to come dressed as their subject. I can’t say it was immediately obvious that the boys who had balloons tied to themselves were the economics students (inflation, apparently), or that the girl with a bird on her T-shirt who wielded a bottle of tequila was an English undergraduate (Tequila Mockingbird…genius), but it was certainly an amusing sight. The awkwardness that we had all felt at the start of the week was rapidly dissipating thanks to the lethal concoction of fruit juice and vodka we were drinking. Even A had decided to stop working for a few hours; she could now be seen all over a second year student on the Common Room sofas. Love was certainly in the air that night. How long do we think will it last?

Our diarist is an undergraduate at an Oxford college. Can you guess who she is? Check back in for the next instalment soon


Reading time: 6 min
Audience members at the launch of oxford university student magazine, including Bernard O'Donoghue

Irish poet and academic, Bernard O’Donoghue spoke about literary journalism at the launch of the latest issue

The Oxford Review of Books (ORB) was founded last year at Oxford University and is a celebration of culture featuring an impressively high calibre of essays, interviews, short fiction and poetry. An issue of the magazine is published every Oxford term under the leadership of a new student team. One of the editors of the latest issue, Hugo Murphy tells LUX about the publishing process, the challenges faced and well-earned celebrations.

It has been a pleasure and a privilege to work on the Oxford Review of Books this term. It has also been a lot of fun. As a publication that models itself on journals like the TLS and LRB, the ORB aims to provide a unique space at the University of Oxford for long-form journalism, publishing student-written book reviews, cultural and political essays, interviews, personal diaries, poetry, and short fiction. As such, there are an alarming number of plates to keep spinning at any given time – an undertaking happily shared between four general editors, and a wider editorial team of 12.

Oxford student magazine editors pose for photo in waterstones bookshop

The Hilary Term editors of the ORB: Billie, Oliver, Clarissa and Hugo

The ORB goes to print once a term (three times a year), and the long and meticulous editorial process starts early. The editors for this issue – four English undergraduates across the University: Oliver, Billie, Clarissa, and myself – hit the ground running in early December, calling for original and thought-provoking pitches, casting our net as widely as possible. We commissioned a wide range of 20-or-so pieces, covering topics that ranged from filmmaking in Iran to computer-generated literature, Gordon Brown to Mary Beard.

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The next few months saw these articles undergo a rigorous editorial process, some of them evolving through upwards of ten separate drafts. Between all this writing ad re-writing, we hosted a successful poetry and short fiction evening, and even managed to find time for a mid-term pit-stop, with twenty-plus team members and contributors coming together for an evening at the pub.

Laughing audience seating and standing in book shop interiors

A rapt audience, including former editors Katie and John, at the March launch of the ORB in Waterstones

Once all content was ready, we (the four editors) laid-in the magazine alongside a graphic designer. This, as expected, was a week-long, gruelling slog, punctuated in equal parts by tutorial essays, salty snacks, and despair; but the pressures, frustrations, and general misery of the process were all enjoyed in fantastic company. And everyone’s toil was rewarded with the elation of reading hard copies of the magazine for the first time, as well as celebrating the term’s work at our launch.

Author Victoria Hislop standing in book shop in front of audience

Author Victoria Hislop presents the prize for the Fiction Competition

While only set up in the summer, the first three issues of the ORB have enjoyed a large following across the University – something that we were reminded of at this issue’s launch, which was hosted in the top-floor café of Waterstones Oxford in early March. Guests numbering close to 200 enjoyed wine and nibbles as they leafed through copies of the new issue and listened to brief talks given by bestselling author Victoria Hislop and award-winning poet Bernard O’Donoghue.

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It proved a fantastic send-off for this term’s team, and another important landmark in the growing strength of the publication. I have been incredibly fortunate to meet and work with many inspiring people in and around the ORB, and I’ll miss the regular meetings enormously. The new team – spearheaded by one of this issue’s editors, Billie – is set to move onto only bigger and better things. Rumour has it the June issue is already in the pipeline.

Reading time: 3 min