growth

The wilful ignorance of Tony Blair

Recently I listened to Michael Liebreich and Tony Blair in conversation about climate change. The topic of degrowth came up, with Liebreich saying that there were roughly two schools of thought on sustainability. There was degrowth, which he characterised as “stop the economy, I want to get off.” And then there’s the view that he takes, which is that “the only way we’ll do this is through innovation.”

Putting aside the spectacular oversimplification of that choice, what interested me was what Tony Blair then said as he replied about postgrowth with the following:

“A lot of the work my Institute does is in the developing world, particularly in Africa. The population of Africa will double over the next 30 to 40 years. All of these people need to consume, you know, they need electricity and power generation, they need ports, and rail, and airline links. And they’re not going to… If I go to these countries and say to them, ‘well, I’m sorry, but because of climate change you guys have got to hold back economic growth.’ I mean, they’ll chase you out the country.”

Oh Tony.

First of all, there’s the assumption that Blair gets to go to African countries and tell them what to do, which doesn’t appear to be interrogated here. More to the point, Blair has just revealed that he has read literally nothing about degrowth. It is a fundamental principle of postgrowth thinking that pausing or shrinking the economy is for overdeveloped wealthy nations. I’ve never heard anyone argue that it is for African countries.

“We can’t tell poor countries they can’t grow” is a common knee-jerk reaction from politicians when talking about degrowth. It’s said as if it answers the issue forever, but actually it just reveals a complete ignorance of degrowth arguments.

There’s a deeper issue that concerns me when people reveal this kind of ignorance. If you don’t know very basic things about something, it shows that you aren’t willing to engage with a topic. It’s a wilful ignorance. You have decided you don’t need to think about it or read anything about it.

Perhaps I’m being a little hard on Blair here, given postgrowth thinking is a little niche. But that kind of revealed ignorance is very common, in all sorts of contexts. Like when your grandad says “music these days, it’s all ‘boom boom boom'”. Or more pertinently, when people say “I don’t see how humans could affect something as big as the planet”, and accidentally communicate that they know nothing about science. Whenever someone sneers “oh, I see that _________ is racist now”, they reveal that they have no understanding of systemic racism.

Sometimes this is a genuine lack of knowledge. Often it isn’t. In his book How to think about the climate crisis, philosopher Graham Parkes describes the difference. “Ignorance comes in many forms” he writes. “There’s one kind that’s a ‘native’ or ‘originary state, where knowledge hasn’t happened yet; and another that’s a ‘lost realm’ or ‘selective choice’, where knowledge has somehow faded, or attention has moved elsewhere. But there’s also an ignorance that’s deliberately produced as a ‘strategic ploy’, and this is the most interesting kind.”

I think Blair’s ignorance of postgrowth is the strategic variety. He deploys it as a form of signalling. Blair may or may not be aware that postgrowth thinking is for developed countries. Since he’s not stupid, he almost certainly does know that. Either way, he chooses to belittle degrowth as a way of signalling to Liebreich that he is with him. “Don’t worry, I’m a believer.”

If Blair didn’t do that, and expressed a working knowledge of degrowth, he would be seen as validating one of the most powerful critiques of modern capitalism and its suicidal greed. Even if he said he disagreed with degrowth, giving a proper answer would show that he had taken it seriously enough to look into it and form an opinion. And that would unsettle the conversation. He might not be invited back. His allegiance as a committed member of the global elite would be in question, and that might have consequences. Perhaps business groups would hesitate to pay him for speeches. Invitations to join boards and advisory groups might evaporate. But no, rest assured: Tony Blair knows nothing about postgrowth.

This is political ignorance. It’s a tacit agreement to look away from a provocative question, a coded exchange between Blair and Liebreich that reinforces their view of the world and their place within it.

The study of ignorance, I learn from Parkes, is called ‘agnotology‘. It’s an important field of study in 2021.

26 comments

  1. Yes, indeed Jeremy …. “strategic ignorance” is widespread. Those of us with a more sensible worldview need to find ways to engage with the production teams of mainstream media to challenge all strategic ignorance in the following areas

    * Degrowth
    * Climate Justice
    * World Parliament

  2. “Climate Justice is racist” has just arrived by post – I did promise you I would read it in August!

  3. Of course, a humane balanced budget in much of the Third World (such as Mauritania, Mali or Malawi) is impossible because of the constraints of geography, climate and disease. (Sachs, 2005). Impossible that is unless something more radical is offered. Degrowth economics are not appropriate in the Global South but a universal basic income and just reparations for universal basic services financed by a progressive global wealth tax are the exact radical solutions needed.

  4. Interesting how these little indicators can say so much… I have many recent examples in my new corporate gig where people make very small or innocent comments that actually carry a significant gravitas to them – not anyone being right or wrong but the influence of the culture and information around them to be able to make such easy comments or deflections… It’s good for resolve to do more! 🙂

    1. It’s useful to note these little coded comments, because often they are opportunities to push the conversation on. For example, I’ve noticed how often people will say ‘oh, it’s all so confusing!’ when talking about an ethical or climate issue, and you’re supposed to agree, laugh and move on. As you say, it’s a deflection.

      It’s not a considered and deliberate thing, but it serves to end conversations as they get uncomfortable. But when I reply with “It’s not that confusing really”, or something disarming like “well, there are people who are well served by keeping us confused”, it keeps the conversation open. That’s when you get beyond the superficial chat and start learning. So it’s worth making a note of these little signals, and thinking about replies that will unlock them.

      1. Exactly. When you pay attention to them they become beacons for getting out the set list of phrases and gentle provocations to questions those broad and dismissive statements – “the government should/doesn’t…” for example!

  5. The wilful ignorance of degrowthers is the political impossibility of halving living standards in the developed world. Its just not a serious possibility. So why should a serious politician like Tony Blair engage with a deeply unserious idea. I bet he doesn’t go into deep discussions about Communist theory either.

      1. I have read up in it and the fundamental point I haven’t seen addressed is how you convince a majority of voters to accept an income lower than the current poverty line.

        Tony Blair is a master politician, he can immediately see the obvious flaw and that it’s a non starter with the public. With no hope of being implemented it is magical thinking. Not even the Green Party explicitly endorses Degrowth. It’s therefore rather grand to expect him to spend his time on this niche idea.

        Perhaps you should write a blog post on how you will convince the public to vote for this.

          1. The argument I have read from Degrowthers is that in order to keep within ecological limits and create space for poor countries to develop to average global income ($17000 pa) we would have to reduce incomes in the developed countries to a similar level. That level is well below the current UK poverty line. Unless of course you want to build in global inequality for all time.

            In order to win an election you need half the voters to back you (and keep winning them the policies aren’t overturned). So you need to convince voters that they need to live below the current UK poverty line. And it isn’t half the population that would live below the current UK poverty line, it would be all if them. How are you going to do that? Until you can give an even half convincing answer this is just magical thinking.

    1. Have I got the basics wrong? Does Degrowth not require the developed world to reduce its consumption considerably in order to keep within environmental limits?

      I read Academic articles. Always go for the source. Other sources as well plus what you write here.

      You do need to get a sense of perspective. This whole article is written as if Degrowth is this amazing transformative idea that threatens the status quo and the powerful are fearfully avoiding it. That they don’t engage with it because doing so would force them to accept they are wrong and you are right. Its not that at all.

      This idea is not ignored by Tony Blair because he is scared of it. He brushes it off because it is not serious. It is not worth spending the time to understand all it’s intricacies because it is irrelevant. Its a non starter. He is not wilfully ignorant, he is rationally ignorant. (You might claim it’s not irrelevant but you still haven’t shown any plan on how to get democratic acceptance if this idea).

      This is a big idea in a small group. You are part of that small group so it seems huge to you. But viewed from the outside it’s faults are obvious to all but true believers. It’s like a Mormon who thinks non believers actually do know the Truth but refuse to accept it because they want to carry on with their hedonistic lives, rather that they see the world differently.

        1. Milena Buchs: ‘Challenges for the Degrowth transition: The debate about Wellbeing’ Futures vol 105 Jan 2019 pages 155-165

          I can go on but this ‘I read more books than you’ type of argument is pointless, though increasingly characteristic of left of centre argument. Appeal to authority is a rubbish tactic, especially when you want to claim you are the expert. And you wonder why people don’t listen.

          You still haven’t told me how I have got the basics wrong, or how you propose to get the public to back this.

          1. “I can go on” – yes, please do.

            What I’ve read on postgrowth isn’t relevant. I’m interested in what you’ve read, and what has led you to this slightly strange view that postgrowth means everyone living in poverty. You’re not wrong that it wouldn’t get votes. I’m just curious to know how you formed that understanding of degrowth. You certainly won’t get it from Milena Buchs.

          2. I didn’t get it from any of the books or articles I read. I got it from my understanding of the figures. The comparison is all mine.

            Let me spell it out simply using the logic of Degrowth.

            1: The World is currently at or beyond its environment limits
            2: Therefore we need at best to freeze the total level of economic activity and resource consumption at the present level.
            3: For global equity everyone should have the opportunity to have a similar standard of living
            4: Therefore to give space for poorer countries to grow the richer countries need to cut back to no more than the current global average. (All fine so far?)
            5: Global GDP per capita is $17,000 (PPP)
            6: UK GDP per capita is $41,000 (£32,000)
            7: UK GDP will therefore have to reduce by 60%.
            8: The UK relative poverty level in the UK is 60% median household income (£30,000 So poverty line £18,000)
            9: While UK GDP per capita isn’t exactly the same as median household income a reduction of GDP by 60%, (to GDP per capita of £13,000) will certainly halve household income.
            10: Therefore median household income in the UK after Degrowth will be lower than the present poverty rate. Hence pretty much everyone e in the UK will live in poverty by today’s standards

            Simples.

            Please tell me where my logic fails.

            If I saw this I’ll bet Tony Blair saw it in seconds.

          3. While GDP isn’t perfect, it is a good corrolation to welfare and resources used in a economy. Just redefining the metric doesn’t mean you don’t have to account for the huge fall in income that Degrowth to average global levels would cause in developed countries. Such smoke and mirrors may work when debating with like minded people, it won’t cut it with voters concerned about their standards of living.

            Otherwise this is all just a thought experiment and deserving to be ignored.

          4. Global economic development trends echo the conditions under which earlier civilisations have collapsed. A society is far less adept at changing if it has a small elite, quite separate from the masses, making short-term decisions, which diverge, from the long-term interests of all – it is a blueprint for trouble. (Raworth, 2017)

  6. @DevonChap there is a lot of baby and bathwater involved in your argument. When you get into the details of the proposed issues with making degrowth popular you are providing a wonderful discourse but my opinion is you too often get too personal and protective of your position – understandably as an outlier in this kind of blog! 🙂 However if we stick to the conversation piece which is making degrowth attractive and plausible for voters then we have a great topic on our hands!

    I believe it is becoming more popular as some people in the west start to search for quality of life more than quantity of life. I feel it is possible to increase the quality of your life in a degrowth world. The lens just needs to shift from consumerism and exponential economic growth to quality of life index which would include access to time, family, leisure, wellbeing, etc. Is that still a mainstream conversation for Tony Blair to consider rational, probably not, but the conversation I think is a worthy one and this blog addresses the ease at which it is still dismissed. Thanks for the provocation of asking a simple question from an interesting stand point, before mud slinging 😉 We could talk about this for hours! Cheers.

  7. Okay, so it turns out you haven’t read up on it quite as much as all that, and drew your own set of conclusions rather than looking at what degrowth advocates actually say.

    If I were presenting that list to you, you’d tell me that the economy isn’t zero sum, and so me sacrificing my income doesn’t automatically make anyone else richer.

    Even if the global economy was zero sum and it could all be redistributed, such a thing would be impossible without a global government to coordinate it all. Mark would approve, but whether that’s something people want or not, there are far greater problems than convincing the electorate about it.

    And perhaps most importantly, you’ve assumed that degrowth is about income, and that degrowth is about shrinking incomes towards a global average. Most postgrowth thinkers are highly sceptical of the connection between income and wellbeing, and have a far more nuanced idea of what exactly needs to grow and what doesn’t.

    So the specific answer to your question about where your logic fails is point 5, but there are some underlying assumptions I’d want to interrogate too.

    1. Just because Postgrowth theortians say something doesn’t make it true. I’ve looked at what they say and It doesn’t make sense. Airly stating that income isn’t welfare doesn’t avoid the hard decisions this would require or the exceptional amount of state control of pretty much everything needed. Putting it into monetary terms is avoided because it demonstrates the sacrifices required.

      Now perhaps standards of living would only fall 40% rather than 60%, just taking us back to the late 1980s rather than mid 1970s but that it would still mean millions giving up what they now take for granted can’t be disputed. We are a loss adverse species so how you overcome that is essential, not some add on that you refuse to consider.

      This is the political reality. That sensible people don’t engage with this idea isn’t because they are scared for their position (as you suggest for Blair) or are too dim to understand theory but because they can see what you can’t or won’t. That it is never going to happen. Claiming some faux moral or intellectual high ground isn’t going to change that.

      I could turn your idea of wilful ignorance back on you, but that would probably be unfair, just as I feel you are being to our former Prime Minister.

  8. Look, if you were arguing against postgrowth logic, we might be getting somewhere. But you’re arguing against what you assume postgrowth thinkers say, which is not the same thing.

    Postgrowth writers argue fairly consistently that the pursuit of growth is driving inequality and overwork, while it is really only the richest that reap the rewards of that. Slowing down and focusing on an inclusive economy, better work, a circular economy, public affluence, or shorter working hours would deliver huge improvements in quality of life.

    Have I “refused to consider” how to convince people to vote for a lower quality of life? Absolutely, because that’s not something I have any interest in doing.

    But I have given a great deal of thought to describing an economy that would create thriving livelihoods with or without further growth in materials and energy, and how that could be advanced in a democratic society. That’s all in The Economics of Arrival.

    PS – I don’t dislike Tony Blair, by the way. I respect his opinion and that’s why I listened to him in conversation with Liebreich in the first place.

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