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.”
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.