Battle of Ideas 2014

by | Sep 27, 2014

The Institute of Ideas‘ tenth Battle of Ideas festival is taking place next month at the Barbican Centre in London.

If you’re not familiar with the event, the Battle is a weekend of many debates and discussions on many different matters, led by speakers from around the world. The Saturday line up is here, and the Sunday line up is here.

I will be discussing Kindergarten culture: why does government treat us like children? with Chris Snowdon, Dan Hodges and Martha Gill. The debate is not about climate change, though it touches on the excess of the climate debate that have been observed on this blog, as well as in many other areas of public life. From the Battle of Ideas website:

In the past, government may have intervened frequently in the economy, but our private lives were our own to live as we saw fit. In recent years, however, government has largely given up on being the ‘hand on the tiller’ of the economy and intervenes regularly in once-private aspects of life. Smoking is now banned in most public places, and smoking in cars in the presence of children is about to be banned. Environmental concerns have led to new efficiency standards for domestic appliances, and smart meters may regulate our electricity usage from afar, while we are constantly told to reduce our consumption of everything and there is serious discussion about how procreation should be limited to save the planet. Even now, parents are increasingly lectured to about how they should raise their children and, in Scotland, the Named Person rules mean a specific government employee will oversee each child’s upbringing.

Even non-governmental organisations, charities, voluntary associations and academics increasingly see it as their role to ‘educate’ ill-informed, non-expert adults. From public health to environmental campaigns, the assumption is that left our own devices, we will make the ‘wrong choices’. England’s chief medical officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, complains that ‘three quarters of parents with overweight children do not recognise that they are too fat’. How can we trust adults who don’t understand the impact of their gas-guzzling family car on the planet or that feeding their kids junk food is leading to an obesity epidemic?

While such attitudes and interventions are viewed as annoying or threatening in some instances, few people actively protest against them. And often there are popular demands for more regulation and legislation to protect us from harm. Why has government become so keen to make decisions for us? And why do we not even seem to take ourselves seriously as autonomous citizens? Or is such ‘infantilisation’ actually a sensible response to our limited capacities and propensity to shoot ourselves in the foot, based on a recognition that in fact, ‘there are no grown ups’. Is it reasonable to allow the ‘experts’ to decide how we live? If not, what should we do about it?

Readers here may be particularly interested in the following sessions…

Tim Worstall, Rob Lyons, Miguel Veiga-Pestana and Amy Jackson will be debating Feeding the world: can we engineer away hunger?:

TV images from Ethiopia in the 1980s seemed to confirm the gloomy prognosis that many parts of the world faced mass starvation. Since then, humanity’s capacity to feed itself looked to be increasing well. China’s dramatic economic growth eradicated hunger for millions, much like the earlier Green Revolution in India. World population has gone up by 50 per cent, yet the proportion of people who are undernourished has fallen dramatically. But gloomy voices of modern Malthusianism are making a comeback, warning that disaster was merely postponed.


So, can we feed the world in the future? Will the future of food require a radical overhaul of our contemporary diets or can technological and social advancements aim to provide (much) more of the same? Should we look forward to a future of healthy bug burgers edging out the Big Mac, or can innovation and food engineering deliver pleasurable diversity as well as sustenance? And what is the right balance between technological innovation and social development?

Then Dr Alan Walker, Dr Keith MacLean, Rob Lyons, Paul Ekins and Gemma Adams will be discussing Energy futures: how can we keep the lights on?:

Could Britain soon be facing blackouts? Over the past few years, EU rules have led to the closure of many coal-fired power stations. But after much prevarication by politicians, the generating capacity to replace these stations will not be available immediately. For the second half of this decade, the gap between peak demand and total power-station capacity will be close to zero. While much discussion focuses on increasing energy efficiency, the need to increase the absolute amount of energy available is still an urgent priority.


Is it a positive development that a practical question such as energy production has become such a public hot potato? Are barriers to generating more sources of energy political, technical or environmental? If increased energy can be is secured, will it boost human prosperity by helping fuel economic growth, or will it simply accelerate the destruction of the planet? Can we make a positive case for increased energy production against a backdrop of disquiet about effects on the environment and ambivalence about economic growth per se? How much power should we produce, where should it come from and what methods should be used to produce it? How can we satisfy competing demands, contested priorities and keep the lights on?

Andrew Orlowski, Steve Rayner, Bryony Sadler and Peter Sammonds will be asking After the floods: can we tame the weather?

Are critics right to imply human beings are still a long way from being able to control and withstand the fearsome whims of Mother Nature? Do the most effective forms of flood defence lie in adapting to the landscape rather than adapting the landscape for human habitation? Is it simply common sense that any large-scale attempts to modify the weather or climate come at an unacceptably high risk to future generations of ‘blowback’? What do the weather wars reveal about our attitudes to risk and innovation today?

There are many other discussions on offer, so please take a look. Tickets can be bought at the Barbican website, here.

A note of caution if you’re not buying tickets through the links above… The Battle of Ideas is now a decade old and thus must expect some low quality imitations. As testimony to the Guardian group’s ability to form original ideas and content, The Observer is running its own ‘Festival of Ideas‘ at the same venue, a week earlier. So if you’re buying tickets, make sure you’re buying them for the BATTLE, of ideas, not the Observer’s knock-off.


  1. artwest

    Given that it’s at the Barbican, any chance there will be a discussion about standing up for free speech and not cowardly bowing to mob rule?

  2. hunter

    Good luck and best wishes for a productive, civilized debate.

  3. Hilary Ostrov (aka hro001)

    Ben, while I think it is appalling that the Observer is attempting to ride on the coat-tails of an established and (IMHO) credible organization, I’m glad to know that you will be participating in “the real thing”.

    On the climate change front, I was quite impressed when I serendipitously discovered Tony Gilland’s “Battle of Ideas”, 2010 edition. In particular, as I had noted on my blog shortly after my discovery:

    “Can We Trust the Evidence? The IPCC – A Case Study“.

    This less than one-hour video features Fred Pearce as well as The Economist‘s (I believe now former) energy and environment editor, Oliver Morton, and Tony Gilland from the UK Institute of Ideas (IoI).
    Apart from the fact that this was an intelligent, civilized and respectful debate (no one interrupted anyone else!) and that many of the views expressed were not dissimilar to those you are quite likely to find in posts on this blog (OK, call it confirmation bias if you must!), I found it to be 54 minutes very well spent!
    The money quote for me came from Gilland during the course of his remarks pertaining to the political warping of the science (my phrasing, not his!) Gilland summarized UNEP head honcho Achim Steiner’s take on the release of the IPCC’s 2007 “climate bible” as: “Here’s the science. It’s scary. Do this.”

    Here’s the 2010 video:

  4. Kano

    Hmm I like this blog site, how come I have only just found it.


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