Discussions of the economy are fraught with misleading and manipulative terminology, often designed to improve corporate reputations, stimulate consumption, and grow the GDP. This week, host Brian Czech exposes a dozen linguistic tricks and rhetorical ploys. While the style of this episode is lighthearted and sardonic, the outcome will be more critical thinking about economic growth.
From the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, this is the Steady Stater, a podcast dedicated to discussing limits to growth and the steady state economy.Brian Czech:
Welcome to the show. My name is Brian Czech. I'm your host, and today we're going to be talking about buzzwords, oxymorons and slippery shibboleths. We'll talk a little bit about what these are linguistically and how they're used rhetorically and then we'll give some examples of each of them that sort of clutter the conversation around limits to growth. All right, so let's start with buzzwords. Of course, these are words or phrases that are in vogue and not all of them are bad or intended to deceive. They can be quite warranted, in fact. But of course, the word "buzzword" tends to indicate overuse, right? So, some of the buzzwords today, "organic," you see it everywhere in a grocery store, it seems like it's applied to anything without a ton of sodium nitrate. "Big Data." There's a buzzword that feeds into many others that are associated with rapid development of computer technology. Feeds right into another buzzword like "fifth generation" or "5g." So buzzwords, you know, they're all over the place. They wax and wane. The buzzword from five years ago can be totally obsolete. And we certainly have buzzwords for the steady stater to be aware of and to think a little bit about. How did they become buzzwords? To what degree are they really warranted? What do they really mean? So, a few examples would be "sustainable," "green," "circular" and "clean." Should be easy to remember those: sustainable, green circular and clean. Sustainable, well, that should be much more than a buzzword. And it is, you know, it's a word firmly in the vernacular, even when there aren't discussions about limits to growth, and so on. But I think that it's become a bit of a buzzword in the sense that it's tends to be used these days in contexts that really don't have a lot to do with sustainability, per se, which, when you think about it is really a big picture, long term concept. But sustainable, you know, you see it used in all kinds of discussions about practices in particular industries and corporations and, you know, you get the sense sometimes that there's a bit of a PR aspect to it. Now sustainable is related to theseother buzzwords that I noted:
green, circular and clean. And these buzzwords, well, now we're starting to move into the territory of the oxymoron. And an oxymoron is a self contradictory phrase or point. And some of them are just, they're kind of cute, you know, like jumbo shrimp. And Yogi Berra once said, "I never said those things I said," you know, so we have nice little innocent oxymorons floating around floating around. They're kind of fun to quote and think about. Clara Barton, the founder of the Red Cross one time said, "I distinctly remember forgetting that." I feel like that sometimes on this podcast actually. So that one resonates with me. But there are any number of oxymorons in the world of steady-state economics, that float around the world of steady-state economics, that really aren't quite so cute and we'll just talk about a handful of them. I think the one that's most in your face is "clean coal," right? That one ought to be seen by just about anybody out there as some kind of PR pitch, right? Coal, by its nature, is a very, very carbon-filled and dirty sort of material. And you know, it doesn't make it evil, by any means, unto its own. But one thing's for sure, there's no way to make coal clean. Of course, it can be argued that certain processes in the combustion of coal and the conversion of that energy can be cleaner than previous processes, but as a shortcut phrase to indicate that, "clean coal" is extremely oxymoronic. Another oxymoron in the world of limits to growth and thinking about the steady state economy as the sustainable alternative to growth is the phrase "sustainable growth." Growth, when it's used in that context, which it is, sustainable growth is used in the context of the macro economy, the economy as an integrated whole, growing, growing and growing onward and that's a sustainable process, as suggested by the phrase "sustainable growth." But it's not, you know, there are limits to growth. And that's sort of our our wheelhouse here at the podcast. Most listeners, I think, are pretty familiar with the fact that you can't have a perpetually growing population times per capita consumption. You can't have a perpetually growing GDP. So therefore, sustainable growth, if you have any sort of long term frame of reference in mind, is an oxymoron. And one of the problems with it is it too easily spawns other, more nefarious, sorts of oxymorons like "green growth." What's green about the process of economic growth? Economic growth, at all times, entails a conversion of the natural capital. The natural capital out there, or natural resources, the land and the resources, the soil, the woods, the waters, those are green, by their nature, right? These are green ecosystems that we have. And for the sake of economic growth, we must farm and extract resources from them, because that's the foundation of the economy, the agricultural and extractive base that allows for all of the rest of it, the manufacturing, and service sectors. And there's nothing green about that process, you can try to make the process more efficient with technological progress, but it's never going to be a green process, we, we might say that it's so a less brown process than it had been when we stop using coal, for example, and move to renewable energy sources. It's still not green growth. The renewable energy sources themselves are far from green. They take a lot of space. They chew up the ecosystems. They kill a lot of wildlife, you know. What's green about that? And then don't forget, they're not just sitting out there for their own sake. The energy coming from that is to feed all those other sectors: agricultural, the other extractive sectors, the manufacturing and service sectors. So yeah, that's definitely an oxymoron and it's really one of the pet peeves that we have in steady-state economics, that phrase "green growth." And then there is "smart growth." Well, that one's a little less oxymoronic at some points in time, because growth, for example, during earlier parts of the 20th century, in most places, was probably a pretty smart thing to do. The problem now is that in the USA, at large, for example, and on the planet, at large, growth is no longer a smart thing to do. It's causing more problems than it's solving. And so once again, it just has the sheen and the sound of of a PR campaign to refer to the process of growth as smart. It is favored by certain politicians, of course, and it's easy to see why it would be so. But let's just remember it's an oxymoron. There may be some parts of the planet, there are some parts, where there is widespread systemic poverty, where it's smart to pursue positive growth, but that's not where we typically hear the phrase. We hear it in the USA, especially. Now, here's one that's a little bit more nuanced, you might say, for us to consider, because it entails the use of a word in a way that it's not typically used in the coupling with the other word. Okay, so the phrase is "economic growth," economic growth itself. We've talked a lot here in the podcast already in various episodes, that economic growth is increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate. But you know, the word "economic" does have a little different meaning as well, it's like a lot of words in the dictionary, it'll have meaning one in two and sometimes more. And certainly the word economic, in a different sense simply means worthwhile or worth doing. In the process of conducting the economic activity, you're assured that that more good than harm is occurring. And that's why you do it. It's an economic process in that sense. So that's why Herman Daly pointed out that, in that sense, the phrase economic growth itself, once again, at this point in history, is an oxymoron, because it's not helping more than it's harming. It's the other way around at this point. Let's see now, so those are some examples of the oxymorons that we see the most when we talk about limits to growth and the need for a steady state economy. And now we come to the category of slippery shibboleths. A shibboleth is just a phrase that means something particular, sometimes even peculiar, to specific groups of people and therefore the slippery adjective is a little bit redundant because a shibboleth is slippery by its nature. As I understand it, the word has a biblical origin, where there were tribes fighting in ancient Israel or something like that. And there was a Hebrew tribe that needed to get into battle and they invented a phrase or a sentence that was like code, just among them. Only they understood that and that got them through the gates, as it were. And so that's what a shibboleth is. It's like code talk. However, there's another type of shibboleth, which is a phrase that wasn't necessarily designed or engineered originally to deceive, but it just sort of evolved that way, at least among some people. And so an example out there in political rhetoric, perhaps, is "Make America Great Again." That might be a shibboleth in certain parts of the country, certain counties or certain parishes. And then we have some good examples in the orbit of steady-state economics too, like the "information economy." That phrase, originally, it really meant something. It meant that computer technology had all of a sudden played a huge role in the servicing of other sectors, but we suspect that there's a shibboleth aspect to it by now, because the term has been sort of co-opted or, or abused in certain venues where, well, it can be claimed that, "alright, it's the information that's growing and therefore, we can continue to have economic growth without any material impact." So yeah, information economy is sort of an evolved, shibboleth. Now we certainly have some good examples right in the orbit of steady-state economics as well. One of them, in my opinion, is the phrase "circular economy." Circular economy, in the most general sense, simply means reduction of waste. And so instead of a stream of production, where you extract resources, or you start out with your raw materials, you produce your products, and then there's a certain amount of waste, by attempting to claim or practice a circular economy getting rid of all that waste, and somehow reusing it again. First of all, that's impossible to use it all and not have any waste. That flies right in the face of the second law of thermodynamics. And so right away, we see that there's a problem with that one. And in practice, a lot of the entities involved, especially from an academic perspective, you know, those that analyze circular economy concepts academically, as well as many of the real well-meaning practitioners in corporations and industries, they really are attempting to simply lower the amount of waste to make the operation more efficient. But in that sense, we recognize, then, that circular economy is kind of a buzzword or buzz phrase, because there's nothing really that new to it. It's just reduction of waste and getting more efficient and prior to the the shibboleth of circular economy, well, you would just talk about reducing waste, and getting more efficient. And the reason that we can suspect the phrase of being a Shibboleth and a slippery devil at that, is, let's just take a look at some of the places that it is espoused. It's the core message in a network called the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy. Right away, it sounds very linked at the hip with growth, right? Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy, or PACE, is the acronym. And when we see some of the members of this, like Coca Cola and Procter & Gamble and Unilever, it's pretty clear that this isn't about getting all the way to a truly sustainable macroeconomy. It's largely about marketing. There's another one. The phrase is "dematerializing the economy." It's very closely related to information economy. It's when folks want to try to argue that, really, there is no limit to economic growth. They'll talk loosely about "dematerializing" the process of growth. And we know that the economy has a trophic structure, just like an ecosystem, with its agro-extractive sectors at the base. And those have to grow. Those have to provide more surplus for the entire integrated macroeconomy to grow,so dematerializing the economy:
slippery shibboleth. And I think we'll circle back around to our consideration of commercial and retail affairs. One of them is "consumer confidence." As if it takes great confidence to stalk down that aisle with that shopping cart or to get to that dealership and prance around the collection of cars. Consumer confidence, it just reeks of Madison Avenue, Koch brothers, maybe even Federal Reserve sorts of construction of language that is intended to increase what Keynes would have called, simply, the propensity to consume. And actually, this is a topic of our latest article in the Steady State Herald. It's all about that phrase consumer confidence and how it came about and so on. And then there's a very closely related phrase, which happens to be another buzz phrase, "consumer journey." We have campaigns, emanating from Madison Avenue and similar, you know, PR pockets that attempt to make consumption ever more of the lifestyle of the citizen. And so that's definitely a slippery shibboleth. Well, I'd say that about wraps it up folks. Today, we've explored some buzzwords, oxymorons and slippery shibboleths. We explored their linguistic meanings and their rhetorical uses and we considered a handful of particularly pesky ones floating around the conversation about limits to growth. Maybe the worst one of all, the bane of steady-state economics, was "green growth." Does kind of make me feel a little green just thinking about it. But thanks for joining us this week. This is Brian Czech with the Steady Stater podcast. See you next time.