I have become sensitive to the silences that come during discussions about the world with others who view the world through a microscope. Silence or a change of topic suggests either denial of my point of view or failure to grasp my frame of reference. While I am peering through an energy lens or macroscope, others may view the world through a lens where money or some other construct makes the world go round instead. One question that stops conversations cold is, “What if our greatest societal challenge is not climate but growth?” That challenge sometimes elicits a glare signifying indignation or perhaps a sense of betrayal that I’m stepping away from my supposed congregation.
Two mechanisms may be occurring when speakers frame climate change as the most important problem that the world has to face. If one’s view of the world is that energy is unlimited, and that we can grow infinitely, and that the environment has a limitless ability to absorb our pollution, then growth is not an important issue. While most people probably know in their hearts that infinite growth is not sustainable, they do not know that energy is limitless. So speakers may use a euphemism to subconsciously displace the problem of growth with climate change, since we have been taught the goal of economic growth as a fundamental precept of our society. Secondly, speakers who focus on climate may fail to grasp the severity of the problem of peak oil, because of declining net energy or emergy yields. Thus we lump other assaults on ecosystems such as growth of population, growth of the economy, extraction of resources and other forms of pollution within the problem of climate change. These problems are inextricably connected, but we prioritize them differently depending on our ability to think like a system.
Euphemisms abound in American language at the end of empire. The impetus for this post is an article by Jason Mark extolling a Bill McKibben’s piece in Rolling Stone. The author wonders why the article received amazing online response to the piece, yet no coverage by the mainstream media. The environmentalist agenda suffers from self-censorship in failing to discuss the root cause of climate change, which is rightly named as growth by Mr. Mark. Al Gore described climate change as an “inconvenient truth.” The documentary was widely acclaimed by the environmentalists, who grasped it like a drowning man might grasp a life buoy. Yet what if Gore’s inconvenient truth was still a euphemism for the real cause of our distress?
What is a euphemism?
My favorite Urban Dictionary explains the defense mechanism that lies behind the word euphemism:
“The act or an example of substituting a mild, indirect, or vague term for one considered harsh, blunt, or offensive. Euphemism is an expression intended by the speaker to be less offensive, disturbing, or troubling to the listener than the word or phrase it replaces, or in the case of doublespeak to make it less troublesome for the speaker. When a phrase is used as a euphemism, it often becomes a metaphor whose literal meaning is dropped. Euphemisms are often used to hide unpleasant or disturbing ideas, even when the literal term for them is not necessarily offensive. This type of euphemism is used in public relations and politics, where it is sometimes disparagingly called doublespeak.”
The word euphemism comes from the Greek word ευφημία (euphemia), meaning “the use of words of good omen.” When we substitute one word for another, there is typically a taboo involved about the word substituted for. We use substitute words for things that make us anxious, including sex, death, religion, war, inadequacies, and bad behaviors. Distancing language can be used as a form of self-deception, to avoid consequences. And in the capitalist language of American empire, the words “limits to growth” or even worse, “descent,” are consequences that we cannot face. They are taboos.
We may use the words climate change or global warming as a relatively positive proxy label for the situation that permanent economic contraction will create. Climate change is really just an ambiguous term or understatement for the problem at the root of our energy production and consumption, which is growth in energy use, economic/population expansion, and environmental degradation resulting in overshoot that is vulnerable to collapse. Growth in the use of environment and power, and expansion of society are equally culpable in creating many symptoms of overgrowth, including climate change. As George Carlin suggested, euphemisms are commonly used by Americans to shade the truth or shield from reality.
In my specialty, healthcare, there was a shift in the 1990s as the business model overtook healthcare. Patients (from the Latin, “one who suffers”) became either healthcare consumers or clients. We shifted healthcare into a business that treats a wider range of human conditions. We now medicalize clients’ normal conditions such as baldness, or obesity, or shyness, or menstruation. We commodify health and put our lives up for sale to the highest bidder or most creative euphemism, to the extent that we think we can commodify and patent DNA. Healthcare is big business, so research is gamed to allow the largest profits. Even the word growth is a euphemism in healthcare for something else that is even worse. Growth is a benign word that stands in for carcinoma, which means a growth that it is out of control. Edward Abbey said that growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell. Growth usually proceeds until it kills the host, at which point the growth stops.
As rampant capitalism reaches its endpoints as our energy basis wanes, we see increasing use of euphemisms to avoid discussing the taboo of growth or to hide our sins. We beat around the bush a lot in America. Orwell used Newspeak to portray euphemisms as a weapon or tool to deceive by those in power, creating constrained patterns of thought. Newspeak also allowed the means for “doublethink,” the “mental process that allows you to hold two opposing ideas in your mind at the same time and believe in both of them” (Lutz, 1981, p. 9). Christopher Hitchens described the moral offense of euphemism as an opening salvo in the assault on the truth. Ackerman describes Bush-era assaults on the environment using doublespeak such as the Clear Skies Initiative to weaken the Clean Air Act. Printing money becomes quantitative easing. Liberalization becomes a freeing word for privatization of the commons. It is almost as though, when Reagan declared a “new morning in America” based on fiscal profligacy and expansion of debt, the boomers took that as license to create a verbal assault on the commons to extend the American Dream.
Trouble in Porklandia and Motor City
On a daily basis I will see the words climate change described as the priority problem for our planet. For example, Britain’s National Pig Association blames an impending global bacon shortage on climate change, due to increased feed costs from low harvests for corn and soybeans. But in a world with industrial agriculture, overshoot, and inflation from decreasing energy availability and expanding debt, aren’t high feed costs equally attributable to waning energy availability? The projected decline isn’t news to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In its monthly outlook report (PDF) from August, the department linked a reduction in grain-consuming animal units next year in the United States to this year’s drought in the Midwest. We can think of any number of linked factors besides drought that are impacting farmers: waning availability of fossil fuels along with rising inflation, competition from industrial farming and biofuel industries, pesticide and antibiotic resistance of crops and animals, competition from cheap imports, failing fertility, aquifers and topsoil, loss of farmland to development, an aging, contracting pool of small farmers, huge swings in commodity prices due to financial trading, regulations and subsidies that penalize small, local farmers, and so on (Pollan, 2008). But we’re blaming it on the climate alone? What’s with that?
Another report out this week suggests that the collapse of fisheries and imminent global hunger is due to ocean acidification. The study focuses on climate models to explain the impending collapse. The report demonstrates no ecological thinking as it ignores other causes of fishery collapse. While the proposed solutions obliquely refer to growth as the root cause by mentioning solutions such as destructive fishing practices and limiting fossil fuel subsidies, the authors define the problem as climate. It is a little more complicated than that, as you can see from the simplified diagram below.
If economic growth is a religion in our society, then agendas to halt growth are blasphemous. Climate change allows us to continue business as usual by playing games to divert carbon into different pathways while still allowing business as usual and the continued growth of corporations and profits. Climate change shifts responsibility for problems of growth from man to Mother Nature. Carlin points out that euphemisms allow us to believe that if we change the name of the condition, we change the condition. Thus, climate change (or the earlier global warming, whatever) changes the condition of exponential growth to a distant, far off problem of small villages far away being flooded, or of temperature changes that our children may have to worry about in the distant future.
A simple analogy of the US economy is a car. Our family used to own a 1959 Volkswagen, which had no gas gauge. So we were often unsure of our energy security. We fed the car gasoline, which emitted waste and heat from the tailpipe and engine. Sometimes we would run out of gas, which meant we had to get out and walk. If we are concerned about the future of our car/society, which is more worrisome–running out of gas or belching too much smoke from the tailpipe? If we are about to run out of gas, who cares about what comes out of the tailpipe? And if we’ve got no money to pay for the gas when we do arrive at the gas station, then our concern about what comes out of the tailpipe fades even more, especially if there is no money for food, either. That emission will stop when we run out of gas. And we’ll be too occupied then about finding more gas or walking to our destination to also worry about higher order ecological concerns. Immediate physiological needs and personal economic concerns trump broader concerns, especially when one sputters from the fossil fuel age back into the pre-industrial era, even temporarily, without a sense of control over one’s environment.
The word Reduce is the first word in the slogan Reduce, Reuse, Recycle for a reason, because the most effective way to reduce waste is not to create it in the first place. Dealing with waste stream problems is a last resort in a dysfunctional system. The more appropriate mechanism for effective systemic change is to impact the front end of the system, which is the energy inputs. As Reagan suggested in this quote:
The only way to deal with a government that’s too big is to stop feeding its growth.
we can reduce growth in any system by cutting off its feed source. Too bad Reagan directed his suggestion towards government alone, rather than at the entire economy. Feeding corporations while starving other parts of the system results in imbalances that eventually become unsustainable when we run out of gas.
Because we fail to name the problem properly, we often reach for solutions that are counter-productive to both climate and growth. If we really want to limit energy consumption and thus economic growth, we will ride a bike instead of driving a car. That action will appropriately also slow CO2 production, which is an output resulting of the problem of growth. But if we view the root problem as climate instead, with no understanding of the energy limits or other ecological problems that growth creates, then we may opt to buy a $40K hybrid or electric car instead in an attempt to make a positive change. But that electric car demands many additional withdrawals from the environment for fuel production and transport, auto manufacture, and infrastructure development and maintenance–more than a traditional car. What comes out of the tailpipe of the car is only a small piece of the overall impact of owning a vehicle, especially when one considers the many transformations of energy required in manufacturing an electric car.