Sunday, September 9, 2012

Bad Language

It’s been another interesting week in the realm of peak oil, with news that Saudi Arabia may not have anything like as much oil as it was claimed (although this hardly counts as news for anyone who has been paying attention). The Daily Telegraph’s champion business writer, Ambrose Evans Pritchard, has even started talking about peak oil in alarming tones – although he puts a safe distance between himself and the regular old peak oil writers by renaming it ‘peak cheap oil’. Cue hundreds of angry comment trolls attacking his failure of wishful thinking.

Oil may have dropped in price recently, going down to less than a hundred dollars a barrel (which is still 1,000% up on only 14 years ago, as Kurt Cobb reminds us), but there hasn’t been a corresponding decrease in petrol prices. Here in Denmark it’s pushing 14 crowns a litre – which is just over 9 dollars a gallon. There are the usual and predictable ‘Pain at the Pumps’ headlines, and in Britain the government is trying to deflect criticism by launching an official enquiry into the high prices, presumably in the hope that it can be seen to be doing something and that they will have dropped again by the time the enquiry winds up.

The high petrol prices, combined with high food prices, are having all sorts of interesting effects. One has been a rise in stealth inflation of the food variety, with many products in my local supermarket seemingly afflicted by a terrible shrinking phenomenon. A jar of peanut butter used to cost 30kr ($5.20) for 400g. Then, seemingly overnight, the price dropped to 25kr and the jars were marked ‘Special Offer’. But even the most myopic person could see that the jars themselves had suddenly got a lot smaller, and you now only got 250g. That (he says, fiddling with his calculator) is actually a price rise of 33% disguised as a discount.

But apart from the price rises we might actually be seeing some demand destruction taking place. In the UK, overall traffic levels dropped by 1% this spring, which is nothing spectacular, but that figure hides the fact that heavy goods traffic fell by the much more significant figure of 4.4% as businesses seized up and people went shopping less. And did anyone mention North Sea oil production? This has continued its relentless decline and fell a whopping 18% in 2011.

18% !!!

This is great news for planet Earth but apocalyptic news for the rabid scrum of psychotic maniacs who are currently controlling the levers of power in Britain. Psychotic in Chief George Osborne, whose job it is to push forward any economic policy he can dream up as long as it is the wrong one, has reacted with predictable abandon and announced a massive infrastructure building plan to invoke the sacred gods of Growth. Yes, against a background of steadily falling oil availability, we are to embark on a programme of road and airport expansion because, as everyone knows, if you build enough roads and airports then those stubborn oil fields will miraculously start weeping out record amounts of oil again.

Nobody in MSM land is seriously questioning this rush for growth at any cost, although some of the more liberal newspapers are tying themselves in knots arguing for green growth i.e. further ways to sustain the unsustainable. Which gets me onto the business of language.

I happen to like the English language. I love its mixed pedigree and the fact that it contains hundreds of thousands of words that are just there for the usage. It’s my job to use words and phrases in pleasing configurations, and I enjoy doing so. So it’s all the more maddening to hear people day in and day out using words for their own vile purposes and unquestioned agendas. It was George Orwell who said that politicians used words the way that squids use ink i.e. they squirt out clouds to blind and confuse us. Well, they’re still at it, but in my opinion it’s the media who are the worse perpetrators.

These are my top abuses of language which can be found in any newspaper on a daily basis.

This can simply be substituted for the word ‘oil’. Riches are what lie user the rapidly melting Greenland ice and in the seas around the Falkland Islands. Riches, it is assumed, can be extracted and sold thus bringing ‘prosperity’ (another hate word) to all who are lucky enough to live in a country which has the government mandated right to extract these riches. Riches are there for the taking – just like the world’s fish are called ‘stocks’ that you can reach out and grab – and are therefore ours by default. We might squabble about who has the right to these riches, but we all agree that whoever wins the scramble to extract them ends up very, er, rich.

Developing Countries
There used to be three types of country, labelled helpfully as First, Second and Third World. Now we only have two: developing countries and developed ones. Developing countries, you see, all strive to be just like our countries. Take India, for example. Never mind the fact that is has several thousands of years of history, 1,652 different languages and a multitude of religions and cultures – what every citizen in India wants is to be just like an American. They want to have big houses, drive big cars and eat in McDonald’s (okay, a small concession – we’ll let them keep their vegetarianism). When they are finished developing they will have achieved the highest level of evolutionary attainment i.e. us. Until that time, of course, they’re great for cheap labour and merciless resource extraction, which is just the price they have to pay if they want to be great.

Everything today can be sustainable. Even airlines have their own sustainability reports. The key to achieving sustainability is to get big enough so that you can afford a CSR department. As soon as you have some staff versed in deflecting criticism, producing glossy brochures with a picture of a child holding a seedling on the cover, and enacting small but highly visible ‘eco’ steps, such as photographing the CEO driving an electric car – then you’re sustainable and can go on polluting and vandalising the planet as before.

This is what happens to species and places when they interact with humans. As a journalist you have to tread with fear when mentioning anything to do with rampant corporate destruction, and therefore your language has to be timid as well. It’s not even weak and passive enough to just say ‘threatened’ - one must say that someone else claims it is threatened. I once wrote a story for a newspaper about an Australian company which was dropping napalm bombs from helicopters onto an old growth forest in Tasmania. It was 100% destruction, with every living thing razed off the face of the planet in that area. I wrote a headline that went something like “Forestry Company Napalms Ancient Forest”. Within 15 minutes there was an aggressive corporate lawyer on the phone from the other side of the world saying that unless the story was substantially changed he was going to do the legal equivalent of drop napalm on our office. 

The newspaper publisher stepped in and explained to me that Australians have every right to napalm their own forests and that I should tone it down. Before the hour was out the story had been changed to “Forest Threatened by Logging Company, claim Conservationists” with a lengthy explanation from the CSR department of the napalm bombing company about how the aerial bombardment technique actually benefits the environment. We didn't print a picture of a smiling kangaroo, but almost.

Growth is a holy cow and therefore not often subject to criticism. But anyone who has been to India and seen holy cows wandering around in the streets knows that they live on a diet of mouldy cardboard, plastic packaging and other detritus that can be found lying around. Garbage in garbage out. Growth is what we are all after and growth, as any cancer cell will tell you, is the be all and end of existence. If something economic is not experiencing growth, on no account must the arch-enemy of growth  –  the evil shrinkage – be mentioned. Instead we have a ‘period of negative growth’ which just means that hard-working growth is taking a well-earned break and will get back to (sustainable) growth as soon as we sacrifice a few more species and ancient forests at its altar.

Bad news/Good news

Turn on any news programme – any – and watch the business section and you’ll likely be told whether each item is bad news or good news. Examples might be “There’s bad news for the construction industry, which saw profits fall by 0.03% in March, while there is good news for the shareholders of airlines following merger speculation.” I’m not sure why they do this – they don’t do it with the other news - but it’s probably because nobody actually understands the business news and therefore it has to be spoon-fed to viewers as if they were toddlers sitting in their highchairs in front of the TV and wearing bibs. The general rule is that if someone somewhere (it doesn't matter who) has made some money from something it is ‘good news’. If the converse is true it is ‘bad’.  Thus we get “There’s great news for shareholders of the insulin maker Novo Nordisk today as the WHO reveals the world is in the grip of an obesity epidemic.” This is exactly the kind of easily digested news in a jar that today’s busy CEO likes and doesn’t have difficulty swallowing. My favourite business news reader/kindergarten teacher is BBC World’s Sally Bundock, who delivers bad news as if she’s telling children that the sweetie drawer is empty and she’s run out of lollipops.

The BBC's Sally Bundock - helping us to understand difficult things

Tune in next week for more vituperative hogwash.


  1. Dear Jason
    Your best post yet - and with another nod to Orwell - shows how the English language is particularly well suited to double-speak. Thanks. One thing though - please remember that your non-UK readers do not necessarily automatically know the political leanings of newspapers from the UK. I noticed that British people typify each other by the papers they read - to the rest of us this is pure mystery. A short explanation would be most useful. Keep up the good work.

    1. Hello Square - thanks. Sorry, yes, a short explanation would be in order. I generally only tend to read The Guardian aka The Obsserver (liberal) The Telegraph (right wing) and The Independent (strange mixture of both).

      There's a handy list here.

    2. And another thing ... I would also point out that both the 'left' and 'right' wing press are just two sides of the same coin.

      Rudolf Steiner had a few ideas on this, pointing out that in this day and age you basically get to decide between two types of evil. It might be a stretch to call The Guardian evil, but The Telegraph ... well.

      I'll jot it down in my notebook as subject matter for another post one day - thanks.

  2. BTW I forgot to include the oxymoron 'Wealth Creator' - a new class of blood sucking parasite courted by mainstream political parties whose only desire in life is to be able to hire people for slave wages and then sack them again at a moment's notice without giving a reason. Sure, they create wealth, but not for you and me.

    Any more that I have forgotten will be gratefully accepted.

  3. Loved your list of words - you included three of my favorites, growth, sustainable and developing countries. Undeveloped would be more accurate statement of affairs, though developing sounds more hopeful.
    Also, a comment on one of your earlier topics, slow vs. fast collapse, I wanted to suggest that with collapse, we would see various forms of cargo cult behavior, but then it occurred to me that we are already seeing cargo cult behavior, that is the attempt to bring back prosperity by creating various totems of prosperity. If we create the totems, the real thing will materialize through the mechanism of sympathetic magic.
    " we are to embark on a programme of road and airport expansion because, as everyone knows, if you build enough roads and airports then those stubborn oil fields will miraculously start weeping out record amounts of oil again. " Another way to make oil plentiful again is to chant "drill baby, drill." Never mind that there has to be oil in the ground for drilling to do any good.
    I would say that if cargo cult behavior is a symptom of collapse, then we are experiencing collapse already albeit a partial or slow collapse.

    1. I'd say we're all living in over-developed countries. Over-developed as in like Dolly Parton, and liable to topple forwards at any moment!

      As for collapse, well we could well be seeing the first signs of cargo cult behaviour. In the UK though I think it's more of a simple case of greed and corruption. V.S.Naipaul said that England was the only country with a class system more complex than India - and what we're seeing at the moment is the ruling Tories - who are basically a millionaires club - handing out contracts to the chaps they went to school with. It's an old boys network who meet behind closed doors.

      Of course, in the past, new expansionary programmes *have* boosted the economy. The fact that they are unlikely to now doesn't seem to have crossed too many minds. It's still all talk of jobs and growth for the time being.

  4. Evans Pritchard is correct, "peak cheap oil" is a more accurate term than "peak oil". One of the annoying things I find about doomer commentators is that many don't acknowledge the distinction and talk as if we are heading into a Mad Max world with no oil at all (even the "slow collapse/ fast collapse" distinction doesn't help, slow collapse often turns out to mean we reach Mad Max, only later). What is actually happening is that companies and governments are creating lots of oil, they are just doing it by turning coal and coal-like materials into oil, just like the Nazis did. Of course this is expensive and it in terms of the real economy it means shrinking jars of peanut butter, no budget to take on new staff, slashed government benefits, no money to upgrade or even repair infrastructure and so on. And it could mean dumping enough carbon into the atmosphere to make the planet inhospitable for humans. But we will have lots of oil! Cornucopians have also used the confusion between peak cheap oil and peak oil to "debunk" warnings about peak oil.

    1. I believe the term 'peak oil' was an accident and just something that (oil geologist) Colin Campbell wrote above some notes as a way of summarising some concepts in the 1980s.

      But, yes, peak cheap oil, is what it's all about. But like most things these days, it has just devolved into a simplistic tribal argument with two sides out to 'debunk' the other - with rational thought left to wander in the lonely no-mans land in between.

    2. Very pleased to have stumbled across your blog and get a Danish perspective! I think the simple term 'Peak' does have real value. With any non-renewable commodity there will be a maximum rate of extraction, e.g. oil in the USA in 1970, coal in the UK in 1913. Of course you won't know you've had it until well after the event, and you won't be able to predict accurately when it will happen, but happen it will! Roger B

    3. Thanks Roger. I'm not a Dane, but I've lived here for about 8 years and follow events here closely - so hopefully some of my observations will be relevant.

      Interestingly, in the news here yesterday, it was reported that Denmark has hit its 2020 solar power generation target already. Turns out it was just too easy. In response the government has raised the target by a factor of 10.

  5. Growth is at the heart of western industrial civilisation, globalisation and the destruction of our planet. Even steady state, stability and equilibrium are no use as words or concepts in the situation we face. If life is to survive in its luxurious diversity we need contraction, retreat, recession, decrease, shrinkage, decline, readjustment, down sizing, scaling back, In population, resource consumption and pollution emmission. None of these words are very attractive so I guess what we need is a better word that describes what we seek by accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative and perhaps getting some hope in there? I'm not a wordsmith, so Jason is there such a word, in any language?

    I've had a look at a few synonyms in an online thesaurus and the ones that caught my eye were decrement and taper. I used to be a parasitologist and I guess the closeness of these words to excrement and tapeworm reflect the shit situation we are in and the parasites who are keeping the system alive so they can extract the most from it. Not the uplifting words I'm looking for I'm afraid so I hope someone can do a lot better.

    1. That’s a very good point you have made there Phil. I have also looked in my (old, yellowing) thesaurus and every word that I can see which relates to downsizing would have negative connotations in our current growth paradigm. I like taper and wither, but even these would be unacceptable to most (not that it matters, in the long run).

      John Michael Greer came up with the word ‘catabolic’ meaning ‘to be thrown downwards’ (as opposed to anabolic, meaning ‘to be built up’). It’s a word mostly used in chemistry , but I don’t see why it couldn’t be brought into wider use. A group calling themselves ‘Catabolists’ would be for the gradual lessening of the human footprint until such a time as it becomes sustainable. It sounds suitably religious and the word isn’t in popular usage, so it would be more acceptable.
      Otherwise we’ll go with the tapeworm analogy in the full knowledge that parasites, left unchecked, usually end up killing their host …

  6. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet! Catabolism is the biochemical process by which large molecules break down into small ones in the liver releasing energy. So there is a good fit to the lessening of the human footprint we need. The "cata" part comes from the greek word "kata" meaning downwards. Personally though I admire JMG, I'm not keen on the word catabolic. Its the olic part that has too many egative connotations. I prefer catabasis and catabatic is the decline of a disease, which is always welcome and hopeful! . I still think there is a better word out there.


I'll try to reply to comments as time permits.