An Embarrassment of Oxymorons

By David L. Brown

“Sustainable growth.” That’s been the mantra of economists and politicians throughout my lifetime and before. We have been instructed that any economy that is not growing is a sick economy. A society that is static is a dying society. The only values worth considering are “bigger” and “more.” Those concepts are the underlying foundations of the world in which we live, and they all answer to the demand for “sustainable growth.”

But here’s a news flash: That phrase is an oxymoron. That is, a self-contradictory statement. The word oxymoron comes from a Greek root meaning “pointedly foolish.” Here are some more examples to give you the flavor of what oxymorons are: “Deafening silence.” “Giant shrimp.” “Microsoft Works.” “Found missing.” “Genuine Imitation.” “Pretty Ugly.”

Get the idea? Oxymorons are statements that seem on the surface to make some kind of sense, but are in fact foolish and stupid. Why is what we call “sustainable growth” foolish? Simply because nothing can grow, and therefore be sustained, forever. Given time, everything comes to an end, perhaps even the Universe and certainly the baseball season, Indian Summer, puppy love and the rain in Spain. One can pretend to “sustain” a downhill course on a bicycle, but at the bottom of the hill that motion can no longer be sustained. Thus, it was not sustainable in the first place. Neither is economic growth.

But there is something even more foolish than the idea of maintaining “sustainable growth,” and that is to attempt to keep an economic model growing when its time has passed. The only reason we have been able to get this far down the road of never-ending growth is that things have a way of shifting and turning in new directions. That’s not exactly “sustainability,” but it keeps things from running into brick walls—as long as we let the change take place.

In the early 1930s in England, economists worried about the rapid expansion of the telephone business. More and more ordinary people were installing telephones. The trend was a line going aggressively up, Up, UP. And what conclusion did the economists draw from this? Why that by sometime in the 1950s every working girl in England would be a telephone operator. Hundreds of thousands of operators to connect calls for millions of English families and businesses.

Hmm, didn’t happen did it? Nor did the lack of operators prevent the telephone business from growing and growing. Sustainable? Well, certainly not in the model that was prevalent in the 1930s. It was something else that happened, not what was anticipated.

And there’s the problem with trying to hold onto past models, to keep them growing, to “sustain” them even when their proper time has passed. Considering the number of telephones in the world today, and the enormous numbers of calls they handle, if we were still depending on operators to manually plug in each connection there probably would not be enough people in the entire world to do the job. Everyone would have to be a telephone operator, which means that no one would have time to make any phone calls or do anything else, so you can see that we have a serious paradox here, and paradoxes are the very stuff of which oxymorons are made.

So what’s my point? Well, we are experiencing a financial crisis in which those who are supposed to be our wise leaders (and you can add that to your collection of oxymorons) are determined to put things back the way they were. They want to “save” an auto industry that has outlived its time and needs to change to something else—but they want to save it not through change and evolution, but by sealing the old, worn-out business model in a bottle and preserving it in formaldehyde. In Detroit the auto business is still operating like operator-assisted calling, when it should have begun to embrace automatic switching decades ago.

Now I hear that the incoming administration and Congress are suggesting that we stimulate the economy by spending hundreds of billions or even trillions of dollars to re-build our roads and bridges. That’s not growth, that’s useless make-work and it would be an enormous mistake because that infrastructure should be replaced with new alternatives in keeping with future needs, not rebuilt in the old model of the past.

In the emerging world we will no longer have the urgent need to zoom all over the place in private automobiles built like space capsules. The automobile in its present form is on the way to becoming obsolete, and to invest in re-creating the infrastructure originally built to accommodate the auto would be a foolish mistake. Foolish, as in oxymoronic.

Instead we should be investing in building alternatives for the future. Things like light commuter rail, high speed rail for longer trips, heavy rail for freight. We need to build more and efficient airports including those suited to commuter travel in small, efficient planes. We need to establish infrastructure to provide electricity, or hydrogen, or whatever fuel sources are going to replace gasoline and diesel fuel. We need to build wind farms and solar arrays to provide, yes, sustainable energy sources.

The technology for remote work-at-home business models and teleconferencing are reducing the need for daily commuting and business travel. That trend is sure to continue, making future transportation needs much different. Twenty years from now there won’t be millions of cars and fleets of enormous diesel trucks zooming all across the landscape, so why should we replace our highways to prepare for that non-event? Especially when there is every reason to prepare for the real needs of our future society?

The underlying problem with the idea of sustainable growth is linked, of course, to the fact that the Earth itself has limited resources. We cannot continue to use more and More and MORE of something, because at some point there will be no more of that something left to use. We are seeing the chaos that’s being brought about by the arrival of Peak Oil. Prices spiked upward because demand called for more oil and it was not only in declining supply but also becoming more expensive to produce. The time is long gone when some Arab can just climb off of his camel and drill some holes and millions of barrels of light sweet crude just flow out of the ground at a negligible cost. Oil is no longer easy to find and produce and deliver to refineries, so it must be more expensive or it won’t be available at all.

But the world economy was built not just on a foundation of oil, but of cheap oil. We saw what happened this year when demand and supply clashed together, driving prices to record highs. It broke the market. People stopped using as much of the stuff, began to change their habits. And worse, it spiraled into the financial economy and helped create a credit crisis. Soon many companies, poorer countries, and individuals could not afford oil at all. Demand plummeted and so did the price. Good news? Well, not really.

Admitted, the world economy is at status quo ante, back where it started with oil once again cheaper—but the very economic model that requires that oil has been vitally wounded, as the tumult in the auto industry demonstrates. And now the oil producing nations are faced with a bitter choice: Produce oil at a loss, in which case their people will starve and their sheiks and Ayatollahs may have to sell some of their palaces, Rolls-Royces and private jets. Or, stop producing oil altogether, in which case their people will starve and their sheiks and Ayatollahs may have to sell some of their palaces, Rolls-Royces and private jets. (Is there an echo in here?)

And if the oil producers are facing this desperate crunch, what does it say for the future supply of oil the world as it is presently constituted needs to keep on truckin’? “Cheap oil” has itself become an oxymoron.

You see, this is Catch 22 squared, and 22 squared is a very big number. (In fact, if you’re curious, it’s 484.) What’s going to happen to these oil producing nations, and to their would-be customers who need lots of oil and it has to be cheap? What a dilemma! If the world economy cannot afford to pay more than $40 or $50 for a barrel of oil, and it costs $80 or $100 to produce that oil, there can be no easy solution, can there?

Sustainable growth is suddenly seen as the oxymoron it is. In the oil business, and in the economic activity that relies on cheap and abundant oil, “sustainable” has hit the stops, and so has growth, and so (as we will be seeing in future weeks, months and years) will the entire economic structure of the world. The internal contradiction of the two terms, “sustainable growth,” has created a situation that might be described as an irresistible force meeting an immovable object, which is another rather extended example of an oxymoron.

In light of that, how much sense does it make to “sustain” the U.S. auto industry in its failed form? How much sense does it make to spend a fortune to re-build our highways and bridges, infrastructure for which we will have declining need in the future? How much sense does it make to try to cling desperately to any past economic model that is no longer viable, was never sustainable, and which will never again be practical or even possible?

Not much.

How do we get people to understand these concepts. They seem simple enough to me, and I hope I have made them clear to my readers. But I watch in stunned awe as our farsighted leaders (oxymoron!), our wise economists (oxymoron!), our financial geniuses (oxymoron!), our business experts (oxymoron!) and all the others in charge of things in the world go rushing down the wrong path to attempt to put Humpty Dumpty back together when it’s time to create an entirely new kind of egg altogether. All the time while being cheered on by our smart media (oxymoron!) and knowledgeable academics (oxymoron!).

Here is a new mantra to try on for size: “Sustainable Stability.” Only a stable economic system can be sustainable, and those two words do not suffer from an internal conflict. But there is a problem, and that is that we are way out on a limb on the topmost part of a giant metaphorical tree, the one labeled “Sustainable growth,” and “Sustainable Stability” is another, much smaller and entirely different kind of tree, ‘way over there on the other side of the forest.

Getting down from this tree in which we find ourselves and making our way through the woods is the challenge we now face. We won’t get there by adding fertilizer to the roots of the tree we are already on or grafting new branches to its upper reaches. It’s time to start climbing down and exploring new avenues to the future.

Can we make it? Only time will tell, but no matter what course we take the future world is going to be a far different one from the one we’ve known. Let’s hope we don’t pour the economic lifeblood of the Earth into trying to keep this “sustainable growth” tree alive, for when it falls it will take us all down with it.

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