Bafflegab: language deliberately used to confuse, obscure, baffle
The Limits to Growth, a report commissioned by The Club of Rome, hit the book stands in 1972. Widely discussed at the time, it’s a study of industrial and population growth in relation to the supply of resources. It concluded that, unless the world changed its ways, limits to growth would become evident by the year 2072. Since its publication, more than 30 million copies of the book have sold, and it continues to generate debate to this day.
Question: why is the phrase ‘Limits to Growth’ so rarely mentioned in the press or elsewhere? What happened to it? Answer: Big Business, aided by its friends in government, buried it. Business leaders like to talk about growing their businesses, never about stunting them. Outside of academic circles, talk about limiting growth is considered bad taste, like spitting in public. How did Business manage to suppress the phrase so completely? Easy. It promoted an alternative phrase more to its liking. It’s called ‘Sustainable Development’, a masterpiece of bafflegab.
Google’s Ngram Viewer consists of a search engine and a database of about five million books published up to the year 2008. It provides a way to chart the frequency over time of any set of words or phrases appearing in the data set of printed texts. By choosing 1900 as the start date, and entering these three phrases, industrial development, limits to growth, and sustainable development, the Viewer generates the following chart.
The People who write books tend to use the words and phrases acceptable to the people they hope will read them. Books reflect what people are talking about at any point in time. When it was published in 1972, the Club of Rome’s book reflected the growing discomfort with industrialization. That’s when talk about ‘industrial development’ started heading downhill (see chart) and talk about ‘limits to growth’ began to gain traction. Big Business had to act fast and it did. By 1990, the new, business-friendly phrase ‘sustainable development’ had eclipsed the phrase ‘limits to growth’, and would soon take over from the phrase ‘industrial development’.
Does that mean Big Business is out of the woods, free to carry on as before? Not quite. There remains the question of global warming and its bafflegab replacement phrase ‘climate change’. Yes, that’s right, ‘Climate change’ is a phrase chosen and promoted by Big Business in its ongoing attempt to bury the words ‘global warming’. Business hates the phrase ‘global warming’. The words imply that, not only is the world getting hotter, but that there’s no limit to how hot It will get. Business does not want to get blamed for cooking its customers. ‘Climate change’ by comparison, sounds positively benign. As President Trump has remarked, the climate could “change back again”.
Here’s what the Ngram chart shows when the phrases global warming and climate change are added.
‘Climate change’ and ‘sustainable development’, the two bafflegab phrases, are up there leading the pack, exactly where Business likes to see them. ‘Global warming’, the truthful phrase, although still in the race, is lagging. ‘Limits to growth’, also a truthful phrase, remains lying in the dirt — for now.