Wednesday, April 20, 2011


I am in a phase of pondering human attributes. I was thinking about greed recently. Another personality trait that I am mulling over is 'hybris' or 'hubris'. Often they seem to go together. Megalomaniacs usually think they can't fail and they are greedy beyond measures while believing they alone deserve it all.

Hybris is especially misplaced in areas that deal with the environment and nature. We think we understand it all. We believe our science explains it all. We mess with nature (pesticides, biocides, gene manipulation, nuclear power plants) and we think we can't fail. We should be more humble and understand that there are risks. And often these are risks that are not worth taking. Nuclear power is a good example. Sure it works. But it is more expensive than we are made to believe. We do not understand it all. Three Mile Island and Chernobyl resulted because we did not think of a certain chain of events. And while the crisis was ongoing operators at the plants did not understand the why nor know how to respond or react. It is not worth the risk knowing that there are lower risk alternative energy sources. The same for GM food. It is hubris to think we understand all effects of the production and consumption of GM food over large periods of time. Decades ago we thought we understood it all when we sprayed DDT on wide areas just to ban it later. The list goes on and on. Things we thought we knew, things we thought are explained with our science, just turned out to be different just a few years later.

We must be more humble. Maybe we should read more books from Fukuoka. In his The One-Straw Revolution but also in his other books he speaks about his world view that is based on the idea that we know nothing, that science is too specialized, too focused, too much operating in isolated silos to be able to give us true knowledge. From that he concludes that nature does things better than we can and that by doing less, we harm less and eventually obtain better results.

Naomi Klein gave a talk at TED entitled "Addicted to Risk" arguing for a cautious approach to serious issues such as energy production or global climate control. In her talk she says that Tony Hayward, former CEO of BP, had a plaque on his desk engraved with the following inspirational slogan: “If you knew you could not fail, what would you try?” As we know attitudes like this lead to the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The video is here. The text is here. A typical hybris attitude and result.

There are limits to everything. The world's energy, our science, our knowledge, our abilities and our wisdom. Let's start with ourselves, let's be humble and teach humbleness to our kids.

Sunday, April 10, 2011


I often think about greed. What does it mean? Is it learned? Is it conditioned? Is it in our genes? Is it a survival instinct? What role did it play if any in the evolution of mankind? Where does it come from? What are the consequences and direct or indirect effects?

I see it as one of the causes of many social problems and a stumbling block for increased cooperation. Religions even consider it a sin. In the 21st century the social perception of greed does not seem to be very negative. Many of us have some of it in us, I certainly do have my share of it as well.

I was not aware of it, but by chance I stumbled across the US TV series "American Greed". One can watch some episodes here. Wow, I was astonished. The show is scary and entertaining at the same time. What lovely case studies of greed and human behavior surrounding greed. It was not surprising to see that most of the "case studies" shown on American Greed were people that were admired, filling cover pages in magazines and newspapers, awarded with business, social and even philanthropic awards, in shorted respected citizens. They rubbed shoulders with US presidents, Fortune 500 CEOs, and Hollywood stars. Newsweek and Time Magazine presented them to us as role models, people to look up to and imitate, in short our heroes. And usually their fall was rapid, from high flying stardom to fall or prison often in a matter of days or a couple of weeks. Whenever I see an episode or read some similar story in the newspapers I have to think of Enron and WorldCom.

I have no answer to greed, but I do know that enough is enough. How many houses and palaces does one need? How many yachts can one use? How many Bentley's can one drive? For many of us, the term 'greed' should be food for thought and lead to some personal changes.