Monday, June 14, 2010


I've been teaching this class for a long time (over 15 years), and I always encounter this word (greed) as a supposed explanation for environmental problems. "It's greed!" they shout... "People just need to stop being greedy!".

I have to tell you. I couldn't disagree more with this perspective.

Let's think about this for a second... what is greed? Are people truly greedy? I know some people sure are, but is this really the best way to explain over-use of the environment?

Is it "greedy" to pursue your own best interest? If so, aren't all living things greedy? Indeed, if this is a workable definition of greed, then are humans not one of the only creatures on the planet that are NOT greedy? Higher-order mammals are just about the only living things that display altruism aren't they? Ever seen fish on a reef? What are they all doing? Well, every one of them is trying to eat as much as possible and have the biggest cave to live in and attack (till death if necessary) anything that gets in their way. Are the fish "greedy" for doing so?

Is the slash & burn farmer in the Amazon greedy for trying to feed his family? Is a commercial fisher greedy for eking out a living doing what his family has done for generations? Are YOU greedy for driving your car every day and consuming hundreds of products that cause pollution?

Or is it that we're all just doing what is perfectly rational given the rules of the game.... if you benefit from something and someone else pays (most of) the costs, you keep doing it.

If you believe that "greed" (self interest) is the cause of environmental problems, what are you saying about the potential for solutions? Do you think there is any way to stop people from pursuing their own self interest?


Wanda Lewis said...

I think that greed is not the issue. I think the only way to stop people from pursuing their own best interest is to raise the marginal costs associated with those interests.

Peter Salyga said...

We continually mention many times that the Trad. of the Commons problem creates a marginal utility to the individual that outweighs the shared cost to the population. I think we should not forget to note that entire countries are part of this game too. United States consumes a substantial portion of the worlds resources and those costs are obviously shared with everyone. Here is a simple analysis: you buy a 5 dollar desk lamp - lets think about all the costs associated with the desk lamp and lets figure out if $5 is really an accurate reflection of the true value of the lamp? Shipping costs (trucks + vessels), Labor (extraction, production, shipping employees, store employees, CEO‘s of companies, shareholders), extraction ( all sorts of metals, plastics), wastes (pollution at every stage of the process - extraction, production, consumption, shipping), ect.. To the purchaser the value derived from that lamp is privatized at $5 and the costs are socialized with rest of the world. But like the professor said I don’t consider myself greedy for buying a desk lamp!! hah

sw said...
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Samuel Wilson said...

I think "greed" is probably subject to some variations on the definition, but I would certainly say that humans are greedy. Whether that is a bad thing, it seems like we'll find out when we either fix the problems that our drive to master our environment has created, or we won't. I think greed is perfectly rational, as did a lot of people...John Locke comes to mind, for certain, and I agree with the direction you're going in concerning rational choice... of animals to fend only for themselves, or the poor farmer, or the poor fisherman, but their choices are so limited that I think they are both perfectly rational and morally righteous for doing what they do. I think the tragedy is that our brains outpaced our consciousness as stewards, not just for the environment and less able orders of life, but to members of our own species less fortunate than us. I can hardly blame a person for pursuing their natural drive to accumulate wealth, I think it is rational for us to desire comfort. But I think we suffer from a lack of perspective, which I guess goes toward what Peter said, the disparity between the standards of living in the US and <$10 per day that 80% of the world lives on, it is just embarrassing. Yes, people will continue to pursue their own self interests unless some massive, weird evolutionary shift in humans occurs. But I think society as a whole will continue to (or begin to?) evolve for the better of all, as we've seen such a stunningly rapid onset of globalization in just the past half century, it seems like we're accelerating toward...something. The perfect world government? Where all the negative externalities are internalized, and standardized across borders? Capitalism where private costs equal social costs? It amazes me, especially drawing from much of what we've learned in this class, how much we seem to have a grip on what works, or at least what has been shown to work in certain cases, what works out so logically in theory, yet we move so slowly toward incorporating these perfectly reasonable solutions. I guess the test will lie in when it all comes together, how bad it needs to get before "sustainable" stops being a buzzword and starts meaning the things we need to do to continue to have a liveable planet. I think humans are inherently greedy, but I think if anything that knack for self-preservation might just be what pulls us out of the current messes we're making.

Dr. Peter Schuhmann said...
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