Hubris, greed, denial: We poor silly humans

In a March op-ed piece, Harold Meyerson says recent disasters – the financial crisis, the Gulf spill, and Japan’s nuclear mess – should weaken one of our “deeply rooted faiths – in our own infallibility.” We were assured, he says, that the financial system “could not possibly come tumbling down.” Oil drilling “could not possibly result in a cataclysmic spill.” Nuclear plants were safe “against the oh-so-remote possibilities of meltdowns.”

“At long last,” Meyerson writes with a sneer, “humankind had triumphed over risk.” But, he says, “what all these wizards” overlooked was the human factor: “greed, denial and hubris.”

Oh, please.

The implication is that nothing should ever be undertaken unless some “wizards” – genuine ones, I suppose – can indeed guarantee zero risk. If we had applied that rule from the get-go, we’d still be living in caves and wearing animal skins. Though, come to think of it, that sort of life had its risks too.

Everything in life has risks. The wish for total safety is a fool’s errand. I wonder if Mr. Meyerson drives a car — and thinks he’s guaranteed safe from accidents. But life itself is inherently unsafe, with a 100% guarantee of dying.

Look, nobody in the financial system ever claimed it was immune from crashes. Obviously, we’d had them before. Same for oil drilling. Same for nuclear power, and all other aspects of our technological existence. Only a fool could have had the kind of deranged confidence Meyerson mocks.

All these things entail risks, and we do understand and accept those risks, because a financial system (at least more or less like what we’ve got) is necessary to operate our complex economy, and oil drilling and power plants are necessary to meet our energy needs. If we’re not to live in caves wearing animal skins.

Just as we accept the risks every time we drive. Because we reckon they’re outweighed by the benefits, even though the highway death toll (over 30,000 Americans annually) vastly exceeds that caused by oil drilling or nuclear power (very few). The cost of U.S. auto accidents is estimated at over $150 billion a year. Worldwide, the yearly automobile death toll exceeds a million. If we’re willing to drive, despite those huge risks and costs, surely we should be willing to drill for oil, and build nuclear plants, and so forth.

This isn’t hubris. It isn’t denial, or greed, or delusions of infallibility. It’s human beings using all our brainpower and creative energies, making prodigious efforts, doing the best we can to wrestle with nature to make the best lives possible, and, yes, to combat and curtail our risks. And when we fail – we are fallible – we learn from it, and do better. That’s how progress happens.

There are no free lunches; nothing is given to us without cost or risk. And the risks afflicting a human being in the raw natural world are vastly more frightening than those created by the life-improving technologies that pundits like Mr. Meyerson so glibly denigrate. From time immemorial, every such advance has met with the same kind of fear syndrome. When railroads were invented, people worried their speed would cause organ damage.

Gas hydrofracking is the local cause du jour. Yes, there are risks. But again, there is a complete lack of perspective regarding these risks vis-à-vis others, such as driving. (And fracking supporters, like geologist Dr. Taury Smith, encounter a witch-hunt mentality, as though their stance is criminal.) We need the energy, and there is no utopian clean risk-free way to get it. All technologies entail risks.

 Nuclear power in particular stokes irrational fears reverberating from Hiroshima and the Cold War. The “100% safe” crowd says a nuclear accident could kill thousands. Hasn’t happened for a quarter century – not even in Japan’s immense natural disaster – while 440 nuclear plants operate without incident in 30 countries. But meantime, air pollution from fossil fuel power plants is estimated to kill 20,000 to 30,000 Americans, and hundreds of thousands worldwide, every single year. Not to mention deaths in coal mining. Or the global warming effect. This, realistically, is the chief alternative to nuclear power. (Fukushima Dai-ichi produced more electricity than all the solar power in the world.)

And where, in the end, does Harold Meyerson think we should put our faith? In “active, disinterested governmental regulation,” rooted “in a sober, conservative assessment of the human capacity for mistake and self-delusion, not to mention avarice and chicanery.”

Talk about delusion. As if governments are peopled and their policies molded by disinterested angels, rather than the same species of fallible human beings who run financial and energy industries, with their own self-serving agendas and capacity for mistakes, disingenuousness and self-delusion.

 Nobody holds the sort of blind unskeptical faith in technology or private enterprise that Meyerson depicts. But some, like him, do seem to hold exactly that kind of blind unskeptical faith in government. Given the vast power of government – after all, it makes laws even corporations must obey – that’s at least as big a problem.

3 Responses to “Hubris, greed, denial: We poor silly humans”

  1. A K Haart Says:

    Good post – I agree with every word. I sometimes wonder why these battles still have to be fought. A more rational attitude to risk would be a good starting point, but it seems elusive. Maybe we should teach children about risk, but there would surely be battles over that too.

  2. Lee Says:

    Statistics should be taught in the high schools.

  3. Alfredo De La Fe Says:

    The difference between the risks of old and those of “new” has to do with how many people are affected and for how long. The proverbial caveman only put himself, family and perhaps community at risk for a generation at best. Some of the risks that are being taken today can (and in recent history HAVE) affected thousands, tens of thousands or even more not only for this generation but for several generations to come.

    I agree that the collective “we” must take risks. But in the case of several of the manmade disasters of the past decade they could have been avoided or mitigated considerably if a little more forethought, care or money were put into their development.

    While some projects would never get off of the ground if budgets were unrealistic, some “shortcuts” ARE due to greed and political wrangling. As I am sure you can agree, numbers and facts are often manipulated so “statistics” cannot nor should they stand on their “own”. The biggest problem I see is that most current geo-political systems are designed in such a way that any system which provides checks and balances are actively or passively discouraged due to personal or group agendas, money or in the case of some countries the mental stability of the powers that be.

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