Sunday, December 21, 2014

Greed explained: J. Paul Getty, Aristotle and the Maximum Power Principle

Regular readers know I often write about energy, and while this piece may not at first blush seem like an energy story, you'll soon see that the quest for an ample supply of energy is, in fact, at the heart of human greed.

Greed is often said to be a central cause of our ecological and social ills. It motivates excessive and injurious exploitation of the planet and thus threatens the existence of many species including humans themselves. It leads to excessive economic inequality and the social ills presumed to be associated with that inequality. And, of course, greed is regarded as not just bad for the biosphere or society; it's bad for the soul and therefore earns a place on the list of the seven deadly sins.

Many people are convinced that greed is learned and therefore can be unlearned or not taught in the first place. Others believe that greed is simply an inherent evil in humans, part of the human condition.

Someone once asked oil tycoon J. Paul Getty how much money is enough. He replied, "A little bit more." The fictional financier Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone's film "Wall Street"--who is best known for the phrase "greed is good"--gives a different answer: "It's not a question of enough, pal. It's a zero-sum game – somebody wins, somebody loses. Money itself isn't lost or made, it's simply transferred – from one perception to another." Finally, I offer the words of Noah Cross, a character played by John Huston in the film "Chinatown." Cross is asked what else such an enormously wealthy man as himself could possibly want, and he replies: "The future."

In these three quotes we have the essence of Howard Odum's Maximum Power Principle. (See, I told you we would come back to energy!) Essentially, what Odum observed is that living systems--humans, for example--seek to maximize their energy gain. Now, in modern society, the way humans primarily gain access to energy is through money. Money, it turns out, is merely what allows us to command energy--in the form of humans, machines, or even animal power--to do what we want it to do. Money is essentially a method of assigning "energy credits." And, energy, of course, can used be to make us a product, render us a service, or provide either of these to someone else as a gift or in fulfillment of a contractual obligation. Without energy, nothing gets done.

Many people believe as J. Paul Getty did--that one can never have enough money (read: energy). But, Gordon Gekko enunciates an important implication of the Maximum Power Principle: People will compete with one another for the available energy supplies (in the form of money or other types of wealth). And, Noah Cross, in ways both literal and figurative, shows us just how far people are willing to go to have an impact on the future, to insure the continuation of their genetic line and their vision for their community.

Despite our modern pretensions, we humans are still all part of an evolutionary process that pushes us to compete for survival and for the propagation of our genes. Access to energy (and all of its products and services) confers advantages in this contest. And, energy in the form of wealth provides a special intangible advantage: increased social status which can be an asset when pursuing sexual partners. Wealth attracts members of the opposite sex because it implies the ability to care for a spouse and for any offspring and provide many advantages such as ongoing access to better health care, nutrition, education and social opportunities.

Aristotle noted that the desires of men are unlimited. He also claimed that "the amount of household property which suffices for a good life is not unlimited." Aristotle is most often associated with the notion of the golden mean. Simply stated, it signifies not too much and not too little in all things.

Thus, Aristotle's vision seems contrary to the Maximum Power Principle. Why would anyone intentionally limit the amount of energy available to oneself? There is probably a theoretical limit to the amount of energy that might be useful to any one human being. The entire energy output of the Sun, for instance, would likely be beyond the capability of one human to manage and use to gain advantage. But, the world has many billionaires who find no end of ways to spend their accumulated energy credits and who often populate the world with many heirs from many marriages.

What possible force could counteract the drive for dominance and self-propagation and thus the desire to maximize one's energy gain to facilitate that dominance? There is research which suggests that beyond a certain point of energy consumption (around 100 gigajoules per year per person), quality of life measures for modern societies barely improve. But that's for society as a whole, not the individual.

As it turns out, we humans have a long history of contemplative traditions, both religious and secular, traditions that preach simplicity and often poverty as a way of life. These traditions eschew worldly goods or at least maintain that each person should have just what he or she needs for a good life and no more. How do such traditions square with the Maximum Power Principle? The people who adhere to these traditions, after all, voluntarily and consciously choose to consume less energy than they might otherwise be able to.

There may be a clue in that. Our default instinctual response is to seek advantage over others. Yes, we may cooperate where that seems the wisest course or where it is apparent that we cannot dominate the situation. But, even within one group or nation, there is simultaneous cooperation AND competition. But, we do not ordinarily cooperate to REDUCE our access to resources.

So, we might say that such voluntary and conscious choosing is the next step in evolution. But, how can it be? Such a way of life has been a feature of many civilizations throughout history. It is already a feature of evolution in that those who choose such a way of life have not died out. It may be that such a path is an adaptive response which optimizes human survival over time. This is merely speculation. But it would explain why self-abnegation is so persistent across cultures and across time. When humans need the gene that tells them to reduce their resource use, it is there.

But there is another claim made for the simple life, for a life which seeks only what is sufficient to thrive rather than to dominate. Quite often those following this path say they are happier than they were when following the path of continual acquisition of wealth and status. That claim, however, would seem to make millions of years of human evolutionary development appear pathological--unless you realize that natural selection optimizes life for survival and propagation, not happiness. Therefore, our default behaviors are tuned to help us survive and pass on our genes, not necessarily bring us contentment (as is evidenced, in part, by the modern divorce rate).

That is not to say that there isn't some happiness in mere survival and certainly some in the process of creating and rearing new life. But, this is not the kind of happiness that those preaching simplicity mean. They mean an enduring, deeply felt and persistent sense of satisfaction in an entire way of life.

A friend who used to serve very wealthy clients for a Wall Street brokerage firm once remarked that even as clients doubled or tripled their wealth, they seemed no happier. Such is the drive for dominance that many people continually seek invidious comparisons with others. Even though such comparisons may bring about enhanced social status, they do not seem to result in any deeper contentment.

Whether that part of us which allows us to find happiness with less, which allows us to loosen the chains of our drive for dominance and replace them with cords that bind us to others for mutual benefit--whether such an outlook will be awakened among more than a small sliver of the population is an open question. The evidence is not promising. The ruthless tend to get ahead and are often held up as examples of how to live.

But the story isn't over. With the challenges that humans now face in climate change, resource depletion, soil degradation, water scarcity and myriad other issues impinging on human survival--all of which have their origins in excessive energy use--we may find that the cooperative and abstemious strains within us may be called to the fore. Or we may find that these problems simply lead to a Hobbesian war of all against all.

So, the question is: Do we--meaning the human species as a whole--have any choice in the matter? Or are we as a species destined to live by the Maximum Power Principle to its seemingly inevitable and calamitous conclusion--a story in which the drive for maximum energy gain is no longer adaptive, but rather dangerous to the continued existence of humankind?

Our actions will be our answer.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at


EnonZ said...

Humans also have a long tradition of egalitarian gift economies. Among other things, these traditions seem to have evolved to keep acquisition and accumulation within the limits of a local ecology. A restraint on the maximum power principle.

Joe said...

Jared Diamond's 'The World Until Yesterday' is a good survey of the varieties of tribal societies. It shows that there is plenty of human capacity for altruism and cooperation within a tribal group. Between tribes there is mostly stiff competition or outright war, almost all of which is caused by conflict over food resources.

Many of the same patterns held as states emerged after the development of large scale agriculture. Just think of the number of walled towns and castles built all over Europe and Asia.

It does seem that the only thing that constrains the human propensity to acquire more and more resources is conflict with other humans. This should not be surprising. The "drive for maximum energy gain" is practically the definition of being alive. So I doubt that we can change our essential nature, no matter how much danger it presents to the biosphere (and ourselves).

Unknown said...

A wonderful essay as always and goes along with the thoughts I've been having about how to live in a responsible manner while having one foot in the present BAU paradigm and another in what obviously will be a very energy constrained and perhaps even ascetic future. Where does one go from here? Also an open question.

Bytesmiths said...

Is this really what Odum's "Maximum Power Principle" is about?

To me, it means that some balance of of sunken cost and current income must be struck. It would require infinite resources to achieve 100% efficiency, for example. No known photosynthesizing life form captures and stores more than 8% of the light falling on it — and most are only at a couple percent. This enables the plant to accumulate structure and to dissipate more energy, such as an acorn tree that produces perhaps a hundred thousand times as many acorns as are necessary for mere propagation.

So the MPP does not state that the optimal point occurs my grabbing as much as possible; it says there is always a trade-off between power and empower.

It appears to me that the "greed" that Cobb decries actually ignores the MPP, by optimizing for current income, whereas many indigenous traditional societies are much more successful in balancing investment with income.

Or perhaps I'm just missing something in the article...

Kurt Cobb said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

I agree with EnonZ that there appear to be counterweights to the maximum power principle in society and the individual. Otherwise, our society would be the Hobbesian war of all against all.

And, there is an important distinction for most people between in-groups and out-groups as Joe points out. Out-groups simply don't rate as much assistance and cooperation from us and generally are regarded as competitors for resources.

I agree with stihlhead that once you understand this issue and have a desire to "live in a responsible manner" you are instantly divided in two. It is quite a juggling act, one which I put voice to in an old essay entitled Peak Oil Mind: Juggling Two Realities.

The MPP is tricky and I suggest that Bytesmiths check out the description given by the Encyclopedia of Earth.

I agree that it may be inadvisable to extract energy and resources at the maximum rate possible IF your aim is longevity. But if your aim is actually to maximize your current power, then this is a rational course.

The MPP does not state that a system will optimize its energy gain, only that it will seek to maximize energy gain within the constraints of the system. There is an optimal tradeoff between power and efficiency in any system, but there is no guarantee that any particular organism within the system will reach and maintain that optimal tradeoff.