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

December 21, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.
Image RemovedRegular 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 aHobbesian 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. 

Image: A doctor, straddled by a skeleton, holds a full purse in his hands; signifying that he lives well off others’ deaths. Coloured lithograph by G. Engelmann. Source: Wikimedia Commons. [NOTE: Nothing against doctors. This image seemed to me to depict the contradiction between personal power and destruction. -Editor]

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions.

Tags: greed