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  • I just did something I've never done before.

  • I spent a week at sea on a research vessel.

  • Now I'm not a scientist,

  • but I was accompanying a remarkable scientific team

  • from the University of South Florida

  • who have been tracking the travels of BP's oil

  • in the Gulf of Mexico.

  • This is the boat we were on, by the way.

  • The scientists I was with

  • were not studying the effect of the oil and dispersants on the big stuff --

  • the birds, the turtles,

  • the dolphins, the glamorous stuff.

  • They're looking at the really little stuff

  • that gets eaten by the slightly less little stuff

  • that eventually gets eaten by the big stuff.

  • And what they're finding

  • is that even trace amounts of oil and dispersants

  • can be highly toxic to phytoplankton,

  • which is very bad news,

  • because so much life depends on it.

  • So contrary to what we heard a few months back

  • about how 75 percent of that oil

  • sort of magically disappeared

  • and we didn't have to worry about it,

  • this disaster is still unfolding.

  • It's still working its way up the food chain.

  • Now this shouldn't come as a surprise to us.

  • Rachel Carson --

  • the godmother of modern environmentalism --

  • warned us about this very thing

  • back in 1962.

  • She pointed out that the "control men" --

  • as she called them --

  • who carpet-bombed towns and fields

  • with toxic insecticides like DDT,

  • were only trying to kill the little stuff, the insects,

  • not the birds.

  • But they forgot this:

  • the fact that birds dine on grubs,

  • that robins eat lots of worms

  • now saturated with DDT.

  • And so, robin eggs failed to hatch,

  • songbirds died en masse,

  • towns fell silent.

  • Thus the title "Silent Spring."

  • I've been trying to pinpoint

  • what keeps drawing me back to the Gulf of Mexico,

  • because I'm Canadian,

  • and I can draw no ancestral ties.

  • And I think what it is

  • is I don't think we have fully come to terms

  • with the meaning of this disaster,

  • with what it meant to witness a hole

  • ripped in our world,

  • with what it meant to watch the contents of the Earth

  • gush forth on live TV,

  • 24 hours a day,

  • for months.

  • After telling ourselves for so long

  • that our tools and technology can control nature,

  • suddenly we were face-to-face

  • with our weakness,

  • with our lack of control,

  • as the oil burst out

  • of every attempt to contain it --

  • "top hats," "top kills"

  • and, most memorably, the "junk shot" --

  • the bright idea

  • of firing old tires and golf balls

  • down that hole in the world.

  • But even more striking

  • than the ferocious power emanating from that well

  • was the recklessness

  • with which that power was unleashed --

  • the carelessness, the lack of planning

  • that characterized the operation

  • from drilling to clean-up.

  • If there is one thing

  • BP's watery improv act made clear,

  • it is that, as a culture,

  • we have become far too willing to gamble

  • with things that are precious

  • and irreplaceable,

  • and to do so without a back-up plan,

  • without an exit strategy.

  • And BP was hardly

  • our first experience of this in recent years.

  • Our leaders barrel into wars,

  • telling themselves happy stories

  • about cakewalks and welcome parades.

  • Then, it is years of deadly damage control,

  • Frankensteins of sieges and surges

  • and counter-insurgencies,

  • and once again, no exit strategy.

  • Our financial wizards routinely fall victim

  • to similar overconfidence,

  • convincing themselves that the latest bubble

  • is a new kind of market --

  • the kind that never goes down.

  • And when it inevitably does,

  • the best and the brightest

  • reach for the financial equivalent of the junk shot --

  • in this case, throwing massive amounts

  • of much-needed public money

  • down a very different kind of hole.

  • As with BP, the hole does get plugged,

  • at least temporarily,

  • but not before

  • exacting a tremendous price.

  • We have to figure out

  • why we keep letting this happen,

  • because we are in the midst

  • of what may be our highest-stakes gamble of all --

  • deciding what to do, or not to do,

  • about climate change.

  • Now as you know,

  • a great deal of time is spent,

  • in this country and around the world,

  • inside the climate debate,

  • on the question of, "What if the IPC scientists

  • are all wrong?"

  • Now a far more relevant question --

  • as MIT physicist Evelyn Fox Keller puts it --

  • is, "What if those scientists are right?"

  • Given the stakes, the climate crisis

  • clearly calls for us to act

  • based on the precautionary principle --

  • the theory that holds

  • that when human health and the environment

  • are significantly at risk

  • and when the potential damage is irreversible,

  • we cannot afford to wait

  • for perfect scientific certainty.

  • Better to err on the side of caution.

  • More overt, the burden of proving

  • that a practice is safe

  • should not be placed on the public that would be harmed,

  • but rather on the industry that stands to profit.

  • But climate policy in the wealthy world --

  • to the extent that such a thing exists --

  • is not based on precaution,

  • but rather on cost-benefit analysis --

  • finding the course of action that economists believe

  • will have the least impact

  • on our GDP.

  • So rather than asking, as precaution would demand,

  • what can we do as quickly as possible

  • to avoid potential catastrophe,

  • we ask bizarre questions like this:

  • "What is the latest possible moment we can wait

  • before we begin seriously lowering emissions?

  • Can we put this off till 2020,

  • 2030, 2050?"

  • Or we ask,

  • "How much hotter can we let the planet get

  • and still survive?

  • Can we go with two degrees, three degrees, or --

  • where we're currently going --

  • four degrees Celsius?"

  • And by the way,

  • the assumption that we can safely control

  • the Earth's awesomely complex climate system

  • as if it had a thermostat,

  • making the planet not too hot, not too cold,

  • but just right -- sort of Goldilocks style --

  • this is pure fantasy,

  • and it's not coming from the climate scientists.

  • It's coming from the economists

  • imposing their mechanistic thinking

  • on the science.

  • The fact is that we simply don't know

  • when the warming that we create

  • will be utterly overwhelmed

  • by feedback loops.

  • So once again,

  • why do we take these crazy risks

  • with the precious?

  • A range of explanations

  • may be popping into your mind by now,

  • like "greed."

  • This is a popular explanation, and there's lots of truth to it,

  • because taking big risks, as we all know,

  • pays a lot of money.

  • Another explanation that you often hear for recklessness

  • is hubris.

  • And greed and hubris

  • are intimately intertwined

  • when it comes to recklessness.

  • For instance, if you happen to be a 35-year-old banker

  • taking home 100 times more

  • than a brain surgeon,

  • then you need a narrative,

  • you need a story

  • that makes that disparity okay.

  • And you actually don't have a lot of options.

  • You're either an incredibly good scammer,

  • and you're getting away with it -- you gamed the system --

  • or you're some kind of boy genius,

  • the likes of which the world has never seen.

  • Now both of these options -- the boy genius and the scammer --

  • are going to make you vastly overconfident

  • and therefore more prone

  • to taking even bigger risks in the future.

  • By the way, Tony Hayward, the former CEO of BP,

  • had a plaque on his desk

  • inscribed with this inspirational slogan:

  • "What would you attempt to do

  • if you knew you could not fail?"

  • Now this is actually a popular plaque,

  • and this is a crowd of overachievers,

  • so I'm betting that some of you have this plaque.

  • Don't feel ashamed.

  • Putting fear of failure out of your mind

  • can be a very good thing

  • if you're training for a triathlon

  • or preparing to give a TEDTalk,

  • but personally, I think people with the power

  • to detonate our economy and ravage our ecology

  • would do better having

  • a picture of Icarus hanging from the wall,

  • because -- maybe not that one in particular --

  • but I want them thinking about the possibility of failure

  • all of the time.

  • So we have greed,

  • we've got overconfidence/hubris,

  • but since we're here at TEDWomen,

  • let's consider one other factor

  • that could be contributing in some small way

  • to societal recklessness.

  • Now I'm not going to belabor this point,

  • but studies do show that, as investors,

  • women are much less prone

  • to taking reckless risks than men,

  • precisely because, as we've already heard,

  • women tend not to suffer from overconfidence

  • in the same way that men do.

  • So it turns out

  • that being paid less and praised less

  • has its upsides --

  • for society at least.

  • The flipside of this

  • is that constantly being told

  • that you are gifted, chosen

  • and born to rule

  • has distinct societal downsides.

  • And this problem -- call it the "perils of privilege" --

  • brings us closer, I think,

  • to the root of our collective recklessness.

  • Because none of us -- at least in the global North --

  • neither men nor women,

  • are fully exempt from this message.

  • Here's what I'm talking about.

  • Whether we actively believe them

  • or consciously reject them,

  • our culture remains in the grips