Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles 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 of certain archetypal stories about our supremacy over others and over nature -- the narrative of the newly discovered frontier and the conquering pioneer, the narrative of manifest destiny, the narrative of apocalypse and salvation. And just when you think these stories are fading into history, and that we've gotten over them, they pop up in the strangest places.