What: Beyond Greed, at Brisbane Writers Festival
Where: State Library of Queensland
When:  8 September 2012
Reviewed by: Lee Mathers, Brisbane Ambassador

It seems that, on the surface, everyone agrees that the “greed is good” days of Gordon Gekko are dead and buried. But “greed” remains a fascinating topic and is often the starting point for an investigation into the human condition.

After all, what is “greed”? Is it really just a desire for more? And more of what? Are we greedy in different ways, with different things? Is being greedy with your time really such a bad thing?

These were just some of the topics canvassed and discussed by an expert panel at the Brisbane Writers Festival. John De Graaf (Affullenza and What’s the Economy For, Anyway?), Peter Barry (I Hate Martin Amis et al.) and John Lanchester (Capital) covered everything from the rise of Indian and Chinese middle classes, over consumption, over work and the global economy through to the psychological effects of purchasing and money and why we’re all so miserable when we’ve never had it better.

Both Barry and Lanchester are fiction authors and read excerpts from their novels, detailing the effects of greed on each of their protagonists. De Graaf quoted at length from his most recent investigation into the American economy and came to the conclusion that we’re looking at it the wrong way.

He suggested that using our most common measure, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the measure for the growth and strength of an economy was doing more harm than good. For example, an oil tanker crashing and spilling its oil generated more economic value and therefore an increase in GDP – through the associated cleanup costs, litigation and all other manner of expenses – than a tanker arriving safely. But no one would ever suggest that that was a good outcome!

Instead, we need to reassess what the economy is actually attempting to do and attempt to refine those measurements.

De Graaf also quoted from one of his heroes, David Brower, the founder of Friends of the Earth and it neatly sums up the entire discussion on greed and the impact it has:

Consider the six days of Genesis as a figure of speech for what has in fact been 4 billion years. On this scale, one day equals something like six hundred and sixty-six million years, and thus, all day Monday and until Tuesday noon, creation was busy getting the world going. Life began Tuesday noon, and the beautiful organic wholeness of it developed over the next four days. At 4 pm Saturday, the big reptiles came on. Five hours later, when the redwoods appeared, there were no more big reptiles. At three minutes before midnight on the last day, man appeared. At one-fourth of a second before midnight, Christ arrived. At one-fortieth of a second before midnight, the Industrial Revolution began. We are surrounded with people who think that what we have been doing for that one-fortieth of a second can go on indefinitely. They are considered normal, but they are stark raving mad.

The conclusion of the panel? We may not actually be “beyond greed”. Everyone agrees that it’s not good, but we have a long way to go before we can hope to effect change.