- Château La Lieue (red, dry)
In the winter of 1928, Joe Kennedy decided to stop to have his shoes shined before he started his day’s work at the office. When the boy finished, he offered Kennedy a stock tip: “Buy Hindenburg.” Kennedy soon sold off his stocks, thinking: “You know it’s time to sell when shoeshine boys give you stock tips. This bull market is over.” A timely move considering that the stock market would soon resemble the fate of the airship Hindenburg itself.
Everyone says the blockchain, the technology underpinning cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin, is going to change EVERYTHING. And yet, after years of tireless effort and billions of dollars invested, nobody has actually come up with a use for the blockchain—besides currency speculation and illegal transactions.
Each purported use case — from payments to legal documents, from escrow to voting systems—amounts to a set of contortions to add a distributed, encrypted, anonymous ledger where none was needed. What if there isn’t actually any use for a distributed ledger at all? What if, ten years after it was invented, the reason nobody has adopted a distributed ledger at scale is because nobody wants it?
Payments and banking
The original intended use of the blockchain was to power currencies like bitcoin — a way to store and exchange value much like any other currency. Visa and MasterCard were dinosaurs, everyone proclaimed, because there was now a costless, instant way to exchange value without the middleman taking a cut. A revolution in banking was just the start… governments, unable to issue currency by fiat anymore, would take a back seat as individual citizens transacted freely outside any national system.
It didn’t take long for that dream to fall apart. For one thing, there’s already a costless, instant way to exchange value without a middleman: cash. Bitcoins substitute for dollars, but Visa and MasterCard actually sit on top of dollar-based banking transactions, providing a set of value-added services like enabling banks to track fraud disputes, and verifying the identity of the buyer and seller. It turns out that for the person paying for a product, the key feature of a new payment system — think of PayPal in its early days — is the confidence that if the goods aren’t as described you’ll get your money back. And for the person accepting payment, basically the key feature is that their customer has it, and is willing to use it. Add in points, credit lines, and a free checked bag on any United flight and you have something that consumers choose and merchants accept. Nobody actually wants to pay with bitcoin, which is why it hasn’t taken off.
The key feature of a new payment system — think of PayPal in its early days — is the confidence that if the goods aren’t as described you’ll get your money back.
Plus, it’s not actually that good a payment system — Visa can handle sixty thousand transactions per second, while Bitcoin historically taps out at seven. There are technical modifications going on to improve Bitcoin’s efficiency, but as a starting point, you have something that’s about 0.01% as good at clearing transactions. (And, worth noting, for those seven transactions a second Bitcoin is already estimated to use 35 times as much energy as Visa. If you brought Bitcoin’s transaction volume up to Visa’s it would be using as much electricity as the rest of the world put together.)
Freedom to transact without government supervision
In many countries, and often our own, a little bit of ability to keep a few things private from the authorities probably makes the world a better place. In places like Cuba or Venezuela, many prefer to transact in dollars, and bitcoin could in theory serve a similar function. Yet there are two reasons this hasn’t been the panacea it’s assumed: the advantages of government to the individual, and the advantages of government to society.
The government-backed banking system provides FDIC guarantees, reversibility of ACH, identity verification, audit standards, and an investigation system when things go wrong. Bitcoin, by design, has none of these things. I saw a remarkable message thread by someone whose bitcoin account got drained because their email had been hacked and their password was stolen. They were stunned to have no recourse! And this is widespread — in 2014, the then-#1 bitcoin trader, Mt. Gox, also lost $400m of investor money due to security failures. The subsequent #1 bitcoin trader, Bitfinex, also shut down after a loss of customer funds. Imagine the world if more banks had been drained of customer funds than not. Bitcoin is what banking looked like in the middle ages — “here’s your libertarian paradise, have a nice day.”
Bitcoin is what banking looked like in the middle ages — “here’s your libertarian paradise, have a nice day.
[This issue is particularly near and dear to my heart because my own company, True Link, is designed to help vulnerable seniors — people likely to give out their credit card number over the phone, enter sketchy sweepstakes or donate to sketchy charities, participate in scam investments, or install password-stealing malware. As the people who most need security enhancements in banking and payments, they depend heavily on the existing protections and would absolutely be harmed by many of the proposed changes in favor of private-key authenticated, instant, and irreversible transfers. Someone starting from a human perspective on banking security—who is currently harmed and how can we help them?—would come up with something very different from blockchain!]
Second, government policies are designed to disrupt terrorist financing and organized crime, and prevent traffic in illegal goods like stolen credit card numbers or child pornography. The mainstream preference is to have transactions private but not undiscoverable under warrant — ask “should the government have a list everyone you’ve paid money to,” and most will say no; ask “should the government be able under warrant to get a list everyone a child pornography collector has paid money to,” and most will say yes. Nobody wants bitcoin to 100x the total traffic in goods and services our government defines as illegal — as one bitcoin enthusiast pointed out to me, “If you invented cash today, it would be illegal too.”
Micropayments and bank-to-bank transfers
It’s worth noting two particular payment use cases where people are particularly excited about blockchain-based currencies: micropayments and bank-to-bank transfers. In terms of micropayments, people enthuse that bitcoin transactions are free and instant. Actually, they take about eight minutes to clear and cost about four cents to process. People have proposed that you will use bitcoins for micropayments — for example, paying two cents to a musician to listen to their song on the internet, or four cents to read a newspaper article. Yet the infrastructure to do this — for example, advance authorization with the source of funds so you don’t have to wait eight minutes to read the article you just clicked — actually eliminates the need for bitcoin at all. If you’re happy to pay four cents an article or two cents a song, you can set it up to bill once a month from your bank account and read to your heart’s content. And in practice, people prefer subscription services to micropayments.
In terms of interbank payments, many people mention Ripple as a promising way to transfer money between banks. Over the last 30 days it processed two billion dollars (as of this writing) worth of interbank and interpersonal transactions — about 40 seconds’ worth of volume on the SWIFT interbank network — after three years of being available to banks to trade 90% of the world’s high-volume currencies. This is like the proportion of US GDP comprised by toothpick sales. Why haven’t banks preferred this new technology? The answer is that setting up a Ripple Gateway isn’t actually much different than using the existing corresponding-account system — except that a lost password or security token can lead to much larger and more instant actual losses — which, as a reminder, has happened to more leading bitcoin exchanges than have managed to avoid it. The same features that make the banking system attractive to end users also make it attractive to banks. They already have ledgers, and don’t need to distribute them, anonymize them, encrypt them, publish them, and make them irreversible.
“Smart” contracts are contracts written as software, rather than written as legal text. Because you can encode them directly on the blockchain, they can involve the transfer of value based directly on the cryptographic consent of the parties involved — in other words, they are “self-executing.” And in theory, contracts written in software are cheaper to interpret — because their operation is literally mathematical and automatic, there are no two ways to interpret them, which means there’s no need for expensive legal battles.
And yet the real-world examples show the ways this is problematic. The most prominent and largest smart contract to date, an investment vehicle called the Distributed Autonomous Organization (DAO), enabled its members to invest directly using their private cryptographic keys to vote on what to invest in. No lawyers, no management fees, no opaque boardrooms, the DAO “removes the ability of directors and fund managers to misdirect and waste investor funds.” And yet, due to a software bug, the DAO “voted” to “invest” $50m, a third of its members’ money, into a vehicle controlled by very clever programmers who knew a lot about recursion issues during balance updates. Some said this was a hack or an exploit because the software had not functioned as intended, while others said that there was no such thing as a hack — the whole point was that the software made decisions autonomously and there were no two ways to interpret it, and if you didn’t understand how the software worked you shouldn’t have participated. In the end, everyone got together and voted to retroactively amend the software contract and move the money back to its original owners. What’s the takeaway? Even the most die-hard blockchain enthusiasts actually want a bunch of humans arguing about the underlying intention behind a contract, rather than letting the software self-execute. Maybe the “dumb” way is smart after all?
The DAO was an illustrative experiment, but what about for routine transactions at big companies? The investors and startups in the smart-contract space promise that the block chain will enable super-fast execution and payment — for example that in healthcare applications, “instead of waiting 90–180 days for a claim to be processed, or spending hours on the phone trying to get your bill paid, it can in theory be processed on the spot.” But that’s true for any software-enabled purchasing system. My company’s Amazon servers scale automatically based on website traffic and bill us for how much we use. The idea that smart contracts would change this is a fallacy — it conflates the legal arrangement being put into effect with software with the legal arrangement itself being coded as software. Amazon’s terms of service are not a smart contract, but the billing system that implements those terms is automated. To the extent that health insurance billing, for example, is not automated, the problem isn’t that existing software isn’t “smart” enough to handle submitting claims and paying them electronically, it’s that the insurance company is slow moving, either by accident or because they on-purpose prefer a human review.
In the end, everyone from blockchain enthusiasts to health insurers actually wants to argue out in human language what the business relationship is and interpret it on an ongoing basis, and then to write software that handles the fulfillment and payment. That already exists — it’s the status quo.
Distributed storage, computing, and messaging
Another implausible idea is using the blockchain as a distributed storage mechanism. On its face it makes sense — you break your document up into “blocks”, encrypt them, and put them in a distributed ledger… it’s backed up across multiple locations, it’s secure, and easy to track everything that happened.
Yet there are multiple excellent ways to break up files, encrypt them, and replicate them across multiple storage media in different locations. There is already a company that bills itself as a cheaper, distributed Dropbox, which encrypts and stores files across multiple users’ hard drives and pays them a small fee for the free space on their hard drives. The block chain is just a particularly inefficient and insecure way of doing this.
There are four additional problems with a blockchain-driven approach. First, you’re relying on single-point encryption — your own private keys — rather than a more sophisticated system that might involve two-factor authorization, intrusion detection, volume limits, firewalls, remote IP tracking, and the ability to disconnect the system in an emergency. Second, price tradeoffs are entirely implausible — the bitcoin blockchain has consumed almost a billion dollars worth of electricity to hash an amount of data equivalent to about a sixth of what I get for my ten dollar a month dropbox subscription. Fourth, systematically choosing where and how much to replicate data is an advantage in the long run — the blockchain’s defaults on data replication just aren’t that smart. And finally, Dropbox and Box.com and Google and Microsoft and Apple and Amazon and everyone else provide a set of valuable other features that you don’t actually want to go develop on your own. Analogous to Visa, the problem isn’t storing data, it’s managing permissions, un-sharing what you shared before, getting an easy-to-view document history, syncing it on multiple devices, and so on.
The same argument holds for proposed distributed computing and secure messaging applications. Encrypting it, storing it forever, and replicating it across the entire network is just a ton of overhead relative to what you’re actually trying to accomplish. There are excellent computing, messaging, and storage solutions out there that have all the encryption and replication anyone needs — actually better than blockchain based solutions — and have plenty of other great features in addition.
It was much-heralded when NASDAQ launched an internal blockchain-driven exchange for privately-held stocks. But wait: correct me if I’m wrong, but the whole purpose of NASDAQ (or the DTCC trade clearing system, for example) is that it has a ledger of who owns what stocks? Were they nervous that their systems, absent blockchain, would soon be unable to keep track of who owns what?
Similar to other transaction-tracking problems such as customer-to-merchant payments, the difference between NASDAQ’s ledger and blockchain’s ledger is that blockchain is distributed — it addresses the problem of lack of a trusted intermediary. And yet (for legal transactions) the company itself, its transfer agent of record, a clearinghouse, or an exchange are all trusted intermediaries and typically provide value-added services in addition. The reason NASDAQ is the right home for a blockchain-driven exchange is that they’re expert in the compliance and security aspects of trading stock. Cut out the middleman (here, NASDAQ itself) and the government and you’ll ultimately be limited to companies that choose to make an end-run around the legal, compliance, and tracking systems common to the mainstream market. As people who trade in unlisted stocks will tell you, that’s a recipe for getting your money stolen.
And we’re already seeing this. New companies have also begun creating blockchain-based “coins” convertible into company stock, and selling them to the public in Initial Coin Offerings, or ICOs, as a cheaper and more flexible way to raise money than a traditional Initial Public Offering of stocks on an exchange. It will be interesting to see how long this craze lasts — among other things, offering tokens convertible to stock counts as a securities offering, and so the SEC rules presumably apply to these securities offerings just like any other. Either the “coins” are just less-secure electronic stock certificates — protected by however carefully you store your password, rather than by the laws and protections of a securities exchange — or it’s another attempt to do an end-run around the law.
Another plausible use of the blockchain is that if you want to make a public, unalterable, undeleteable signed statement, you can “publish” it to the block chain — thinking of the distributed ledger as more like a diary than a way to buy and sell. In theory you could use this for recording vote tallies, verifying the origin of diamonds or brand-name gear, verifying people’s identity, resolving the ownership of domain names, keeping items in escrow, disclosing provisional patents under seal, notarizing documents, and so on.
Without diving too thoroughly into the details of each of these, it seems the use cases all fall apart pretty quickly. For voting, the status quo is recording the total number of ballots cast, with the voter dropping a visible paper ballot in a box, and journalists and observers from both sides watching the ballot boxes the whole time. The tough problem in voting is keeping who voted for who anonymous and yet making sure that voters and votes are one to one. Paper does this so much better than blockchain.
For a public notary or similar, verifying your driver’s license or having witnesses known to you present means that it wasn’t signed with a stolen password or private key — but, if a password or private key is adequate, you can just publish it signed with a PGP key. For establishing the authenticity of brand name goods like watches or handbags, or that a diamond was ethically mined, the ledger being distributed and encrypted doesn’t add any value — the originating company can just include a certificate you can verify online, just as they have done in the past. In cases of escrow, a smart contract can automatically pay for the goods without a need for a third party to verify and hold the funds, but you still need a trusted party to verify that the goods are delivered and as-promised.
And finally, if you want to irrefutably prove that you knew X at time Y without disclosing the actual knowledge publicly, encrypt it and email it to yourself at both a gmail and a hotmail address or post it on bitbucket, or print it out and notarize it, or postmark it by mailing it to yourself, or tweet an md5 of it, or whatever. But then again, how large is the irrefutably-prove-you-knew-X-at-time-Y-without-disclosing-X industry? Can you think of any leading company, or any company at all, that provides this service?
For domain resolution — the process of figuring out whose servers get to see the traffic and respond to your requests when you type a URL into your address bar — it’s promising to imagine that an all-digital record of smart contracts, where the actual act of payment being published to the ledger also updates who the domain resolves to, obviating the need for domain escrow services. Yet in practice, as with the DAO or other smart contracts, if valuable domains change hands due to theft or security issues, you actually need a way to override the ledger — as the result of a court order, for example. Just like with government-backed, law-backed bank accounts, real companies won’t prefer a situation in which a security breach or stolen password could result in someone else permanently and irrevocably owning bankofamerica.com or disney.com or sony.com or whatever. Adopting block chain technology makes theft or impersonation more likely rather than less. It sounds hypothetical until you realize more leading bitcoin exchanges have been hacked than not — something that very rarely happens with the leading domain name providers.
So what’s left?
Each of these seems trivial — yes, everyone knows handbags already come with certificates of authenticity with an ID number you can look up online — except that in each case, millions if not tens of millions of dollars have been spent on entire companies dedicated to just that particular use case. And you can get even more esoteric — Second Life on the blockchain, or blockchain-enabled appliances so your washing machine can smart-contract for its own detergent, or a sports league where the coaching decisions are written on the blockchain. (For real!)
In the end, the advantages of the existing human and software systems surrounding transactions — from verifying identity with a driver’s license to calling and clarifying the statements made in a credit disputed transaction to automatically billing your credit card for a newspaper subscription — outweigh the purported benefits, as well as hidden costs, of irrevocable, automated execution. Blockchain enthusiasts often act as if the hard part is getting money from A to B or keeping a record of what happened. In each case, moving money and recording the transaction is actually the cheap, easy, highly-automated part of a much more complex system.
Nobody went out and did a survey about whether most credit card users would be willing to give up their frequent flyer miles in return for also losing the ability to dispute a transaction.
Which leaves us where we started — currency speculation and illegal transactions — along with perhaps a lesson. In conversations with bitcoin entrepreneurs and investors and consultants, there was often a lack of knowledge or even interest in how the jobs were being done today or what the value to the end user was. With all the money spent on bitcoin cash registers, nobody went out and did a survey about whether most credit card users would be willing to give up their frequent flyer miles in return for also losing the ability to dispute a transaction. Presumably, they thought, the reason IPOs are so expensive or venture fund formation paperwork is so onerous is because all those lawyers and accountants are just getting rich sitting around pushing paper… a bunch of smart engineers in their 20s with no industry experience could certainly do their jobs, automatically, in a matter of months, with just a few million bucks of venture capital.
So far, not so much.
Kai Stinchcombe is CEO and cofounder of True Link Financial, a banking and investment service for seniors. In his spare time he enjoys hoping that, post singularity, a detergent delivery drone doesn’t self-execute a smart contract on his life, bitbleaching him from the sky into a hissing pool of unstructured data in exchange for a handful of bitcoins.
- Have fun
- Find Friends
- Illusion of progress
- To brag about it
The human brain is capable of 1016 processes per second, which makes it far more powerful than any computer currently in existence. But that doesn’t mean our brains don’t have major limitations. The lowly calculator can do math thousands of times better than we can, and our memories are often less than useless — plus, we’re subject to cognitive biases, those annoying glitches in our thinking that cause us to make questionable decisions and reach erroneous conclusions. Here are a dozen of the most common and pernicious cognitive biases that you need to know about.
Before we start, it’s important to distinguish between cognitive biases and logical fallacies. A logical fallacy is an error in logical argumentation (e.g. ad hominem attacks, slippery slopes, circular arguments, appeal to force, etc.). A cognitive bias, on the other hand, is a genuine deficiency or limitation in our thinking — a flaw in judgment that arises from errors of memory, social attribution, and miscalculations (such as statistical errors or a false sense of probability).
Some social psychologists believe our cognitive biases help us process information more efficiently, especially in dangerous situations. Still, they lead us to make grave mistakes. We may be prone to such errors in judgment, but at least we can be aware of them. Here are some important ones to keep in mind.
We love to agree with people who agree with us. It’s why we only visit websites that express our political opinions, and why we mostly hang around people who hold similar views and tastes. We tend to be put off by individuals, groups, and news sources that make us feel uncomfortable or insecure about our views — what the behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner called cognitive dissonance. It’s this preferential mode of behavior that leads to the confirmation bias — the often unconscious act of referencing only those perspectives that fuel our pre-existing views, while at the same time ignoring or dismissing opinions — no matter how valid — that threaten our world view. And paradoxically, the internet has only made this tendency even worse.
Somewhat similar to the confirmation bias is the ingroup bias, a manifestation of our innate tribalistic tendencies. And strangely, much of this effect may have to do with oxytocin — the so-called “love molecule.” This neurotransmitter, while helping us to forge tighter bonds with people in our ingroup, performs the exact opposite function for those on the outside — it makes us suspicious, fearful, and even disdainful of others. Ultimately, the ingroup bias causes us to overestimate the abilities and value of our immediate group at the expense of people we don’t really know.
It’s called a fallacy, but it’s more a glitch in our thinking. We tend to put a tremendous amount of weight on previous events, believing that they’ll somehow influence future outcomes. The classic example is coin-tossing. After flipping heads, say, five consecutive times, our inclination is to predict an increase in likelihood that the next coin toss will be tails — that the odds must certainly be in the favor of heads. But in reality, the odds are still 50/50. As statisticians say, the outcomes in different tosses are statistically independent and the probability of any outcome is still 50%.
Relatedly, there’s also the positive expectation bias — which often fuels gambling addictions. It’s the sense that our luck has to eventually change and that good fortune is on the way. It also contribues to the “hot hand” misconception. Similarly, it’s the same feeling we get when we start a new relationship that leads us to believe it will be better than the last one.
Remember that time you bought something totally unnecessary, faulty, or overly expense, and then you rationalized the purchase to such an extent that you convinced yourself it was a great idea all along? Yeah, that’s post-purchase rationalization in action — a kind of built-in mechanism that makes us feel better after we make crappy decisions, especially at the cash register. Also known as Buyer’s Stockholm Syndrome, it’s a way of subconsciously justifying our purchases — especially expensive ones. Social psychologists say it stems from the principle of commitment, our psychological desire to stay consistent and avoid a state of cognitive dissonance.
Very few of us have a problem getting into a car and going for a drive, but many of us experience great trepidation about stepping inside an airplane and flying at 35,000 feet. Flying, quite obviously, is a wholly unnatural and seemingly hazardous activity. Yet virtually all of us know and acknowledge the fact that the probability of dying in an auto accident is significantly greater than getting killed in a plane crash — but our brains won’t release us from this crystal clear logic (statistically, we have a 1 in 84 chance of dying in a vehicular accident, as compared to a 1 in 5,000 chance of dying in an plane crash [other sources indicate odds as high as 1 in 20,000]). It’s the same phenomenon that makes us worry about getting killed in an act of terrorism as opposed to something far more probable, like falling down the stairs or accidental poisoning.
This is what the social psychologist Cass Sunstein calls probability neglect — our inability to properly grasp a proper sense of peril and risk — which often leads us to overstate the risks of relatively harmless activities, while forcing us to overrate more dangerous ones.
Observational Selection Bias
This is that effect of suddenly noticing things we didn’t notice that much before — but we wrongly assume that the frequency has increased. A perfect example is what happens after we buy a new car and we inexplicably start to see the same car virtually everywhere. A similar effect happens to pregnant women who suddenly notice a lot of other pregnant women around them. Or it could be a unique number or song. It’s not that these things are appearing more frequently, it’s that we’ve (for whatever reason) selected the item in our mind, and in turn, are noticing it more often. Trouble is, most people don’t recognize this as a selectional bias, and actually believe these items or events are happening with increased frequency — which can be a very disconcerting feeling. It’s also a cognitive bias that contributes to the feeling that the appearance of certain things or events couldn’t possibly be a coincidence (even though it is).
We humans tend to be apprehensive of change, which often leads us to make choices that guarantee that things remain the same, or change as little as possible. Needless to say, this has ramifications in everything from politics to economics. We like to stick to our routines, political parties, and our favorite meals at restaurants. Part of the perniciousness of this bias is the unwarranted assumption that another choice will be inferior or make things worse. The status-quo bias can be summed with the saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” — an adage that fuels our conservative tendencies. And in fact, some commentators say this is why the U.S. hasn’t been able to enact universal health care, despite the fact that most individuals support the idea of reform.
People tend to pay more attention to bad news — and it’s not just because we’re morbid. Social scientists theorize that it’s on account of our selective attention and that, given the choice, we perceive negative news as being more important or profound. We also tend to give more credibility to bad news, perhaps because we’re suspicious (or bored) of proclamations to the contrary. More evolutionarily, heeding bad news may be more adaptive than ignoring good news (e.g. “saber tooth tigers suck” vs. “this berry tastes good”). Today, we run the risk of dwelling on negativity at the expense of genuinely good news. Steven Pinker, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, argues that crime, violence, war, and other injustices are steadily declining, yet most people would argue that things are getting worse — what is a perfect example of the negativity bias at work.
Though we’re often unconscious of it, we love to go with the flow of the crowd. When the masses start to pick a winner or a favorite, that’s when our individualized brains start to shut down and enter into a kind of “groupthink” or hivemind mentality. But it doesn’t have to be a large crowd or the whims of an entire nation; it can include small groups, like a family or even a small group of office co-workers. The bandwagon effect is what often causes behaviors, social norms, and memes to propagate among groups of individuals — regardless of the evidence or motives in support. This is why opinion polls are often maligned, as they can steer the perspectives of individuals accordingly. Much of this bias has to do with our built-in desire to fit in and conform, as famously demonstrated by the Asch Conformity Experiments.
As individuals trapped inside our own minds 24/7, it’s often difficult for us to project outside the bounds of our own consciousness and preferences. We tend to assume that most people think just like us — though there may be no justification for it. This cognitive shortcoming often leads to a related effect known as the false consensus bias where we tend to believe that people not only think like us, but that they also agree with us. It’s a bias where we overestimate how typical and normal we are, and assume that a consensus exists on matters when there may be none. Moreover, it can also create the effect where the members of a radical or fringe group assume that more people on the outside agree with them than is the case. Or the exaggerated confidence one has when predicting the winner of an election or sports match.
The Current Moment Bias
We humans have a really hard time imagining ourselves in the future and altering our behaviors and expectations accordingly. Most of us would rather experience pleasure in the current moment, while leaving the pain for later. This is a bias that is of particular concern to economists (i.e. our unwillingness to not overspend and save money) and health practitioners. Indeed, a 1998 study showed that, when making food choices for the coming week, 74% of participants chose fruit. But when the food choice was for the current day, 70% chose chocolate.
Also known as the relativity trap, this is the tendency we have to compare and contrast only a limited set of items. It’s called the anchoring effect because we tend to fixate on a value or number that in turn gets compared to everything else. The classic example is an item at the store that’s on sale; we tend to see (and value) the difference in price, but not the overall price itself. This is why some restaurant menus feature very expensive entrees, while also including more (apparently) reasonably priced ones. It’s also why, when given a choice, we tend to pick the middle option — not too expensive, and not too cheap.
2016, motherfuckers. Yeah! LET’S DO THIS.
“Do what?” you ask. I DON’T KNOW. LET’S FIGURE THAT OUT TOGETHER, MOTHERFUCKERS.
Feel free to stop reading this if your career is going great, you’re thrilled with your life, and you’re happy with your relationships. Enjoy the rest of your day, friend, this article is not for you. You’re doing a great job, we’re all proud of you. So you don’t feel like you wasted your click, here’s a picture of Lenny Kravitz wearing a gigantic scarf.
For the rest of you, I want you to try something: Name five impressive things about yourself. Write them down or just shout them out loud to the room. But here’s the catch — you’re not allowed to list anything you are (i.e., I’m a nice guy, I’m honest), but instead can only list things that you do (i.e., I just won a national chess tournament, I make the best chili in Massachusetts). If you found that difficult, well, this is for you, and you are going to fucking hate hearing it. My only defense is that this is what I wish somebody had said to me around 1995 or so.
Note: I originally posted this in December of 2012, and to date it has drawn more than 20 million page views and been shared on Facebook more than half a million times. We decided to update it and post it again every year, and by update I mean we change the year in the intro. -DW
The World Only Cares About What It Can Get from You
The World Only Cares About What It Can Get from You
Let’s say that the person you love the most has just been shot. He or she is lying in the street, bleeding and screaming. A guy rushes up and says, “Step aside.” He looks over your loved one’s bullet wound and pulls out a pocket knife — he’s going to operate right there in the street.
“OK, which one is the injured one?”
You ask, “Are you a doctor?”
The guy says, “No.”
You say, “But you know what you’re doing, right? You’re an old Army medic, or …”
At this point the guy becomes annoyed. He tells you that he is a nice guy, he is honest, he is always on time. He tells you that he is a great son to his mother and has a rich life full of fulfilling hobbies, and he boasts that he never uses foul language.
Confused, you say, “How does any of that fucking matter when my [wife/husband/best friend/parent] is lying here bleeding! I need somebody who knows how to operate on bullet wounds! Can you do that or not?!?”
Now the man becomes agitated — why are you being shallow and selfish? Do you not care about any of his other good qualities? Didn’t you just hear him say that he always remembers his girlfriend’s birthday? In light of all of the good things he does, does it really matter if he knows how to perform surgery?
In that panicked moment, you will take your bloody hands and shake him by the shoulders, screaming, “Yes, I’m saying that none of that other shit matters, because in this specific situation, I just need somebody who can stop the bleeding, you crazy fucking asshole.”
“I don’t get it. Would it help if I put on a lab jacket? Here, one sec, let me just …”
So here is my terrible truth about the adult world: You are in that very situation every single day. Only you are the confused guy with the pocket knife. All of society is the bleeding gunshot victim.
If you want to know why society seems to shun you, or why you seem to get no respect, it’s because society is full of people who need things. They need houses built, they need food to eat, they need entertainment, they need fulfilling sexual relationships. You arrived at the scene of that emergency, holding your pocket knife, by virtue of your birth — the moment you came into the world, you became part of a system designed purely to see to people’s needs.
“Here’s that shit you needed. Now fuck off.”
Either you will go about the task of seeing to those needs by learning a unique set of skills, or the world will reject you, no matter how kind, giving, and polite you are. You will be poor, you will be alone, you will be left out in the cold.
Does that seem mean, or crass, or materialistic? What about love and kindness — don’t those things matter? Of course. As long as they result in you doing things for people that they can’t get elsewhere. For you see …
The Hippies Were Wrong
The Hippies Were Wrong
Here is the greatest scene in the history of movies (WARNING: EXTREME NSFW LANGUAGE):
For those of you who can’t watch videos, it’s the famous speech Alec Baldwin gives in the cinematic masterpiece Glengarry Glenn Ross. Baldwin’s character — whom you assume is the villain — addresses a room full of dudes and tears them a new asshole, telling them that they’re all about to be fired unless they “close” the sales they’ve been assigned:
“Nice guy? I don’t give a shit. Good father? Fuck you! Go home and play with your kids. If you want to work here, close.”
It’s brutal, rude, and borderline sociopathic, and also it is an honest and accurate expression of what the world is going to expect from you. The difference is that, in the real world, people consider it so wrong to talk to you that way that they’ve decided it’s better to simply let you keep failing.
“First graders, welcome to Mr. Baldwin’s third period art class — is everyone here? Well, I’m goin’ anyway.”
That scene changed my life. I’d program my alarm clock to play it for me every morning if I knew how. Alec Baldwin was nominated for an Oscar for that movie and that’s the only scene he’s in. As smarter people have pointed out, the genius of that speech is that half of the people who watch it think that the point of the scene is “Wow, what must it be like to have such an asshole boss?” and the other half think, “Fuck yes, let’s go out and sell some goddamned real estate!”
“If you were in that room, some of you would understand this as a work, but feed off the energy of the message anyway, welcome the coach’s cursing at you, ‘this guy is awesome!’; while some of you would take it personally, this guy is a jerk, you have no right to talk to me like that, or — the standard maneuver when narcissism is confronted with a greater power — quietly seethe and fantasize about finding information that will out him as a hypocrite. So satisfying.”
“I swear, if he mentions my hair, I’ll slap his face so har– Yes, sir, I’m listening. I’m sorry.”
That excerpt is from an insightful critique of “hipsters” and why they seem to have so much trouble getting jobs (that doesn’t begin to do it justice, go read the whole thing), and the point is that the difference in those two attitudes — bitter vs. motivated — largely determines whether or not you’ll succeed in the world. For instance, some people want to respond to that speech with Tyler Durden’s line from Fight Club: “You are not your job.”
But, well, actually, you totally are. Granted, your “job” and your means of employment might not be the same thing, but in both cases you are nothing more than the sum total of your useful skills. For instance, being a good mother is a job that requires a skill. It’s something a person can do that is useful to other members of society. But make no mistake: Your “job” — the useful thing you do for other people — is all you are.
There is a reason why surgeons get more respect than comedy writers. There is a reason mechanics get more respect than unemployed hipsters. There is a reason your job will become your label if your death makes the news (“NFL Linebacker Dies in Murder/Suicide”). Tyler said, “You are not your job,” but he also founded and ran a successful soap company and became the head of an international social and political movement. He was totally his job.
It was the irony that many people missed from that movie.
Or think of it this way: Remember when Chick-fil-A came out against gay marriage? And how despite the protests, the company continues to sell millions of sandwiches every day? It’s not because the country agrees with them; it’s because they do their job of making delicious sandwiches well. And that’s all that matters.
You don’t have to like it. I don’t like it when it rains on my birthday. It rains anyway. Clouds form and precipitation happens. People have needs and thus assign value to the people who meet them. These are simple mechanisms of the universe and they do not respond to our wishes.
“This is bullshit. I have a completely clean criminal record, and this is the thanks I get?”
If you protest that you’re not a shallow capitalist materialist and that you disagree that money is everything, I can only say: Who said anything about money? You’re missing the larger point.
What You Produce Does Not Have to Make Money, But It Does Have to Benefit People
What You Produce Does Not Have to Make Money, But It Does Have to Benefit People
Let’s try a non-money example so you don’t get hung up on that. The demographic that Cracked writes for is heavy on 20-something males. So on our message boards and in my many inboxes I read several dozen stories a year from miserable, lonely guys who insist that women won’t come near them despite the fact that they are just the nicest guys in the world. I can explain what is wrong with this mindset, but it would probably be better if I let Alec Baldwin explain it:
In this case, Baldwin is playing the part of the attractive women in your life. They won’t put it as bluntly as he does — society has trained us not to be this honest with people — but the equation is the same. “Nice guy? Who gives a shit? If you want to work here, close.”
So, what do you bring to the table? Because the Zooey Deschanel lookalike in the bookstore that you’ve been daydreaming about moisturizes her face for an hour every night and feels guilty when she eats anything other than salad for lunch. She’s going to be a surgeon in 10 years. What do you do?
“Well, I’m fucking wicked at capture the flag.”
“What, so you’re saying that I can’t get girls like that unless I have a nice job and make lots of money?”
No, your brain jumps to that conclusion so you have an excuse to write off everyone who rejects you by thinking that they’re just being shallow and selfish. I’m asking what do you offer? Are you smart? Funny? Interesting? Talented? Ambitious? Creative? OK, now what do you do to demonstrate those attributes to the world? Don’t say that you’re a nice guy — that’s the bare minimum. Pretty girls have guys being nice to them 36 times a day. The patient is bleeding in the street. Do you know how to operate or not?
“Well, I’m not sexist or racist or greedy or shallow or abusive! Not like those other douchebags!”
I’m sorry, I know that this is hard to hear, but if all you can do is list a bunch of faults you don’t have, then back the fuck away from the patient. There’s a witty, handsome guy with a promising career ready to step in and operate.
“Wait, I said I wouldn’t hit you!”
Does that break your heart? OK, so now what? Are you going to mope about it, or are you going to learn how to do surgery? It’s up to you, but don’t complain about how girls fall for jerks; they fall for those jerks because those jerks have other things they can offer. “But I’m a great listener!” Are you? Because you’re willing to sit quietly in exchange for the chance to be in the proximity of a pretty girl (and spend every second imagining how soft her skin must be)? Well guess what, there’s another guy in her life who also knows how to do that, and he can play the guitar. Saying that you’re a nice guy is like a restaurant whose only selling point is that the food doesn’t make you sick. You’re like a new movie whose title is This Movie Is in English, and its tagline is “The actors are clearly visible.”
I think this is why you can be a “nice guy” and still feel terrible about yourself. Specifically …
3 You Hate Yourself Because You Don’t Do Anything
“So, what, you’re saying that I should pick up a book on how to get girls?”
Only if step one in the book is “Start making yourself into the type of person girls want to be around.”
“Come ooooon. I know I hid some vodka in here somewhere.”
Because that’s the step that gets skipped — it’s always “How can I get a job?” and not “How can I become the type of person employers want?” It’s “How can I get pretty girls to like me?” instead of “How can I become the type of person that pretty girls like?” See, because that second one could very well require giving up many of your favorite hobbies and paying more attention to your appearance, and God knows what else. You might even have to change your personality.
“But why can’t I find someone who just likes me for me?” you ask. The answer is because humans need things. The victim is bleeding, and all you can do is look down and complain that there aren’t more gunshot wounds that just fix themselves?
Here’s another video (NSFW):
Everyone who watched that video instantly became a little happier, although not all for the same reasons. Can you do that for people? Why not? What’s stopping you from strapping on your proverbial thong and cape and taking to your proverbial stage and flapping your proverbial penis at people? That guy knows the secret to winning at human life: that doing … whatever you call that … was better than not doing it.
“But I’m not good at anything!” Well, I have good news — throw enough hours of repetition at it and you can get sort of good at anything. I was the world’s shittiest writer when I was an infant. I was only slightly better at 25. But while I was failing miserably at my career, I wrote in my spare time for eight straight years, an article a week, before I ever made real money off it. It took 13 years for me to get good enough to make the New York Times best-seller list. It took me probably 20,000 hours of practice to sand the edges off my sucking.
Don’t like the prospect of pouring all of that time into a skill? Well, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that the sheer act of practicing will help you come out of your shell — I got through years of tedious office work because I knew that I was learning a unique skill on the side. People quit because it takes too long to see results, because they can’t figure out that the process is the result.
The bad news is that you have no other choice. If you want to work here, close.
Because in my non-expert opinion, you don’t hate yourself because you have low self-esteem, or because other people were mean to you. You hate yourself because you don’t do anything. Not even you can just “love you for you” — that’s why you’re miserable and sending me private messages asking me what I think you should do with your life.
Step One: Get up.
Do the math: How much of your time is spent consuming things other people made (TV, music, video games, websites) versus making your own? Only one of those adds to your value as a human being.
And if you hate hearing this and are responding with something you heard as a kid that sounds like “It’s what’s on the inside that matters!” then I can only say …
What You Are Inside Only Matters Because of What It Makes You Do
What You Are Inside Only Matters Because of What It Makes You Do
Being in the business I’m in, I know dozens of aspiring writers. They think of themselves as writers, they introduce themselves as writers at parties, they know that deep inside, they have the heart of a writer. The only thing they’re missing is that minor final step, where they actually fucking write things.
But really, does that matter? Is “writing things” all that important when deciding who is and who is not truly a “writer”?
For the love of God, yes.
I’ve known “writers” who produced less content than what’s on this woman’s grocery list.
See, there’s a common defense to everything I’ve said so far, and to every critical voice in your life. It’s the thing your ego is saying to you in order to prevent you from having to do the hard work of improving: “I know I’m a good person on the inside.” It may also be phrased as “I know who I am” or “I just have to be me.”
Don’t get me wrong; who you are inside is everything — the guy who built a house for his family from scratch did it because of who he was inside. Every bad thing you’ve ever done has started with a bad impulse, some thought ricocheting around inside your skull until you had to act on it. And every good thing you’ve done is the same — “who you are inside” is the metaphorical dirt from which your fruit grows.
Notice how the camera is pointed up, and not at the base of the tree?
But here’s what everyone needs to know, and what many of you can’t accept:
“You” are nothing but the fruit.
Nobody cares about your dirt. “Who you are inside” is meaningless aside from what it produces for other people.
Inside, you have great compassion for poor people. Great. Does that result in you doing anything about it? Do you hear about some terrible tragedy in your community and say, “Oh, those poor children. Let them know that they are in my thoughts”? Because fuck you if so — find out what they need and help provide it. A hundred million people watched that Kony video, virtually all of whom kept those poor African children “in their thoughts.” What did the collective power of those good thoughts provide? Jack fucking shit. Children die every day because millions of us tell ourselves that caring is just as good as doing. It’s an internal mechanism controlled by the lazy part of your brain to keep you from actually doing work.
“I just wanted to tell you that you’re in my thoughts. Good luck — let me know if that cured you.”
How many of you are walking around right now saying, “She/he would love me if she/he only knew what an interesting person I am!” Really? How do all of your interesting thoughts and ideas manifest themselves in the world? What do they cause you to do? If your dream girl or guy had a hidden camera that followed you around for a month, would they be impressed with what they saw? Remember, they can’t read your mind — they can only observe. Would they want to be a part of that life?
Because all I’m asking you to do is apply the same standard to yourself that you apply to everyone else. Don’t you have that annoying Christian friend whose only offer to help anyone ever is to “pray for them”? Doesn’t it drive you nuts? I’m not even commenting on whether or not prayer works; it doesn’t change the fact that they chose the one type of help that doesn’t require them to get off the sofa. They abstain from every vice, they think clean thoughts, their internal dirt is as pure as can be, but what fruit grows from it? And they should know this better than anybody — I stole the fruit metaphor from the Bible. Jesus said something to the effect of “a tree is judged by its fruit” over and over and over. Granted, Jesus never said, “If you want to work here, close.” No, he said, “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
“And then a buffalo will stare stupidly into your soul while slowly chewing grass and softly farting.”
The people didn’t react well to being told that, just as the salesmen didn’t react well to Alec Baldwin telling them that they needed to grow some balls or resign themselves to shining his shoes. Which brings us to the final point …
Everything Inside You Will Fight Improvement
Everything Inside You Will Fight Improvement
The human mind is a miracle, and you will never see it spring more beautifully into action than when it is fighting against evidence that it needs to change. Your psyche is equipped with layer after layer of defense mechanisms designed to shoot down anything that might keep things from staying exactly where they are — ask any addict.
So even now, some of you reading this are feeling your brain bombard you with knee-jerk reasons to reject it. From experience, I can say that these seem to come in the form of …
*Intentionally Interpreting Any Criticism as an Insult
“Who is he to call me lazy and worthless! A good person would never talk to me like this! He wrote this whole thing just to feel superior to me and to make me feel bad about my life! I’m going to think up my own insult to even the score!”
*Focusing on the Messenger to Avoid Hearing the Message
“Who is THIS guy to tell ME how to live? Oh, like he’s so high and mighty! It’s just some dumb writer on the Internet! I’m going to go dig up something on him that reassures me that he’s stupid, and that everything he’s saying is stupid! This guy is so pretentious, it makes me puke! I watched his old rap video on YouTube and thought his rhymes sucked!“
“When you get to where I am in life, you feel free to give me advice! Until then, you’re nothing but meat and guesses.”
*Focusing on the Tone to Avoid Hearing the Content
“I’m going to dig through here until I find a joke that is offensive when taken out of context, and then talk and think only about that! I’ve heard that a single offensive word can render an entire book invisible!”
*Revising Your Own History
“Things aren’t so bad! I know that I was threatening suicide last month, but I’m feeling better now! It’s entirely possible that if I just keep doing exactly what I’m doing, eventually things will work out! I’ll get my big break, and if I keep doing favors for that pretty girl, eventually she’ll come around!”
*Pretending That Any Self-Improvement Would Somehow Be Selling Out Your True Self
“Oh, so I guess I’m supposed to get rid of all of my manga and instead go to the gym for six hours a day and get a spray tan like those Jersey Shore douchebags? Because THAT IS THE ONLY OTHER OPTION.”
“Way to leave ‘the hood’ behind, asshole. New house or not, you’ll always be white trash!”
And so on. Remember, misery is comfortable. It’s why so many people prefer it. Happiness takes effort.
Also, courage. It’s incredibly comforting to know that as long as you don’t create anything in your life, then nobody can attack the thing you created.
It’s so much easier to just sit back and criticize other people’s creations. This movie is stupid. That couple’s kids are brats. That other couple’s relationship is a mess. That rich guy is shallow. This restaurant sucks. This Internet writer is an asshole. I’d better leave a mean comment demanding that the website fire him. See, I created something.
Oh, wait, did I forget to mention that part? Yeah, whatever you try to build or create — be it a poem, or a new skill, or a new relationship — you will find yourself immediately surrounded by non-creators who trash it. Maybe not to your face, but they’ll do it. Your drunk friends do not want you to get sober. Your fat friends do not want you to start a fitness regimen. Your jobless friends do not want to see you embark on a career.
Just remember, they’re only expressing their own fear, since trashing other people’s work is another excuse to do nothing. “Why should I create anything when the things other people create suck? I would totally have written a novel by now, but I’m going to wait for something good, I don’t want to write the next Twilight!” As long as they never produce anything, their work will forever be perfect and beyond reproach. Or if they do produce something, they’ll make sure they do it with detached irony. They’ll make it intentionally bad to make it clear to everyone else that this isn’t their real effort. Their real effort would have been amazing. Not like the shit you made.
Read our article comments — when they get nasty, it’s always from the same angle: Cracked needs to fire this columnist. This asshole needs to stop writing. Don’t make any more videos. It always boils down to “Stop creating. This is different from what I would have made, and the attention you’re getting is making me feel bad about myself.”
Don’t be that person. If you are that person, don’t be that person any more. This is what’s making people hate you. This is what’s making you hate yourself.
What are you going to do with it? Hunt witches or kick off the Olympics?
So how about this: one year. The end of 2016, that’s our deadline. Or a year from whenever you read this. While other people are telling you “Let’s make a New Year’s resolution to lose 15 pounds this year!” I’m going to say let’s pledge to do fucking anything — add any skill, any improvement to your human tool set, and get good enough at it to impress people. Don’t ask me what — hell, pick something at random if you don’t know. Take a class in karate, or ballroom dancing, or pottery. Learn to bake. Build a birdhouse. Learn massage. Learn a programming language. Film a porno. Adopt a superhero persona and fight crime. Start a YouTube vlog. Write for Cracked.
But the key is, I don’t want you to focus on something great that you’re going to make happen to you (“I’m going to find a girlfriend, I’m going to make lots of money …”). I want you to purely focus on giving yourself a skill that would make you ever so slightly more interesting and valuable to other people.
“Holy shit, by learning Spanish, I just gained the ability to speak to 400 million people I previously couldn’t.”
“I don’t have the money to take a cooking class.” Then fucking Google “how to cook.” They’ve even filtered out the porn now, it’s easier than ever. Damn it, you have to kill those excuses. Or they will kill you.
If you want to make note of your project in the forum thread or the comments and check in this time next year, knock yourself out. I’ll be curious to see if even one person actually does this, but if so we’ll look back, not just on whether or not we actually followed through, but why. You have nothing to lose, and the world needs you. Here’s a video of a corgi rolling down some stairs.
David Wong is the Executive Editor of Cracked.com and a New York Times best-selling author. You probably don’t know that his long-awaited new novel is out right now at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, BAM!, IndieBound, iTunes, Powell’s, your local bookstore, or anywhere else books are sold!
When the Last Tree Is Cut Down, the Last Fish Eaten, and the Last Stream Poisoned, You Will Realize That You Cannot Eat Money
Alanis Obomsawin? Prophecy of the Cree Indians? Osage saying? Sakokwenonkwas? Greenpeace? Anonymous? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: I recently came across the following stirring proverb on the internet:
When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realize that one cannot eat money.
After performing multiple searches for the phrase I finally found it listed in The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs (2009) which simply stated that it was a “Native American saying”. The earliest example given in the reference was dated 1983 and appeared in the book “America Born and Reborn” by H. Wasserman, who labeled it an “Osage saying”. I was hoping that these provocative words of wisdom were older. Could you try to trace this saying further back in time?
Quote Investigator: The earliest instance located by QI was in a collection of essays published in 1972 titled “Who is the Chairman of This Meeting?” A chapter called “Conversations with North American Indians” contained comments made by Alanis Obomsawin who was described as “an Abenaki from the Odanak reserve, seventy odd miles northeast of Montreal.” (The book uses the spelling Obomosawin.) Obomsawin employed a version of the saying while speaking with the chapter author Ted Poole. [AOTP]:
Canada, the most affluent of countries, operates on a depletion economy which leaves destruction in its wake. Your people are driven by a terrible sense of deficiency. When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.
In later years Obomsawin became famous as an award-winning documentary filmmaker based in Canada.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1894 the importance of conserving natural resources was recognized and expressed in a report by the State Fish and Game Commissioner of North Dakota. The report cautioned that short-term thinking and narrow monetary motivations might lead to the destruction of the “last tree” and the “last fish”. The following passage shows thematic similarities to the quotation under investigation [LFND]:
Present needs and present gains was the rule of action—which seems to be a sort of transmitted quality which we in our now enlightened time have not wholly outgrown, for even now a few men can be found who seem willing to destroy the last tree, the last fish and the last game bird and animal, and leave nothing for posterity, if thereby some money can be made.
In 1972 the remarks of Alanis Obomsawin were published in the volume “Who is the Chairman of This Meeting?” The details were listed previously in this article [AOTP].
In November 1972 a version of the saying was used by another Native American who presented a talk at Harvard University as reported in the student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson [PSHC]:
Thomas Parker, whose Indian name is Sakokwenonkwas, was the main speaker of the program. He said that he and the other Mohawks were from the Akwesasne reservation on the New York-Canada border. …
“Someday President Nixon and the other world leaders are going to find out that once they catch the last fish, once they cut down the last tree, they won’t be able to eat all the money they have in the banks,” he added. [Footnote A]
It is not clear to QI whether the expression was crafted by Obomsawin, Sakokwenonkwas, or a third person. The lead time for publication of a book can be long, so Obomsawin probably used the words before Sakokwenonkwas spoke at Harvard.
In 1981 two Greenpeace members climbed a smelter smokestack that was more than 500-feet tall according to an Associated Press report. Their goal was “to protest emissions of arsenic and sulfur dioxide,” and they unfurled an enormous 80-by-20-foot sign. The expression displayed on the smokestack was not ascribed to anyone in particular [GPLF]:
As one of the longest banners we’ve ever made summed things up, “When the last tree is cut, the last river poisoned, and the last fish dead, we will discover that we can’t eat money…”
In 1983 an advertisement for the Greenpeace organization that was printed in the Sydney Morning Herald employed a version of the saying. The words were used without attribution in a section titled “Why do we bother?” [GPSH]:
Greenpeace believes that after the last tree is cut, the last river poisoned and the last fish dead, you will find you can’t eat your money. In that interest, we strive to bring public and legal pressure against those who pollute the environment, deplete our resources and threaten rare species for private profit.
As noted by the questioner a version of the expression appeared in the valuable reference work “The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs” which provided citations beginning in 1983 [OXLF] [OXDP].
In 1995 a letter written to the New York Times employed the saying and attributed it to the “Cree Indians” [NYCI]:
To the Editor:
“A Modest Step to Save the Fish” (editorial, Aug. 8) brings to mind a prophecy of the Cree Indians: “When the last tree is cut down, the last fish eaten and the last stream poisoned, you will realize that you cannot eat money.”
In conclusion, QI would tentatively credit by Alanis Obomsawin with the saying. Also, the characterization “Native American saying” seems accurate in the sense that the two earliest known users of the statement were Native Americans. Yet, the phrase seems to have been crafted in relatively modern times, and thus does not have the deep historical resonance provided by age. Perhaps someone could ask Obomsawin about the expression.
(Many thanks to Kyle whose query inspired the formulation of this question and motivated this exploration. Kyle located the proverb listing within the “The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs”.)
[GPLF] Greenpeace, Banner message: “When the last tree is cut”, Mentioned on “About” webpage in English. (Accessed greenpeace.org 2011 October 19) link
[AOTP] 1972, Who is the Chairman of This Meeting?: A Collection of Essays edited by Ralph Osborne, “Conversations with North American Indians” by Ted Poole, Start Page 39, Quote Page 43, Neewin Publishing Company, Toronto. (Verified on paper)
[LFND] 1894, Public Documents of the State of North Dakota: Fiscal Period Ending June 30, 1894: Volume 2, Public Document Number 18: Section: “Biennial Report of the State Fish and Game Commissioner to the Governor of North Dakota from March 17, 1893 to December 1, 1894”, Quote Page 343, North Dakota State Printers and Binders, Jamestown, North Dakota. (Google Books full view) link
[PSHC] 1972 November 17, The Harvard Crimson, [Harvard University student newspaper], “Indians Say Heritage Ignored, Criticize White Man’s Attitude”, Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Accessed thecrimson.com on 2011 October 19) link
[Footnote A] The word “out” appears on the Harvard Crimson website instead of the word “cut” in the quoted passage. QI believes that “out” is an OCR (optical character recognition) error and has replaced “out” with “cut”. If you plan to use this quotation please include this note or visit the Crimson website and use the original text.
[GPLF] 1981 October 16, Tri City Herald, Smoke Protesters Quit Smelter Stack, [Associated Press], Page 16, Column 1, [GNA Page 9], Kennewick, Washington. (Google News Archive)
[GPSH] 1983 March 18, Sydney Morning Herald, [Advertisement for Greenpeace] I’m still not safe, Page 11, Column 5, Sydney, Australia. (Google News Archive)
[OXLF] 2009, The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs, Edited by Jennifer Speake, Entry: When the last tree is cut down, the last fish eaten, etc., Oxford University Press. (Accessed via Oxford Reference Online on 2011 October 20)
[OXDP] 2009, The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs, Edited by Jennifer Speake, Previously co-edited with John Simpson, Fifth Edition, Keyword: LAST, Entry: “When the LAST tree is cut down, the last fish eaten, and the last stream poisoned, you will realize that you cannot eat money”, Page 177, Oxford University Press, Oxford, United Kingdom. (Amazon Look Inside; Accessed July 17, 2012)
[NYCI] 1995 August 17, New York Times, Letter to the Editor: The Last Tree by Janet Townsend of Pleasantville, N.Y., New York. (Online archive of New York Times at nytimes.com; Accessed 2011 October 19) link
When you take a moment and look around at the world, things can seem pretty messed up. Take 5 or 10 minutes and watch the 6 o’clock news. Chances are, the entire time, all you are going to see is war, conflict, death, illness, etc. Sure, this is part of the mainstream media’s content strategy to sell drama and keep people focused on it, but besides that, it reveals something real about the current state of our world.
I believe Michael Ellner said it well in his quote: “Just look at us. Everything is backwards, everything is upside down. Doctors destroy health, lawyers destroy justice, psychiatrists destroy minds, scientists destroy truth, major media destroys information, religions destroy spirituality and governments destroy freedom.”
Now obviously Ellner’s quote is a simplified way of looking at our current state, but in many ways it’s bang on. Most of what we do in the name of “good” ends up destroying something else in the process and is passed off mainly in the name of profit.
We’ve seen over and over again how our ways have brought us to a point where we are destroying everything in our path, so the question must be asked, isn’t it time for change? Are we fully capable, honest, and determined enough to look at our past, where our actions and thought-patterns have brought us to this point, and now do something completely different in order to restore balance?
The people over at The Free World Charter believe it’s time for that and have put together a list of facts about society we oddly accept as normal.
10 Facts About Our Society That We Oddly Accept As Normal
We prioritize money and the economy over basics like air, water, food quality, our environment, and our communities.
We utilize an economic trading system that facilitates the death of millions of people each year.
We divide the world’s land into sections and then fight over who owns these sections.
We call some people “soldiers” which makes it OK for them to kill other people.
We torture and kill millions of animals every day needlessly for food, clothing, and experiments.
We send children to school for their entire childhood to memorize facts and skills that they will rarely use. More on education here.
We impose financial pressures on parents, forcing them to miss out on vital stages of their child’s development.
We have thousands of religions, each one believing that their God or god-story is the only true and unique version.
Love and compassion, which promote life, are mocked as facile. Whereas war, which harms life, is seen as honorable.
Anyone with a really useful invention can forcefully prevent others from using or modifying it.
What Would Your World Look Like?
Tell us what your world would look like. The bottom line is, we are in a very transformational time in our world. Solutions are needed and they are needed quickly. Share your ideas with the community in the comments below.