Fallen Icarus, Agrigento, Sicily \ Julia Maudlin via Flickr, CC-BY-2.0

The world has seen many versions of Napoleon and his Russian campaign. Probably they have been with us forever. The ancient Greeks saw the phenomenon often enough to adopt “hubris” as the word for the dangerous combination of arrogance and error, overconfidence and disrespect.

Hubris is no longer merely individual. The most important modern forms are collective and institutional. Today’s equivalents of Napoleon and his Russian campaign include the political and economic arrangements that support ever-growing fossil fuel extraction and consumption when the best science says greenhouse gas emissions are already disrupting climate stability. They are also evident in the institutions that have allowed 80 individuals to amass wealth equivalent to that of the poorest 3.5 billion of the world’s human population, disregarding the practical as well as moral perils involved.

Hubris today is global. It is entrenched in the ambition and blindness of whole systems of convictions and organizations that guide most human activities on this planet. And the effects are mounting.

As the rippling consequences lead to more evidently desperate needs for change, we may expect calls for bold and authoritative action, for confident and charismatic leadership, for the granting of exceptional powers. Effectively, these will be calls for a green Napoleon and a Grande Armée of sustainability.

University of Waterloo professor and the magazine’s long-time editor, Robert Gibson chairs Alternatives’ editorial board and writes our back-page column: What’s the Big Idea. He reads every word of every issue and can be thanked for the best – and the poopiest – article titles. Substitution gets us genetic engineering, nuclear reactors, ocean draggers and unconventional oil. 

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