Human Intelligence and the Environment

By Noam Chomsky

May 10, 2011
"International Socialist Review" - I’LL BEGIN with an interesting debate that took place some years ago between Carl Sagan, the well-known astrophysicist, and Ernst Mayr, the grand old man of American biology. They were debating the possibility of finding intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. And Sagan, speaking from the point of view of an astrophysicist, pointed out that there are innumerable planets just like ours. There is no reason they shouldn’t have developed intelligent life. Mayr, from the point of view of a biologist, argued that it’s very unlikely that we’ll find any. And his reason was, he said, we have exactly one example: Earth. So let’s take a look at Earth.

And what he basically argued is that intelligence is a kind of lethal mutation. And he had a good argument. He pointed out that if you take a look at biological success, which is essentially measured by how many of us are there, the organisms that do quite well are those that mutate very quickly, like bacteria, or those that are stuck in a fixed ecological niche, like beetles. They do fine. And they may survive the environmental crisis. But as you go up the scale of what we call intelligence, they are less and less successful. By the time you get to mammals, there are very few of them as compared with, say, insects. By the time you get to humans, the origin of humans may be 100,000 years ago, there is a very small group. We are kind of misled now because there are a lot of humans around, but that’s a matter of a few thousand years, which is meaningless from an evolutionary point of view. His argument was, you’re just not going to find intelligent life elsewhere, and you probably won’t find it here for very long either because it’s just a lethal mutation. He also added, a little bit ominously, that the average life span of a species, of the billions that have existed, is about 100,000 years, which is roughly the length of time that modern humans have existed.

With the environmental crisis, we’re now in a situation where we can decide whether Mayr was right or not. If nothing significant is done about it, and pretty quickly, then he will have been correct: human intelligence is indeed a lethal mutation. Maybe some humans will survive, but it will be scattered and nothing like a decent existence, and we’ll take a lot of the rest of the living world along with us.

So is anything going to be done about it? The prospects are not very auspicious. As you know, there was an international conference on this last December. A total disaster. Nothing came out of it. The emerging economies, China, India, and others, argued that it’s unfair for them to bear the burden of a couple hundred years of environmental destruction by the currently rich and developed societies. That’s a credible argument. But it’s one of these cases where you can win the battle and lose the war. The argument isn’t going to be very helpful to them if, in fact, the environmental crisis advances and a viable society goes with it. And, of course, the poor countries, for whom they’re speaking, will be the worst hit. In fact, they already are the worst hit. That will continue. The rich and developed societies, they split a little bit. Europe is actually doing something about it; it’s done some things to level off emissions. The United States has not.

In fact, there is a well-known environmentalist writer, George Monbiot, who wrote after the Copenhagen conference that “the failure of the conference can be explained in two words: Barack Obama.” And he’s correct. Obama’s intervention in the conference was, of course, very significant, given the power and the role of the United States in any international event. And he basically killed it. No restrictions, Kyoto Protocols die. The United States never participated in it. Emissions have very sharply increased in the United States since, and nothing is being done to curb them. A few Band-Aids here and there, but basically nothing. Of course, it’s not just Barack Obama. It’s our whole society and culture. Our institutions are constructed in such a way that trying to achieve anything is going to be extremely difficult.

Public attitudes are a little hard to judge. There are a lot of polls, and they have what look like varying results, depending on exactly how you interpret the questions and the answers. But a very substantial part of the population, maybe a big majority, is inclined to dismiss this as just kind of a liberal hoax. What’s particularly interesting is the role of the corporate sector, which pretty much runs the country and the political system. They’re very explicit. The big business lobbies, like the Chamber of Commerce, American Petroleum Institute, and others, have been very clear and explicit. A couple of years ago they said they are going to carry out—they since have been carrying out—a major publicity campaign to convince people that it’s not real, that it’s a liberal hoax. Judging by polls, that’s had an effect.

It’s particularly interesting to take a look at the people who are running these campaigns, say, the CEOs of big corporations. They know as well as you and I do that it’s very real and that the threats are very dire, and that they’re threatening the lives of their grandchildren. In fact, they’re threatening what they own, they own the world, and they’re threatening its survival. Which seems irrational, and it is, from a certain perspective. But from another perspective it’s highly rational. They’re acting within the structure of the institutions of which they are a part. They are functioning within something like market systems—not quite, but partially—market systems. To the extent that you participate in a market system, you disregard necessarily what economists call “externalities,” the effect of a transaction upon others. So, for example, if one of you sells me a car, we may try to make a good deal for ourselves, but we don’t take into account in that transaction the effect of the transaction on others. Of course, there is an effect. It may feel like a small effect, but if it multiplies over a lot of people, it’s a huge effect: pollution, congestion, wasting time in traffic jams, all sorts of things. Those you don’t take into account—necessarily. That’s part of the market system.

We’ve just been through a major illustration of this. The financial crisis has a lot of roots, but the fundamental root of it has been known for a long time. It was talked about decades before the crisis. In fact, there have been repeated crises. This is just the worst of them. The fundamental reason, it just is rooted in market systems. If Goldman Sachs, say, makes a transaction, if they’re doing their job, if the managers are up to speed they are paying attention to what they get out of it and the institution or person at the other end of the transaction, say, a borrower, does the same thing. They don’t take into account what’s called systemic risk, that is, the chance that the transaction that they’re carrying out will contribute to crashing the whole system. They don’t take that into account. In fact, that’s a large part of what just happened. The systemic risk turned out to be huge, enough to crash the system, even though the original transactions are perfectly rational within the system.

It’s not because they’re bad people or anything. If they don’t do it—suppose some CEO says, “Okay, I’m going to take into account externalities”—then he’s out. He’s out and somebody else is in who will play by the rules. That’s the nature of the institution. You can be a perfectly nice guy in your personal life. You can sign up for the Sierra Club and give speeches about the environmental crisis or whatever, but in the role of corporate manager, you’re fixed. You have to try to maximize short-term profit and market share—in fact, that’s a legal requirement in Anglo-American corporate law—just because if you don’t do it, either your business will disappear because somebody else will outperform it in the short run, or you will just be out because you’re not doing your job and somebody else will be in. So there is an institutional irrationality. Within the institution the behavior is perfectly rational, but the institutions themselves are so totally irrational that they are designed to crash.

If you look, say, at the financial system, it’s extremely dramatic what happened. There was a crash in the 1920s, and in the 1930s, a huge depression. But then regulatory mechanisms were introduced. They were introduced as a result of massive popular pressure, but they were introduced. And throughout the whole period of very rapid and pretty egalitarian economic growth of the next couple of decades, there were no financial crises, because the regulatory mechanisms interfered with the market and prevented the market principles from operating. So therefore you could take account of externalities. That’s what the regulatory system does. It’s been systematically dismantled since the 1970s.

Meanwhile, the role of finance in the economy has exploded. The share of corporate profit by financial institutions has just zoomed since the 1970s. Kind of a corollary of that is the hollowing out of industrial production, sending it abroad. This all happened under the impact of a kind of fanatic religious ideology called economics—and that’s not a joke—based on hypotheses that have no theoretical grounds and no empirical support but are very attractive because you can prove theorems if you adopt them: the efficient market hypothesis, rational expectations hypothesis, and so on. The spread of these ideologies, which is very attractive to concentrated wealth and privilege, hence their success, was epitomized in Alan Greenspan, who at least had the decency to say it was all wrong when it collapsed. I don’t think there has ever been a collapse of an intellectual edifice comparable to this, maybe, in history, at least I can’t remember one. Interestingly, it has no effect. It just continues. Which tells you that it’s serviceable to power systems.

Under the impact of these ideologies, the regulatory system was dismantled by Reagan and Clinton and Bush. Throughout this whole period, there have been repeated financial crises, unlike the 1950s and 1960s. During the Reagan years, there were some really extreme ones. Clinton left office with another huge one, the burst of the tech bubble. Then the one we’re in the middle of. Worse and worse each time. The system is instantly being reconstructed, so the next one will very likely be even worse. One of the causes, not the only one, is simply the fact that in market systems you just don’t take into account externalities, in this case systemic risk.

That’s not lethal in the case of financial crises. A financial crisis can be terrible. It can put many millions of people out of work, their lives destroyed. But there is a way out of it. The taxpayer can come in and rescue you. That’s exactly what happened. We saw it dramatically in the last couple of years. The financial system tanked. The government, namely, the taxpayer, came in and bailed them out.

Let’s go to the environmental crisis. There’s nobody around to bail you out. The externalities in this case are the fate of the species. If that’s disregarded in the operations of the market system, there’s nobody around who is going to bail you out from that. So this is a lethal externality. And the fact that it’s proceeding with no significant action being taken to do anything about it does suggest that Ernst Mayr actually had a point. It seems that there is something about us, our intelligence, which entails that we’re capable of acting in ways that are rational within a narrow framework but are irrational in terms of other long-term goals, like do we care what kind of a world our grandchildren will live in. And it’s hard to see much in the way of prospects for overcoming this right now, particularly in the United States. We are the most powerful state in the world, and what we do is vastly important. We have one of the worst records in this regard.

There are things that could be done. It’s not hard to list them. One of the main things that could be done is actually low-tech, for example, the weatherization of homes. There was a big building boom in the post–Second World War period, which from the point of view of the environment was done extremely irrationally. Again, it was done rationally from a market point of view. There were models for home building, for mass-produced homes, which were used all over the country, under different conditions. So maybe it would make sense in Arizona, but not in Massachusetts. Those homes are there. They’re extremely energy-inefficient. They can be fixed. It’s construction work, basically. It would make a big difference. It would also have the effect of reviving one of the main collapsing industries, construction, and overcoming a substantial part of the employment crisis. It will take inputs. It will take money from, ultimately, the taxpayer. We call it the government, but it means the taxpayer. But it is a way of stimulating the economy, of increasing jobs, also with a substantial multiplier effect (unlike bailing out bankers and investors), and also making a significant impact on the destruction of the environment. But there’s barely a proposal for this, almost nothing.

Another example, which is kind of a scandal in the United States—if any of you have traveled abroad, you’re perfectly aware of it—when you come back from almost anywhere in the world to the United States, it looks like you’re coming to a Third World country, literally. The infrastructure is collapsing transportation that doesn’t work. Let’s just take trains. When I moved to Boston around 1950, there was a train that went from Boston to New York. It took four hours. There’s now a highly heralded train called the Acela, the supertrain. It takes three hours and forty minutes (if there’s no breakdown—as there can be, I’ve discovered). If you were in Japan, Germany, China, almost anywhere, it would take maybe an hour and a half, two hours or something. And that’s general.

It didn’t happen by accident. It happened by a huge social engineering project carried out by the government and by the corporations beginning in the 1940s. It was a very systematic effort to redesign the society so as to maximize the use of fossil fuels. One part of it was eliminating quite efficient rail systems. New England, for example, did have a pretty efficient electric rail system all the way through New England. If you read E. L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime, the first chapter describes its hero going through New England on the electric rail system. That was all dismantled in favor of cars and trucks. Los Angeles, which is now a total horror story—I don’t know if any of you have been there—had an efficient electric public transportation system. It was dismantled. It was bought up in the 1940s by General Motors, Firestone Rubber, and Standard Oil of California. The purpose of their buying it up was to dismantle it so as to shift everything to trucks and cars and buses. And it was done. It was technically a conspiracy. Actually, they were brought to court on a charge of conspiracy and sentenced. I think the sentence was $5,000 or something, enough to pay for the victory dinner.

The federal government stepped in. We have something that is now called the interstate highway system. When it was built in the 1950s, it was called the national defense highway system because when you do anything in the United States you have to call it defense. That’s the only way you can fool the taxpayer into paying for it. In fact, there were stories back in the 1950s, those of you who are old enough to remember, about how we needed it because you had to move missiles around the country very quickly in case the Russians came or something. So taxpayers were bilked into paying for this system. Alongside of it was the destruction of railroads, which is why you have what I just described. Huge amounts of federal money and corporate money went into highways, airports, anything that wastes fuel. That’s basically the criterion.

Also, the country was suburbanized. Real estate interests, local interests, and others redesigned life so that it’s atomized and suburbanized. I’m not knocking the suburbs. I live in one and I like it. But it’s incredibly inefficient. It has all kinds of social effects which are probably deleterious. Anyway, it didn’t just happen; it was designed. Throughout the whole period, there has been a massive effort to create the most destructive possible society. And to try to redo that huge social engineering project is not going to be simple. It involves plenty of problems.

Another component of any reasonable approach—and everyone agrees with this on paper—is to develop sustainable energy, green technology. We all know and everyone talks a nice line about that. But if you look at what’s happening, green technology is being developed in Spain, in Germany, and primarily China. The United States is importing it. In fact, a lot of the innovation is here, but it’s done there. United States investors now are putting far more money into green technology in China than into the U.S. and Europe combined. There were complaints when Texas ordered solar panels and windmills from China: It’s undermining our industry. Actually, it wasn’t undermining us at all because we were out of the game. It was undermining Spain and Germany, which are way ahead of us.

Just to indicate how surreal this is, the Obama administration essentially took over the auto industry, meaning you took it over. You paid for it, bailed it out, and basically owned large parts of it. And they continued doing what the corporations had been doing pretty much, for example, closing down GM plants all over the place. Closing down a plant is not just putting the workers out of work, it’s also destroying the community. Take a look at the so-called rust belt. The communities were built by labor organizing; they developed around the plants. Now they’re dismantled. It has huge effects. At the same time that they’re dismantling the plants, meaning you and I are dismantling plants, because that’s where the money comes from, and it’s allegedly our representatives—it isn’t, in fact—at the very same time Obama was sending his Transportation Secretary to Spain to use federal stimulus money to get contracts for high-speed rail construction, which we really need and the world really needs. Those plants that are being dismantled and the skilled workers in them, all that could be reconverted to producing high-speed rail right here. They have the technology, they have the knowledge, they have the skills. But it’s not good for the bottom line for banks, so we’ll buy it from Spain. Just like green technology, it will be done in China.

Those are choices; those are not laws of nature. But, unfortunately, those are the choices that are being made. And there is little indication of any positive change. These are pretty serious problems. We can easily go on. I don’t want to continue. But the general picture is very much like this. I don’t think this is an unfair selection of—it’s a selection, of course, but I think it’s a reasonably fair selection of what’s happening. The consequences are pretty dire.

The media contribute to this, too. So if you read, say, a typical story in the New York Times, it will tell you that there is a debate about global warming. If you look at the debate, on one side is maybe 98 percent of the relevant scientists in the world, on the other side are a couple of serious scientists who question it, a handful, and Jim Inhofe or some other senator. So it’s a debate. And the citizen has to kind of make a decision between these two sides. The Times had a comical front-page article maybe a couple months ago in which the headline said that meteorologists question global warming. It discussed a debate between meteorologists—the meteorologists are these pretty faces who read what somebody hands to them on television and says it’s going to rain tomorrow. That’s one side of the debate. The other side of the debate is practically every scientist who knows anything about it. Again, the citizen is supposed to decide. Do I trust these meteorologists? They tell me whether to wear a raincoat tomorrow. And what do I know about the scientists? They’re sitting in some laboratory somewhere with a computer model. So, yes, people are confused, and understandably.

It’s interesting that these debates leave out almost entirely a third part of the debate, namely, a very substantial number of scientists, competent scientists, who think that the scientific consensus is much too optimistic. A group of scientists at MIT came out with a report about a year ago describing what they called the most comprehensive modeling of the climate that had ever been done. Their conclusion, which was unreported in public media as far as I know, was that the major scientific consensus of the international commission is just way off, it’s much too optimistic; and if you add other factors that they didn’t count properly, the conclusion is much more dire. Their own conclusion was that unless we terminate use of fossil fuels almost immediately, it’s finished. We’ll never be able to overcome the consequences. That’s not part of the debate.

I could easily go on, but the only potential counterweight to all of this is some very substantial popular movement which is not just going to call for putting solar panels on your roof, though it’s a good thing to do, but it’s going to have to dismantle an entire sociological, cultural, economic, and ideological structure which is just driving us to disaster. It’s not a small task, but it’s a task that had better be undertaken, and probably pretty quickly, or it’s going to be too late.