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.

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Noam Chomsky has written and lectured widely on linguistics, philosophy, intellectual history, contemporary issues, international affairs and U.S. foreign policy. His works include: Aspects of the Theory of Syntax; Cartesian Linguistics; Sound Pattern of English (with Morris Halle); Language and Mind; American Power and the New Mandarins; At War with Asia; For Reasons of State; Peace in the Middle East?; Reflections on Language; The Political Economy of Human Rights, Vol. I and II (with E.S. Herman); Rules and Representations; Lectures on Government and Binding; Towards a New Cold War; Radical Priorities; Fateful Triangle; Knowledge of Language; Turning the Tide; Pirates and Emperors; On Power and Ideology; Language and Problems of Knowledge; The Culture of Terrorism; Manufacturing Consent (with E.S. Herman); Necessary Illusions; Deterring Democracy; Year 501; Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War and US Political Culture; Letters from Lexington; World Orders, Old and New; The Minimalist Program; Powers and Prospects; The Common Good; Profit Over People; The New Military Humanism; New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind; Rogue States; A New Generation Draws the Line; 9-11; and Understanding Power. His most recent book is called Gaza in Crisis: Reflections on Israel's War Against the Palestinians published in November of 2010.