Tikkun Magazine

Noam Chomsky on the Environment

Noam Chomsky offered some interesting reflections on the environment during a recent speech at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Here’s an excerpt:

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…

You can read the rest of the speech on the International Socialist Review website.

tags: Environment