Is Chomsky Right or Not?

A Chomsky quote caught my eye this morning, prompting a couple of quick thoughts. The quote:

Noam Chomsky

“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.” — Noam Chomsky (via today’s “Noam Chomsky Quotes” on facebook, date and original source not provided).

The thoughts:

  • First, does anyone credibly dispute anything in this statement? One thing I find interesting about Chomsky is a generalized resistance among many to his assertions, regularly paired with a non-refutation of same. Seriously, is he right or not? If not, I’d be interested to hear about it.
  • If he’s right, or if it’s even only possible that he’s right, is our response sufficient? Shouldn’t these concepts part of actual public debates now?

As you might’ve guessed, I agree with Chomsky, and see his assertions as immediately and specifically relevant, not distant or academic. Putting a finer point on it, these concepts — the lethal failure of the “market” to capture externalities, and our own failure as humans to fully grasp the future — should be a real part of public debate now, including around, for one ideal example, Polymet’s pending copper-sulfide mining proposal in Minnesota.

If you agree, a reminder that the public comment period for the Polymet proposal is currently open, and waiting for your thoughts:


  1. A few things came to mind reading this quote. First, I think that Chomsky’s assertion that we have difficulty making healthy, rational decisions for our long-term benefit is largely correct and there are plenty of examples to point to. But there are also hopeful examples of the opposite: the Netherlands’ embracing the need to collectively address the vulnerability of the nation to storms and climate change; the commitment of most developed countries to providing health care for all their residents; the long-standing position of Native Americans to Earth’s resources.
    Despite these examples, my fear is that wisdom is no match for the voracious appetite of capitalism and self interest, that we’ve squandered too many opportunies and are simply running out of time. This thought and some recent climate-related predictions led to a deeply disturbing realization recently: I cannot immediately recommend have a child these days. I have two offspring, a boy and a girl, that are approaching the age where the question of having children arises. Now, I don’t expect they’ll ask the question, but it was profoundly disturbing to think I’d have to stop and consider the answer. I also have to admit that I was only struck by this realization when I looked at some of the updated warnings of global warming consequences (they are expected to have impacts much earlier than predicted) and saw that the economic devastation of climate change would be felt by my children and grandchildren. In some measure, this is perhaps just the short-term outlook that Chomsky is referring to in his statement.

  2. Thanks to you and Chomsky for reminding us to think about big, crucial issues when we are busy getting sucked into irrelevant (at best) or harmful (at worst) trivial pursuits.

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