Tag Archives: Sustainability

A favorite line from Chomsky

10 Nov


My interest in politics and history, my appetite for political conversation, took a turn a few years back.  I don’t know what it was for sure, but I believe it had something to do with the way I’d come to view humanity as its own worst enemy.  I guess I feel like saying a little something about this notion, and maybe a little about the turn in my appetite that’s followed on it.

I’ll start to explore the notion in this post, beginning with a favorite line from Chomsky.

“We have today the technical and material resources to meet man’s animal needs. We have not developed the cultural and moral resources… that make possible the humane and rational use of our material wealth and power.”  — Noam Chomsky, Government in the Future

Chomsky has an idea what kind of cultural and moral resources we’d need to develop to do the trick.  For instance, he emphasizes “democratic forms of social organization”.  I can’t disagree, but let’s leave that out of the picture to begin with, remaining unprejudiced with regard to specific solutions while we consider the broader context Chomsky characterizes here.  Unpack three claims:

i) We have the technical and material resources to meet man’s animal needs.

ii) [We take it as a socioeconomic goal: To make] humane and rational use of our material wealth and power.

iii) We have not developed the cultural and moral resources [that make such humane and rational use possible].

I assume we’re agreed it’s a good idea to make “humane and rational use” of material resources.  I assume we’re agreed current use of resources is not sufficiently rational or humane.  And I assume we’re agreed that “we” in this context means something like “the people of Earth” and “human beings.”

The quote dates back to a 1970 lecture (available in audio format and in print). In more recent years, Chomsky has noted that he is one of many intellectuals and activists who once gravely underestimated the threat to the environment posed by industrialization.  Perhaps his 45-year-old remark about our having sufficient resources “to meet man’s animal needs” requires qualification in that light.

I’ll qualify it this way:  There must be a limit to the prosperity our “technical and material resources” can supply without depleting resources and destabilizing ecology, i.e., without radically deleterious consequences for the global socioeconomic order in the long run. If we’re currently running beyond that limit, we’re arguably not making “rational use” of our technical and material power.  If the animal needs of many humans are unmet, we’re surely not making “humane use” of that power.  Nevertheless, it’s within our current “technical and material” capacity to satisfy humanity’s “animal needs” without operating beyond the limit of sustainability, for a human population of, say, 10 billion souls.

Opinions will vary about what counts as an “animal need” for beasts like us.  Start with the bar low, raise it, and let me know when you hit the limit of current capacity.  “Rational use” of that capacity dedicates a reasonable portion of resources toward increasing productive efficiency within sustainable limits.  “Humane use” achieves some equitable distribution of resources, raises the bar to include a more developed range of goods among the human animal’s needs over time, and goes beyond “needs” to embrace the fullest range of goods achievable.

—Sustainable production, with a tendency toward increasing efficiency (producing more with less).

—Equitable distribution, with a tendency toward increasing quality and variety of goods (getting more and better goods to more people).

With the bar set low:  Current capacity already enables us to provide adequate air, water, nutrition, sunlight, and shelter to every human alive.  Not everyone’s getting enough of the right stuff today, and that’s a problem of distribution and political will, not a problem of production and supply.  No doubt we could already set the bar much higher, say, to include some sort of access to healthcare, education and information, communication and transportation, legal and government services, security, liberty and leisure, opportunity for meaningful participation in communities, in the workforce, in the political process….

For present purposes, it doesn’t matter where current capacity sets the bar, exactly, whether the global standard of living were set so that every one of us alive were doing at least as well as the average citizen of Kampala, New York, or Geneva currently is in fact.

The point is clear and simple enough:  We could be making far more “humane and rational use” of our technical and material resources.  The constraint on that humane and rational use — what keeps us from approaching our potential along those lines — is not any material or economic scarcity, but only a scarcity of “moral and cultural resources”, of awareness, of activism, of solidarity, of political will.

It’s human nature getting in its own way.

[Thanks to my friend BK for bringing the passage from Chomsky to my attention.]