The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 40.0°F | Mostly Cloudy

COLUMN

Foolishness Stalks the Halls of MIT

Guest Column
NoÉmi Giszpenc

Let’s hear it for the Objectivists! Who else can praise reason to the skies in one breath and threaten physical violence toward a dissenter in the next? With “intellectuals” like these, who needs fools?

If there had been room last Thursday in 6-120 for more than the speaker’s quite sizable load of hogwash, the audience could have heard the following (instead they were treated to a visit by the Campus Police, called in to remove yours truly for having voiced some serious doubts -- many thanks to the officers who found his request to silence me as ridiculous as I did).

Laissez-faire capitalism would fail to bring the greatest economic wealth to all, and even if it did, that wouldn’t make humanity any happier. The theoretical benefits of free market ideology are more mystical and elusive than the rewards of heaven for true believers. To bring about their messianic age, capitalists would need to create perfect information, markets for every possible good now and infinitely far into the future, perfect rational behavior, and perfect competition. Not only is each of these things impossible, but it isn’t even to the advantage of capitalists to create them -- in the perfect world, with no asymmetries to exploit, there is no profit either. More importantly, it’s been shown that above a certain level of income, additional income doesn’t necessarily bring greater happiness. Think of it this way: Do you like sex? Would you rather have it because someone actually likes you, or because you can pay for it?

Owners of resources have no particular incentive to preserve them. If they can realize a greater return on investment by cutting or extracting it to death and then taking the profits and moving on to another investment opportunity, they will. Local fishermen or woodsmen, on the other hand, can plan together to manage the resource for the long term.

Human ingenuity and rationality is no guarantee against disaster. A great many civilizations have risen and fallen already (and no, not because they were dark and primitive). Let’s say, by tomorrow, you need to figure out how to feed 80 billion people using one square foot of land. Impossible? Maybe. Perhaps you could do it, given enough time? While you ponder, 80 billion people die. The point is, we’re not sure we can solve the problems we have now -- much less any new ones we create for ourselves -- in time to prevent a collapse.

Rapid climate change is a serious problem -- not a neutral, some win-some lose situation. In an unstable environment, certain tough and spiny species of plant and animal adapt and thrive faster than others. Generally we call these “weeds and pests” -- their proliferation is bad for humans and “bad for the economy,” but beneficial to certain adaptable pesticide companies we call “profiteers”. Furthermore, those humans least equipped to cope with the greater variability and risk are sure to be most exposed and least involved in decision-making (the poor and powerless, children and future generations, etc.).

By-products of production need not be pollution. For example, on a small farm that keeps pigs and grows corn, farmers can feed corn husks and cobs to the pigs and spread the pig manure on the soil to help grow more corn. In an industrial hog farm, the pig wastes become concentrated and toxic.

Environmentalists don’t promote asceticism and self-denial -- they promote quality of life over quantity of stuff. It is important for environmentalists to say this more often, since many people perceive environmentalism this way. The idea is that when people ask the questions, “How much is enough? Too much? What makes me really happy?” they lead richer, more fun-filled and satisfying lives and don’t destroy the means for others to live as well.

I encourage anyone who would like to learn more about environmentalism to read essays by Donella Meadows -- they’re short and to the point and she cites her sources. See <http://iisd1.iisd.ca/pcdf/meadows>.

NoÉmi Giszpenc is a member of the Class of 1998.