That Clear-Eyed Paul Craig Roberts!

By: Alton C. Thompson

Editor’s Note: To read articles written by Dr. Paul Craig Roberts, use this link.

Paul Craig Roberts—formerly an editor of the Wall Street Journal and an Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Treasury—never ceases to amaze me. His picture shows him to be a clear-eyed man—and his writings continually demonstrate that fact. Among his comments in his recent “Silent Spring for Us?” are the following:

Once abundant clean water has become a scarce resource. Yet, in the US ground water and surface water are being polluted and made unusable by mountain top removal mining, fracking and other such “new technologies.” Ranchers in eastern Montana, for example, are being forced out of ranching by polluted water.

Offshore oil drilling and chemical farming run-off have destroyed fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico. In other parts of the world, explosives used to maximize short-run fish catches have destroyed coral reefs that sustained fish life. Deforestation for short-run agricultural production results in replacing bio-diverse rain forests with barren land. The “now generation” is leaving a resource-scarce planet to future generations.

Nuclear power plants are thoughtlessly built in earthquake and tsunami zones. Spent fuel rods are stored within the plants, a practice that adds their destructive potential to a catastrophic accident or act of nature.

One would not expect such comments from a person who was formerly an editor of the Wall Street Journal—but Roberts is clearly an exceptional person—a person who is not captive to any ideology. Thus, Roberts not only recognizes that we humans have been foolish in not understanding the fact that we are a part of Earth System, rather than being apart from it, but understands that that foolishness constitutes a threat to our very continued existence as a species: Initially, our foolishness will “merely” make our lives difficult and miserable, but eventually it will make them impossible.

Roberts’ explanation of our situation:

Businesses have no incentive to take these costs into account, because to do so reduces their profits and could indicate that the full cost of production exceeds the value of the output. Governments have proven to be largely ineffective in controlling external costs, because of the ability of private interests to influence the decisions of government. Even if one country were to confront these costs, other countries would take advantage of the situation. Companies that externalize some of their costs can undersell companies that internalize all of the costs of their production. Thus, the planet can be destroyed by the short-term profit and convenience interests of one generation.

This explanation might be regarded as a “first-stage” explanation (to use Richard B. Braithwaite’s [1900 – 1990] terminology), with Morris Berman’s emphasis on our being a “hustler” society being a “second-stage” explanation—i.e., a more “radical” one (in the sense of getting to the root). Still, first-stage explanations—such as the one offered by Roberts—do have value, in that they help us identify what directly explains the explanandum in question.

The question that arises regarding explanations per se, however, is: Of what value are they? Do they merely satisfy our intellectual curiosity, or do they (also) have practical value? After all, when we ask the “Why?” question, is this done simply to satisfy a need for understanding or, rather, is it because we are aware of a situation regarding which we have made a negative valuation (at least implicitly), the implication being that we would prefer that situation to be different from what it is—with the only way for that situation to be different being that someone—such as oneself—attempt to change the situation? That is, when we ask the “Why?” question, isn’t this an indication that we are dissatisfied with something, and would like to see it changed?

But if what motivated our asking the “Why?” question was a sense of dissatisfaction with something, is this a rational response to our sense of dissatisfaction? Perhaps the rationality of this response depends somewhat on what has motivated our feeling dissatisfied. However, I tend to think that our response is too often of the “knee-jerk” variety. That is, rather than asking ourselves whether it might be useful to seek an explanation, we simply assume, tacitly, that it would be, then ask “Why?,” and then seek an answer.

I have three comments relative to the above discussion, the first two pertaining to Roberts, the third of a more general nature:

  • Roberts has done us a very real service in identifying several serious problems that face us humans at present—problems to which I have made no reference in any of my essays. I am perplexed, however by the fact that Roberts did not include “global warming” in his discussion. It would be foolish to claim that “global warming” is a more important problem than any of those discussed by Roberts, but it certainly is an important problem.
  • Usually one offers an explanation—whether first- or second-stage—as a prelude to a recommendation(s) as to how to “fix” the problem that one has identified. And usually one uses the “lever model” in doing so. That is, one identifies the factor(s) that one believes explains one’s explanandum, determines which factor(s) would be most easily changed (i.e., which seem(s) to be the best candidate(s) as a lever or levers), and then recommends that that factor(s) be changed (how, is, of course, another question![1]). Thus, if one identifies, as the basic causal factor behind our various problems, our “hustler” mentality (as Morris Berman has), one will, logically, make recommendations as to how to change that mentality. (So far as I know—I am currently reading his Why America Failed, and so cannot be definitive here—Berman offers no such recommendations!) If one offers an explanation but then fails to offer any recommendations based on that explanation, one has a right to ask: “What was the point of your offering an explanation?! You have offered us nothing useful!” Unfortunately, although Roberts has offered us an explanation for the problems—and they certainly are important ones—that he has identified, he has failed to take the next step—that of offering us with a “plan” for fixing those problems. Roberts concludes his essay by stating “. . . the question, ‘silent spring for us?’ is not merely rhetorical. It is real.” This is a true statement, but not particularly useful. I would like to think that this failure stems from a recognition, on his part, that he has nothing useful to offer on the matter, but believed that his essay was worth publishing anyway because it might motivate some reader to pursue a solution.
  • As I stated above, when we are faced with a situation to which we react negatively—implicitly asserting that the situation should be something other than what it is—we almost seem “programmed” to ask “Why?,” tacitly assuming that an answer to that question will be helpful in addressing the problem.

This is a tendency that may be difficult to overcome, but we must try to overcome it anyway. Perhaps it’s simply because my mind tends to work differently than the “normal” human being’s mind, or perhaps it’s because of a previous exposure to John Dewey’s pragmatic thinking, but when I’m faced with a problem, my tendency is to ask: “How can it be fixed?”

Thus, in learning about the problem of “global warming” and its causes, I have been—without even thinking about it—“radical” in my thinking in that I have looked beyond the immediate, and even deeper, causes, and have worked out as the solution: “We need a change in our way of life, either in the direction of more of us becoming homesteaders or—and preferably—more of us creating cooperative eco-communities in “safe” locations.” I have recognized that this solution has the potential of saving only some of us, but not being aware of any better solution, have concluded that some is better than none.

Note that this solution has no obvious relationship to any explanation of why “global warming” is occurring; but for me, what’s relevant is not that fact but, rather, the strong possibility (I would like to believe!) that if this “plan” were to be implemented, at least some lives would be saved. That’s good enough for me!


  1. Typically, however, the tacit assumption is that given that governments have the legal responsibility to address problems, it is a governmental unit that should do the fixing.

About the author: Al Thompson works (data management) for an Engineering (Avionics) firm in Milwaukee. Click here to mail him.