A Critique of Anuradha Chaudhary's "How Sane Are We?"

Prajna Pathak


> In her argumentative article on the environment, "How Sane Are We?" Anuradha

>Chaudhary raises a central question about human nature: Are human beings collectively

>rational or irrational? Her answer is: on the whole they act in an irrational manner.

>The quotation from Rudyard Kipling at the beginning of the essay makes it clear that we

>have failed to maintain things that our ancestors had done. By this failing we have

>doomed ourselves. Our stupidity is criminal. By unthingkingly postponing the most essential thing to be done, we have been too late in doing it and as such we have

>betrayed our ancestors and destroyed our children. In Kipling's poem it is the dikes

>that were not carefully maintained that spell disaster; in Chaudhary's essay it is the

>destruction of the environment that threatens our survival. The comparison is


> Chaudhary begins by saying that her eight years experience in teaching

>environmental biology has made it clear to her that her students are intelligent enough

>to understand the facts of ecology but they fail to make connections between ecology and

>politics. The problem with them, as she sees it, is that they can "comprehend" things

>but fail to "assimilate" them. That is a sad failing in education and she feels

>helpless about it. The reason for this failing may be due to the simplistic assumption

>of her students that people in responsible positions act responsibly and that they have

>the intellectual capacity to see things in their proper perspective and decide

>accordingly. The fact, however, what "Parkinson's Law" suggests, is that "solemn

>conclaves of the wise and good are mere figments of the teacher's mind." We are taught

>that man is a rational animal. We believe that human beings, therefore, act rationally.

>This is only a myth. All the facts tell how important it is to preserve the biosphere

>for our own survival but when the time comes to act rationally in order to do so we

>behave most irrationally. There are thousands of instances of our collective

>irrationality, but a very glaring example can be seen in the way we are tampering with

>the ozone layer. Ozone is formed of three atoms of oxygen. Unlike the common oxygen we

>find in air and which we breathe, ozone is rather unstable. It can easily break and

>become ordinary oxygen and not ozone. But a thin layer of ozone in the stratosphere,

>only about 0.3 mm thick, can almost completely stop the harmful ultraviolet radiation

>from outer space to get down to us and it thus acts as a natural shield to protect life

>on earth. If this shield is gone, life may very well disappear from our planet. Also,

>as the ozone layer starts depleting, more and more ultraviolet radiation will come down

>and disturb the ecosystem, weaken our immune system, cause eye cataracts and skin

>cancer, and lower agricultural productivity, and God knows how many other evils. We also

>know that chloroflourocarbons (CFCs), along with contributing to the greenhouse effect,

>also cause the ozone molecule to break and so these chemicals can disrupt the ozone

>layer in the stratosphere ultimately leading to the extinction of life on earth. Put

>these facts together, and every sane person would say: Get rid of the CFCs

>"immediately". But our supposedly sanest people--governments, CFC manufacturers, and

>some scientists--collectively dismissed this link between CFCs and ozone layer and said

>that the connection between them was only a cock and bull story of some ignorant people.

>In fact, CFCs are not essential--they are used as cooling agents in refrigerators and in

>making styrofoam cups and we have less harmful substitutes for the CFCs. On the other

>hand, scientists had suspected the unhealthy connection between CFCs and the ozone layer in >1974; they almost confirmed the indissoluble link between the two by 1985, and yet the world's nations decided to stop producing this not at all essential but awfully

>devastating substance only from 1996 in developed and from 2006 in developing countries.

>They collectively decided to let CFCs destroy the ozone layer for 26 years! This is our

>sanity and rationality. But there is another side of the coin. There are some people who

>believe that the decision by nations of the earth to stop producing CFC by 2006 is a

>supreme example of collective rationality. They see it as a glowing example of how

>human beings can sit down together and take important decisions to save life on earth.,

>and that we are now at the dawn of a remarkable new age of reason. But the 22-year lag

>from CFC indictment (1974) to partial ban (1996) and the 11-year apathy from the finding

>of the depletion of ozone layer in Antarctica to taking any action toward banning the

>production of a not really necessary substance, are, to some people, incontrovertible

>evidences of human irrationality.

> In Karl Capek's story "War with the Newts" human beings bring their own

>annihilation--not really because they are ignorant enough to support the salamanders but

>really because they are greedy, shortsighted, and stupid. This is exactly the case with

>the CFCs. Our greed, shortsightedness, and stupidity are the only factors responsible

>for the impending threat to humanity from the greenhouse effect and the depletion of the

>ozone layer. Just for a handful of silver and because of our colossal foolishness we

>are collectively working at our own destruction. Humanity is digging its own grave and

>still we call ourselves as rational animals. We are below the level of animals and

>human rationality is a myth.

> The CFC/ozone is a case in point that illustrates the collective irrationality

>of human beings. There are many such instances of our folly. If we do not bring about

>fundamental changes in our outlook and thinking, humanity may collectively sink and

>disappear. When the dykes fall, we may have time only to hear them falling and no more.

>Chaudhary's essay, therefore explores an important flaw in human nature. She strikes at

>the root of humankind's problem and traces it to our greed, lethargy, and above all,

>irrationality. She has presented the facts generally objectively and let the facts

>speak for themselves. However, there are a few defects in this otherwise excellent

>essay. The weakest point of the whole essay is sweeping generalizations or making of

>statements without any data to back them. For instance, the writer says that "CFCs may

>account for some '20%' of the greenhouse effect, an 'unprecedented' climatic disaster

>which may entail the 'flooding of continents,' the 'dislocation of millions of human

>beings,' and perhaps, even, the extinction of life on earth." The author seems to revel

>in acting as the prophet of doom, without giving any data to back her awful prophecies.

>Likewise we do not know how the author has computed the following occurrences: "In the

>next fifty years, 240 million human beings might contract skin cancer as a result of

>ozone depletion, of which 4 million might die. Eighty million might develop cataracts,

>of which many may become blind. Other possible effects are suppression of immune

>system, threats to the Antarctic food chain, damage to ecosystems and agriculture, and

>extinction of some wild species." Again, the author uses language to incite but refrains

>from making explicit comments based on data. A particularly sharp instance of a biased

>writing is: "Their remarks were dismissed out of hands by governments, CFC makers, and

>their 'paid' experts." The adjective "paid" reflects upon the writer's lack of control;

>it is a word that a rational writer should refrain from using, however incensed she may

>be for all the wrongdoings. She is making the same mistake that she is accusing others

>of doing. Lastly, however hard as she may try to indicate her objectivity and present both

>sides of the argument, her bias is evidently on the side of those who believe that

>humanity's collective decision-making process is irrational. The amount of space and

>examples given in favor of irrationality itself is ample evidence to indicate which

>side the writer belongs to. This is a grave error on the part of the writer who

>professes objectivity and especially in an essay where objectivity is so important;

>otherwise the writer herself may have to face the charge of being willfully biased.

> However, apart from a few such blemishes the essay is a powerful appeal to our

>humanity and wisdom. We need to look at things as a whole, see connections in diverse

>disciplines, assimilate diverse concepts, and above all, act in a rational manner,

>individually and collectively. Failing that the Martians and Venusians may be the only

>witnesses to tragedies perpetrated by our own insanities.

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