Amid Spreading Clouds, Chomsky Still Sees Hope, but Mingled With Mystery
A leading light of the Left has an inconvenient message for climate hawks seeking dramatic system change - work with what's in front of you now
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A lot has unfolded on this turbulent planet since I and a group of faculty and students at the Columbia Climate School and Teachers College last October had a chance, through one of my Sustain What webcasts, to converse with the scholar Noam Chomsky about accumulating threats to the human journey and ways to cut odds of deep regrets.
But the basics are still the same.
Industrial and military powers decades ago developed the means to abruptly derail human flourishing and propel global environmental unraveling. With his murderous invasion of Ukraine and nuclear threats, President Vladimir Putin of Russia has simply brought new clarity to the level of danger that's been created by nuclear arms, even as the latest U.N. climate panel reports have further clarified the threat from unabated emissions of planet-heating gases.
Some vivid points from our discussion just came to mind again as Chomsky made headlines today in an interview with The New Statesman, saying, "Because the threats are accumulating, we’re approaching the most dangerous point in human history.... We are now facing the prospect of destruction of organized human life on Earth.”
I thought it worth sharing what Chomsky said about pragmatism in pursuit of ideals, about unknowability in working tirelessly within existing institutions toward a vision of a transformed world - one without tyranny, with justice and opportunity for all, free of building environmental stresses. This is the first time I've transcribed the talk. Here are video excerpts, as well.
Andy Revkin - Recently you told David Roberts [then at Vox] that global warming "basically has to be taken care of within the framework of existing institutions, modifying them as necessary." That's the problem we face. And just in August you reprised the assertion that [there has to be] "extinction or internationalism." But I wonder, is it still feasible to see a role for internationalism as we know it, meaning a structural approach to solving the problem that we face with climate?
Noam Chomsky - The answer is we don't know. Either the human moral capacities and human institutions are capable of dealing with this situation, or we're doomed. There is really no question about whether we can deal with this within existing institutions, maybe modified in slight ways, but not seriously changed. That's simply a matter of time scales. Radically changing institutions, in my opinion, is necessary, but that timescale is way out of any relation to the timescale necessary to deal with this particular crucial problem.
And I should say that since you mentioned my age, that this has been pretty obvious to me since August 9th, 1945, I don't know how many people noticed, but the latest IPCC report [Working Group 1 last year] was on the anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing. And the Nagasaki bombing, which I remember very well, made it very clear that human intelligence was proceeding vastly beyond human moral capacity and the ability of human institutions to bring about survival. Whatever you think about the pretext for the bombings - I don't think much of them - they demonstrated that human intelligence was bent on advancing towards the point where it would have the capacity to destroy everything. The point that, in fact, was reached in 1953 was the explosion of thermonuclear weapons by the United States and Russia. That gap remains. Whether that can be filled, we don't know. But the choices are very simple.
There are feasible answers to all of our problems, including nuclear war, including destruction of the environment. There are feasible answers. Human intelligence has formulated the answers. Now the question is, does human moral capacity and the nature of human institutions, do they suffice to overcome what human intelligence is capable of destroying. And the answer is, we don't know.
Andy Revkin: - It's so interesting that you're saying this, it resonates a lot with some things that were said at the Vatican in 2016 [I misspoke; it was actually 2014]. I was there for a meeting on "sustainable humanity, sustainable nature, our responsibility." A cardinal who is one of the pope's close allies, Cardinal Maradiaga, began the meeting by saying, Nowadays it feels like "man is a technical giant and an ethical child."
And at the end of the meeting, as I was sitting with Walter Munk, a 96-year-old American oceanographer who was legendary in science and who helped develop a way to forecast wave heights for the beach landings in World War II. I asked him, what do you think will get us through the century?
And I was kind of thinking he'd say fusion or something technical or carbon tax, maybe. And he said "it'll take a miracle of love and unselfishness." So here's a scientific guy, a numbers guy who also said we don't know. But then he actually invoked miracles. Does that resonate with you? Is that the path forward? Empathy, hope, connectivity through love?
Noam Chomsky: With regard to being hopeful, we basically have kind of a version of Pascal's Wager. We have two choices. We can either give up hope and help ensure that the worst will happen, as it will, or we can grasp the opportunities that exist - however we estimate their force, but they do exist - we can grasp them and pursue them, and maybe we can make it a better world. Those are the choices. As to whether we're capable of doing it, it will soon be known.
You can watch the full rich discussion on YouTube, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Let me know your thoughts.
There is much that is unknowable these days, particularly given the compounding layers of current drivers of risk and historical dynamics underpinning how we got to this point.
Here is some invaluable related analysis of complex risks by Emmy Wassénius and Beatrice I. Crona of the Stockholm Resilience Center (they have other affiliations as well), which came my way on Twitter today via Patrick Keys, a systems-focused geographer at Colorado State University who led authorship of an important paper on "Anthropocene Risk" several years ago:
Responding to Keys's tweet, I noted how, as I've aged, I've increasingly seen the task of life as mainly increasingly the capacity for one's self, communities or country to navigate pinch points. I used the "Swiss cheese" model of COVID-19 protection to illustrate the point.
Where Would You Set the Planetary 'Doomsday Clock' and What's One Way to Turn it Back? - My Sustain What post on the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists's annual clock resetting
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