Noam Chomsky ponders humanity’s odds of survival during talk at UMass

  • Noam Chomsky, world-renown linguist, philosopher, author and political activist, smiles at the audience before his talk Thursday at the Mullins Center.

For The Recorder
Published: 4/14/2017 2:16:25 PM

AMHERST — On a cool spring evening, with many other options beckoning, thousands nonetheless lined up down the block to see the renowned intellectual Noam Chomsky speak about humanity’s likely demise.

Chomsky focused Thursday’s talk at the University of Massachusetts’ Mullins Center, titled “Prospects for Survival,” on the mounting threat of nuclear war and the failure to deal with climate change.

“As we all should be well aware, these are the two existential challenges that overshadow everything else,” Chomsky said.

Chomsky began with an anecdote about a debate years ago between two colossal figures in their respective fields — astrophysicist Carl Sagan and biologist Ernst Mayr — about the likelihood of finding extraterrestrial intelligence anywhere else in the universe.

Sagan concluded it was highly probable intelligent life should exist elsewhere, given the number of planets in the cosmos similar to Earth.

Mayr, however, said that by looking at Earth as an example, he had concluded it’s unlikely humans would find other intelligent species elsewhere. Species that are successful over a long time, he said, are those that mutate very quickly, like bacteria, or those that keep to a fixed ecological niche, like beetles. As you move up the scale of intelligence, success is less likely.

The history of life on Earth, Mayr essentially concluded, refutes the claim that it’s better to be smart than stupid.

For Chomsky, it is that question — whether it is better to be smart or stupid — that humans are now in a position to answer. And since 1953, Chomsky said, humans have done their best to prove Mayr’s claim correct.

Morally responsible

The 88-year-old Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor is widely considered the father of modern linguistics, but is equally known as a leftist philosopher, author and political activist.

Being from the United States, Chomsky has long focused his critiques on U.S. policy, arguing that citizens are most morally responsible for the actions, or inactions, of their own governments. Thursday night was no different.

Chomsky began in 1953 because in that year, the United States and the Soviet Union tested their first thermonuclear devices. Since then, Chomsky said, the United States has done virtually nothing to lessen tensions that are increasingly likely to lead to nuclear war and the destruction of humankind.

Chomsky gave a number of examples of that diplomatic intransigence: the refusal of top U.S. officials to acknowledge the grave threat posed by the creation of nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles; President John F. Kennedy denying an offer for bilateral weapon reductions when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev proposed it; and Kennedy’s refusal to end the Cuban missile crisis by withdrawing already outdated U.S. missiles from Turkey.

The logic behind those decisions, Chomsky, said, is clear.

“For planners, the security of the population is a very marginal concern,” he said. “Even security from utter destruction.” Instead, he said, the security of corporate and state power prevail.

That reality continues right up to present-day tensions with other nuclear powers, Chomsky said. An example he gave was recent saber-rattling between the United States and North Korea.

Chomsky said diplomatic solutions to the crisis exist, including a Chinese-backed proposal that North Korea suspend its nuclear program in exchange for the United States discontinuing aggressive military exercises on North Korea’s border.

“Well, is that option worth pursuing?” Chomsky asked. “Evidently not, for Washington at least.

“It is indeed a near miracle that we have escaped thus far,” Chomsky said of nuclear war.

Contrasting stories

As for climate change, however, escape may be more difficult. “We might pass a point of no return, soon in fact, when the damage we have caused is uncontrollable,” he said.

To illustrate the United States’ “race toward the precipice,” Chomsky offered several contrasts between world events and their corresponding actions from the U.S. government.

In early March, research emerged that tens of thousands of miles of permafrost were rapidly melting in Canada, leading to the likely release of massive amounts of greenhouse gases trapped in the frozen land.

At that same time, however, Chomsky pointed to what was happening in the United States: President Donald Trump was rolling back Obama-era regulations on emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

March 16 offered another juxtaposition. A new study was released then that detailed the massive coral bleaching rapidly destroying sections of the Great Barrier Reef, an ecological catastrophe.

“In the U.S. on the same day, the president’s budget was released,” Chomsky said. “The EPA was virtually dismantled.”

The administration’s “hatred of unwanted facts,” Chomsky said, is quickly squandering valuable time that is needed as the destruction of humankind draws closer.

“The Republican wrecking ball is systematically dismantling the structures that offer any hope for survival,” Chomsky said. “It’s a bitter attack on the working class and on the poor, while lavishing even more gifts on the wealthy and corporate sector.”

Is intelligence lethal?

But despite the grim forecast, Chomsky did offer some rays of hope, pointing to a number of efforts in places like Denmark, Germany and China to move toward renewable energy sources.

It’s not just internationally that efforts are underway to reduce carbon emissions. Chomsky also acknowledged legislation in Hawaii, Massachusetts and San Diego to move their economies toward renewable energy sources.

“In a period when the federal government is in the hands of bulls in the china shop, cities and states could do quite a lot,” Chomsky said. “It’s an indication of what can be done.”

A lot of organizing and education needs to be done, Chomsky said, but the possibility is there. Those existential threats and their responses are truly a chance to reflect on Mayr’s question about whether intelligence is a kind of lethal biological mutation.

“It’s a question for you to ponder, and like it or not, for you to answer,” Chomsky said to the audience full of young students. “And not without too much of a delay.”




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