Transcript: Presentation taped in Albuquerque, NM at the University of New Mexico during the American Solar Energy Society’s 51st Annual Conference, June 21, 2022.
It’s difficult to overestimate the importance of this conference, or other events like it. In fact, impossible to do so. There’s no need for this audience to take time to discuss the fact that we are at a unique moment in human history. Decisions that must be made right now will determine the course of future history, if there is to be any human history which is very much in doubt. There is a narrow window in which we must implement measures to avert cataclysmic destruction of the environment. Measures that are quite feasible, as shown in your invaluable work and that of others.
The facts are clear enough, they raise two questions. One of them immediate and compelling, the other probing more deeply, I’ll return to the latter after a few words on the immediate crisis which is severe.
The crisis is coming to a head in Washington, in the most powerful state in world history. What happens in Washington now will determine the fate of the world for reasons too obvious to review. What is happening right now in Washington should cause profound concern. It’s not secret. Some of it was exposed in the lead article in the New York Times last Sunday and, you probably saw it, it’s a fine report by energy environment correspondent Coral Davenport.
She reviews a long carefully executed campaign to destroy organized human life on earth. It’s an outrageous comment, for which I do not apologize, because it is completely accurate. The campaign has been carried out meticulously for years by the energy system. It’s an enormous institutional structure, consisting of course of the fossilfuel industries, banks, other financial institutions, a substantial part of the legal community and other centers of private and state power.
It also has an international base. It’s called NATO. It’s little known that post-cold war NATO formally undertook anexpanded mission, quoting it, “to guard pipelines that transport oil and gas that is directed for the west, and more generally to protect sea routes used by tankers and other crucial infrastructure of the energy system.” I’m quoting NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, outlining NATO’s mission at a NATO conference.
Well, the campaign has a political base in the republican party, particularly since 2009. The year before presidentialcandidate John McCain included a climate plan in his campaign program. It was insufficient given the gravity of the situation, but it was a start.
Republicans in congress were also exploring such options. The huge Koch brother’s energy conglomerate got wind of this and quickly went into action. For years they’d been working hard to ensure that the party never veered from climate denialism, and they weren’t going to tolerate this deviation. They launched a huge juggernaut: bribery, intimidation, an enormous lobbying campaign, fake citizens group, and all-out assault. The efforts were successful. You know the consequences. I don’t have to run through them.
With this in mind let’s return to Washington today and Davenport’s column, reviewing the long and carefully planned campaign of the energy system and its ramified associates, now reaching consummation. The supreme court, now properly reactionary, is about to consider a case which if approved will constitute a major steptowards preventing the government from enacting measures to restrict the use of fossil fuels or to limit the effects of environmental destruction.
If approved it will also serve as a precedent for others that are winding their way through the legal system, relyingon a variety of intricate artifices designed by the high-priced law firms that are making their own crucial contributions to the project of destroying organized life on earth.
The euphoria in the executive offices of the fossil fuel companies is matched only but what you see in the offices of the weapons producers.
We note again the extremism of this charge which is mitigated by the fact that its plain truth. [The] campaign has received the shot in the arm from the increase in gasoline prices, the major contributor to inflation, accelerated by Putin’s criminal invasion of Ukraine. The euphoria in the executive offices of the fossil fuel companies is matched only but what you see in the offices of the weapons producers. They no longer have to face the annoyance of fending off environmental activists. They’re now praised for pouring poisons into the atmosphere and urged to do more, accelerating the march to destruction.
In a sane world the reaction would be different. We would seize the opportunity to move much more rapidly to sustainable energy and save coming generations from a miserable fate. The temporary problem of inflation, severeindeed, can be overcome for those who are suffering from it by fiscal measures and more beyond.
So, options, for example, include turning the fossil fuel producers into a public utility. Economist Robert Pollin, who has done some of the main work on climate issues, has shown that the fossil fuel producers could literally bepurchased by the government for a fraction of the sums that the Treasury Department poured into compensating financial institutions for losses during the early stages of the pandemic.
Well, there are many options, and we’re not limited to those that cater to the existing energy system, and the grimfate that it is designing for the human species quite consciously with meticulous planning.
Now there’s a lot more to say about these topics, which I’m sure will be elaborated in many productive ways in the coming sessions. I’ll leave them here and just turn briefly to the deeper questions, questions about human nature, still more generally about higher intelligence.
Humans have unique talents, no comparison anywhere in the animal world. The two most salient of these are thought and language which are intimately linked as far back as classical Greece, classical India, two and a half millennia ago, it was recognized that language is what generates thought, and thought in a recognizable sense, is what is generated by language. These talents enable humans to reflect on what they’re doing to plan for the future, to evaluate the choices and decisions, to consider the likely consequences and how they rank on a moral scale.
One special feature of humans that we can and should contemplate, is their capacity for destruction. That was evident long before modern humans appeared two to three hundred thousand years ago. It’s a flick of an eye an evolutionary time.
Unless we can use our capacities for thought in an arena of rational discourse, there’s no hope of closing the dread gap in time to save ourselves.
One indication of the capacity of proto humans for destruction is the steady decline in the weight of mammals as the larger ones were eliminated by more talented killers. Of course, everything changed when modern humans appeared on the scene, though not at once. For most of their history, homo sapiens lived in harmony with nature, as those who survived the depredations of the powerful still do, precariously. The agricultural revolution ten thousand years ago brought changes. The industrial revolution of the past few hundred years even more so.
The question posed by this history, concerns a dread gap that obtains between our technical capacity to destroy, and our moral capacity to control this impulse.
That question burst into published consciousness on august 6, 1945, a date that no one my age is likely to forget; I certainly don’t. That day taught two stark lessons. First human capacity had reached the level where it could destroy everything. Not yet, but it soon would, and in fact it did a few years later in 1953 when the United States then the Soviet Union exploded thermonuclear weapons. The second lesson was that very few seemed to care.
I remember then vividly the horrible news was announced. There was relief that the awful war was over, then everyone went back to their business. The dread gap was immense.
It was not known then, but the same years marked a sharp acceleration in human destruction of the environment. So sharp that the world geological organization a few years ago identified those years as the onset of a new geological epoch called the Anthropocene that opens a new gap a new phase in the dread gap between technical capacity to destroy, and moral capacity to control this impulse.
The immensity of the gap is revealed greatly by the recent exposure of the intense campaign by core institutions of our society to destroy organized human life on earth, and with it the millions of other species that we are wantonly destroying in the ongoing sixth extinction.
You’re all of course familiar with the famous doomsday clock. Set every year by a distinguished panel of analysts who assess the state of the world, set the hands of the clock a certain distance from midnight, meaning termination.
The clock was first set in 1947, seven minutes to midnight. In 1953, when humans had demonstrated the capacityto destroy everything, the minute hand was set at two minutes to midnight. Since then it’s oscillated.
As recognition of the threat grew, analysts began to take global warming into account.
Midway into president Trump’s term in office, the minute hand was again set at two minutes to midnight for the first time since 1953. By the end of his term the analysts abandoned minutes turned to seconds.
100 seconds to midnight where the clock stands now.
The clock will be set again in January. A good case can be made that the second hand should be moved closer to midnight. The primary concerns have been the growing threat of nuclear war and the failure to prevent lethal global heating.
In the last few years, a new concern has been added. The deterioration of the arena of rational discourse, which isall too apparent. Unless we can use our capacities for thought in an arena of rational discourse, there’s no hope of closing the dread gap in time to save ourselves.
There is a still deeper question which merits a final word. It concerns the famous Fermi paradox. In brief, “where are they?” Fermi was a distinguished astrophysicist. He knew that there are a huge number of planets that have the conditions to sustain life to lead to higher intelligence, and that are within the reach of advanced human communication. But with the most assiduous search we can find no trace of their existence. So where are they?
Well, one response that has been seriously proposed, and cannot be dismissed, is that higher intelligence has developed innumerable times but has proven to be lethal. It discovered the means for self- annihilation but did not develop the moral capacity to prevent it. Perhaps that’s even an inherent feature of what we call higher intelligence.
One way or another we will determine the answer, or more accurately you will determine the answer.
We are now engaged in an experiment to determine whether this grim principle holds of modern humans. There’s not much time to find the answer – or more precisely to determine the answer – as we will do one way or another. That cannot be avoided. One way or another we will determine the answer, or more accurately you will determine the answer.
Like it or not, fate has placed the current generation in a position will where it will determine whether we march on to disaster, or whether the human species and much other life on earth can be saved from a terrible, indescribable fate. The means are available. You’re in the lead in developing them and demonstrating how they can be implemented. It’s an incredible challenge. There’s been nothing like it in human history, which will proceed to an inglorious end unless you can lead the way to facing and overcoming the challenges that lie before us.
Noam Chomsky (93) is an American linguist, philosopher and social critic. Often quoted as the world’s leading public intellectual, his views and analysis have been influential for the critical left and through the last decade he has increasingly engaged with climate change issues, as in his 2020 book Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal – The Political Economy of Saving the Planet (With Robert Pollin). Chomsky has written more than 100 books, and he is one of the most cited scholars in modern history.
Great thanks to Noam Chomsky for the permission to publish this speech, and to our editor Anders Dunker for the transcript.