This is an edited transcript of Noam Chomsky's presentation to a 600-person audience at the Old South Church, just before the fateful 2016 elections.
Extinction and internationalism have been linked in a fateful embrace ever since the moment when the threat of extinction became all too realistic a concern, August 6, 1945. It's a day that will never be forgotten by those who were alive then, had their eyes open, a day I personally remember very well.
On that day we learned that human intelligence had devised the means to bring the human experiment of 200,000 years to an end. It was never seriously in doubt from the first moment that the capacity to destroy would escalate, and it would diffuse to other hands, increasing the threat of self-annihilation.
In the years that followed, the record of near misses is appalling, sometimes from accident and error, a few shocking cases from recklessness. And the threat is growing right now, ominously. A review of the record reveals clearly that escape from catastrophe for 70 years has been a near miracle, and such miracles cannot be trusted to perpetuate.
On that grim day in August 1945, humanity entered into a new era, the nuclear age. It's one that's unlikely to last long. Either we will bring it to an end, or it's likely to bring us to an end.
It was evident at once that any hope of containing the demon would require international cooperation. By the fall of 1945, a book calling for a world federal government reached the top of the bestseller lists, written by Winston Churchill's literary agent, Emery Reaves.
Albert Einstein was only one of those who reacted at once by calling for world government as what he called the political answer to the shattering events of August 1945, recognized to be a turning point in human history, perhaps the opening of its final stage.
Hopes that the United Nations might begin to fulfill that function were quickly dashed, it's an important topic in itself, no time to go into it here. It was not understood at the time, but a second and no less critical new era was beginning at the same time, a new geological epoch, by now called the Anthropocene. It's an epoch defined by extreme human impact on the environment.
By now, it's understood that we're well into this new epoch, but there has been disagreement among scientists about just when changes became so extreme as to signal the onset of the Anthropocene.
A few months ago the official working group on the Anthropocene, the official geological group that works on it, reached a conclusion on the onset of the epoch. They recommended to the International Geological Congress that the dawn of the Anthropocene should be given the same date, end of World War II.
So according to their analysis, then, the Anthropocene and the nuclear age coincide. It's a dual threat to the perpetuation of organized human life. Both threats are severe and imminent.
It's widely recognized that we have entered the period of the sixth mass extinction. The fifth extinction, 66 million years ago, is generally attributed to an asteroid, huge asteroid, that hit the earth, destroying 75% of the species on Earth, it ended the age of the dinosaurs, opened a way for the rise of small mammals, ultimately humans, about 200,000 years ago.
And it hasn't taken us long to bring about the sixth extinction, which is expected to be similar in scale to the earlier ones, though differing in an instructive way. In the mass extinctions that long predated humans, body size was not correlated with extinction. It was kind of an equal opportunity killer, independent of your body size.
But in the human-generated sixth extinction, which is now underway, larger animals are being killed disproportionately, and that actually extends a record that traces back to our earlier protohuman ancestors. They were a predatory species that caused significant harm to large organisms, wiped many of them out, with ourselves not too far in the distance.
The human capacity to destroy one another on a massive scale has not been in doubt for a long time. It reached a hideous peak in the past century. The working group on the Anthropocene reaffirms the conclusion that climate warming CO2 emissions are increasing in the atmosphere at the fastest rate for 66 million years.
They cite a report last July that particles of CO2 reached over 400 per million, and that the level is rising at a rate unprecedented in the geological record. Subsequent studies reveal that that figure was not a fluctuation, it appears to be permanent, a base for further growth, and that figure of 400 ppm has been regarded as a critical danger point. It's perilously close to the estimated level of stability of the huge Antarctic ice sheet, and collapse of the ice sheet would have catastrophic consequences for sea level. These processes are already underway quite ominously in the arctic regions.
And the broader picture is no less ominous. Practically every month breaks new temperature records, huge droughts are threatening survival for hundreds of millions of people, and they're also factors in some of the most horrendous conflicts in Darfur and now Syria. Some 25 million people are displaced by disasters such as floods and storms every year. That's a predicted effect of global warming. That's one person every second, considerably more than those fleeing from war and terror.
The numbers are bound to increase as sea levels rise, glaciers melt, threatening water supplies for vast numbers of people, the melting of the Himalayan glaciers may eliminate the water supply for south Asia, several billion people.
In Bangladesh alone, tens of millions are expected to flee in the coming decades simply because of sea level rise. It's a flat coastal plain. That's a refugee crisis that'll make today's pale into insignificance, and it's barely the beginning.
With some justice, Bangladesh's leading climate scientists said recently that these migrants should have the right to move to the countries from which all these greenhouse gases are coming. Millions should be able to go to the United States, which raises a moral issue here of no slight triviality.
Well, I won't take time to review the larger record, I presume most of you are pretty familiar with it. But it should be deeply alarming to anyone concerned with the fate of the species, and the other species that we are destroying with abandon. And it's not in the far future, it's happening right now, it's going to escalate sharply.
It's always been evident that any effective measures to contain the threat of environmental catastrophe would have to be global in scope.
International efforts to avert catastrophe have culminated so far in the Paris negotiations last December, Cop 21. They've just gone into force a couple of weeks ago. The date has been accelerated by concern that a Republican victory might dismantle what has been achieved, not very much, but something.
And in fact Republican denialism has already had a significant impact. It was hoped that the Paris negotiations would lead to a verifiable treaty. But that hope was abandoned because the Republican Congress would not accept any binding commitments. So what emerged was a voluntary agreement, evidently much weaker.
Just a couple of days ago a very significant agreement was reached to phase down the use of hydrofluorocarbons, HFCs, super-polluting greenhouse gases. It's delayed for a time for India and Pakistan, where increasing heat and awful poverty make cheap air conditioners, which use HFCs, a desperate necessity.
The right response is evident. The rich countries should provide subsidies to accelerate the provision of non-HFC devices, the kind we use. But nothing like that seems to have been proposed, and if it were its fate would probably have been the same as that of a verifiable treaty.
We might stop for a moment to ponder a most extraordinary fact. A major political organization in the most powerful country in world history is quite literally dedicated to the destruction of much of life on Earth, and in every possible way accelerating the race to disaster. So when you consider the stakes, it's a fair question whether there's ever been a more dangerous organization in human history than today's Republican party. It's a fair question, and I think the answer is pretty clear.
In the past few years, there's been extensive euphoric coverage of the prospects for energy independence, 100 years of energy independence, with occasional comments on the local impact of fracking, but scarcely a word pointing out that the euphoria amounts to an enthusiastic call for the sixth extinction to swallow us up as well. Similarly, the growing threat of nuclear disaster, which is real and severe, barely elicits a comment.
The two most important issues in all of human history, on which the fate of the species depends, are virtually missing from the extensive commentary on the choice of leader for the most powerful country in world history, and from the electoral extravaganza itself. It's not easy to find words to capture the enormity of this extraordinary blindness.
Perhaps words like these, “Lamenting the daring depravity of the times, as the stock-jobbers will become the praetorian band of the government, at once its tools and its tyrant; bribed by its largesses, overawing it by clamors and combinations.” As you can tell from the prose style, that's not today, it's James Madison wondering about the fate of the new democratic experiment. And not a bad description of the state it's reached 225 years later.
From the dawn of the nuclear age, there have been halting steps towards an international response that could contain the threat of nuclear war, or better maybe terminate the threat by eliminating these monstrous devices. One major step was the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1969. In that treaty the five nuclear states committed themselves to what were called good faith efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons, and other signers pledged not to develop them.
Three states with nuclear weapons have refused to sign: India, Pakistan, Israel. All three have benefited in their nuclear weapons programs from U.S. support. Pakistan during the Reagan years, India under Bush, Israel ever since a secret understanding which quickly become public between president Nixon and Israeli prime minister Golda Meir in 1969.
That's bad enough, but it could have been worse. In the 1970s, Henry Kissinger, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, other notables, were urging U.S. universities, primarily my own, MIT, to aid Iran's nuclear programs. At the same time, high Iranian officials all the way up to the Shah were declaring quite openly that their goal was to develop nuclear weapons. But that didn't impede the efforts.
Right after the Iraq war, the first George Bush, as part of his program of coddling his close friend Saddam Hussein, went as far as inviting Iraqi nuclear engineers to the United States for advanced training in weapons production. That was 1989. All of this is better forgotten, we don't hear anything about it.
Another international effort to contain the threat has been the establishment of nuclear weapons-free zones. There is one in the western hemisphere, there are others in Africa and in the Pacific. They're almost operative, but not quite. They're still blocked by U.S. refusal to relinquish nuclear weapons in Diego Garcia and the Pacific islands.
The most important case by far would be in the Middle East, that's an initiative that's been led by the Arab states for over 20 years, and right now is spearheaded by Iran. It would be the obvious way to eliminate any threat anyone believes might come from an Iranian nuclear weapons program, and strikingly Iran is in the lead in the efforts to institute a verifiable nuclear weapons-free zone.
The United States and Britain have a unique commitment to this initiative. When they were attempting to concoct some kind of pretext for invading Iraq, they appealed to a 1991 security council resolution which banned nuclear weapons in the Middle East. Ignored was the fact that the resolution explicitly commits the United States and Britain to work for a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East. The efforts to carry this proposal forward have been regularly blocked by Washington, transparently in an effort to prevent Israel's nuclear arsenal from inspection.
Apart from its significance in itself, the failure to move forward on a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East imperils the non-proliferation treaty, which is the most important of all arms control treaties. It has been indefinitely extended, but that indefinite extension is conditioned on pledges to establish a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. But protecting Israel's nuclear arsenal from inspection is evidently a high enough priority so it justifies a threat to the major arms control treaty. Other facts that unfortunately are not being discussed.
Well, the goal of abolishing nuclear weapons is not a utopian dream. It's in fact been forcefully advocated by quite mainstream establishment figures, among them Ronald Reagan's Secretary of State, George Schultz, former senator Sam Nunn, who was the senator's leading specialist on nuclear weapons for many years, Henry Kissinger, William Perry, who's one of the most respected analysts, former Secretary of Defense, a long experience at what he calls the nuclear brink.
These four were the four signers of an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal which called for elimination, total elimination, of the scourge of nuclear weapons. Another highly respected nuclear securities expert, Bruce Blair, has formed a new organization called Global Zero which calls for an international treaty banning nuclear weapons.
The International Court of Justice, World Court, came pretty close to this stand in a historic 1996 advisory opinion on the legality of possessing of the threat or use of nuclear weapons. The United Nations is considering a resolution to launch negotiations on, read the wording, “a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons leading towards their total elimination.”
The resolution is sponsored by Austria, Brazil, Ireland, Mexico, Nigeria, South Africa, it's expected to gain the support of more than 120 states. But without large-scale public support, and that's where your responsibility comes in, without that support it'll pass into oblivion just like other lost opportunities.
The same holds for the steps that should be taken right now to reduce the international tensions that are escalating the threat of nuclear war to quite dangerous dimensions. This growing threat has elicited considerable alarm in national security circles. William Perry, again, one of the most respected analysts, has warned in his words that “we are facing nuclear dangers today that are in fact more likely to erupt into a nuclear conflict than during the Cold War.”
Perry is far from alone. Every year a group of experts, organized by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, updates the Doomsday clock that was established in 1947 at the dawn of the nuclear age. Midnight means terminal disaster for everyone. Two years ago they moved the clock three minutes closer to midnight, two minutes closer to midnight, to three minutes to midnight where it remains. That's the closest it's been since the early 1980s when there was a very serious war scare. It's an event that should be better known and understood.
At that time, the Reagan administration launched an operation, Operation Able Archer if you wanna look it up. The operation was designed to probe Russian defenses by simulating attacks, including nuclear attacks. This happened to be at a time of great international tensions. Right then advanced missiles, Pershing II missiles, were being placed in Europe, in fact in Germany, with a couple of minutes, 10 minutes flight time to Russian territory. There were other rising tensions at the time.
Well, a couple years ago some Russian archives were declassified, and it was learned that the Russians took Able Archer very seriously. There has been uncertainty, however, about just what was understood in Washington. The CIA had claimed that the Russians didn't pay any attention, they knew it was just an exercise.
However, newly declassified documents just released have revealed that Washington understood right away that Able Archer was bringing the world to the verge of terminal war, and they also, these newly declassified, reveal that U.S. intelligence determined that the Russians were mobilizing forces, as they put it, to an unusual level of alert.
According to protocol, that meant that the United States should have reacted in kind. One high U.S. Air Force officer, Leonard Perroots, decided on his own not to follow prescribe procedures, and to do nothing, just to forget it, very likely averting a terminal nuclear war.
We already knew that shortly after this Russian automated systems detected an apparent massive U.S. nuclear attack. The officer in charge, Stanislav Petrov, also decided to do nothing instead of transmitting the information to a higher level, possibly triggering a massive nuclear strike. These two gentlemen, Leonard Perroots and Stanislav Petrov belong on the honor roll of people who've on their own blocked terminal nuclear war.
They join Vasili Arkhipov, a Russian submarine commander who, in 1962, at the dangerous moment of the Cuban missile crisis, decided, again on his own, to countermand an order from Russian submarines which were under attack, countermand an order to send off nuclear-tipped torpedoes, which again, very likely would have escalated into terminal war. It's on such decisions that the fate of civilization has relied all too frequently in the nuclear age, and it cannot go on.
Today, the Doomsday Clock has been moved to three minutes to midnight, just as during the time of Able Archer. The reasons given by the group of experts were the growing threat of nuclear war, and also for the first time the failure of governments to deal in a serious way with the impending environmental crisis, the two major threats to survival that initiated the new era immediately after World War II.
The primary nuclear threat today is at the Russian border. Both sides are engaged in dangerous military buildups, carrying out highly provocative acts, and also expanding sharply their military arsenals. On the U.S. side, one element is President Obama's proposal for a trillion-dollar upgrading of the nuclear weapons system that includes new nuclear weapons, cruise missiles, nuclear-tipped, that are recognized to be particularly dangerous because they can be scaled down to tactical battlefield use, which means a high officer on the ground would be tempted to use them, something that could quickly escalate to full-scale nuclear war.
To Hillary Clinton's credit, in a secret conversation that was leaked, she raised questions about whether this should be continued, and again popular pressure can make a big difference. Also highly provocative is an 800 million dollar missile defense system that Washington has recently installed in Romania, allegedly in defense against nonexistent Iranian missiles. It's of course, in Russia obviously, and it's recognized on all sides, that what's called missile defense insofar as it works at all, it's basically a first strike weapon might conceivably impede a retaliatory strike. The remaining installation is highly threatening to Russia. We'd, of course, never tolerate anything remotely similar anywhere near our borders.
The threat of war on the Russian border is in part, in large part, an outgrowth of NATO expansion since the collapse of the Soviet Union 25 years ago. That expansion ought to elicit a good deal more thought and discussion than it actually does. This was during the administration of the first President Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker, and in Russia, Mikhail Gorbachev. You look back at that time, the two sides had conflicting visions of the world order that should arise with the disappearance of the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev called for a dismantling of all military alliances. Of course, the Warsaw Pact disappeared, to be replaced by a unified Eurasian security system, integrating the former Soviet Union and western Europe. That was Gorbachev's vision, but Bush and Baker had a different plan. NATO would expand while the Soviet system collapsed. That's what happened.
The immediate issue was joined over the fate of Germany, for obvious reasons. Gorbachev agreed to German unification, even German exception to NATO, a hostile military alliance, which is a pretty remarkable concession in the light of recent history, just in the past century, Germany alone had practically destroyed Russia several times. There was, however, a quid pro quo, namely, "NATO would not expand one inch to the east," it was the phrase that was used. That meant East Germany. Bush and Baker agreed that compromise, but only verbally. It was a gentleman's agreement. It was not in writing. NATO immediately expanded to East Germany, but Bush and Baker correctly stated that they were not violating a written pledge, just a gentleman's agreement.
There's a rich and interesting scholarly literature which has been trying to determine just what happened during that period. There were some crucial open questions, like exactly what Bush and Baker had in mind? These questions have been pretty persuasively answered in an important way, in a recent issue a couple of months ago, of the MIT-Harvard Journal, International Security, article by Joshua Itzkowitz Shifrinson. He did extensive new archival studies, and these reveal quite persuasively that the Bush/Baker verbal commitments to Gorbachev were quite explicitly designed to mislead Gorbachev while US dominance extended to the east.
It's an important discovery, shouldn't be hidden in a scholarly journal. That was only the first step. Under Clinton, NATO expanded further to the east, right to the Russian border in 2008, and again in 2013 under Obama. NATO even offered membership to Ukraine, which is the Russian geopolitical heartland with long historical cultural relations with Russia, a highly provocative move. George Kennan and other senior statesmen had warned early on, right at the beginning, that NATO enlargement was, as Kennan put it, "A tragic mistake, a policy error of historic proportions."
We're now seeing the results. It's contributing to rising tensions on the Russian border. That's their traditional invasion route through which Russia was virtually destroyed twice in the past century by Germany alone. The risk of terminal war is not slight. Well, reflecting on these matters, a European historian, Richard Sakwa rates that NATO's mission today is to manage the risks created by its existence, which is in fact correct. Meanwhile, NATO's official mission has been extended well beyond the official mission, is to control the global energy system, the pipelines, sea lanes, and unofficially, to serve as an intervention force under US command, as we've seen.
The fate of NATO shines a bright light on the real nature of the Cold War and its doctrinal basis. NATO of course had been presented as necessary to hold off the Russian hordes. We heard that for 50 years. 1991, no more Russian hordes, so what happens to NATO? Actually, what happens provides no slight insight into what was the actual operative policy for the years before. Actually, it supports an observation by a Harvard professor, government advisor, Samuel Huntington, 10 years earlier, in 1981, in his words, "You may have to sell intervention or other military action in such a way as to create the misimpression that it is the Soviet Union that you're fighting."
That's what the United States has done ever since the Truman doctrine at 1947. As the clouds lifted in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, further evidence that bolster this conclusion came. But again, it's kind of hidden from the public, though in fact, in the public domain. The Bush administration, first Bush administration then in office, of course immediately, developed the new national security strategy and new defense budget. It was interesting reading. They said that the huge military system must remain in place and not to protect ourselves against the Russians, but because of what they called the technological sophistication of Third World powers.
If you're a well disciplined intellectual, you don't laugh when you read those words. They also insisted that it'd be necessary to maintain what's called the defense industrial base. That means the government supported system of intervention in the economy through places like MIT and others, which creates the high tech economy of the future. Quite interestingly, they referred also to the Middle East where they said we must maintain intervention forces aimed at the Middle East. Then came this interesting phrase, " In the Middle East, where the major problems that we faced could not have been laid at the Kremlin's door."
Contrary to many decades of lying. All of that past, as usual, without comment. As the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Samuel Huntington pursuing his earlier logic, warned the Gorbachev's public relations may be as much a threat to American interests in Europe as were Brezhnev's tanks, and the threat of Gorbachev's peace offers was indeed overcome in the manner just reviewed, and we're now facing the consequences.
Humans are now facing the most critical questions that have ever arisen in their history. Questions that cannot be avoided or deferred, if there's to be any hope of preserving, let alone enhancing, organized human life on earth. We surely cannot expect systems of organized power, state or private systems, to take appropriate actions to address these crises, not unless they're compelled to do so by constant, dedicated, popular mobilization and activism. A major task as always, is education, given a couple of examples, reform, important ones, I think, and there are plenty of others.
Efforts to develop a public awareness and concern about the nature and the enormity of the problems we face and what their roots are including in our own decisions. And there's a companion test, the usual one, to confront the issues themselves that can take many forms, can draw from, contribute to, the success of critical educational initiatives. Our own country is of course the most important case, for one reason because of its unique power and influence, and also for the simple reason that it's our own. It's here that what we do can be most influential, and popular activism can be highly influential. We've seen that over and over.
Activist engagement for 40 years has placed environmental concerns on the agenda of policy makers and not yet sufficiently, but nevertheless, in crucial and significant ways. The huge popular mobilization opposing nuclear weapons development in the early 1980s was a major factor in terminating the huge threats that arose at that time, actually paving the way for significant if, again only partial, steps towards reducing the major, the enormous dangers that they pose. There are many other illustrations of what can be achieved by dedicated efforts to educate, to organize, and to act in ways that are based on public understanding, public commitment, on the basis of what has been achieved and actions that contribute to deepening and extending it.
Also, many illustrations of how the impact of popular movements can be magnified if they find ways to unify, to integrate, their commitments which share common goals of peace and justice. There are, to be sure, difficult barriers to overcome. There are powerful pressures that drive today's crucial issues to the margins of concern and discussion, and determine also their enormous impact on global society. There are also cultural and the socio-political problems of considerable significance.
It's important to bear in mind that although the United States has been the richest country in the world for a long time, way back into the 19th century, it has always been a kind of cultural backwater. That was true up until World War Two. Of course, that changed dramatically in the post-war world, but much of the population remains where it was, culturally traditional, pre-modern in many respects.
For example, for 40% of the US population, these crucial issues of species survival, are of very little moment because Christ is returning to earth and within a couple of decades, and it will all be settled. Only that's 40% of the population. Two thirds of Americans believe that global warming is happening, far fewer think that it's caused by human activities. Only 40% are aware that, in the words of the polls, most scientists think global warming is happening and probably many fewer are aware that it's not most scientists, but an overwhelming consensus.
Unfortunately, if you look at the polls over the past 10 or 15 years, awareness is not improving. On the rising threat of nuclear war, and the reasons for it, on the consequences of resort to nuclear weapons, the available information about public opinion is not at all encouraging. Meanwhile, for the victims of the neo-liberal assault of the past generation, the short-term problems of just getting by displace fundamental questions about the fate of their children and grandchildren. The tasks ahead are daunting and they cannot be deferred.