The Challenge is Unique in Human History:
This World Is Hurtling Toward Self-Annihilation
Noam Chomsky’s Address to the 2022 World Social Forum / Campaign for Peace, Disarmament & Common Security
(April 29, 2022) — It was my great pleasure and privilege to have been able to take part in the early meetings of the World Social Forum 20 years ago. Memorable, exciting occasions and much the same to be with you today if only virtually to my great regret.
Well, the years pass and the issues remain, just becoming more urgent more unavoidable. For 20 years, the motto of the World Social Forum has been “another world is possible.” That remains true, cannot be forgotten, but as we meet today that question is overshadowed by another one: is this world possible? and the answer is, No, this world is not possible.
This world is hurtling to self-annihilation and only creation of another world can reverse this course. Luckily, another world is still possible though the chances of achieving it are diminishing at an ominous rate. This world has been on a slow course towards self-annihilation for a long time. But there have been inflection points where the course of the destruction was accelerated.
One of them is a day that has been indelibly etched into my own memory also others too of my generation. August 6, 1945. On that day I happened to be at a summer camp where I was a counselor. In the morning, the loudspeaker announced that the United states had destroyed Hiroshima with an atomic bomb. There was some cheering and everyone went off happily to their next activity. Swimming, baseball, whatever it might be.
A littler later I was able to pick up some newspapers and found that the general reaction was much the same. Cheering that the war was over and then on to the next activity. This carried a double lesson. One lesson was that human intelligence in its glory had devised means for self-annihilation. The second lesson is that human intelligence had not developed the moral capacity to comprehend what it is doing and to control its death wish.
To be precise, it’s not just annihilation of our own species. We are also bringing down much of life with us. Beetles and bacteria should do all right. And there’s a further qualification: human intelligence had not yet reached that far but it was apparent that it soon would and it did in 1953 when the US and then the Soviet Union exploded thermonuclear weapons. The capacity to destroy everything. Great achievement. Putting these qualifications aside, let’s go back to the essential lesson. Human technical and scientific intelligence vastly outstripped human moral intelligence. The capacity to destroy is not matched by the ability to understand what we are doing and to change course. Those who see the stark resemblance to today are not mistaken.
There were some who did understand what we were doing and the need to change course. Among them were the scientists who established the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and the famous Doomsday Clock with the hand set a certain distance from midnight. Midnight means termination of the human experiment on earth. The clock provides a kind of measure of the gap between technical and moral intelligence. The clock was first set in 1947, seven minutes to midnight. In 1953, with the explosion of hydrogen bombs, the minute hand was moved forward to two minutes to midnight. Since then it’s oscillated, reflecting analyses of the world situation. It did not reach two minutes again until the Trump years. In his last year in office, the analysts abandoned the minutes and switched to seconds.
100 seconds to midnight. That’s where the clock stands now. Next January it’ll be set again and it wouldn’t surprise me if it moves closer to extermination.
In 1945 it was not known that another inflection point was coming: poisoning of the atmosphere and a new geological epoch, what geologists call the Anthropocene, an epic in which human activity radically influences the global climate and not to its benefit. I’ll add another personal anecdote. I learned how serious this was 50 years ago when in one single week I received some calls from two friends. One was the chair of Earth Sciences at Harvard and the other was the head of Meteorology at MIT. Both of them informed me of new evidence that had just appeared that CO2 levels in the atmosphere were sharply accelerating and that we were heading towards catastrophe.
Well, as we all now know, the dread news was also well known to the executives of the fossil fuel companies. Their scientists in fact were in the lead in researching these matters and exposing the grim consequences. The response of the executives was to accelerate the destruction and to kill any threat that the population might understand their grim fate.
Some of these steps towards annihilation are not as well known as they should be. They’re instructive. One important case is what happened to the Republican Party which will soon be taking power in the United States , so it appears. Perhaps virtually permanent power if its quite open efforts to undermine American democracy succeeds. The party is 100 percent denialist. A matter of extraordinary significance. This was not always the case and the transition tells us something about the institutions that humans have constructed and about the challenges they pose to survival.
Let’s go back to 2008. Election year. The Republican candidate for President was John McCain. He had a climate plank in his program. Not very much, but something. Republican legislators were also beginning to consider similar efforts. Well as soon as the huge Koch brothers energy conglomerate go wind of this they leaped into action.
For years they had been working hard to ensure that Republicans fully supported free use of fossil fuels and they were not going to tolerate this deviation from subordination to their interests. They launched a huge juggernaut bribery of Congress, threats, massive lobbying, fake citizens groups. No stone left unturned.
In no time, all Republican leaders capitulated in the last Republican primary, that’s 2016. Every candidate either denied global warming was happening or said maybe it is but we’re not going to do anything about it. The victor, Donald Trump went all out in maximizing the use of fossil fuels, including the most destructive of them and dismantling regulations that might protect the environment. Of course he also pulled out of the international effort to address the crisis. Donald Trump owns the party. which is very likely coming back to total control of the government. This is not Andorra. This is the government of the most powerful country in human history and that’s not a joke for our sad world.
Well, one effect of the treachery of leadership is that among Republics and those who lean Republican, only 20 percent regard global warming as a top priority. It’s only the most critical problem that humans have ever faced.
Along with nuclear war. So why pay attention to our leaders and what their media echo chamber tell us? Actually, global warming has been factored into the setting of the Doomsday Clock in recent years, along with a third factor, the deterioration of the domain of rational discourse, which offers the only hope for escape from catastrophe.
The example of the fossil fuel companies may be misleading. They’re simply following normal capitalist principles, principles that Adam Smith described 250 years ago. What he pointed out is that the masters of mankind, he meant the merchants and manufactures of England, the masters of mankind have always followed the vile maxim: all for ourselves and nothing for anyone else.
Adam Smith.  The masters do not pursue the maxim because they are particularly evil. It’s an institutional imperative. Those who don’t adopt the maxim are displaced by those who do. That’s the essence of the unregulated market which is a death warrant for the human species. And also for the collateral damage among the rest of life on earth.
Uncontrolled markets are a death warrant for others reasons. They were discussed over a century ago by the great political economist, Thorstein Veblen. He pointed out that success in the market requires fabricating wants, stimulating the consumerism that is destroying the planet and in fact destroying decent lives. One can think of better ways to spend one’s time than fuming with irritation in an endless traffic jam. Huge industries are devoted to inducing us to adopt such a lifestyle. Not the better world that is possible with institutions that are devoted to human need rather than to private profit and destruction of the environment that sustains life.
So here we are. Contemplating human intelligence. It has contrived effective means of self-annihilation. It’s constantly toying with their use right now in fact. It’s also devised social institutions that are a death warrant and it has so far failed to close the yawning gap between the capacity to destroy and the capacity to create that other world that is possible. And that’s where the World Social Forum comes into the picture. Its task is to close that gap. We know what must be done.
We know how to rid the world of nuclear weapons. At the very least to reconstruct the arms regime that the Republican Party has been dismantling for 20 years. And to carry this regime forward towards elimination of this scourge. We know how to do that. There are also detailed, quite feasible proposals as to how to overcome the climate crisis and to move on to a much better life.
There’s even a resolution in congress, the U.S. Congress, sponsored by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a young representative who was swept into office on the Bernie Sanders wave, joined by Ed Markey, a senior Senator, with a long record of concern about destruction of the environment. The resolution is worth reading. It spells out in extensive detail a sensible and feasible approach to ending the crisis and opening the way to a much more livable world.
It’s not the only such program. You can read them on the International Energy Agency, which is based on the energy corporations, because several economists, including my colleague, Robert Holland, have worked out detailed proposals, all pretty much similar. They can be implemented. Right now, in congress. It’s just a resolution and with enough intense popular effort could
become legislation and be enacted. Same is true in other countries. The window of opportunity is brief and closing but is still there.
Changing lethal social institutions is a greater challenge but it’s also one that can be met with dedicated effort. So we know how, but can it be achieved? The answer is in your hands and the hands of others like you.
We might place this question in a broader context. You are all I presume familiar with the physicist Enrico Fermi’s famous paradox. In brief, he’s a distinguished astrophysicist who knew that there were a huge number of planets within the reach of potential contact that have the conditions to sustain life and higher intelligence. 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 indeed developed innumerable times but it is proven to be lethal. It discovered the means for self-annihilation but did not develop the moral capacity to prevent it.
That’s a possibility that certainly cannot be ignored. Well, right now maybe it’s even an inherent property of what we call higher intelligence. We’re now engaged in an experiment to determine whether this grim principle holds of modern humans. We’re a recent arrival on earth, two or three hundred thousandbs years ago. It’s a flick of an eye in evolutionary time. There’s not much time to find the answer. More precisely to determine the answer.
To determine the answer is something we will do, one way or the other. No other possibility. The challenge is unique in human history. It will be met now or we are doomed, not to die all at once, but doomed to a world in which those who do die will be the lucky ones. The solutions are there. Waiting for us. Waiting for us to close the gap between our capacity to destroy and our will to create the better world that is possible. Thai’s the challenge. We cannot avoid it.
1. Smith, Adam, The Wealth of Nations. “The selfishness and avarice of the masters—All for ourselves and nothing for other people—seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind. As soon, therefore, as they could find a method of consuming the whole value of their rents themselves, they had no disposition to share them with any other persons.” (Book III, Chapter IV)
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