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Downsize or Modify? A Conversation with Noam Chomsky

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While Noam Chomsky surely needs no introduction, as they say, that doesn't mean interviewing him has to follow a blueprint. So, after seeing him in a video called "Are We Running Out of Oil?" I decided to initiate a conversation about the future"or perhaps lack thereof.

 

What will happen if activists don't kick things up a few thousands notches and provoke massive changes in the way humans currently live? Chomsky and I, of course, agree it'd be best to create such change and learn the answer to that question. On a few other points, we didn't agree.

 

Our discussion went something like this:

 

Mickey Z.: I recently watched a video on climate change in which you were one of the featured interviewees. You talked quite somberly about the recent elections being a "death knell" for humanity and us "kissing our species goodbye." I've read your work for decades but can't seem to recall you using such language in this context. In your view, have we humans waited too long to take action? Do you believe we can/should downsize our industrial culture before it downsizes itself?

 

Noam Chomsky: If I said the elections are a death knell, I went too far. But I think it's fair to say that they do threaten that outcome. Even the business press is concerned. Bloomberg Business Week reported that the elections brought into office dozens of climate change deniers, swelling support for Senator James Inhofe, who has declared global warming to be the "greatest hoax ever perpetuated on the American people" and feels "vindicated" by the election. He probably is also celebrating the ascendance of representative John Shimkus who assures us that God would prevent dire effects of climate change; analogues would be hard to find in other societies. And probably is also celebrating the fact that according to recent polls, barely a third of Americans now believe that human activities are a factor in climate change -" very likely the result of a major corporate propaganda offensive, openly announced, to achieve this result. It's important to bear in mind that those who orchestrate the campaigns know as well as the rest of us that the "hoax" is real and ominous, but they are pursuing their institutional role: maximizing short-term profit and putting aside "externalities," in this case the fate of the species. Modifying the core institutions of the society is no small challenge. This confluence of factors should serve as a grim warning. If the US continues to drag its feet on addressing these grave problems, the rest of the world will have even less incentive to proceed with serious measures. I don't think that entails downsizing industrial culture. Rather, converting it to sustainable form to serve human needs, not private profit. For example high speed rail and solar technology do not downsize industrial culture.

 

MZ: When I say "downsizing industrial culture," I'm suggesting that any lifestyle based on relentless resource extraction is by definition, un-sustainable. So, I would counter that "serving human needs" is partly what got us in this mess in the first place. Considering that 80% of the forests have been destroyed and 90% of large fish in the ocean are already gone, maybe we need a more holistic perspective on "needs"?

 

NC: I'd still give the same answer. Human needs are served by a sustainable lifestyle, almost by definition, if humans include coming generations. And a shift to such technologies as high-speed rail instead of maximizing fossil fuel use, and solar energy, is not "relentless resource extraction."

 

MZ: I guess what I mean is what about non-human needs? We can't survive without a functioning eco-system and most of the accepted suggestions--recycled goods, CFL bulbs, etc.--are way too little, way too late. As someone who has surveyed the shifting tides of human culture, can you foresee Americans stepping up to make the kind of changes and sacrifices required to ensure "coming generations"?

 

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Mickey Z. can be found on the Web at http://www.mickeyz.net.

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