Last Thursday, at an event organized by Tufts University and new Somerville-based “social impact accelerator” Canopy, Dr. Noam Chomsky, professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and prominent political critic and social activist, did not mince words about the increasingly plausible threats of climate change and nuclear war and the role of Western leaders and nations in exacerbating those threats. The talk, titled “The Role of Innovation in International Peace and Security,” was held to benefit Massachusetts Peace Action.
Canopy, the organizing group, grew out of the Somerville branch of London-based company TechHub, that, according to its website, offers tech startup companies affordable offices in any of their “co-working spaces” in cities around the world, so that firms can work alongside one another and exchange ideas.
Canopy will focus on providing that affordable space to nonprofits and social impact groups that might not necessarily fit the tech mold. In a Jan. 28 BostInno article, Canopy co-founders Matt Hoey and Simon Towers said they eventually want to bring tech firms and nonprofits together in the same space to learn from one another.
At the start of the Thursday event, Hoey introduced Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone, who gave opening remarks about Somerville’s commitment to social change before introducing Keynote Speaker Dr. Chomsky.
“Somerville will be the first city in North America to develop its own social progress index,” Curtatone said. “We need our stakeholders and allies in the nonprofit world especially along with the innovators to help us understand how we achieve social progress.”
Curtatone noted that social issues are often the outgrowth of complicated factors.
“If you want to have true, long-lasting results, you have to address a wide range of factors in that ecosystem that contributed to a given social issue,” he said. “We, one mayor or elected official cannot do it on his or her own.”
He then introduced Chomsky, who spoke about the choices humanity will face in the coming decades.
“Like it or not, we happen to be living at the most important moment in human history, it’s a moment when the human species is going to make a critical decision, whether to live or die,” Chomsky said. “Not literally disappear, of course, but the remnants that will remain will have few prospects of decent life.”
He then remarked on the recent re-setting of the so-called “doomsday clock,” created by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1947 as an indicator of the probability of global catastrophe; the closer the minute hand gets to midnight, the greater the probability of an armageddon, nuclear or otherwise. On Jan. 19, the Bulletin announced that the clock’s hand currently sits at three minutes to midnight, the closest it’s been to doomsday since 1984.
Chomsky said that the Bulletin’s statement posits climate change and nuclear weapons as humanity’s main dangers and stressed that while recent climate talks in Paris have improved prospects for action on global warming, climate change will require urgent action.
“[An article] in the current issue of the MIT technical journal estimates that here at our latitude, average climate change amounts to moving South 10 meters every day and increasing,” he said. “Its already a very likely factor in major disasters that are taking place.”
Chomsky also cited the Bulletin’s assertion that recent Russian and American nuclear weapons modernization programs are among major reasons for concern about nuclear war.
“American nuclear weapons modernization programs–for the United States, Obama’s program is about a trillion dollars,” Chomsky said. “Those who like arcane facts may recall that we have a legal obligation under the Non-Proliferation Treaty in taking good faith efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons, but we’re going in the other direction under the guidance of the Nobel Peace Laureate.”
Chomsky says that the goal of the United States’ nuclear strategy is still focused on intimidation and domination, especially considering the Clinton-era emphasis on using nuclear weapons primarily for deterrence.
“Our nuclear posture remains committed to first use, even against non-nuclear states,” he said. “Strategic command, which is [being] in control of nuclear weapons [use], it says that we must, in the post Cold War period…’retain the right of first use of nuclear weapons, even against non nuclear states; we must furthermore project a persona of irrationality and vindictiveness in order to intimidate people.'”
He analogized this strategy as a sort of nuclear ‘stick-up’: the United States, he notes, uses the threat of nuclear action to further policy goals.
“If I go into a store, and I have a gun and aim it at the storekeeper and demand that he give his cash, even if I don’t shoot the gun, I’m using it,” Chomsky said.
Chomsky also pointed to the Cold War’s countless “near-miss” incidents, false alarms or split-second judgements that brought the world close to nuclear war. He referred to a study on false alarms that found between 43 and 255 near-miss events per year between 1977 and 1983.
“There’s no reason to think that that’s changed,” Chomsky said. “The author of this study… writes that ‘nuclear war is the black swan we can never see, except in that brief moment when it is killing us.’”
Chomsky said that Europe’s migrant crisis has a lot to do with Western foreign policy, and that current debates about migrants expose hypocrisy.
“Where are these refugees coming from, they’re coming, to a substantial extent, as a result of actions that the West has carried out,” he said. “The U.S. invasion of Iraq, the worst crime of this century, surely, created maybe 2 million refugees, as well as destroying the country and inciting a sectarian conflict which is tearing the region apart.”
Poorer countries, Chomsky said, are being asked to shoulder a disproportionate part of this economic burden.
“Germany’s a rich country of over 80 million people, and they’re threatened by disaster because they might take in a million refugees,” he said. “Take in contrast Lebanon, a poor country, with serious crises internally, about a quarter of the population are Syrian refugees, in addition to other refugees that have fled from the establishment of Israel in 1948.”
Chomsky read a 1914 quotation from Winston Churchill in order to emphasize that we cannot remain isolated from the consequences of our past actions.
“‘We have got all we want in territory, and our plan to be left in unmolested enjoyment of vast and splendid possessions mainly acquired by violence largely maintained by force often sees less reasonable to others than to us,'” he said. “Is Churchill right? Is that who we are, today?… If that’s who we are, our grandchildren and others like them are in very deep trouble.”
Chomsky’s speech was followed by a panel discussion and a networking session.
The Daily spoke with Chomsky after the talk to get his thoughts on the 2016 election and the significance of the Bernie Sanders campaign.
“My own feeling is that you’ve got to focus on the election, it makes a difference, but that’s not what’s important,” he said. “What’s important about the Sanders campaign is if it, starting now, not in the future, if it is organizing a continuing popular movement of young people and will go on after the election… what’s needed is continuing mass popular mobilization, [to] keep pressuring, keep working, go on from one thing to another, and I think the Sanders campaign offers the possibility of that.”
He also commented on the significance of America’s “new civil rights movement.”
“There’s a lot of strands that can interact, civil rights, climate justice, nuclear weapons, poverty…they all interact, and they should be part of an ongoing effort; it could make a big difference,” he said.