On December 5, over 2,300 people packed into the historic Riverside Church here in Manhattan to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Democracy Now! Speakers included Noam Chomsky, world-renowned political dissident, linguist, author, institute professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
AMY GOODMAN: On December 5th, over 2,300 people packed into the historic Riverside Church here in Manhattan to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Democracy Now! Democracy Now! first went on the air on the eve of the 1996 New Hampshire primary. The date was February 19th, 1996. The show began as a radio show on nine radio stations. Today, over 5,000 episodes later, Democracy Now! news hour airs on over 1,400 public television and radio stations across the globe. Among those who spoke at the celebration of Democracy Now! was Noam Chomsky, the world-renowned political dissident, linguist and author. He’s professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of more than 100 books.
NOAM CHOMSKY: For the young people among you, a special word: You’ll be facing problems that have never arisen in the 200,000 years of human history—hard, demanding problems. It’s a burden that you can’t ignore. And we’ll all—you, in particular, and all the rest of us—will have to be in there struggling hard to save the human species from a pretty grim fate.
Well, my wife and I happened to be in Europe on November 8th, that fateful day, in fact, in Barcelona, where we watched the results come in. Now, that had special personal resonance for me. The first article I wrote, or at least that I can remember, was in February 1939 at the—it was about the fall of Barcelona to Franco’s fascist forces. And the article, which I’m sure it was not very memorable, was about the apparently inexorable spread of fascism over Europe and maybe the whole world. I’m old enough to have been able to listen to Hitler’s speeches, the Nuremberg rallies, not understanding the words, but the tone and the reaction of the crowd was enough to leave indelible memories. And watching those results come in did arouse some pretty unpleasant memories, along with what is happening in Europe now, which, in many ways, is pretty frightening, as well.
Well, the reaction to November 8th in Europe was disbelief, shock, horror. It was captured pretty eloquently in the—on the front cover of the major German weekly, Der Spiegel. It depicted a caricature of Donald Trump presented as a meteor hurtling towards Earth, mouth open, ready to swallow it up. And the top headline read ”Das Ende Der Welt!” “The End of the World.” Small letters below, “as we have known it.” There might be some truth to that concern, even if not exactly in the manner in which the artist, the authors, the others who echoed that conception, had in mind.
It had to do with other events that were taking place right at the same time, November 8th, events that I think were a lot more important than the ones that have captured the attention of the world in such an astonishing fashion, events that were taking place in Morocco, Marrakech, Morocco. There was a conference there of 200 countries, the so-called COP 22. Their goal at this conference was to implement the rather vague promises and commitments of the preceding international conference on global warming, COP 21 in Paris in December 2015, which had in fact been left vague for reasons not unrelated to what happened on November 8th here.
The Paris conference had the goal of establishing verifiable commitments to do something about the worst problem that humans have ever faced—the likely destruction of the possibility for organized human life. They couldn’t do that. They could only reach a nonverifiable commitment—promises, but not fixed by treaty and a real commitment. And the reason was that the Republican Congress in the United States would not accept binding commitments. So they were left with something much weaker and looser.
The Morocco conference intended to carry this forward by putting teeth in that loose, vague agreement. The conference opened on November 7th, normal way. November 8th, the World Meteorological Organization presented an assessment of the current state of what’s called the Anthropocene, the new geological epoch that is marked by radical human modification, destruction of the environment that sustains life. November 9th, the conference basically ceased. The question that was left was whether it would be possible to carry forward this global effort to deal with the highly critical problem of environmental catastrophe, if the leader of the free world, the richest and most powerful country in history, would pull out completely, as appeared to be the case. That’s the stated goal of the president-elect, who regards climate change as a hoax and whose policy, if he pursues it, is to maximize the use of fossil fuels, end environmental regulations, dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency—established by Richard Nixon, which is a measure of where politics has shifted to the right in the past generation—and, in other ways, accelerate the race to destruction. Well, that was essentially the end of the Marrakech conference. It terminated without any issue. So that might signal the end of the world, even if not quite in the intended sense.
And, in fact, what happened in Marrakech was a quite astounding spectacle. The hope of the world for saving us from this impending disaster was China—authoritarian, harsh China. That’s where hopes were placed. At the same time, the leader of the free world, the richest, most powerful country in history, was acting in such a way as to doom the hopes to total disaster. It’s an astonishing spectacle. And it’s no less astounding that it received almost no comment. You can—something to think about.
Well, the effects are quite real. COP 21, the Paris negotiations, could not reach a verifiable treaty because of the refusal of the Republican Congress to accept binding commitments. The follow-up conference, COP 22, ended without any issue. We will soon see, in the not very distant future, even more dangerous, horrifying consequences of this failure right here to come to term to address in a serious way this impending crisis.
So, say, take the country of Bangladesh. Within a few years, tens of millions of people will be fleeing from the low-lying coastal plains simply because of the rise of sea level with the melting of the huge Antarctic glaciers much more quickly than was anticipated and the severe weather associated with global warming. That’s a refugee crisis of a kind that puts today’s crisis, which is more a moral crisis of the West than an actual refugee crisis—it will put this current crisis into a—it will seem like a footnote to a tragedy. And it’s—the leading climate scientist in Bangladesh has reacted by saying 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 and—United States and, indeed, the other rich countries that have grown wealthy, as we all have, while bringing this new geological epoch—bringing about this new geological epoch, which may well be the final one for the species.
And the catastrophic consequences can only increase. Just keeping to South Asia, temperatures which are already intolerable for the poor are going to continue to rise as the Himalayan glaciers melt, also destroying the water supply for South Asia. In India already, 300 million people are reported to lack water to drink. And it will continue both for India and Pakistan. And at this point, the two major threats to survival begin to converge. One is environmental catastrophe. The other is nuclear war, another threat that is increasing right before our eyes. India and Pakistan are nuclear states, nuclear—states with nuclear weapons. They were already almost at war. Any kind of real war would immediately turn into a nuclear war. That might happen very easily over water—over struggles over diminishing water supplies. A nuclear war would not only devastate the region, but might actually be terminal for the species, if indeed it leads to nuclear winter and global famine, as many scientists predict. So, the threats of survival—to survival converge right there, and we’re going to see much more like it. Meanwhile, the United States is leading the way to disaster, while the world looks to China for leadership. It’s an incredible, astounding picture, and indeed only one piece of a much larger picture.
The U.S. isolation at Marrakech is symptomatic of broader developments that we should think about pretty carefully. They’re of considerable significance. U.S. isolation in the world is increasing in remarkable ways. Maybe the most striking is right in this hemisphere, what used to be called “our little region over here”—Henry Stimson, secretary of war under Roosevelt, “our little region over here,” where nobody bothers us. If anybody gets out of line, we punish them harshly; otherwise, they do what we say. That’s very far from true. During this century, Latin America, for the first time in 500 years, has freed itself from Western imperialism. Last century, that’s the United States. The International Monetary Fund, which is basically an agency of the U.S. Treasury, has been kicked out of the—of South America entirely. There are no U.S. military bases left. The international organizations, the—the hemispheric organizations are beginning to exclude the United States and Canada. In 2015, there was a summit coming up, and the United States might have been excluded completely from the hemisphere over the issue of Cuba. That was the crucial issue that the hemisphere—on which the hemisphere opposed U.S. policy, as does the world. That’s surely the reason why Obama made the gestures towards normalization, that were at least some step forward—and could be reversed under Trump. We don’t know.
On a much more far-reaching scale, something similar is happening in Asia. As you know, one of Obama’s major policies was the so-called pivot to Asia, which was actually a measure to confront China, transparently. One component of the pivot to Asia was the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which excluded China, tried to bring in other Asia-Pacific countries. Well, that seems to be on its way to collapse, for pretty good reasons, I think. But at the same time, there’s another international trade agreement that is expanding and growing, namely, China’s—what they call the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which is now drawing in U.S. allies, from Peru to Australia to Japan. The U.S. will probably choose to stay out of it, just as the United States, virtually alone, has stayed away from China’s Asian Infrastructure Development Bank, a kind of counterpart to the World Bank, that the U.S. has opposed for many years, but has now been joined by practically all U.S. allies, Britain and others. That’s—at the same time, China is expanding to the West with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the China-based Silk Roads. The whole system is an integrated system of energy resource sharing and so on. It includes Siberia, with its rich resources. It includes India and Pakistan. Iran will soon join, it appears, and probably Turkey. This will extend all the way from China to Europe. The United States has asked for observer status, and it’s been rejected, not permitted. And one of the major commitments of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the whole of the Central Asian states, is that there can be no U.S. military bases in this entire region.
Another step toward isolation may soon take place if the president-elect carries through his promise to terminate the nuclear weapons—the nuclear deal with Iran. Other countries who are parties to the deal might well continue. They might even—Europe, mainly. That means ignoring U.S. sanctions. That will extend U.S. isolation, even from Europe. And in fact Europe might move, under these circumstances, towards backing off from the confrontation with Russia. Actually, Brexit may assist with this, because Britain was the voice of the United States in NATO, the harshest voice. Now it’s out, gives Europe some opportunities. There were choices in 1990, ’91, time of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev had a—what he called a vision of a common European home, an integrated, cooperative system of security, commerce, interchange, no military alliances from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The U.S. insisted on a different vision—namely, Soviet Union collapses, and NATO remains and, indeed, expands, right up to the borders of Russia now, where very serious threats are evident daily.
Well, all of this, these are significant developments. They’re related to the widely discussed matter of decline of American power. There are some conventional measures which, however, are misleading in quite interesting ways. I’ll just say a word about it, because there’s no time, but it’s something to seriously think about. By conventional measures, in 1945, the United States had reached the peak of global dominance—nothing like it in history. It had perhaps 50 percent of total world’s wealth. Other industrial countries were devastated or destroyed by the war, severely damaged. The U.S. economy had gained enormously from the war, and it was in—and the U.S., in general, had a position of dominance with no historical parallel. Well, that, of course, couldn’t last. Other industrial countries reconstructed. By around 1970, the world was described as tripolar: three major economic centers—a German-based Europe, a U.S.-based North America and the Northeast Asian area, at that time Japan-based, now China had moved in as a partner, conflict then partner. By now—by that time, U.S. share in global wealth was about 25 percent. And today it’s not far below that.
Well, all of this is highly misleading, because it fails to take into account a crucial factor, which is almost never discussed, though there’s some interesting work on it. That’s the question of ownership of the world economy. If you take a look at the corporate—the multinational corporations around the world, what do they own? Well, that turns out to be a pretty interesting matter. In virtually every—this increasingly during the period of neoliberal globalization of the last generation, corporate wealth is becoming a more realistic measure of global power than national wealth. Corporate wealth, of course, is nationally based, supported by taxpayers like us, but the ownership has nothing to do with us. Corporate ownership, if you look at that, it turns out that in virtually every economic sector—manufacturing, finance, services, retail and others—U.S. corporations are well in the lead in ownership of the global economy. And overall, their ownership is close to 50 percent of the total. That’s roughly the proportion of U.S. national wealth in 1945, which tells you something about the nature of the world in which we live. Of course, that’s not for the benefit of American citizens, but of those who own and manage these private—publicly supported and private, quasi-totalitarian systems. If you look at the military dimension, of course, the U.S. is supreme. Nobody is even close. No point talking about it. But it is possible that Europe might take a more independent role. It might move towards something like Gorbachev’s vision. That might lead to a relaxation of the rising and very dangerous tensions at the Russian border, which would be a very welcome development.
Well, there’s a lot more to say about the fears and hopes and prospects. The threats and dangers are very real. There are plenty of opportunities. And as we face them, again, particularly the younger people among you, we should never overlook the fact that the threats that we now face are the most severe that have ever arisen in human history. They are literal threats to survival: nuclear war, environmental catastrophe. These are very urgent concerns. They cannot be delayed. They became more urgent on November 8th, for the reasons you know and that I mentioned. They have to be faced directly, and soon, if the human experiment is not to prove to be a disastrous failure.
AMY GOODMAN: MIT professor Noam Chomsky, speaking on December 5th at Riverside Church as part of the celebration marking 20 years of Democracy Now! After a short break, we air a historic conversation that Juan González and I had with Noam Chomsky and Harry Belafonte. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Patti Smith singing at Democracy Now!'s 20th anniversary here at Riverside Church in Manhattan. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I'm Amy Goodman.