Noam Chomsky’s lightbulb moment

Launching a start-up in Cambridge, Massachusetts has several advantages. The city has a well-established tech scene; a large population of young, educated prospective early adopters; and a strong line in pizza delivery services (trust us, that’s important.)

Another serious perk is the slew of world-class academics, politicians, and other public figures who pass through Cambridge to give public talks. Barely a day goes by without a guest lecture by a renowned scientist, a political figure or a bestselling author — and this is in addition, of course, to the stellar faculty of Harvard and MIT who are here (more or less) year-round.

Few academics have been on MIT’s faculty longer than the iconic professor of linguistics and political activist Noam Chomksy. The evergreen academic, now 89, has perhaps lightened his course load a little in recent years, but still makes regular appearances on campus to hold forth, as only he can, on a host of subjects.

Yesterday, Chomsky appeared in a Starr Forum event hosted by MIT’s Center for International Studies, to give a lecture entitled Racing to the Precipice: Global Climate, Political Climate. It was, in short, a tour de force. Chomsky began with the bad news, and it is very, very bad. Climate change is not only real, but it’s happening with devastating speed. Temperatures are breaking records everywhere, arctic sea ice and antarctic glaciers are withering away, and quantities of both CO2 and methane are rapidly increasing in the air we all breathe.

Chomsky’s basic question, echoing a question posed decades ago by biologist Ernst Mayr in a debate with astrophysicist Carl Sagan, was Is it better to be smart or stupid? The reflexive answer tends to be “smart”, but Chomsky pointed out that it was only with advances in intelligence that humanity created the technology — nuclear weapons — with which it could destroy itself.

Yet even compared with the proliferation of nuclear weapons — a challenge the near-nonagenarian Chomsky has devoted his life to combatting — climate change represents, according to Chomsky, a still darker threat. Nuclear weapons — for as long as they aren’t catastrophically used — can be contained and even, perhaps, eradicated. Climate change, on the other hand, is fast becoming both uncontrollable and irreversible. It is, in Chomsky’s terms, quite simply “the most important issue in human history”.

So why isn’t more being done to combat this existential threat? Chomsky identified what he called “The Great Derangement”: a systematic inability or craven unwillingness to face the facts in front of us. To Chomsky, the problem is two-headed: ideological and informational. First there are those who, for ideological reasons, do not want to stop warming the planet, citing “the will of God”. These include many on the evangelical right in the U.S., who following November’s elections, hold the balance of power in Washington — something we are already seeing the effects of in the rollback of regulations against the extraction and transportation of fossil fuels, as well as myriad other environmental regulations protecting clean air and water, and funding for scientific research and future planning.

The second issue — one which seems to persist whoever holds political power — is informational. You don’t need to be Donald Trump to believe that the way we get our news is fundamentally broken. Or, put another way, the way news is even defined is fundamentally flawed. Bank robberies, terrorist incidents, and even sports defeats consistently dominate news coverage — even though their sum human cost is, while tragic, a drop in the ocean compared with the sheer scale of death, destruction and destitution that climate change will deliver in decades or less.

This combination of factors — ideological and informational — have thus served to constrain efforts to fight climate change. Buttressed by a political system besieged by entrenched special interests, especially those in the fossil fuel industry, necessary action in the U.S. has run aground.

All, however, is not lost — at least not yet. After this litany of horrifying developments, Chomsky pinpointed some green shoots of hope going forward. First, he noted that other countries have been more successful in implementing environmentally conscious policy. Both the “most successful state capitalist country”, Germany, and those with a history of colonization like Ecuador and Bolivia, are fighting back in their own ways, and China is leading the way with the production of renewable energy technology. Second, even in the U.S., states like Massachusetts and cities like San Diego are mulling proposals to drastically cut carbon emissions over the next few decades.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the young people who are set to suffer most, and longest, from the dark future that is threatened still have it within themselves to fight back. Technology will no doubt have a part to play in this — the same information and communication technology which allowed an outsider candidate like Bernie Sanders to make it almost as far as the presidential ballot paper. So will traditional tactics like organizing and educating, to build a wider movement of support.

At ecotrack we hope to play a part in this emerging movement. We’re targeting millennials for the same reasons that Chomsky outlined — they’re better connected and better educated than any generation to come before — and they care more about this issue than anyone else. At ecotrack we see a tremendous opportunity to help young people do what their seniors have failed to — tackle climate change in meaningful ways. This might mean taking actions on an individual level — at least until this generation controls the levers of power. But the app we’re developing will turn the powerful devices we carry around with us every day into our sustainability sidekicks, prompting us to take positive actions at every turn.

Chomsky ended his talk by reminding the audience that there is so much we as individuals can do right now to combat climate change: even things as simple as changing out our lightbulbs for more energy efficient alternatives. It’s not every day that you get to hear someone with Noam Chomsky’s passion, wit and sheer intellect inspire you. (I’d certainly resist that hamburger at lunch and bike home from work if he told me to.) But over the coming months, we’re hoping to take Chomsky’s message to a new medium, and to millions of new users. This planet’s lightbulb moment can’t come soon enough.