Join Noam Chomsky and National Observer editor Linda Solomon Wood for a Zoom conversation on April 23, 4 p.m. Pacific Time.
The elegant simplicity of his campus office — a small round table with several straight-backed chairs, a laptop on an uncluttered desk — contrasts with his reputation as one of the world’s leading public intellectuals. Now aged 90, Noam Chomsky continues to write, and is co-teaching a course on politics and global crises at the University of Arizona.
Apart from his paradigm-creating work in linguistics, Chomsky has been an outspoken and cogent critic of American foreign policy and its connection with human rights violations and military aggression around the world. With his colleague, the late Ed Herman, Chomsky developed a “propaganda model” of the corporate mass media to help explain the economic and political elite’s ability to maintain ideological legitimacy. A range of “filters” — corporate ownership, advertising dependence, establishment-oriented sourcing practices, flak from right-wing critics, and ideological anti-Communism — cause news media to function as a propaganda system reinforcing elite power.
In recent years, Chomsky has turned his prodigious mind to the existential threat of global warming, a “threat to the perpetuation of organized human life,” on par with nuclear war. Now, in an exclusive interview with National Observer on Jan. 22, Chomsky directly addresses the specific relationship between media and the climate crisis.
National Observer: In recent years, you have said a great deal about the severity of the climate crisis — and you’ve offered various examples of how the corporate media are oblivious to its scope. How would you evaluate the general role of corporate media in relation to that crisis? Do the kind of filters identified in your and Ed Herman’s propaganda model of the media help to explain corporate media’s shortcomings on global warming, or do other factors make global warming an especially difficult issue for journalism?
Noam Chomsky: Take a standard story. There are reports on what’s happening. So, if you look at the New York Times today, for example, there’s a pretty good article on the new discoveries on the melting of the polar ice caps which happens to be, as usual, more drastic than the (earlier) estimates; that’s been typical for a long time. And it discusses the probable impact on sea level rise, albeit conservatively, given how dramatic it has obviously been. So, there are regular articles that appear — it’s not that global warming is ignored. On the other hand, if you look at a standard article on oil exploration, the New York Times can have a big front page article on how the U.S. is moving towards what they call energy independence, surpassing Saudi Arabia and Russia in fossil fuel production, opening up new areas, Wyoming, the Midwest, for fracking. They do a long article, maybe 1,000 words — I have one particular example in mind — it will mention environmental consequences, it may harm the local water resources for ranchers, but literally not a word on the effect on global warming. And that happens in article after article in every outlet — the Financial Times, the New York Times, all the major newspapers. So, it’s as if on the one hand, there’s a kind of a tunnel vision — the science reporters are occasionally saying look, ‘this is a catastrophe,’ but then the regular coverage simply disregards it, and says, 'well, isn’t this wonderful, we won’t have to import oil, we’ll be more powerful,' and so on.
So, they’re not making the connection?
It’s a kind of schizophrenia, and it runs right through society. Take the big banks, JP Morgan Chase, for example. They’re the biggest bank and CEO Jamie Dimon is an intelligent man. I’m sure he knows the basic facts about the dire threat of global warming, yet at the same time they’re pouring investments into fossil fuel extraction, because that’s the business model. They have to make a profit tomorrow.
What people are reading
So, the overall role of the corporate media has been to fail to connect the dots?
Of course, I’m talking about the liberal media. If you go to say, Fox News, it’s quite different: global warming is just not happening. And in fact, that shows up in public opinion. About half of Republicans simply deny that global warming is taking place. And, of the other half, a slight majority thinks humans may be involved. Take the hearings, just a couple of days ago, for the new head of the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, who is a guy with a background in the coal industry. A senator asked him, 'What do you think about global warming?' He says, 'Yes it’s probably taking place, humans are probably involved.' And he was asked, 'How urgent do you think it is?' And his answer was, 'It’s probably eighth or ninth in the level of urgency, so it’s something out there.' And the effect is that nothing is being done.
In terms of the media themselves, do the kinds of filters you’ve identified in the propaganda model help explain their shortcomings, or are some other factors at work as well?
Yeah, but it’s almost transparent. They are wedded to the corporate business model which is: you have to make a profit tomorrow. And society has to grow. They don’t care what kind of growth, it just has to grow. And that’s just kind of internalized. So, yes, the advertisers have an effect, and the fact they are a corporation has an effect. But deeper than that, is a point that George Orwell made, one which I think is underestimated (and which we didn’t actually discuss in our Manufacturing Consent book). I don’t know if you ever read the introduction to Animal Farm — probably not, because it was suppressed — but it came out after it was discovered in his papers about 30 years later, and it’s kind of an interesting introduction. The book is addressed to the people of England and he says this book is, of course, a satire about the totalitarian enemy, but he says we shouldn’t feel too self-righteous about it because — I’m quoting now — in free England, ideas can be be suppressed without the use of force.
Orwell gives some examples, and about two sentences of explanation. One is that the press is owned by wealthy men who have every interest in not wanting certain ideas to be expressed, but the other is just essentially a good education. You go on to the best schools, graduate from Oxford and Cambridge, and you just have instilled into you the understanding that there are certain things it wouldn’t do to say — and you don’t even think about it any more. It just becomes what Gramsci called "hegemonic common sense," you just don’t talk about it. And that’s a big factor, how these things simply become internalized. People who bring them up sound like crazies.
What would be the alternative for journalism? How should it operate differently in addressing climate change?
Every single journal should have a shrieking headline every day saying we are heading to total catastrophe. In a couple of generations, organized human society may not survive. That has to be drilled into people’s heads constantly. After all, there’s been nothing like this in all of human history. The current generation has to make a decision as to whether organized human society will survive another couple of generations, and it has to be done quickly, there’s not a lot of time. So, there’s no time for dillydallying and beating around the bush. And pulling out of the Paris negotiations should be regarded as one of the worst crimes in history.
But isn’t there a risk of disempowering people by just giving them bad news?
There is. Bad news should be combined with discussion of the things that can be and are being done. For example, a very good economist, Dean Baker, had a column a couple of weeks ago in which he discussed what China is doing. They are still a big huge polluter, but they are carrying out massive programs of switching to renewable energies way beyond anything else in the world. States are doing it. Or not. Take Arizona here, you drive around here, the sun is shining all the time, most of the year; take a look and see how many solar panels you see. Our house in the suburbs is the only one that has them nearby. People are complaining that they have a thousand dollar electric bill per month over the summer for air conditioning but won’t put up a solar panel; and in fact the Tucson electric company makes it hard to do. For example, our solar (array) has some of the panels missing because you’re not allowed to produce too much electricity.
That’s unfortunate. Where would you see the kind of journalism that combines urgency with a sense of what can be done? Where do you see that in our media system?
Well, you find it in small journals. The point is, global warming should be emphasized. You’re quite right when you say you just can’t keep pouring in the bad news; people turn around. But if you combine the bad news with the positive steps that could be taken, and the urgency of taking them, then I think it can have an effect.
Is it mainly in alternative independent media where you do see this coverage of climate crisis as a crisis?
You get it in the alternative media, but it doesn’t reach enough of the general public.
And not just this crisis, but others as well. A comparable crisis is the threat of nuclear war. On January 24th, it would be a good idea to look at the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, that’s the day when they’re supposed to come out with the next setting of the doomsday clock.* It’s already two minutes to midnight; I don’t know what they’re going to do next time, maybe put it past midnight! It’s basically two things, nuclear war and global warming, both of which are increasingly dire. But there’s more. Take the threat of a pandemic. Industrial meat production is first of all inhumane, but secondly, it’s a major contributor to global warming; and it’s also destroying the effectiveness of antibiotics. They have wild overuse of antibiotics, and it’s creating mutant bacteria that are resistant to any antibiotics, showing up in hospitals that could lead to a huge pandemic, like the flu pandemic a century ago which killed tens of millions of people. People talk about a migrant crisis, what’s it going to be like when Bangladesh is flooded, hundreds of millions of people have to flee? South Asia is running out of water, already there are hundreds of millions of people that barely have water; with the glaciers melting and so on, they may lose their water supply.
What happens to the world then? It’s just going to be colossal problems. They’re not far off.
Are there particular media outlets that you yourself find useful, in the alternative or independent sector or elsewhere, where you get your own information?
I read the major media, but it’s really the science journals that keep you up to date. Of course, that’s technical stuff which you wouldn’t normally read, but they have very good reports of it in the Washington Post, the New York Times and of course a lot of the alternative media.
Do you think that in the U.S. or other notionally democratic societies, is it possible to reform the media system in some ways that would better facilitate this kind of survival journalism?
One way would be for them to become democratic societies. They’re very far from it. Take elections — there’s very convincing work in mainstream political science which shows that elections in the United States are basically bought. You can predict the outcome of an election for Congress or Executive with remarkable precision just by looking at the single variable of campaign spending. That’s why when somebody’s elected to the House of Representatives, the first day in office, she or he has to start gaining donor support for the next election. Meanwhile, legislation is being written by the staff with the lobbyists from the corporations, who are actually often just writing the legislation. It’s a kind of democracy, but a very limited one.
Do you see a possibility for media reform apart from broader social and political transformations? Because there is a movement, as you know, specifically for media reform, with Robert McChesney and many others.
There’s lots that can be done. The system has to be significantly modified in many ways, even radically modified. Media reform is one of them. Bob McChesney’s important work is a model. There are things that can be done. The increased monopolization of the major media is a serious matter, as you know well, but if you look at Ben Bagdikian’s book on the media monopoly back around 1980, there were maybe 50 sources of news, now it’s down to half a dozen. The advertising-profit model for media has just undermined journalism. You go back to the early days even of the United States — the government recognized the significance of having a free and independent press, and simply subsidized things like free postal rates, which were devices to try to create an independent press. I just recently read a very interesting book, The Framers’ Coup by Michael Klarman. It’s now the gold standard on the formation of the constitution; it goes into tremendous detail on the discussions that were going on, and they’re pretty impressive. There was a pamphlet literature, there was an independent press literature, people were contributing and farmers and craftsmen and everybody getting their two cents in, a model of discussion. Back in the mid-19th century, there was a very lively labour and ethnic press which was doing very interesting things. It pretty much collapsed under the concentration of capital and the advertising model, and the same in England, though in England it lasted even longer, until the 1960s.
Do you see much hope for an alternative on the internet and social media?
There’s hope, but social media have been very much a two-edged sword. They are clearly creating a kind of echo chamber, a bubble system. We all do it, people gravitate to the things you believe in and don’t hear other views — your own just get reinforced. It’s leading to almost an impossibility of interaction. Some of this is pretty shocking. I was reading some statistics recently, and it turns out according to some recent polls, that the number of Americans who use the major media as their prime information source is single digits, it’s about six per cent. Most of them are going to social media which don’t produce the news, they filter it, they don’t have reporters out in the field.
And then of course you have innovations like talk radio and Fox, which are new. They are just really vicious propaganda systems, barely pretending to be anything else.
That’s the dark side. The good side is that (social media is) the way organizing goes on. That’s the way you reach out to people, get together, and it’s a very effective tool. Practically all organizing works this way. I mean even teaching, teachers often communicate with the students through social media. That’s all anybody is doing. If you walk around campus, everybody’s (on a device). One university, I think Duke University, started putting on the pavements things that say, Look up!, because they’re all walking around looking down.
Definitely what the effects are is hard to say. You see teenage kids sitting in a McDonalds, let’s say, sitting around a table and there are two conversations going on — one in the group, and one that each person is having with whoever’s talking to them on their phone. It just breaks down meaningful social relations.
It could perhaps be a potential resource, at least — alternative media using the internet for climate communication.
Blogs, Truthout, Truthdig, Common Dreams, Democracy Now, many others, are producing all kinds of information which you can’t get on television.
So it’s potentially extraordinarily useful, but it has this negative aspect which is being pressed hard by the Silicon Valley giants on the advertising model, so it’s being forced on you all the time. You search for something on Google and you’re inundated by things you’re supposed to want, and that’s the impact of the big advertisers.
What conditions need to be met to enable an effective response to climate crisis?
I think there just has to be an energetic mass popular movement, which is going to compel the media to address the crises that we’re facing by constant pressure, or else simply create alternatives which will dominate the information market. And we don’t have a lot of time to waste. So, things like subsidizing independent media which is not a utopian idea, it was done in the United States in its early days; or the kinds of grassroots media movements that, say, Bob McChesney and others are pressing to develop.
And it’s an urgent requirement. I start my classes these last couple of years by simply pointing out to the students that they have to make a choice that no one in human history has ever made. They have to decide whether organized human society is going to survive. Even when the Nazis were on the rampage, you didn’t have to face that question. Now you do.
Beyond the media, are there other general conditions that have to be met to get out of climate crisis?
There are several groups organizing large-scale activism, like Earth Strike, which is planning a series of actions; they already had the first one, big demonstrations in many cities, trying to build up to a mass general strike. The Extinction Rebellion from England has moved here, trying to do the same thing. But these dramatic actions, like demonstrations generally, they’re not of any effect if they’re isolated events. They have to be a stimulus for the constant organizing and education that has to go on day-to-day.
And again, just take what we talked about before — Tucson, solar panels. People have to come to understand that they’ve just got to do this, and fast; and it doesn’t harm them, it improves their lives. For example, it even saves money. But just the psychological barrier that says that I can’t look at this, that I have to keep to the common beliefs, and that this is somehow a radical thing that we have to be scared of, is a block that has to be overcome by constant educational organizational activity. The way every other popular movement developed — the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, the feminist movement — just constant, often very small groups, growing into bigger groups for activism. Occasionally they have a dramatic action like a demonstration, but mainly to stimulate ongoing activity.
And it can’t be delayed.
*Editor's Note: On Jan. 24, the scientists maintained the doomsday clock at two minutes to midnight, warning humanity not to become complacent about the “new abnormal.”
Editor's Note: The article was updated on Feb. 14 to correct the spelling of the name of JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon.
Global warming and climate
Global warming and climate change are slow-motion disasters.
Other examples include such vexing problems as urban sprawl, loss of green space, degradation of our mountain parks, and species extinction. The degradation and loss are incremental. Cumulative, but slow enough that we do not see change from one day to the next. Likewise, with many health problems.
We humans are good at discerning and responding to sudden emergency events, like hurricanes, floods, and fires. But not to multi-decadal trends that make such events more likely or more intense.
We're also superb at procrastination: Never do today what you can put off till tomorrow. Avoidance is not a successful long-term survival strategy.
If your backyard loses an inch or two every year, you don't notice. Only when half your backyard suddenly slumps into the ravine after a heavy rain do you sit up and pay attention. The old bridge disintegrates one piece at a time, but it's only when the bridge collapses that people ring the alarm.
Ignoring environmental degradation and change until it's too late is the signature of our species. This has been our modus operandi for millennia. Our fatal flaw. No reason to think we'll do things differently this time.
As Chomsky points out, we keep ourselves amused with endless distractions.
I mostly agree .. Ronald Wright’s 2004 Massey lecture on progress pretty much laid it all out. Collective denial. Environmental collapse. More collective denial, followed swiftly by civilization collapse. From the Mesopotamians right up to the Mayans. He called those failures “progress traps”. With our use of fossil fuels we’ve fallen into one. A big one.
You sort of lost me though when you implied there was some equivalency between climate change and urban sprawl. One of those is existential while the other is merely crappy. One will reset the evolutionary clock in a mass extinction that will wipe out nearly every living thing, likely in our grandchildren’s lifetime. The other will force us to be better at urban planning and tread more gently on the earth.
Is it possible that you are not frightened enough?
Hi Andrew: The common
Hi Andrew: The common denominator of the environmental ills listed above is incremental change. I did not intend any comparison in scale or urgency.
Urban sprawl mandates car use. Car-culture drive urban sprawl (which forces people to drive: an endless loop), sedentary lifestyles (and associated health problems), social isolation, disintegration of community, loss of green space, endless freeways and traffic jams, inefficient public transit, lost productivity, strip mall blight, mega-mall culture, parking lot proliferation, accidents, roadkill, road-rage, and property damage — no matter how the vehicle is powered. Sprawl is the most inefficient model of urban design, boosting energy use, pollution, and GHG emissions.
In short, sprawl makes life hell for its inhabitants and accelerates AGW. Most people live in cities. Two-thirds of the world's population will be living in cities by 2050.
A sprawled city is less resilient. As climate change accelerates, less resilient cities will fare poorly.
Agreed on all counts. Sprawl is about get rich quick for developers without any consideration of externalities or medium / long term consequences. It’s also about municipalities chasing tax revenue by borrowing to build infrastructure to support more homes to pay more tax, to build more infrastructure. It’s a nasty snowball. The initial borrow seems manageable until all of a sudden it is not. The mass of people who weren’t concerned when the snowball was getting started despite the alarms being raised by a few who were paying attention, are now shocked when a decade later the farmland and forest finally gets bulldozed, taxes shoot up and their community is transformed.
I submit though that as bad as this is it’s merely crappy when compared to climate change, which is truly terrifying.
Take a look at google earth and zoom out to see the entire expanse that is Canada. The lands lost to sprawl will look like squiggles along on our southern border. Now imagine all the life that exists on the rest of it - from the tiniest insect to the largest tree. Now imagine 97% of it dead, because that’s what happened the last time the earth got 5C warmer. If nothing changes that’s where this is going. To imagine our children’s children could ‘adapt’ to that is pure conceit. And this time it will be more than end of a civilization, this time we will reset the earth’s evolutionary clock.
I would never bet against
I would never bet against Noam Chomsky. Though his prediction of social disorganisation is just a bit late. Signs of it are already evident - no need to wait for the full impact of global warming.
At 90 - this national treasure is still firing on all cylinders. Woe to those who ignore him.
Chomsky has been predicting
Chomsky has been predicting all this and much more for years! May I please add another plug for the fresh new document produced by Courage Coalition entitled "A Green New Deal for the North". It is available for signing on the courage coalition website.
Thank you. All of us need to
Thank you. All of us need to read it and pass it on. the ease with which a few mega trucks capture the attention of MSM, while intellects like Chomsky get de-platformed (he's been sidelined for decades now), and fresh ideas for a new economy that would benefit all, get ignored...........says Trump isn't wrong about fake news.
The irony is not that its everywhere, its that most of it is produced at the behest of elites like Trump.
As Noam Chomsky states we
As Noam Chomsky states we need to have climate change shouted constantly by media and kept on the front page. The National Observer does a fair job of this. Still, at this point we really need massive mobilization of the most carbon heavy emitting populations as INDIVIDUALS - we can each do a lot and it falls under reducing consumption ON ALL LEVELS. But this is paralyzed by the constant emphasis on bigger, better, newer and building the economy. Since we consume over 100% of what Earth is producing each year the "perpetuation of organized human society" is simply not likely unless we change our current model of consumption in the "developed" nations. Media can have a role in changing this and independent media the biggest role since it is not led about by corporate interests.
Individuals reducing consumption is a small part of the solution, especially in a capitalist driven economy where consumption is mandatory for economic growth. Still, learning to live without extraneous stuff is good for a person. Might lead them to find the time and the courage to also speak up politically against the current mantras of fossil fuel interests.
There is no sustainable future in front of us if we consider to behave like deer in the headlights and go quiet and compliant in front of the push for pipelines, and forty more years of doubling down on precisely what has brought us to the edge of cililization collapse.
Looking for the easy way out of this corner we're in, just wastes valuable time.
Thanks Bob Hackett. Thanks
Thanks Bob Hackett. Thanks for bringing Chomsky back to the topic of journalism. It's interesting to see how Chomsky is so focussed on the USA, but then, that's where much of our hope and fear lies. Nevertheless, in Canada, we can do better because we have a more modern constitution. We may not have proportional representation, but at least we don't have the Electoral College system of electing presidents.
That "hegemonic common sense"
That "hegemonic common sense" expression he uses to describe a somewhat unconscious bias is really more like a psychological herd vaccination effect. Life as we know it will end with climate change whereas the narrative is that it will end if we switch to smarter alternatives than fossil fuels - sheer madness.
While I applaud Robert Hacket
While I applaud Robert Hacket’s excellent questions, I was very disappointed with Noam Chomsky’s answers. There are several more informed sources available online featuring the writing of people who have the educational background in physics, maths, chemistry, oceanography, geography, computer science and more, to grasp the complexities of humanity’s existential crisis well enough to critically dissect senior policymakers’ too-little, too late climate-related policies and programs.
And yes their findings can be alarming, alarming enough to scare away environmental NGOs, politicians, and even otherwise excellent left-leaning news and information sources. That’s understandable – after all, who wants to read that “The End is Near” or “There’s no way out?” – news likely to turn off readers and donors, who will instead seek solace in the myth that biospheric health will quickly rebound after we get our act together with “A Green New Deal.”
For the responsibly informed, they will have already found some measure of comfort in the hidden truths of experts such as these three –
Canadian Rob Mielcarski, with an honors M.A.Sc. Electrical Engineering degree from University of British Columbia, who knows the laws of thermodynamics and other physics stuff (See for example “Humanity’s climate predicament – Most of us don’t know what we don’t know” at ShortLink https://wp.me/pO0No-4BO )
Dr. Tim Garrett, atmospheric physicist at the University of Utah (See “Tim Garrett explains why civilization is caught in a double-bind, ending with its collapse this century” at ShortLink https://wp.me/pO0No-4vA )
Dr. Nate Hagens, a professor at the University of Minnesota where he teaches a systems synthesis Honors seminar called Reality 101, A Survey of Human Predicament. (See, “For 90% of people in the developed world, income growth ended a decade ago” at ShortLink https://wp.me/pO0No-4iA)