In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” Dr. King memorably said, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Our present precarious circumstances make Dr. King’s words abundantly clear. We face war, climate chaos, a pandemic, inequality, hunger and poverty. The perils confronting humankind are unprecedented. And always looming in the background are doomsday weapons that can destroy our precious planet. “The threats are accumulating,” Noam Chomsky says, “We are approaching the most dangerous point in human history. We are now facing the prospect of the destruction of organized human life on Earth.”
How to be positive in these perilous times? Humankind and the planet are facing enormous dangers. We can indulge in magical thinking and hope for miracles or we can ground ourselves in reality, understand the depth of the crises we face and then act to change things. It won’t be easy. There are huge obstacles and difficulties. Our task going forward is to find kindred spirits, organize and work to create a decent future. We may be inspired by the adage, Pessimism of the intellect, Optimism of the will. It was made famous by the great 20th century Italian Marxist thinker and writer Antonio Gramsci. A dedicated anti-fascist Gramsci languished for 11 years in Mussolini’s jails where his health deteriorated. He died in 1937. Today, there is a revival of interest in Gramsci and his work.
Tipping points are in the air. And with good reason. A planetary emergency looms in the not-too-distant future. This isn’t alarmist talk but the best judgment of our leading scientists. The prestigious International Union for Conservation of Nature has just issued its starkest warning to date: “Humanity has reached a tipping point. Our window of opportunity to respond is narrowing quickly.” Imagine if we had paid attention to Lyndon Johnson’s science advisory committee in 1965 when it noted in their report entitled Restoring the Quality of Our Environment, that “Pollutants have altered on a global scale the carbon dioxide content of the air and the lead concentrations in ocean waters and human populations.” That was 56 years ago. Today, Noam Chomsky warns, “The world is hurtling toward disaster.” And we have a segment of the political class that is in denial.
Noam Chomsky, by any measure, has led a most extraordinary life. In one index he is ranked as the eighth most cited person in history, right up there with Aristotle, Shakespeare, Marx, Plato and Freud. His contributions to modern linguistics are legendary. In addition to his pioneering work in that field, he has been a leading voice for peace and social justice for many decades. Chris Hedges says he is “America’s greatest intellectual” who “makes the powerful, as well as their liberal apologists, deeply uncomfortable.” The New Statesman calls him “the conscience of the American people.” He is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at MIT and Laureate Professor of Linguistics and Haury Chair in the Program in Environment and Social Justice at the University of Arizona. At 93, he is still active; writing and giving interviews to the media all over the world. He is the author of scores of books, his latest are Consequences of Capitalism, Chronicles of Dissent and Notes on Resistance.