“Judged in terms of the power, range, novelty and influence of his thought, Noam Chomsky is arguably the most important intellectual alive today,” wrote the New York Times back in 1979. Since then, the polymath Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at MIT went on to prove the paper correct as he became the eighth most cited source in the history of the humanities: Marx was first, then Lenin, Shakespeare, Aristotle, the Bible, Plato, Freud, Chomsky, Hegel and Cicero. “What it means is that he is very widely read across disciplines and that his work is used by researchers across disciplines,” said the Humanities Librarian who checked the numbers.
Many of us have been waiting for him to weigh in on antibiotic resistance because, for example, a heads-of-state meeting of the United Nations last month called it “the greatest and most urgent global risk.” And finally, just this month, from his office at MIT, he addressed it in an interview whose theme can be summed up in this question and answer:
Interviewer: If we don’t fix our problems, will the 21st Century be the last century of humanity?
Chomsky: Probably not of humanity but of organized human life on Earth.
In other words, says Chomsky, the question we face is: “Are we going to survive?” which he calls “The most serious problem that has ever arisen in human history.”
Two main drivers of our existential crisis are the ones we would suspect: “environmental catastrophe” and “the threat of nuclear war today [which] is greater than it was during the Cold War,” he says.
But after he made his case on those counts came the following surprise:
“I mentioned two [problems] which are enormous but there’s more than that. Another major problem is the threat of pandemics — diseases that can’t be controlled. That’s already happening, and it’s happening for important reasons. One reason that we haven’t mentioned … is industrial meat production. Industrial meat production is a huge contributor to global warming. It’s an enormous producer of carbon dioxide and methane.”
Then focusing on the resistance issue, he continued:
But it also has another feature. Corporations pour antibiotics into these systems. Animals are crowded together in horrible conditions and to prevent disease and to maintain growth there’s an extensive use of antibiotics. An enormous part of antibiotic production is for this. Use of antibiotics leads to mutations which make bacteria antibiotic resistant. We’re now … the rate of antibiotic resistance is growing faster than the techniques for dealing with them. So we may be destroying ourselves in that way too.
There’s something else about these issues that concerns Chomsky, as well: “If you watch something like the current electoral campaign … [you’ll] notice a very curious fact: None of this is being discussed.” “What strange form of intelligence,” he asks, “is it that enables great accomplishment to be achieved but is unable to ask the question, will we survive and how can we ensure our survival?