Noam Chomsky, the 92-year-old activist and scholar who authored more than 100 political books and revolutionized the field of linguistics, told a student audience that it was up to their generation to reverse the damage that is destroying society and the environment at a virtual event co-hosted by Fordham’s political union student club on April 29. 

“Your generation has to decide whether organized human society is going to persist or not,” said Chomsky, long an outspoken critic of capitalism and U.S. foreign policy. “We have to decide right now whether this process of self-destruction and species destruction is going to continue—and if it does, it’ll reach tipping points that are irreversible—or whether we’re going to make the efforts that are possible, feasible, within our grasp, to ensure not only human survival, but better lives for everyone.”

The webinar was hosted by Fordham’s new political union student club, alongside its counterparts from Columbia University, Northwestern University, and the University of Chicago. In an hour-long discussion, student representatives from each school, including Billy Harrison, the Fordham club’s co-founder and president, asked Chomsky about his opinion on crucial issues hurting the U.S. and the world at large. 

The American Working Class and Anti-Vaxxers 

In today’s economy, many Americans lack steady, regular jobs and live a “precarious existence,” Chomsky said. To make matters worse, over the past four decades, much of the world’s wealth has transferred from working people to concentrated private capital, he said. It has become more difficult for labor unions to successfully mobilize and strike, thanks to updates in labor laws and administration. But he said he sees a positive shift in labor union perception with Joe Biden in the Oval Office.

“He’s the first president in a long time to say something positive about unions. Actually, Dwight Eisenhower was probably the last president to do that,” said Chomsky, who has witnessed 17 American presidencies during his lifetime. “My own feeling is that unless the labor movement is reconstituted, redeveloped, as it happened in the 1930s, we’re not going to have much progress on other fronts. Labor has been on the forefront of positive changes for the general population ever since the earlier stages of the Industrial Revolution.” 

In talking about the pandemic, Chomsky criticized rich countries for monopolizing vaccines instead of sharing them with poorer countries. He also stressed that anti-vaxxers need to be won over with argument and discussion, rather than force.  

“We want to encourage people to think for themselves, deliberate with others, come up with reasonable solutions to their problems and concerns,” said Chomsky, a chair and laureate professor of linguistics at the University of Arizona. “You don’t want to browbeat people into accepting your views … You want people to accept them because they see the logic and the evidence for them.”

A More ‘Frightening’ Problem Than the Pandemic

Chomsky said there are far more serious issues than the pandemic that will plague humankind past his lifetime, especially climate change. 

“If we look at public attitudes on this, it’s frightening,” he said, citing a recent poll from the Pew Research Center where only 14% of Republicans cited climate change as a big problem in the U.S. “Illegal immigration and the federal deficit are [their]most urgent problems. Global warming, which is going to destroy the prospects for human life on Earth, is not a serious problem.” 

Chomsky said we need to stop subsidizing fossil fuels and reduce their usage in yearly increments—roughly 5 to 6%—until they can be completely replaced with greener alternatives, including nationwide electrical grids and redesigned homes.

“I live in Arizona, where the sun is shining all the time. When I moved in, I put up solar panels. Basically, I get free electricity. I don’t have to feel guilty about running the air conditioner when it’s 110 degrees outside, and I also don’t have to pay thousand-dollar electric bills like my neighbors do,” Chomsky said. “It can be done on a massive scale.”

A “doubly dangerous” threat to society—“doubly” because no one discusses it, said Chomsky—is the increasing threat of nuclear war. 

“Anyone who’s looked over the record over the last 75 years knows it’s a near miracle that we’ve survived this far, and it’s getting much worse,” said Chomsky, who was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War. 

Chomsky also reflected on the degree to which colleges and universities should regulate free speech, especially when dealing with racism. He emphasized that regulation of speech is the worst way to deal with these issues. Instead, students should be encouraged to bring their peers together to assess their ideas and educate themselves on divisive issues. 

“College should be a place where students are willing to face challenging, questioning ideas,” said Chomsky, who recently authored a new book, Chomsky for Activists (Routledge, 2021). “Not run away from them, not finding safe spaces where they don’t hear them.” 

The full recording of the event is below: