ISBN 978-1-60980-454-1. “Nuclear War and Environmental Catastrophe” by Noam Chomsky and Laray Polk was published in 2013 by Seven Stories Press. This is recent but quite short at only 87 pages – excluding Appendices & Notes. Although Chomsky has written at length about Nuclear proliferation his work on environmental threats is limited to a few references. This book details conversation between Chomsky and the relatively obscure “multimedia artist & writer” Polk in the period 2010/2012. So what we have here (again) is not an original Chomsky book but just another small slice of his views to be collected by the completist. But does he add anything new?
Of course, being a completist, we added this work to our collection. It is certainly a good idea to interrogate Chomsky about a narrow field – as this attempts. Many of us are interested in a more in-depth piece, from him, about these topics. This is somewhat dulled by an over-reaching wish that Chomsky would have the time to write an original work on the topic – but beggars cannot be choosers.
The book doesn’t only deal with the topics of the title. For example there is a chapter on “Protest and Universities” and several others that drift well, well away….. Concerning “catastrophe” (not a term WE are fond of) Chomsky drifts quickly from discussing climate change to talk about the influence of oil in US power politics – which is, afterall, his comfort zone. In fact you only get 7 pages devoted to that entire topic! The “Protest” chapter gets more attention and deals with events in the 1960s and the Vietnam War. We get an interesting insight into how the Pentagon funds MIT – enlightening.
Polk & Chomsky then move on discuss the use of defoliants in Vietnam and the current use of depleted Uranium on the battlefield. This, again, is brief before we move on to a chapter on nuclear proliferation – a Chomsky soft spot – although this section does contain insight into the potential conflicts in the seas off China. The next section called “China and the Green Revolution” is intended to cover renewable energy although, yet again, the interview rapidly drifts off-topic. There is then a quite US-parochial discussion entitled “Research and Religion” that is nowhere near as interesting as it sounds. Before long we are talking about the “Extraordinary Lives” of Bertrand Russell, Linus Pauling, Peggy Duff and George Steiner but this mainly deals (again) with the intellectual campaign against the Vietnam War 50 years ago. Hardly on topic nor relevant.
The final chapter on “Mutually Assured Dependence” kicks off with a discussion on the links between environmentalism and the social justice movements. The conversation drifts quickly onto Bolivia, the Magna Carta, Adam Smith (an old Chomsky favourite!) and Canadian Tar Sands. Blink and you miss it. Within a couple of pages we are back to talking about the risks of nuclear war again – then it’s all over.
There are no real stand-out moments. No great quotes. It qualifies as little more than a pamphlet – Chomsky on auto-pilot. In fact the only thing unique about this book is that it contains a very lengthy Appendices in which we get to glimpse a random array of the source material that Chomsky refers to throughout the interviews. One of the primary reasons for us taking Chomsky so seriously down the years is that he obsessively follows the evidence in the formation of his views. Even if you don’t agree with his angle you can’t argue that he is making it up. His citations are what really separate him from the right-wing shock-jocks of US talk radio. You just know where he is coming from. You might call it selective but he makes a point of choosing liberal sources to find very illiberal claims.
Probably the best part of the book (and that is saying much) is actually the Notes at the back – they are lengthy and go into quite a lot of detail. Worthy of a read in their own right.
So there you have it – a short review of a very short book. Buy it if you wish to complete your collection – but this is not the sort of thing that could be recommended as an “environmentalist’s introduction to Chomsky”. Chomsky, as usual, is as sharp as a knife. Time seems unable to dull him. But this is just not the most essential work recording his views. It is, at least, bang up to date – even if the narrative quickly goes back to events of fifty years ago. It’s Chomsky all over – if uninspiring.