Noam Chomsky and Laray Polk, Nuclear War and Environmental Catastrophe

Publisher: Seven Stories Press

2013, 160 pages, paperback, $14

When I was seven years old, the 1990 ABC Earth Day Special changed my life—for the worse. The all-star cast (which included Murphy Brown, Doogie Howser, Mork and several prominent Muppets) lamenting the deterioration of Mother Nature (Bette Midler in a leafy green outfit) under a black, lightning-streaked sky was all too ominous for my malleable young mind to handle. In re-watching the special over and over on VCR, I became obsessed with environmental decline. The hot-button issue at that time was the ozone layer, with the general consensus seeming to be that chlorofluorocarbons would dissolve the last of it away some time in the coming decade, leaving us all exposed to face-melting radiation. The year 2000 was often mentioned in estimates I encountered on TV programs and in articles, and the idea that world would most likely end before I turned eighteen became a source of constant anxiety in my young life—to the point I even asked my parents to send me to a psychiatrist. They failed to oblige on the therapy front, instead opting to cut the problem off at the source by taping over the offending ABC special and canceling my subscription to World magazine.

Whatever happened with the ozone situation, by the way? I’m asking seriously; nobody seems to talk about the CFC hole any more. Did roll-on deodorant fix the problem, or did we just up our SPF quotient and go on about our business?

Either way, it seems the green set have toned down the dramatics since the days of the Earth Day Special. As capitalism has taken a larger role in sustainability over the last 20 years, dystopian rhetoric has fallen away in favor of utopian alternatives — Priuses meandering crisp, smog-free mountain roads and whatnot. Overall, the new strategy seems to be working out pretty well, and as a result much of the “Little Chicken” rhetoric of 90’s environmentalist seems quaint these days, a relic from a simpler, more alarmist time.

Good luck convincing Noam Chomsky of any of that.

His recently published Nuclear War and Environmental Catastrophe seems designed from its core to hit every conservationist and geopolitical panic button in as rapid a succession as possible. Over the course of a frenetic seventy-five pages (not including definitions and appendices), Chomsky frantically cycles through a barrage of doom-and-gloom topics ranging from food production crises to the prospect of world-ending nuclear war.

The book is presented as a series of dialogues between Chomsky and co-author Polk. Polk, for her part, does little to probe or challenge Chomsky’s arguments; rather, she seems content to pitch softballs to her more famous interviewee. The conversational nature of their tête-à-tête allows Chomsky a wide birth of subject matter but not much depth on any single topic, and at times Chomsky’s take-my-word-for-it rhetoric and lack of context comes off as suspect.

For instance, when touting the superiority of Chinese solar cell manufacturing over that of the United States, Chomsky fails to make the connection that Chinese developments in green technologies were only made possible from piggybacking off decades of primary research at Western institutions—his own Massachusetts Institute of Technology included. What’s more, Chomsky completely sidesteps China’s checkered history of human rights violations in factory industries, an issue that is surely relevant when discussing the country’s competitive edge in manufacturing of any kind.

Another example of the book’s limitations includes the opening of the second section, which focuses on the dark past of MIT, where Chomsky has spent the majority of his academic career. Here he recalls a “secret agreement made between MIT and the shah of Iran [in the 1970’s], which pretty much amounted to turning over the Nuclear Engineering Department to the shah…for some unspecified but probably large sum of money,” which he asserts “could have become a nuclear weapons program.” It’s an intriguing pot to stir, maybe even one worthy of a larger, more thorough work, but Chomsky’s shadowy lack of specificity in this slim volume amounts to little more than the stuff of conspiracy theories.

As many issues as I have with the book, I will admit I culled some useful writing tricks from it. While his sense of plot wobbles from time to time, Chomsky certainly knows how to raise the stakes and milk events for maximum drama. For these reasons, I recommend the book to any fellow fiction writers looking to pick up some useful tips for their own work.

—Graeme Mullen