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State of Weird
Anti-environmentalism, global warming, and the techno-thriller: this book is just plain weird.
I want to believe that Michael Crichton’s new bestseller, State of Fear, is an experimental novel. But apparently not, because everyone’s comparing it to his other wildly successful novels. So now I think this book is just plain weird.
Over the past five years the global warming front has become a major battle zone for the so-called culture wars in the United States. As with all cultural battle zones, we find a proliferation of hype, bravado, foolishness, and opinion dressed up as fact. Cognitive dissonance becomes the norm, and weirdness on all sorts of funky levels takes over. In State of Fear Chrichton literally seeks to prove that global warming is a hoax, that science has gone political, and that environmentalists are a bunch of sniveling, idiotic agents of evil (and ridiculous to boot, since the plan of the mastermind nonprofit executive director Nick Drake is to fund eco-terrorists in a plot to fake natural disasters in order to prove that global warming is a real and immediate threat).
I was hoping that State of Fear was an experimental novel because otherwise you couldn’t really call it a novel. Although there’s a plot of sorts, and people running around doing nefarious things, Crichton uses his characters as puppets or avatars for a discussion he wants to have with us on the scientific merits of the claim that global warming is indeed a real phenomenon with disastrous consequences for the human race. Chrichton’s intention is to convince us otherwise. This is actually a white paper on why anti-environmentalists are the real good guys.
The story comes with references to real world scientific papers, several complicated unnerving graphs, numerous footnotes, a bibliography, and umpty-nine author’s notes at the end. Missing, for reasons that are totally unclear, is an index. But the book is a full-frontal assault on greenies everywhere and depicts them as diabolical, cowardly, and just plain dumb. As an environmentalist, I found myself waking up in the middle of the night convinced that I was the enemy and that my door was going to be knocked down at any minute by jackbooted He-Men from the Cato Institute or the Reason Foundation. In this regard, Michael Crichton’s experimental novel seems to have worked. The book is less of a read than a cultural experience. Here’s why.
The weirdest thing about State of Fear is the main character, Peter Evans. Peter Evans is you. Crichton uses Evans as a kind of cipher point-of-view, a blank slate, a guy with no real understanding about global warming, a tabula rasa with "just a feeling"—all so that Evans as the focal point of view can approximate the average non-eco-savvy reader’s mindset.
The object of this piece of experimental fiction is for the hero, John Kenner, MIT super-brain and secret agent, to convince Evans (you) that the scientific evidence for man’s contribution to global warming is at best a strange little plot perpetrated on the world by Henny Penny environmentalists, incompetent scientists, facile minded politicians, foolish famous actors, and diabolical liberal environmental lawyers. This is not a joke. It is very clear that Crichton is first and foremost interested in "teaching" us about the false science of global warming. Despite the fact that organizations like the National Academy of Sciences, NASA’s Goddard Space Institute, the International Panel on Climate Change (the U.N. organization at the heart of everything, comprised of 2,000 scientists from 100 countries), and even the Pentagon have all emphatically stated that there is ample evidence human beings are contributing to global warming, and that it is likely that these contributions will grow in impact as the 21st century limps along, Crichton goes out of his way to insist not that the scientific community is nothing but a bunch of crackpots. This is, apparently, why he has mixed in what amount to one-sided lectures in the story to dumb-ass Peter Evans and a silly actor who is a caricature of Martin Sheen the star of the television show The West Wing.
Crichton appears to have a secondary purpose with his "novel" as well: to paint a stereotype of environmentalists as essentially evil-minded mercenaries, interested only in justifying the millions of dollars in grant money they receive. This view of liberal do-gooders is akin to Ayn Rand’s numerous depictions of those who believe in altruism as evil in the face of objective self-interest. State of Fear brings into popular culture the idea that environmentalists and scientists are boobs and dupes—or worse—just like Ayn Rand did with communists and socialists in the middle 20th century. But the truth is scientists and environmentalists are not boobs and dupes. Most of us believe in making a better world. We’re concerned about our children and our children’s children. We love nature. We are intrigued by the challenges of life and want to learn as much as we can about why things are the way they are. Indeed, there are stooges and manipulators in high levels of government, academia, and the corporate world, but most of them are not scientists or environmentalists.
There are really two things that are going on in State of Fear. On the one hand is the storyline: good guys trying to stop a bad guy conspiracy. On the other hand is Chrichton’s series of didactic conversations that people have with Evans trying to convince him of the ill intentions of those who have concocted the notion that global warming is something to fear. In between action scenes, Chrichton’s protagonists spend some 100 pages of dialogue trying to prove to us that science is completely wrong. They go so far as to say that global warming is part of the PLM—the politico-legal-media complex. Where once we were cautioned about the military-industrial complex, now we must guard against the PLM, whose main tool is fear. And what greater form of fear to wield than the possibility that the way we live our lives will inevitably create catastrophic climate change, dooming us all to a future of chaotic weather and unpredictable privation?
Here’s the thing: in the real world, not Chrichton’s fictional world, scientists are working hard to understand exactly what’s going on with the weather. Their data indisputably shows that the average global annual temperature has gone up a few degrees in the past hundred years. But if you read what they’re writing, it’s pretty clear that they are still struggling with the implications of all of this. They don’t understand all the mechanisms, and their models are only as good as the variables and data that they have. Even Chrichton in his author’s notes at the end of the book says: "Atmospheric carbon dioxide is increasing, and human activity is the probable cause." He also writes: "Nobody knows how much of the present warming trend might be a natural phenomenon…Nobody knows how much of the present warming trend might be man-made."
So, why does he spend 567 pages basing his entire book on the idea that global warming is a hoax and scientists are part of a worldwide conspiracy? There are people all over the United States who now believe that State of Fear demonstrates that global warming isn’t real and that environmentalists have just made the whole thing up to get grant money—even though it’s just a piece of fiction.
Science is just a set of discussions about things we notice in the world around us. The global warming discussion is a fairly new one and it will take another decade or more to talk through all the details. In the mean time, we have a choice: we can either ignore the problem by saying it doesn’t exist, or we can begin to act in ways that at least partially seem like they might mitigate that problem if it does. This is why environmentalists are pushing for action now. This is what the Kyoto Protocol (that the United States and Australia refuse to sign) is all about. Most nations in the world support toning down the excess and trying to figure out how to be more creative about living in the world.
There are two lessons that I have learned from State of Fear. First, Chrichton’s bizarre experimental fiction is the latest fulmination from the only people who are afraid of global warming and what it implies—those who feel that life is just fine the way it is, that it would be even better if businesses and industry were completely unregulated so that they could do whatever they want. But it seems to me that the only people afraid of global warming are those who stand in opposition to environmentalism and what it really means: a better world with less destruction and more resource efficiency.
In fact, I personally don’t know many people who are anti-environmental, but I know a huge number who are concerned about where we are going as a global society. Most of the people I know are concerned about the war in Iraq, the fact that gasoline prices have skyrocketed, and that there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of ideas coming out of Washington that will move us forward positively in the 21st century.
I’ve also learned something else: the environmental community has made global warming a sort of Moby Dick issue. Global warming in many ways encompasses all the main issues environmentalists have been concerned about since the 1970s—energy, deforestation, species extinction, industrial pollution, combustion, transportation, and so on. It’s the mother of all poetic critiques of the status quo. Without question, if I were anti-environmental, the very idea that there may soon be proof that global warming is real would make me quiver in my boots. No wonder Chrichton feels that the pursuit of grant money for research is an evil thing.
But this is where the environmental community needs to ask itself if it’s doing the world a favor by raising its Moby Dick above everything else. Just bringing the term up in casual conversation confuses people. It certainly makes people worry. It points at a problem, but not a solution. The solutions to global warming don’t need proof that the weather will destroy us all in order to be justifiable. We need to get militant about public transportation, recycling, alternative fuel vehicles, polluting power plants, and deforestation. We need to connect environmental issues once and for all to long-term global prosperity. This country is at war because of the geopolitics of oil. Fresh water and adequate food are the cause of numerous wars in the Third World. The list of big-time issues goes on and on. I’m not advocating an end to climate research. But it does seem to me that we’d be better off doing guerilla warfare than mass public relations and lobbying about a great white whale.
Finally, let me say this: I didn’t mean for this essay to come out sounding like a book review. But if it did, you would be advised not to plunk down twenty some odd bucks if what you’re after is a good "techno-thriller" read. State of Fear is certainly the worst Chrichton book out there, indicative of a publishing industry that has no sense of quality and little respect for readers. The plot is predictable, the characters are cartoonish, and what little mystery there is disappears halfway through the story. But I highly recommend reading State of Fear anyway in order to witness one of the weirder acts of intellectual hubris to come along in quite awhile. And if you’re concerned about the environmental culture war, you owe it yourself to read this book and then go online and Google all the articles you can find both in support of what Chrichton has done and also criticizing his work. It’s quite a weird experience all the way around.
Here are a couple good places to start. One’s pro and one’s con. You decide which is which: