Saturday, November 26, 2005

State of Fear?

I read State of Fear, by Michael Crichton on the plane out to LA. After I was done, I realized one great thing about fiction is that for any idea you have, you can assign exactly the amount of credibility you wish it to have simply by carefully choosing which of your characters will propagate it. In State of Fear there’s John Kenner, the genius ass-kicker; Peter Evans, the well-meaning environmental naif; George Morton, the benevolent philanthropist; Nick Drake, the Lex Luther of the tree-huggers, and a few others. Whatever Kenner says is gospel, but Evans’ words are misguided do-gooderism. The plot twists might surprise, but the worldview of the author is obvious: the crises proclaimed by the environmental movement are overblown, especially global warming.

In a literary sense, this might be sort of a disconnect: what kind of eco-thriller is based on the premise that our environmental challenges are not that big a deal one way or the other? In a sense, that’s part of the genius of Crichton’s device. His thesis is that we should be worrying about malevolent political and cultural agendas instead. By comparison, people driving SUVs and minding their own business is pretty small beer. And if people have a problem with this for scientific reasons, it is well-justified historically. Whatever human ills may have been caused by environmental despoilation, they are certainly dwarved by the malevolent political agendas and those who have pursued them.

And it should also be obvious that the environmental movement is strongly attached to a political agenda that may well be a malevolent one. And whether it is or not is dependent on two things. First, on whether the disaster scenarios the environmentalists want to warn us about are, in fact, likely. I personally have a strong hunch that they’re not likely, but like most people, I don’t presume to pronounce definitively on the subject on way or another.

The second consideration is a little more subtle, but probably more important. Is the intent of the environmental movement to serve the human interest, or to dictate it? The cynics among us have little regard for the good motives of the activists, but the issue is unclear even among the environmentalists themselves. There’s a temptation that being in communion with Mother Earth is a more noble thing than the petty concerns of the small-minded people who happen to be our neighbors.

In an addendum, Crichton compares today’s environmentalists with the eugenics movement early in the 20th century. The comparison is unflattering, but at least somewhat legitimate. Crichton is correct to emphasize that at the time, eugenics was thought to have an irreproachable "scientific" pedigree, and in fact its enthusiasts never ceased of proclaiming it. Conscientious environmentalists who object to being lumped together with the eugenicists (which is all of them, I hope) should still allow that those who claim to speak with "scientific" accuracy cannot intimidate the other parties in the crucial cultural debates of our day.


Jason Roberts said...

What could possibly be malevolent about a political agenda that stresses the importance of treading lightly on our most valuable resource - Earth?

Koz said...

"What could possibly be malevolent about a political agenda that stresses the importance of treading lightly on our most valuable resource - Earth?"

As I was trying to get at in the original post, it depends on intent. If we tread lightly on the Earth so that we may live here profitably for many years, that's fine. But, if the intent is to buzzkill life as we know it, we should see it as such and react accordingly.

Btw, what is treading lightly supposed to mean? If I wear bedroom slippers instead of running shoes, does that help?

Jason Roberts said...

Here's a little reality check for you: