Tuesday, August 22, 2017

State of Fear

State of Fear
© 2004 Michael Chrichton
672 pages

I stumbled upon State of Fear via Rousseau, oddly enough. Wikiquote’s page on Rousseau included an excerpt from a Michael Crichton article rebuking Rousseau’s “noble savage” myth. The article in question scrutinized political environmentalism, and after reading it I decided to give State of Fear a try. In the article, Crichton drew the same parallel between environmentalism and cultural christianity that I personally observed about peak oil scenarios after I encountered Jim Kunstler*. Crichton‘s work is more cultural criticism than novel, however, given that his introduction effectively spoils the plot: the reader knows in advance that nothing at all is going to happen aside from a few deaths on the far side of the world. The real reason to read the novel is to understand what Crichton means by a ‘state of fear’, and how politics is involved.

The plot in question is fairly simple: an environmental group is preparing the launch of a major initiative, and as part of the campaign they want to engineer a few natural disasters that will unfold within the same week. Their major political donor catches wind that something odd is going on, and in the midst of pulling their funding he seems to commit suicide. A few good guys stumble upon the plot, midway through the Crichton Lecture arrives, and then the novel wraps up just as the introduction indicated it would. I didn't care about any of the characters, and poked along entirely for the author arguments.

The Crichton Lecture is part of any Crichton novel, and usually apprises the reader on the limits of knowledge and the arrogance of power. Here, it speculates that since the end of the Cold War, the powers that be (a political-legal complex supplanting the military-industrial complex) have sought to maintain the same level of constant dread among the American populace through one bogey or another, and at present the imminent collapse of the environment is their favorite. It has proved to have multiple heads; looming extinctions, natural disasters, and resource depletion are but a few. As is usual for a Crichton novel, he presents readers with the same information that the characters are faced with: in this case, graphs. Crichton does not dispute the growing rise of carbon dioxide, or that humans are responsible; what he disputes is that there has been a global increase in temperatures as a result. Crichton mainly uses a series of graphs that indicates that temperatures in North America have been more constant that not, and a series of city heat records that calls the “main” graph, the one showing correlated heat and CO2 rises, into question. He argues, via one of the characters, that the data used in the main graph indicating rising temperatures is based on flawed data. How seriously can we data produced in China during its decades of turmoil, for instance? Other arguments, like that the weakening of Antarctic ice is localized to one peninsula and that Antarctica as a whole has been gaining ice -- after several thousand years of losing it -- are also included.

Frankly, this isn’t an argument I care to wade in to.  My environmental sensibilities are rooted in immediate stewardship, not far-off dangers --  in taking care of what is given to us. This means cleaning up after ourselves and not being wasteful; my own interests in humane urbanism and fiscal sustainability promote "environmental" measures.  That said, my  experience with doom forecasters like Kunstler, and my regular reading of  environmental writers like Wendell Berry and Edward Abbey (who have criticized DC‘s mismanagement of land) has induced a heavy amount of skepticism about the efficacy of politically-motivated technocratic intervention However, the bulk of Crichton’s argument was based on that large graph, and not on anything like ice core studies. Since reading the book I’ve been googling about reading articles about particular claims, and the flicker of interest has been squashed down again by the name-calling. I think I will just keep cleaning up after myself. If the oceans rise and we are replaced by dolphins, well -- it’s not that much of a loss.

*To quote from my 2008 "Response", written shortly after listening to Kunstler at my university:

It's a secular doomsday scenario. While religious scenarios see society destroyed by the corruption of sin, followed by the restoration of proper living and morality, this scenario sees society undermined by a dependence on "free energy" and a return to "simpler" living, to 'sustainability'. 


  1. This is the book that stopped me reading Crichton. I liked him quite a bit up to this point. I'd read most of his stuff and even forgave him the questionable 'Prey' which preceded it. Then I read out this one and shook my head sadly. Never again, I thought... and I never have.

    Regarding Climate Change though.... I'll see if any upcoming posts @ my place can make you slightly less sceptical... [grin]

  2. I'm not skeptical about climate change in the least -- any student of history knows that climate change is a feature, one we have contributed to. (See the desalinization in India and Babylon, for instance.) My skepticism regards solutions, particularly the idea that there's something we can just "do". Reality bites back. A few years ago I encountered David Owen's "Conundrum" which put the problem before me. We make fuel-efficient cars and drive more. Authors like Douglas Preston (who documented the Parks Administrations' unwitting destruction of southwestern biomes when intending to save them) have helped undermine my faith in confident attempts to manage something so vast as Nature herself.

    I am overdue for a little reading on that subject myself, of course..

  3. It's rather interesting that you have little problem with us causing (or contributing to) the problem but you don't think that we can do anything (or much) about it. I think if we're pumping the CO2 into the atmosphere - for example - that it should be too difficult to see about controlling that or even taking it back out again.... Just think of the money to be made! [grin]

    1. That's SHOULDN'T be rather than SHOULD be too difficult... [lol]

    2. You may remember me reading a book a few years ago called "Seeing Like a State", which addressed (in part) the problem of legibility. In this instance, a large problem is being reduced to a 'simple' answer. We have reduced the complexity of the climate to a single blurb and so believe we have a handle on it -- that is, it's legible, it's something we can manipulate. Every time we try to manipulate an ecosystem, things go awry -- there are variables we didn't consider, and suddenly Australia is filled with enormous rabbits.

      In candor, I confess I'm so disgusted/put off by the state's frequent calamities that when it gets excited about something, I get suspicious. They could cure cancer and I'd darkly suspect the cure is worse than the disease, somehow. Usually science is a good remedy for my periods of gloominess after reading too much about society and the government....I will see if it has its usual salutatory effect.


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