What’s behind the State of Fear?

Michael Crichton's latest blockbuster asks some good questions, but shoots at the wrong target.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Books

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State of Fear, by Michael Crichton, Harper Collins.

‘Clinton did it, Gore did it, that blithering science minister in England did it.’ Halfway through Michael Crichton’s new blockbuster State of Fear, two of the evil environmentalists are discussing how to raise awareness of their cause: by claiming that every extreme weather event ‘is an example of abrupt climate change caused by global warming’.

This isn’t fiction. In the past few years, it has become a given that prominent campaign groups and top politicians will pounce upon random, extreme weather events in order to make pronouncements about the dire threat of global warming, despite the lack of any link between the two phenomena.

What is fiction, of course, is the plot of the novel. An environmentalist organisation putting on a conference titled ‘Abrupt Climate Change – the catastrophe ahead’ is so keen to create the right PR impact that it conspires with eco-terrorists to engineer actual catatrophes in the real world: a massive iceberg, flash floods, and a tsunami heading towards California. A wimpish, green-leaning lawyer (Peter Evans) discovers his masculine side and saves the day, aided by two smart-and-stunning women and led by an academic from MIT who has become an undercover operative charged with fighting eco-terrorism. Anybody who stands in the eco-terrorists’ way is maimed or murdered by a poisonous octupus. And that’s before we get to the cannibals….

The plot is, as a review in the Boston Globe put it, ‘utterly preposterous’ (1). Of course it is: this is Michael Crichton, who brought dinosaurs back to life in Jurassic Park. And so what? As a novel, State of Fear is fine – it drags in places, irritates in others, but it’s a compelling Crichton-esque page-turner that’s great on a long plane journey.

But it’s not because of his fiction that Crichton has found himself despised as the bete noir of the green movement, and embraced as the darling of the climate change sceptics. It’s because the novel is a self-conscious attempt to expose some truths about the modern environmentalist movement, and to put across some prejudices – in the novel itself, and also in an ‘Author’s note’ and essay on ‘Why politicised science is dangerous’ at the end of the novel. Both Crichton’s critics and his supporters struggle to separate the truths from the prejudices, and consequently both sides do the book a disservice.

It is true that there is great uncertainty about the extent and cause of global warming. It is true that the propaganda about global warming simplifies, politicises and often distorts the science in order to present a clear, but wrong, message about impending catastrophe. It is true that anybody who questions the orthodoxy on global warming risks being labelled a denier, a dangerous pariah.

These are all core themes of State of Fear, and if they make some supporters of the environmentalist cause squirm, so much the better. As we have previously argued on spiked, it is necessary to separate the science of climate change from the moral and political orthodoxy that surrounds it, which uncritically accepts the worst-case scenarios and demands further restraints on economic development and human behaviour. Far too little has been done to challenge this orthodoxy – and Crichton should be applauded for trying to do it.

But that should not mean accepting all of Crichton’s prejudices – the most significant of which relates to the power of the green movement. In State of Fear, a highly-funded, mainstream and apparently respectable organisation is behind all the deadly shenanigans. International scientists speaking at its conference are in on the game, having been informed in advance about the artificially engineered extreme weather events and their devastating consequences; hypocritical celebrities popularise the message for their own egos, which greatly benefits the cause. The implication of the novel, which Crichton spells out in his ‘Author’s message’, is that if there were fewer lawyers involved in the green movement, and scientific research was conducted via a ‘nonpartisan, blinded funding mechanism’, things could be very different.

Emphasising the power, financial resources and hypocrisy of the green movement is a popular prejudice among those sceptical of the global warming orthodoxy, who often struggle to understand why calls for economic restrainst, based on politicised science and hyperbolic claims, have such a purchase in society today. But the climate change orthodoxy, the precautionary principle and the ethos of sustainable development – all of which Crichton robustly criticises – come from the top of society, not from some well-funded, PR-savvy pressure groups at the fringes.

‘Clinton did it, Gore did it, that blithering science minister in England did it’ – throughout the developed world, it is the political establishment that has fuelled fears about global warming and promoted the culture of restraint. Fear about the consequences of climate change, and guilt about its presumed causes, are the result of a broader loss of faith in economic development, social progress, and man’s ability to control nature.

Uncertainty about the world we live in today – our ability to control it, and the lack of any sense about how we would control it even if we could – is what informs all discussions and actions among the political and intellectual elites. In this context, the exaggerated claims of environmentalist organisations gain greater purchase. But while such organisations benefit from the weakness at the centre of society, they do not cause it; and when it comes to scaremongering about global warming, government propaganda is far more of a problem than green PR.

Crichton’s novel does make a fleeting attempt to suggest that there is more to the climate change orthodoxy than simply the antics of the greens. A chapter is devoted to the bumbling professor Norman Hoffman, who regales Peter Evans with an incoherent diatribe about how we came to live in a State of Fear. According to Hoffman, the end of the Cold War led to the western world becoming dominated by something called the ‘politico-legal-media complex’ (‘the PLM’), which is ‘dedicated to promoting fear in the population – under the guise of promoting safety’ – and universities have abandoned their formerly enlightened role to become ‘factories of fear’. The professor then disappears as suddenly as he arrived.

While you want to appreciate Crichton’s attempt to go beyond green-bashing, this is easily the naffest part of the novel, interfering with the plot far more than the temperature charts and footnotes that appear elsewhere. Not only is it impossible to expound a theory of the world since 1989 in thirteen pages of a 600-page popular novel – this theory, such as it is, both exaggerates and underestimates the problem.

The culture of fear is not a conscious conspiracy, manufactured for political and legal gain. While politicians might make cheap points about terrorist threats or environmental apolocalypse, it is clear that today’s heightened preoccupation with risk stultifies political life in general, and works against any meaningful political action, so it is hard to see who really benefits. But the culture of fear is real and all-pervasive, and while it can certainly be challenged it cannot be simply crushed by an alternative ideology – it influences all sides of political debate. So where Bush and Blair, who, unlike the greens, are in power, pursue the politics of the fear of terror, their critics use the same language. Witness Sir David King, the UK’s chief scientific officer, arguing that global warming is in fact the biggest threat of all (2).

Crichton’s struggle to expound a broader theory does illustrate why misconceived ideas about the power of the green movement have become so popular among those who wish to challenge the climate change orthodoxy. There is no one, straightforward reason why environmental doom-mongering has taken hold of our world, and nor is there one straightforward solution. It is often easier to blame the eco-warrior than it is to seek out and challenge the mainstream political cause of our current malaise.

‘We need a new environmental movement, with new goals and new organisations,’ states Crichton, in his much-derided ‘Author’s note’. In fact, we need new politics, with more people prepared to ask uncomfortable questions and create a debate around issues where consensus is simply assumed.

(1) Preposterous plot saps Crichton novel, Boston Globe, 3 March 2005

(2) Global warming ‘biggest threat’, BBC News, 9 January 2004

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