Michael Crichton's latest novel may not be a great literary event, but it is a significant cultural event. In the past, his bestselling books have sparked public interest in genetic engineering, sexual harassment law, biotechnology, New Age religious thought, the search for extraterrestrial life, changing medical technology and bioethics, corporate ethics scandals, and other important trends. Now Crichtona popular mainstream authorhas chosen to ridicule left-wing political activism and challenge the intelligentsia's central ideas about civilization itself.
State of Fear's protagonist, Peter Evans, is personal attorney to multibillionaire George Morton, a political liberal who bankrolls a dizzying array of left-wing causes and organizations. In fact, Morton is involved with so many efforts that it is difficult for either him or Evans to keep track of where all the money is going.
One of the activist groups Morton supports most lavishly, the National Environmental Resource Fund (NERF), has come up with a plan to show the world, once and for all, global warming's dire consequences for both the environment and humanity. NERF is diverting a huge amount of money earmarked for another environmental project to even more radical eco-activists (modeled on real-life groups such as Earth First) to create four huge environmental disasters timed to occur during a major international conference on global warming, sponsored by NERF.
Their plan is to punctuate the each day of the conference with news of a gigantic iceberg breaking off Antarctica, a devastating flash flood in the American Southwest, a destructive hurricane on the U.S. east coast, and a catastrophic tsunami in Los Angeles, the very city where the conference is taking place. Of course, NERF experts and other conference participants will be on hand to explain to the hungry media exactly what it all means.
The plan will boost the activists' new worldwide PR campaign which claims that global warming will not just warm the earth (which does not greatly concern the general public, as polls and focus groups have long shown) but will create disastrous environmental calamities that will devastate human populations around the world.
At which point, according to the plan, the world's governments turn to the real expertsNERF and its alliesfor advice on precisely what should be done (naturally, limiting economic activity in the wealthy nations tops the list). NERF president Nick Drake and his associates believe the global crisis warrants such a monstrous plan, which will cost a few hundred thousand human lives. Only a small group led by a brilliant and mysterious government agent named Kenner is working to prevent the disasters. This leads to a fanciful series of adventures that strain credibility (and to some very well-reasoned discussions of climate scienceCrichton even goes to the trouble of including numerous graphs and scientific footnotes to back his characters' claims).
The media are central to the story. To turn public opinion around, NERF and its allies concentrate on media exposure. The idea is "to structure the information so that whatever kind of weather occurs, it always confirms [their] message," a conspirator says. Logic has nothing to do with it, he continues. "All we need is for the media to report it. . . . Don't you remember how long it took to establish the global threat of nuclear winter? It took five days. . . . Without a single published scientific paper."
The plan exploits the media's narrow-minded laziness in ways that will ring true with readers. Crichton shows this beautifully with a scene in which a TV weatherman reporting on a local flood is revealed to be reading verbatim from a press release from the NERF website. Because he agrees with NERF's position and the information is so readily available, the journalist has no qualms about using the material and has no idea that he is being manipulated. "That's how they do it, these days," Kenner says. "They don't even bother to change a phrase here and there. They just read the copy outright. And of course, what he's saying is not true."
Crichton also does a good job of showing that environmental activists are every bit as beholden to special interests as are the industry people they despise. The author is most sympathetic with the scientists caught in the middle of the debate, but as he shows, they are often all too willing to shade their conclusions, even if unconsciously, to match the needs of their funders. As Nick Drake says, "Scientists can't adopt that lofty attitude anymore. They can't say, 'I do the research, and I don't care how it is used.' That's out of date. It's irresponsible…. Because like it or not, we're in the middle of a war."
Drake thinks this is a war against evil industrialists, but Crichton knows what it is really about. The activists want to destroy Western civilization itself and replace it with something they consider simpler and more humanewhile they retain the same prosperity and comfort they have now. For instance, TV actor and eco-activist Ted Bradley says that life in Third World villages is "best and ecologically soundest. Frankly, I think everyone in the world should live that way. And certainly, we should not be encouraging village people to industrialize. That's the problem." Kenner replies, "So you want to stay in a hotel, but you want everybody else to stay in a village." Bradley denies it, of course, but it's obviously true, and it is an attitude we've heard stated in many different ways in recent years. The actor's ultimate fate is an ironic and revealing demonstration of exactly what is at stake here.
In fact, these activists hate the very idea of civilization. And as Crichton notes repeatedly, the environmental laws they back only further impoverish developing nations. Thus, while trying to undermine civilization at home, they thwart its spread abroad.
"You just don't get it," Kenner tells the arrogant actor Bradley. "You think civilization is some horrible, polluting human invention that separates us from the state of nature. But civilization doesn't separate us from nature, Ted. Civilization protects us from nature. Because what you see right now, all around you [a merciless band of cannibals]this is nature."
Wealthy lawyers, journalists, actors, and musicians can afford to romanticize nature and blather on about how wicked and unfair Western civilization is, because that civilization pampers and protects them from all of nature's ugly realities and cruelties. Crichton's book reminds us that civilization is a good thing, and that a state of nature is a state of fear.