I don't think anything is served by imagining a world of faceless villains. There isn't any 'they.' There're only people like us. If a corporation is polluting and the CEO sounds uninformed on TV, the chances are he's some guy who's in the middle of a divorce and whose kids are on drugs and he's got a lot on his mind, a big corporation to run, tired and pressured, this pollution issue is just one of many problems, and the government changes the regulations so often nobody can be sure whether he's breaking the law or not, and his aides aren't as smart as he'd like them to be, and they don't keep him as informed as he'd like to be, and maybe they even lie to him. This CEO doesn't want to appear like a jerk on TV. He's not happy he came off this way. But it happens, because he's just a guy trying to do his best and his best isn't always so hot. Who's any different?
What's really wrong with making 'them' the problem is that you abdicate your own responsibility. Once you say some mysterious 'they' are in charge, then you're able to sit back comfortably and complain about how 'they' are doing it. But maybe 'they' need help. Maybe 'they' need your ideas and your support and your letters and your active participation. Because you're not powerless, you are a participant in this world. It's your world, too.
-- Michael Crichton, "They"
Michael Crichton, author of many many popular science-tinged thrillers, as well as the creator of the television show E.R., died recently.
I have mixed, uncompleted feelings about Mr. Crichton. I've never read any of his books, yet I had a lot of interest in finding out more about him. I first encountered his work in high school when, I think, we watched the movie The Andromeda Strain in a science fiction class. (There can have been no better possible high school class in history than this...we sat around and watched movies I would watch anyway and read books I would read anyway and talked about them. Only annoying thing: I really didn't like test questions like this one about Fahrenheit 451: "Was Montag a good man or a bad man?")
The Andromeda Strain piqued my interest in Crichton due to the unusual mix of scientific and thriller content. I hadn't seen that before. The character who could suffer seizures from flashing lights also stuck with me as I started to discover how common that sort of thing was.
Yet, other than seeing the occasional movie based on his work or watching E.R., I never followed up on that strain of interest, in part because I got the sense his books might be potboilers of a sort I wouldn't actually find interesting to read.
In the last couple of years I came to know another aspect of Crichton when my partner pointed me to some of his speeches: His skepticism. This skepticism made him a very unpopular person with many, including other skeptics, who either felt he was inaccurate in his claims or who didn't like him challenging the received wisdom on sensitive subjects. Though I suspect his skeptical critics may well be right about some of his factual inaccuracies, I fear in their rush to judgment they overlook the fact that he was, in the end, a "fellow traveler" deserving of thoughtful consideration and debate, not shunning and rejection.
My concern when trying to understand the world and how to live in it is to know how a person thinks and comes to conclusions. Facts about such concepts as global warming or reducing global poverty are not very useful in and of themselves, because the systems involved are too complex to be expressed or encompassed by any particular fact or set of facts; no one is capable of understanding the complete system. What becomes important is how you process the facts that are available and what approach you take to making decisions when so much involved must be unknown. As such, I found Crichton's speech on Environmentalism as Religion to be compelling:
...I want it perfectly clear that I believe it is incumbent on us to conduct our lives in a way that takes into account all the consequences of our actions, including the consequences to other people, and the consequences to the environment. I believe it is important to act in ways that are sympathetic to the environment, and I believe this will always be a need, carrying into the future. I believe the world has genuine problems and I believe it can and should be improved.
...Today it is said we live in a secular society in which many people---the best people, the most enlightened people---do not believe in any religion. But I think that you cannot eliminate religion from the psyche of mankind. If you suppress it in one form, it merely re-emerges in another form. You can not believe in God, but you still have to believe in something that gives meaning to your life, and shapes your sense of the world. Such a belief is religious.
Today, one of the most powerful religions in the Western World is environmentalism. Environmentalism seems to be the religion of choice for urban atheists.
...There's an initial Eden, a paradise, a state of grace and unity with nature, there's a fall from grace into a state of pollution as a result of eating from the tree of knowledge, and as a result of our actions there is a judgment day coming for us all. We are all energy sinners, doomed to die, unless we seek salvation, which is now called sustainability. Sustainability is salvation in the church of the environment. Just as organic food is its communion, that pesticide-free wafer that the right people with the right beliefs, imbibe.
...Increasingly it seems facts aren't necessary, because the tenets of environmentalism are all about belief. It's about whether you are going to be a sinner, or saved. Whether you are going to be one of the people on the side of salvation, or on the side of doom. Whether you are going to be one of us, or one of them.
...There is no Eden. There never was. What was that Eden of the wonderful mythic past? Is it the time when infant mortality was 80%, when four children in five died of disease before the age of five? When one woman in six died in childbirth? When the average lifespan was 40, as it was in America a century ago. When plagues swept across the planet, killing millions in a stroke. Was it when millions starved to death? Is that when it was Eden?
And what about indigenous peoples, living in a state of harmony with the Eden-like environment? Well, they never did.
...You may have noticed that something has been left off the doomsday list, lately. Although the preachers of environmentalism have been yelling about population for fifty years, over the last decade world population seems to be taking an unexpected turn. Fertility rates are falling almost everywhere. As a result, over the course of my lifetime the thoughtful predictions for total world population have gone from a high of 20 billion, to 15 billion, to 11 billion (which was the UN estimate around 1990) to now 9 billion, and soon, perhaps less. There are some who think that world population will peak in 2050 and then start to decline. There are some who predict we will have fewer people in 2100 than we do today. Is this a reason to rejoice, to say halleluiah? Certainly not. Without a pause, we now hear about the coming crisis of world economy from a shrinking population. We hear about the impending crisis of an aging population. Nobody anywhere will say that the core fears expressed for most of my life have turned out not to be true.
...Okay, so, the preachers made a mistake. They got one prediction wrong; they're human. So what. Unfortunately, it's not just one prediction. It's a whole slew of them. We are running out of oil. We are running out of all natural resources. Paul Ehrlich: 60 million Americans will die of starvation in the 1980s. Forty thousand species become extinct every year. Half of all species on the planet will be extinct by 2000. And on and on and on.
With so many past failures, you might think that environmental predictions would become more cautious. But not if it's a religion. Remember, the nut on the sidewalk carrying the placard that predicts the end of the world doesn't quit when the world doesn't end on the day he expects. He just changes his placard, sets a new doomsday date, and goes back to walking the streets.
...I can tell you that DDT is not a carcinogen and did not cause birds to die and should never have been banned. I can tell you that the people who banned it knew that it wasn't carcinogenic and banned it anyway. I can tell you that the DDT ban has caused the deaths of tens of millions of poor people, mostly children, whose deaths are directly attributable to a callous, technologically advanced western society that promoted the new cause of environmentalism by pushing a fantasy about a pesticide, and thus irrevocably harmed the third world. Banning DDT is one of the most disgraceful episodes in the twentieth century history of America. We knew better, and we did it anyway, and we let people around the world die and didn't give a damn.
...Most of us have had some experience interacting with religious fundamentalists, and we understand that one of the problems with fundamentalists is that they have no perspective on themselves. They never recognize that their way of thinking is just one of many other possible ways of thinking, which may be equally useful or good. On the contrary, they believe their way is the right way, everyone else is wrong; they are in the business of salvation, and they want to help you to see things the right way. They want to help you be saved.
...Our record in the past, for example managing national parks, is humiliating. Our fifty-year effort at forest-fire suppression is a well-intentioned disaster from which our forests will never recover. We need to be humble, deeply humble, in the face of what we are trying to accomplish. We need to be trying various methods of accomplishing things. We need to be open-minded about assessing results of our efforts, and we need to be flexible about balancing needs.
I encourage you to check out his other speeches. Almost certainly you won't agree with everything -- I don't -- but almost certainly you will find that Michael Crichton has left behind a legacy of stimulating and challenging those who disagree with him, if they choose to listen.