Civilization and Its Malcontents

Published July 1, 2005

State of Fear
by Michael Crichton
$18.45 cloth, 603 pages; HarperCollins Publishers, December 2004
ISBN 0066214130

Michael Crichton’s latest novel is a significant cultural event.

In the past, his best-selling 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 Crichton, a popular mainstream author, has chosen to ridicule environmentalism and other left-wing political activism and to challenge the intelligentsia’s central ideas about civilization itself.

Manufactured Disasters

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. Morton is involved with so many of these 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 money to more radical eco-activists (modeled on real-life groups such as Earth First) to create four environmental disasters timed to occur during an international conference on global warming, sponsored by NERF.

Media Complicity

As Crichton’s narrative makes clear, the wealth created by modern economies is the one thing we can count on to make it possible to preserve the natural environment. Starving people can’t afford to worry about the ecosystem.

Unfortunately, the Western media do not understand these economic realities, and they are central to Crichton’s 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 [our] message,” a conspirator says.

Logic has nothing to do with it, he continues. “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 in a scene in which a TV weatherman reporting on a local flood is revealed to be reading verbatim from a news release from the NERF Web site. “That’s how they do it, these days,” says a government agent named Kenner. “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.”

Beholden to Special Interests

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, president of NERF, 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 and replace it with something they consider simpler and more humane … while 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.”

Keeping Developing Nations Poor

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 modern-day 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, that Western environmentalists long to destroy the modern economy that makes concern for the environment possible, and that a state of nature is a state of fear.

S.T. Karnick ([email protected]) is senior editor of The Heartland Institute, an associate fellow of the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research, and coeditor of The Reform Club.

For more information …

The Heartland Institute offers a feature on its Web site dedicated to following the debate over the science in State of Fear. It collects some of the many reviews, op-eds, and letters that the book has generated and also links to research on environmental issues and the environmental movement. Point your Web browser to and click on the Crichton Is Right! graphic.