USA Today (Society for the Advancement of Education), March, 2004 by Michael Crichton
THE GREATEST CHALLENGE facing mankind is to distinguish reality from fantasy, truth from propaganda. Perceiving the truth always has been a dilemma, but in the Information Age–or, as I think of it, the Disinformation Age–it takes on a special urgency and importance. We must decide daily whether the threats we face are real or not, and whether the solutions we are offered will do any good. Every one of us has a sense of the world, and we all know that this sense is in part supplied by the people around us and the society we live in; in part generated by our own emotional state, which we project outward; and in part results from actual perceptions of the world. In short, our straggle to determine what is valid is the need to decide which of our perceptions are genuine and which are false.
As an example of this challenge to mankind, I want to talk about environmentalism. In order not to be misunderstood, I need to be perfectly clear that I believe it is incumbent on us to live our lives in a way that takes into account all the consequences of our actions, including those to other people and the environment. I believe it is important to act in ways that am sympathetic to the biosphere. I feel the world has genuine difficulties and that they can and should be improved. Yet, I also think that deciding what constitutes responsible action is immensely complicated, and the results of our deeds very often are hard to know in advance. I suppose our past record of environmental action is discouraging, to put it mildly, because even our best intended efforts often have gone awry. Moreover, we do not recognize our previous failures or face them squarely–and I think I know why.
While studying anthropology in college, one of the things we learned was that certain human social structures always resurface. They cannot be eliminated. One of those is religion. It is said we live in a secular society in which many people–the best and most enlightened–do not believe in any creed. However, you cannot eliminate religion from the psyche of mankind. If you suppress it in one form, it merely reemerges in another. You may not believe in God, but yon 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. It seems to be the faith of choice for urban atheists. Why do I say it is a religion? Well, just look carefully at the beliefs. What you see is a perfect 21st-century mapping of traditional Judeo-Christian dogma and myths. For example, there is an initial Eden, a Paradise, a state of innocence and unity in nature; there is 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. We all are energy sinners, doomed to die, unless we seek deliverance, which now is called sustainability. Sustainability is salvation in the church of the environment, just as organic food is its Communion.
Eden, the fall of man, the loss of grace, the coming doomsday–these are deeply held mythic structures. They are profoundly conservative concepts. They even may be hardwired in the brain. I certainly do not wish to talk anyone out of them, just as I have no desire to dissuade anybody out of a belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who rose from the dead. The reason that I have no wish to debate these convictions is that I know that I cannot. These are not facts that can be argued; these are issues of faith.
So it is, sadly, with environmentalism. Increasingly, it seems, facts are not necessary, because the tenets of environmentalism are all about belief. It is about whether you are going to be a sinner or saved, one of the people on the side of salvation or on the side of doom, one of us or one of them. Am I exaggerating to make a point? I am afraid not. Because we understand a lot more about the world than we did 40 or 50 years ago, our new knowledge base is not really supportive of certain core environmental myths, yet they refuse to die. Let us examine some of those notions.
There is no Eden. There never was. When was that Garden of the wonderful mythic past? Was it the time when infant mortality was 80%, when four children in five died of disease before the age of five? Was it a time when one woman in six died in childbirth; when the average lifespan was 40, as it was in the U.S. a century ago; when plagues swept across the planet, killing millions in a stroke; when millions more starved to death? Was that Paradise?
What about indigenous peoples, living in a state of harmony in an Eden-like environment? Well, they never did. On this continent, the newly arrived travelers who crossed the land bridge from Asia almost immediately set about wiping out hundreds of species of large animals, and they did this several thousand years before the white man showed up to accelerate the process. What was the condition of life’? Loving, peaceful, harmonious? Hardly. The people of the New World lived in a state of constant warfare–generations of hatred and perpetual battles. The warlike tribes of this continent are famous even today: the Comanche, Sioux, Apache, Mohawk, Aztec, Toltec, Inca. Some of them practiced infanticide and human sacrifice. Those clans that were not fiercely warlike were exterminated or learned to build their villages high in the cliffs to attain some measure of safety.
How about the human condition in the rest of the world? The Maori of New Zealand committed massacres regularly. The Dyaks of Borneo were headhunters. The Polynesians, living in surroundings as close to Eden as one can imagine, fought continually, and created a society so hideously restrictive that you could lose your life for stepping in the footprint of a chief. It was the Polynesians who gave us the very concept of taboo, as well as the word itself. The noble savage is a fantasy. That anyone still believes it, 200 years after philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, shows the tenacity of religious myths and their ability to hang on in the face of centuries of factual contradiction. There even was an academic movement, during the latter 20th century, that claimed that cannibalism was a white man’s invention to demonize indigenous races. (Only academics could fight such a battle.) It was some 30 years before professors finally agreed that yes, the ritualistic consumption of human flush indeed does occur. Meanwhile, all during this time, New Guinea highlanders continued to eat the brains of their enemies, until they finally were made to understand that they risked kuru, a fatal neurological disease. Remember, too, that the African Pygmies have one of the highest murder rates on the planet. Conversely, the gentle Tasaday of the Philippines turned out to be a publicity stunt, a non-existent entity.
In short, the romantic view of the natural world as a blissful Eden is only held by people who have no actual experience of nature. Those who do are not romantic about it. They may hold spiritual beliefs about the world around them; they may have a sense of the unity of nature or the aliveness of all living things, but they still kill animals mad uproot plants in order to eat and to survive. If they do not, they will die.
If you put yourself in nature, if only for a matter of days, you quickly will be disabused of all your romantic fantasies. Take a trek through the jungles of Borneo, and in short order you will have festering sores on your skin and bugs all over your body, biting in your hair and crawling up your nose and into your ears. You will have infections and sickness, and if you are not with somebody who knows what he or she is doing, you very rapidly will starve to death. Chances are that even in the jungles of Borneo you will not experience nature so directly since you will have covered your entire body with DEET.
The truth is, almost nobody wants to experience real nature. What people desire is to spend a week or two in a cabin in the woods, with screens on the windows. They want a simplified life for a while, a nice river rafting trip for a few days, with somebody else doing the cooking. Nobody wants to go back to nature in any real sense, mad no one does. It is all talk, mad as the years go on and the world population grows increasingly urban, it is uninformed talk. Farmers know of what they speak; city people do not. They just have their fantasies.
One way to measure the prevalence of fantasy is to note the number of people who die because they have not the least knowledge of how nature truly is. They stand beside wild animals, like buffalo, for a picture and get trampled; they climb a mountain in dicey weather, without the proper gear, and freeze to death. They drown in the surf on their holiday because they cannot conceive the real power of what we blithely call “the force of nature.” They have seen the ocean, but they never have been in it.
The television generation expects nature to act the way they picture it. They think all life experiences can be TiVo-ed. The notion that the natural world obeys its own rules and does not give a damn about their expectations comes as a massive shock. Well-to-do, educated individuals in an urban environment experience the ability to fashion their daily lives as they wish. They buy clothes that suit their taste and decorate their apartments as they like. Within limits, they can contrive a daily urban world that pleases them. The natural world is not so malleable, however. On the contrary, it will demand that you adapt to it–and if you do not, you will die. It is a harsh, powerful, and unforgiving world that most urban Westerners never have experienced.
Many years ago, I was trekking in the Karakoram Mountains of northern Pakistan, when my group came to a freezing cold, glacial river, which was running very fast, although it was not deep–maybe two-and-a-half or three feet. Nevertheless, my guide set out ropes for people to hold as they crossed, and everybody proceeded, one at a time, with extreme care. I asked the guide what was the big deal about crossing a three-foot deep river’? “Well,” he replied, “supposing you fell and suffered a compound fracture.” We were four days trek from the last big town, where there was a radio. Even if the guide went back double-time to get help, it still would be at least three days before he could return with a helicopter, if one were available. In that time, I probably would be dead from my injuries.
Now, let us return to religion. If Eden is a fantasy that never existed, and mankind was never noble, kind, nor loving, and we did not fall from grace, what about the rest of the religious tenets? What about salvation, sustainability, and judgment day? What about the coming environmental doom from fossil fuels and global warning if we all do not get down on our knees and conserve every day? Yet, something has been left off the doomsday list lately. Although the preachers of conservatism have been yelling about population for 50 years, over the last decade, world population seems to have taken 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 20,000,000,000 to 15,000,000,00 to ll,000,000,000–which was the United Nations estimate around 1990-to 9,000,000,000 today and, soon, perhaps less. There are some individuals who now think that world population will peak in 2050, and, that by 2100, there will be fewer people than them are today. Is this a Mason to rejoice, to say hallelujah? Certainly not. Without a pause, we hear about the coming crisis of world economy from a shrinking population, or the impending predicament of an aging population. Nobody anywhere will say that the core fears expressed for most of my life have turned out to be false. As we have moved into the future, these doomsday visions vanished, like a mirage in the desert. They never were there, although they still appear on the horizon, as mirages do.
Okay, so the preachers made a mistake. They got one prediction wrong; they are human. So what? Only it is not just one prediction; it is a whole slew of them. We are running out of oil. We are running out of global resources. Famed biologist Paul Ehrlich projected that 60,000,000 Americans would die of starvation in the 1980s. Forty-thousand species become extinct every year. Half of all species on the planet will be extinct by the year 2000. On and on and on it goes.
With so many past failures, one might think that environmental predictions would become more cautious. Not if it is a religion. Remember, the nut on the sidewalk carrying the placard who predicts the end of the world does not quit when the world does not cease on the day he expects. He just changes his placard, sets a new doomsday date, and goes back to walking the streets. One of the defining features of religion is that beliefs are not troubled by facts, because they have nothing to do with them.
I can list some facts for you. I know you have not read any of these in the newspaper, because newspapers do not report them. I can tell you that DDT is not a carcinogen, did not cause birds to die, and never should have been banned. The people who outlawed it knew that it was not toxic and halted its use anyway. The DDT ban has caused the loss of tens of millions of 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 20th-century history of America.
Secondhand smoke is not a health hazard to anyone and never was, and the Environmental Protection Agency always has known this. The evidence for global warming is far weaker than its proponents ever would admit. The percentage of U.S. land area that is taken up by urbanization, including cities and roads, is five percent. The Sahara desert is shrinking, and the ice in Antarctica is increasing. A blue-ribbon panel in Science magazine concluded that there is no known technology that will enable us to halt the rise of carbon dioxide in the 21st century–not wind, solar, or even nuclear power. A totally new technology like nuclear fusion is necessary, otherwise nothing can be done. In the meantime, all efforts are a waste of time. That was reported when the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated that alternative technologies existed that could control greenhouse gases.
I can, with a great deal of time, give you the factual basis for these views and cite the appropriate sources. These are not wacko magazines, bat the most prestigious science journals currently in print. Yet, such references probably would not impact more than a handful, because the convictions of a religion are not dependent on facts, but rather are matters of unshakable faith.
Most of us have had the experience of interacting with religious fundamentalists, and we understand that one of the problems is that they have no perspective on themselves. They never recognize that their way of thinking is just one of many other possible alternatives which may be equally useful or good. On the contrary, they believe their way is the only course, and everyone else is wrong. They are in the business of salvation, and they want to help you to see things in the right way. They want to help you be saved. They are inherently rigid and completely uninterested in opposing points of view.
I want to argue that now is the time for us to make a major shift in our thinking about the planet, similar to that which occurred around the first Earth Day in 1970, when this awareness was first heightened. This time around, though, we need to get environmentalism out of the sphere of religion. We have to stop the mythic fantasies and halt the doomsday predictions. We need to start doing hard science instead.
There are two reasons we must get rid of the religion of environmentalism. First, we need an environmental movement, and such a movement is not very effective if it is conducted as a religion. We know from history that faith tends to kill people, and environmentalism already has decimated somewhere between 10,000,000 to 30,000,000 people since the 1970s. That is not a good record. Environmentalism needs to be rational, flexible, and based in objective and verifiable science. Moreover, it must be apolitical. To mix natural concerns with the frantic fantasies that people have about one political party or another is to miss the truth–that there is very little difference between the parties on this subject, except for pandering rhetoric. The effort to promote effective legislation is not helped by thinking that the Democrats will save us and the Republicans will not. Political history is more complicated than that. Never forget which president started the EPA: archconservative Richard Nixon, a staunch Republican. Also keep in mind which president sold the Federal oil leases, that allowed drilling in Santa Barbara, Calif.: Great Society architect Lyndon Johnson, a prototypical Democrat. So, get politics out of your thinking about the environment.
The second reason to abandon environ mental religion is more pressing. Fundamentalists think they know it all, but the unhappy truth of Planet Earth is that we are dealing with incredibly complex, evolving systems, and we usually are not certain how best to proceed. Those who are certain are demon strafing their personality type, or their belief system, not the state of their knowledge. Our record in the past–for example, in managing national parks–is humiliating. Our 50-year effort at forest fire suppression is a well-intentioned disaster from which our forests may never recover. We should be humble, deeply humble, in the face of what we are trying to accomplish. We should be trying various methods, open-minded about assessing the results of our efforts, flexible about balancing needs. Religion does none of these things.
How will we manage to get environmentalism out of the clutches of religion and back to a scientific discipline? The answer is simple: We have to institute a far more stringent set of requirements for what constitutes knowledge in the environmental realm. I am thoroughly sick of politicized so-called facts that simply are not true. It is not that these “facts” are exaggerations of an underlying truth. Nor is it that certain organizations are spinning their case to present it in the strongest possible way. Not at all. What more and more groups are doing is putting out blatant lies; falsehoods that they know to be false.
This trend began with the DDT campaign, and it persists to this day. At the moment, the EPA is hopelessly politicized. It probably is best to shut it down and start over. What we need is something much closer to the Food and Drag Administration, an organization that will be ruthless about acquiring verifiable results, fund identical research projects to more than one group, and make everybody in this field agree to honest standards.
In the end, science offers us the only way out of politics. If we allow science to become politicized, we are lost. We will enter the Internet version of the Dark Ages, an era of shifting fears and wild prejudices, transmitted to people who do not know any better. That is not a good future for the human race. That is our past. So it is time to abandon the religion of environmentalism and return to the science of environmentalism, and base our public policy decisions firmly on that.
Michael Crichton, M.D., creator of the television series “E.R., ” is author of The Andromeda Strain, Congo, and Jurassic Park.