Monday, March 31, 2008

Global dreads

kw: book reviews, science fiction, thrillers, horror

State of Fear by Michael Crichton is billed as a techno-thriller. In keeping with his other novels that I've read, I call it techno-horror. Where Stephen King leans heavily on the occult and unknown, Crichton finds sufficient fodder in the horrors of our every attempt at the "scientific management" of crises of any kind. His stock in trade is the perverse tendency of complex systems to do many unexpected things for every "expected behavior".

What I find amusing in this novel is the explicit explanation of the title. Every demagogue in history rose to power by exploiting peoples' dread of the unknown. All too often, the aspirant to power first created the dreadful condition he (very rarely, she) declaimed. This is particularly true when the "aspirant" is a large, complex synergy of ambitious power-mongers, such as the "military-industrial complex" that President Eisenhower decried sixty years ago.

Near the climax of the book, a character updates this to PLM, the "politico-legal-media" complex. Let's think about that a moment. Isn't it true that people without fear are not politically controllable? Thus politicians need an enemy that the people fear, against which they promise to protect us. Isn't it true that much litigation is now sparked by fear of being sued? So many today consider "the best defense is a strong offense," and being offensive is a strategy, not a consequence any more. And the media? They thrive only in a climate of fear. Good news doesn't sell.

There isn't quite a fear-of-the-month club at work here. Fashions in dread take a decade to run their course. To find out what is in fashion, in case you aren't listening to the news, just follow the money. The fashionable fear of the 1980s was AIDS. Today it is Global Warming. Even the fear of terrorism is getting out-of-date, even though it is much more urgent.

State of Fear is set in the context of Global Warming, but that's not what it is about. The drama here is propelled by an environmental movement gone bad. Since the world isn't getting the point, and so many "crises" are ambiguous, some folks have taken matters into their own hands: they plan to cause a large piece of Antarctica to calve away as a huge iceberg, to create a tsunami that roars into Long Beach and San Francisco Bays, a flash flood, and a few other horrors that are timed to coincide with a major environmental conference.

The "good guys" in the book are, of course, on a mission to foil these plots. This they do, amid plenty of derring-do and new levels of cliff-hanging suspense. I don't know how he managed it; the author somehow exaggerated the experience of being struck by lightning.

There is plenty of technical speculation on things that might cause the various disasters, presented as fact. And there is a character who reminds me most of John Galt: an opinion-turner who debunks the theory of Global Warming at every turn, even as he leads the offensive against the disaster-mongers.

Yet Crichton's own point is not that Global Warming is totally wrong. It is that we don't know and probably never can know. In a summary of his own understanding in an appendix, three of 25 statements sum up his thinking on GW:
  • We are also in the midst of a natural warming trend that began about 1850, as we emerged from a four-hundred-year cold spell known as the "Little Ice Age."
  • Nobody knows how much of the present warming trend might be a natural phenomenon.
  • Nobody knows how much of the present warming trend might be man-made.
He also acknowledges that the recent rise in carbon dioxide levels is probably, at least in part, caused by human activity.

I'd like to throw in the point here that in Journal of the Geological Society; February 1995; v. 152; no. 1; p. 1-3 it is stated that near the end of the Age of Dinosaurs (late Cretaceous age), carbon dioxide concentration was about 1,300 ppm, and the authors call this "low". Compare this with 360 ppm today. Further, many references state that "global mean temperature" was about 5°C (9°F) warmer than now. We can't assume the relationship is totally linear, but a rise from 360 ppm today to 450 ppm by 2050AD is unlikely to result in more than a half-degree C (less than 1°F) rise. In addition, the Cretaceous climate was not driven only by CO2. Other factors, such as a much greater methane level, and a different arrangement of the continents, contributed.

All that aside, the book is a fast ride of high drama, a great read. And I think it safe to assume the premise behind the title is correct: a new fashion in fear will hold the world in its grip a decade from now, and Global Warming will be, as a theory, passé.

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