Crichton’s Rational Environmentalism Needs a Reawakening

Just over 10 years ago, the world lost Michael Crichton, bestselling author and screenwriter, who succumbed to cancer at age 66. His loss was greater than we could have known at the time. During the final years of his life, Crichton became increasingly focused on the politicization of science. Few critics of this corruption, if any, are as articulate and influential as Michael Crichton was in his time. And now politicized science, and the justifications it provides activists, journalists, politicians, and corporate opportunists, is more dangerous than ever.

Crichton’s scientific background—he obtained a medical degree in 1969, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies—distinguished him from the typical author of thrillers, and informed his life-long interest in science and technology. Whenever Crichton expressed skepticism about the latest environmental crisis of the century, he had credibility.

One of the most succinct and moving examples of Crichton’s thoughts on this topic came in the form of a speech he gave in 2003 at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club, titled “Environmentalism As Religion.” The transcript offers a compelling defense of rational environmentalism vs. environmentalism as a religion, and warns against the politicization of science. Here are some of the key points he makes:

  • “DDT is not a carcinogen . . . the DDT ban has caused the deaths of tens of millions of poor people . . . ”
  • “Second hand smoke is not a health hazard and never was.”
  • “The evidence for global warming is far weaker than its proponents would ever admit.”
  • “There is no known technology that will enable us to halt the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere in the 21st century.”
  • “The percentage of U.S. land that is taken for urbanization, including cities and roads, is 5 percent.”

These are contrarian assertions, but they’re based on facts, not faith.

Crichton’s observations remain correct about DDT, and assessing DDT—along with incidental second hand smoke—as nontoxic to humans rests on basic toxicology. Properly applied, DDT was a fantastic weapon against malaria. Banning it instead of properly regulating its use was a tragic mistake. When DDT was banned worldwide in 1972, malaria was on track to be eradicated like smallpox was before it. Instead, malaria continues to kill over 1 million people per year, and there is no end in sight.

As for second hand smoke, obviously it can be dangerous under prolonged, extreme exposure, but Crichton was saying the criteria used to justify smoking regulations were far below genuinely harmful levels.

Crichton’s statement regarding low levels of urbanization is another area where facts contradict environmentalist faith. There is plenty of open land in the United States that could be developed without mowing down pristine wilderness. Declaring “open space” to be endangered is ridiculous. This fatally flawed argument—now buttressed if not guaranteed by widespread fanaticism over global warming—is the justification used to force people into ultra-dense, punishingly regulated and taxed urban bantustans inside the “urban growth boundary.” This is dangerous nonsense.

Here’s one more of Crichton’s contrarian zingers: “The Sahara . . . is shrinking, and the total ice of Antarctica is increasing.”

It is difficult to find consistent data to support or refute either of these assertions, especially considering how fundamental they are towards assessing global climate change. But there is evidence supporting Crichton’s claim that the Sahara is shrinking. And while there is conflicting data on Antarctic ice volume, you wouldn’t know it from recent headlines. Behind the alarmist hype lie nuances. Volcanic activity, not global warming, may be causing melting of West Antarctic ice. Increased snowfall in the Antarctic interior, very hard to measure, may be offsetting ice loss. But only the alarmist reports find their way into the establishment media. Politicized science, perhaps?

Despite his well founded skepticism, and contrary to the attacks from his critics, Crichton was an environmentalist. He was a rational environmentalist rather than a religious environmentalist—but nonetheless he was someone with environmentalist sentiments. Consider this:

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. 

Environmentalism, according to Crichton, has gone well beyond these principles, and has become a movement that cannot admit to past or present mistakes or excesses.

Crichton believed that environmentalism fulfills an innate urge that urban atheists may embrace as an alternative to religion. This may be a bit much at least insofar as environmentalists, including Crichton himself, come from a wide diversity of faiths and personal ideologies. But Crichton was on to something when he questioned the reactions he would sometimes elicit from many environmentalists.

Why is debate closed on these questions when they can be challenged on a factual basis? Why can’t the facts speak for themselves?

The intense reactions environmentalists displayed toward Crichton during his lifetime, and toward his legacy today, are unfounded unless something more powerful than reason is involved—belief, ideology, passion, a primal inner need for meaning and mission.

Crichton’s opening remarks included compelling reminders that humanity has always adapted and humanity relentlessly has improved the collective well being, and this is continuing. In his closing remarks he warns how politicized and entrenched environmental organizations have become:

what more and more groups are doing is putting out lies, pure and simple, Falsehoods that they know to be false

Fast forward to 2019. Does that sound familiar?

How about this?

At this moment, the EPA is hopelessly politicized. It is probably better to shut it down and start over. What we need is a new organization much closer to the FDA. We need an organization that will be ruthless about acquiring verifiable results, that will fund identical research projects to more than one group, and that will make everybody in this field get honest fast.

That is exactly what President Trump is trying to do. And it is driving everyone crazy.

Of course, not everything Crichton said is true, just as everything the current environmentalist establishment maintains is not false, or unhelpful. But in his final remarks, he also described his state of fear, shared by many of us—and to paraphrase former Czech President Vaclav Klaus—what is at stake, our global climate or our freedom? The answer, according to Crichton:

In the end, science offers us a way out of politics. And if we allow science to become politicized, then 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 don’t know any better. That’s not a good future for the human race.

Had he lived, Crichton today would have been the same age as Bernie Sanders, and hopefully would have been striding the national stage with similar energy. Imagine what Crichton would have had to say about the Green New Deal, renewable portfolio standards, “we’ve got only 12 years left” alarmism, and the whole raft of climate activist rhetoric. Imagine him using his celebrity pulpit to expose and criticize the high-tech complicity in silencing debate on these issues.

Crichton’s intellectual clarity was matched by a charismatic and persuasive style. Ten years ago, the world lost a great man before his time.

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Photo Credit: Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

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About Edward Ring

Edward Ring is a senior fellow of the Center for American Greatness. He is also the director of water and energy policy for the California Policy Center, which he co-founded in 2013 and served as its first president. Ring is the author of Fixing California: Abundance, Pragmatism, Optimism (2021) and The Abundance Choice: Our Fight for More Water in California (2022).