The greatest challenge facing mankind

From: janice matchett <janmatch@earthlink.net>
Date: Fri Sep 23 2005 - 09:06:29 EDT

This is soooooooooooo guuuud. ~ Janice

Remarks to the Commonwealth Club by Michael Crichton
San Francisco, CA. September 15, 2003

I have been asked to talk about what I consider the most important
challenge facing mankind, and I have a fundamental answer. The greatest
challenge facing mankind is the challenge of distinguishing reality from
fantasy, truth from propaganda. Perceiving the truth has always been a
challenge to mankind, but in the information age (or as I think of it, the
disinformation age) it takes on a special urgency and importance.

We must daily decide whether the threats we face are real, whether the
solutions we are offered will do any good, whether the problems we're told
exist are in fact real problems, or non-problems. Every one of us has a
sense of the world, and we all know that this sense is in part given to us
by what other people and society tell us; in part generated by our
emotional state, which we project outward; and in part by our genuine
perceptions of reality. In short, our struggle to determine what is true is
the struggle to decide which of our perceptions are genuine, and which are
false because they are handed down, or sold to us, or generated by our own
hopes and fears.

As an example of this challenge, I want to talk today about
environmentalism. And in order not to be misunderstood, 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. But I also think that deciding what constitutes
responsible action is immensely difficult, and the consequences of our
actions are often difficult to know in advance. I think our past record of
environmental action is discouraging, to put it mildly, because even our
best intended efforts often go awry. But I think we do not recognize our
past failures, and face them squarely. And I think I know why.

I studied anthropology in college, and one of the things I learned was that
certain human social structures always reappear. They can't be eliminated
from society. One of those structures is religion. 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. Why
do I say it's a religion? Well, just look at the beliefs. If you look
carefully, you see that environmentalism is in fact a perfect 21st century
remapping of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths.

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.

Eden, the fall of man, the loss of grace, the coming doomsday---these are
deeply held mythic structures. They are profoundly conservative beliefs.
They may even be hard-wired in the brain, for all I know. I certainly don't
want to talk anybody out of them, as I don't want to talk anybody out of a
belief that Jesus Christ is the son of God who rose from the dead. But the
reason I don't want to talk anybody out of these beliefs is that I know
that I can't talk anybody out of them. These are not facts that can be
argued. These are issues of faith.

And so it is, sadly, with environmentalism. 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.

Am I exaggerating to make a point? I am afraid not. Because we know a lot
more about the world than we did forty or fifty years ago. And what we know
now is not so supportive of certain core environmental myths, yet the myths
do not die. Let's examine some of those beliefs.

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. On this continent, the newly
arrived people who crossed the land bridge 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.
And what was the condition of life? Loving, peaceful, harmonious? Hardly:
the early peoples of the New World lived in a state of constant warfare.
Generations of hatred, tribal hatreds, constant battles. The warlike tribes
of this continent are famous: the Comanche, Sioux, Apache, Mohawk, Aztecs,
Toltec, Incas. Some of them practiced infanticide, and human sacrifice. And
those tribes 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 an environment as close to paradise
as one can imagine, fought constantly, and created a society so hideously
restrictive that you could lose your life if you stepped 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, and it was never
true. That anyone still believes it, 200 years after Rousseau, shows the
tenacity of religious myths, their ability to hang on in the face of
centuries of factual contradiction.

There was even an academic movement, during the latter 20th century, that
claimed that cannibalism was a white man's invention to demonize the
indigenous peoples. (Only academics could fight such a battle.) It was some
thirty years before professors finally agreed that yes, cannibalism does
inbdeed occur among human beings. Meanwhile, all during this time New
Guinea highlanders in the 20th century continued to eat the brains of their
enemies until they were finally made to understand that they risked kuru, a
fatal neurological disease, when they did so.

More recently still the gentle Tasaday of the Philippines turned out to be
a publicity stunt, a nonexistent tribe. And African pygmies have one of the
highest murder rates on the planet.

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. People who live in
nature are not romantic about it at all. 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 things, but they still kill the animals and uproot
the plants in order to eat, to live. If they don't, they will die.

And if you, even now, put yourself in nature even for a matter of days, you
will quickly 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, you'll have bugs all over your body, biting in your
hair, crawling up your nose and into your ears, you'll have infections and
sickness and if you're not with somebody who knows what they're doing,
you'll quickly starve to death. But chances are that even in the jungles of
Borneo you won't experience nature so directly, because you will have
covered your entire body with DEET and you will be doing everything you can
to keep those bugs off you.

The truth is, almost nobody wants to experience real nature. What people
want 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, without all their stuff.
Or 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 way, and nobody
does. It's all talk-and as the years go on, and the world population grows
increasingly urban, it's uninformed talk. Farmers know what they're talking
about. City people don't. It's all fantasy.

One way to measure the prevalence of fantasy is to note the number of
people who die because they haven't the least knowledge of how nature
really is. They stand beside wild animals, like buffalo, for a picture and
get trampled to death; they climb a mountain in dicey weather without
proper gear, and freeze to death. They drown in the surf on holiday because
they can't conceive the real power of what we blithely call "the force of
nature." They have seen the ocean. But they haven't been in it.

The television generation expects nature to act the way they want it to be.
They think all life experiences can be tivo-ed. The notion that the natural
world obeys its own rules and doesn't give a damn about your expectations
comes as a massive shock. Well-to-do, educated people 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 wish. Within limits, they can contrive a daily urban world that
pleases them.

But the natural world is not so malleable. On the contrary, it will demand
that you adapt to it-and if you don't, you die. It is a harsh, powerful,
and unforgiving world, that most urban westerners have never experienced.

Many years ago I was trekking in the Karakorum mountains of northern
Pakistan, when my group came to a river that we had to cross. It was a
glacial river, freezing cold, and it was running very fast, but it wasn't
deep---maybe three feet at most. My guide set out ropes for people to hold
as they crossed the river, and everybody proceeded, one at a time, with
extreme care. I asked the guide what was the big deal about crossing a
three-foot river. He said, well, supposing you fell and suffered a compound
fracture. We were now 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'd
still be at least three days before he could return with a helicopter. If a
helicopter were available at all. And in three days, I'd probably be dead
from my injuries. So that was why everybody was crossing carefully. Because
out in nature a little slip could be deadly.

But let's return to religion. If Eden is a fantasy that never existed, and
mankind wasn't ever noble and kind and loving, if we didn't fall from
grace, then 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 warming, if we all don't
get down on our knees and conserve every day?

Well, it's interesting. You may have noticed that .......

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Received on Fri Sep 23 09:08:41 2005

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