Green Gray Areas — Books that question the conventional wisdom on the environment.
BY MICHAEL CRICHTON
Saturday, October 29, 2005
1. “Playing God in Yellowstone” by Alston Chase (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986).
That raw sewage bubbles out of the ground at Yellowstone National Park–after more than a century of botched conservation–would come as no surprise to Alston Chase, who 20 years ago wrote “Playing God in Yellowstone: The Destruction of America’s First National Park.” Mr. Chase, a former professor of philosophy turned journalist, presents a clear critique of ever-changing environmental beliefs and the damage that they have caused the actual environment. As a philosopher, he is contemptuous of much conventional wisdom and the muddle-headed attitudes he calls “California cosmology.”
2. “The Culture Cult” by Roger Sandall (Westview, 2001).
In “The Culture Cult: Designer Tribalism and Other Essays,” anthropologist Roger Sandall explores romantic primitivism–the myth of Eden and the Noble Savage. Mr. Sandall’s histories of utopian communities (Robert Owen’s New Harmony, John Humphrey Noyes’s disastrous Oneida) are vivid, and his portraits of leading primitivists, from Rousseau to Mead to Levi-Strauss, are sharply drawn. This ignorant nostalgia for our tribal past ignores the truly horrific reality of tribal initiation, warfare, mutilation and human sacrifice.
3. “Man in the Natural World” by Keith Thomas (Oxford, 1984).
Don’t be put off by the academic title of Keith Thomas’s “Man in the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800.” The book’s a delight. Mr. Thomas’s account is both detailed and charming as he guides the reader from the Tudor view, that nature was made for man to exploit, through the later sense that nature was to be worshipped and cherished (such that trees became pets and aristocrats gave names to their great estate trees and said good-night to them each evening). Still later came the Romantic preference for untouched nature and rough settings, a rarified taste that required “a long course of aesthetic education.” At every turn, Mr. Thomas emphasizes the contradictions between belief and behavior.
4. “The Skeptical Environmentalist” by Bjrn Lomborg (Cambridge University Press, 2002).
No one should miss Bjrn Lomborg’s “The Skeptical Environmentalist.” The author, a Danish statistician and former Greenpeace activist, set out to disprove the views of the late Julian Simon, who claimed that environmental fears were baseless and that the world was actually improving. To Mr. Lomborg’s surprise, he found that Simon was mostly right. Mr. Lomborg’s text is calm and devastating to established dogma.
5. “The Logic of Failure” by Dietrich DÃƒÂ¶rner (Perseus, 1998).
Future environmentalists will heed Dietrich DÃƒÂ¶rner’s “The Logic of Failure.” Mr. DÃƒÂ¶rner is a cognitive psychologist who invited academic experts to manage the computer simulations of various environments (an African herding society, a town in Maine). Most experts made things worse. Those managers who did well gathered information before acting, thought in terms of complex-systems interactions instead of simple linear cause and effect, reviewed their progress, looked for unanticipated consequences, and corrected course often. Those who did badly relied on a fixed theoretical approach, did not correct course and blamed others when things went wrong. Mr. DÃƒÂ¶rner concludes that our failure to manage complex systems such as the environment reflects bad habits of thought, overreliance on theory and lazy procedures. His book is brief, cheerful and profound.
Mr. Crichton is author of the novels “State of Fear” and “Jurassic Park,” among many others, and creator of the television series “ER.” This piece available here: http://www.opinionjournal.com/weekend/fivebest/?id=110007473.