The media gods have been angry with Michal Crichton since "State of Fear" challenged the deep seated belief in global warming as the Next Big Thing. The blockbuster author h he as been frozen off Beverly Hills A list by Hollywood Earth Mothers who would sooner entertain folks who toss virgins in volcanoes than someone who talks of science being sacrificed on the altar of media hype. But the problem that has Gaia reaching for her Prozac is less Crichton's spotty scientific track record- CongoTimeline and still make geologists and physicists wince , it's studio economics
Tinseltown has invested a lot in doomsday over the last decade. Budget breaking Green epics like The Day After Tomorrow , led to a billion dollar cable portfolio ranging from the New York Times-Discovery Channel's "Supervolcano" to pricey PBS/BBC JV's like "Strange Days On Planet Earth".
The barrage of uplifting doom and gloom includes TV specials on every eruption you've ever heard of, from Thera to Tambora by way of Pompeii. Far from dying down , the Gotterdammerung rally is riding the wake of the 2004 tsunami as the Big One approaches. Sure as the San Andreas fault is slipping , the world is lurching towards An Inconvenient Truth' s high definition TV debut.
Forget plate tectonics or the Gulf Stream's circulation. The rising tide of terror is powered by Moore's Law.The continuous inflation of computer animation helps ever more frightening special effects hammer a single visceral point into the popular imagination: environmental change kills. So forget about changing the environment. And don't even think about scrutinizing the scientific bona fides of those producing what you see.
It matters not if evangelists or environmental televangelists write the scripts. State of the art computer animation empowers the antithesis of skepticism- films that inflate things science can barely detect into icons of immanent doom lurid as anything in a Left Behind movie.
Thirty years ago,Earth Day had only a single still photograph with whic h to command our attention. That mellow image of the Whole Earth rising over the Moon scarcely resembles its iconic successors. Under the rubric of Educational Television, the post Star Trek generation gets to stare at programs that more resemble video games from Hell than geophysics lessons
. From Supervolcano to Strange Days on Planet Earth they're being bombarded with the fallout of an environmental film industry run amok. Producers who blanch at State of Fear's political and frankly polemic stance have no problem featuring dystopic virtual planets of fire and ice that crackle luridly with the shock fronts only high resolution software can generate.
Gone is the good gray PBS screen devised to educate and inform. Environmental television' has become a surrealist billboard for gigapixel IMAX images intense enough to brand themselves into the tender retinas of a generation long on credulity and short on scientific literacy-- we are being shown the future by design.
And very good design it is. As a quid pro quo for massively funded 'educational' foundation accounts,The Advertising Council has been backing the UN's IPCC for a decade. and a half. Crichton noted the Greenmail connection In a 2003 Pasadena lecture entitled " Do Aliens Cause Global Warming? " In it , he reminded Cal Tech students that while in science, data -- or the lack of it -- is paramount , mere strings of numbers cannot be equated with scientific proof. His cautionary example was the parallel between Hollywood's selling of "Nuclear Winter" , a computer model so scarily designed that it had to be launched on the Halloween anniversary of Orson Welles War of the World's broadcast. As with guesstimates of how many intelligent civilizations the universe may host, that model's inputs were "so poorly known that no estimates could be reliably made." , a mere fact that didn't stop Carl Sagan and Paul Ehrlich's ersatz Apocalypse from changing the imaginary landscape of the Cold War. Crichton's point, which unfortunately got lost in the novel that grew out of the speech, was that mere science cannot prevail against unlimited media access- "The most famous and media-savvy scientists of their generation...appeared on the Johnny Carson show " 65 times.
Crichton's observation has proven as true of the climate wars as the
Cold War. Before nuclear winter melted down under scientific scrutiny,
it scorched NATO's solidarity in the face of the Warsaw Pact's
overwhelming conventional superiority in the arms race along the Iron
Curtain. The Soviet crack up saved the day before any Russian tanks
were temped to roll by people swallowing the equation of tactical
deterrence withthe end of the world, , but nuclear winter remains an
object lesson in how successful semantic
aggression can be- faxtoids have a strange life of their own
But environmental taste is fickle. To allay the danger of past computer modeling fiascos being recalled by a more computer savvy generation , some astute Green publicists have switched to an older and more tangible standby . Forget semiotics -- they've taken to bludgeoning the popular imagination: chunks of rock. Pumice to be exact. Vesuvius, Mount St. Helens, and Krakatoa all started roaring on TV last season, and Old Faithful has since joined the chorus of acts serving as the run up to Al Gore's calculated finale. The trouble with glaciers as icons of a climatic apocalypse is that they are , well , glacial in their advance and retreat. Not molten lava -- the stuff shows real brio, and motion pictures are above all about motion, and "Supervolcano" certainly delivers it , as a whoosh of scalding ash and a thudding barrage of hot rocks from Yellowstone Park.
There's no faulting the internal logic of the Green's long-term programming campaign. Global warming is so slow, subtle, and uncertain that Greens fear we might sleep through it, but being beaned by a lava bomb is guaranteed to rouse a sedated mule. The pace of plate tectonics may be slower than cold molasses , but it generates fireworks none can ignore.With a little editing - just snip out the million year boring bits, rare but spectacular geological disasters become a fine way to groom audiences to accept climate change .
Honest Greens like Stewart Brand acknowledge that the end of the world isn't what it used to be, but however many software-waving prophets of doom have failed to deliver, there is no denying the reality of eruptions and tsunamis. This makes them manna to media consultants because they befall real people in the material world-- the Earth spewing enough incandescent gore to gag Quentin Tarentino is a hard act to follow.
But follow it they will -- with the explosive growth of computer animation, anything goes. The New York Times' pop science outlet, the Discovery Channel, has joined with the BBC to bring us high budget hype for high definition TV. For once, the Greens have gotten value for money. "The Day After Tomorrow" was a $125,000,000 box office bomb, but Supervolcano's apparent realism has made it critically acclaimed blockbuster across the political spectrum. The New York Post's Adam Buckman admits "Discovery has had a reputation for emphasizing science over fiction" which makes "the whole thing seem entirely plausible."
While Green's criticize Crichton's "State of Fear" for bidding for scientific credibility with footnotes. "Supervolcano" invokes the United States Geological Survey, the British Meteorology Office, NOAA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency ,and uses a real live network anchor, and a uniformed park ranger to create an aura of sober credibility Smokey the Bear might envy.
That does not make the production honest. Madison Avenue knows that limited scientific literacy and innumeracy go hand in hand, and Supervolcano preys on both by serving up real but irrelevant disaster footage as hors d'oeuvres to get viewers to swallow a scientifically dubious entrée. There is no voice over explaining where the hard science leaves off and the computer-animated soufflé begins.
Geophysicists complain at its predicting an instant replay of the last Yellowstone caldera eruption, because you can't blow up the same landscape twice. The program's geological leitmotiv is Mount Saint Helens, but the subduction zone that drove that eruption is a thousand miles distant from the Wyoming scene of last North American supereruption. In the ensuing eons , Yellowstone has slid westward past the hot plume in the earth's mantle that caused the prehistoric blow out-- plate tectonics moved this wheezy pressure cooker off its burner several ice ages ago.
The program sinks further into the lava of disinformation by implying that 2,500 cubic kilometers of molten rock presently 10 miles underground may end abruptly up in the stratosphere -- an event whose outcome is an apocalyptic no brainer. Pyroclastic flows roast everything from Sun Valley to Salt Lake City and then the world freezes to death in the dusty dark as "Temperatures fall by 15 degrees centigrade." Or do they?
As in "Nuclear Winter" the dark skies arise not from physics but software jockeys following arbitrary orders to turn off the climate model's sun like a light bulb to precipitate a predictable disaster. It makes for great special effects, but TV producers cannot compel Mother Nature to follow suit. There is a world of difference between caldera eruptions that resemble boiler explosions and nuclear bombs that explode in nanoseconds, but the producers substitute atomic weapons test footage for the volcanic real McCoy.
By stringing worst-case scenarios together with little more than the will to terrify, the script falls prey to Murphy's second law. If everything must go wrong, don't bet on it. Software can instantly and effortlessly convert magma underground into talcum powder in the stratosphere, but nothing connects computer animation to physical reality. The producers have been Photoshopping the Apocalypse by force-feeding extreme numbers to their software to beget a ghost in a machine.
The failure to answer a long string of questions about the games modelers play led to the scientific demise of another instant apocalypse a generation ago. It was marketed as "nuclear winter" by the peace movement, to the dismay of NATO's friends and the glee of its enemies. It mixed phenomena like metaphors -- the dust up from an asteroid impact and the soot from a thousand Kuwait oil fires where thrown into the semiotic melting pot to brew up revulsion to nuclear weapons.
So, too, today. "Supervolcano" is no more a geophysics lesson the Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" is an advertisement for the Puritan Ethic. It is an artful piece of apocalyptic propaganda designed to inspire superstitious awe. It repeats as gospel the litany of factoids Carl Sagan tried to palm off a generation ago. Crichton should have saved his breath -- hype in the service of zeal has yet again exhumed the specter of freezing to death amidst darkness at noon.
"Supervolcano" succeeds in one-upping Sagan by adding geological history run fast forward to worst-case modeling run wild. Supereruptions happen. So do asteroid impacts and the loss of whole continents to subduction. But real geology occupies the realm of deep time. It takes an eon to inflate a state-sized caldera, not the few months "Supervolcano" reduces to half an hour. Even now scientists are wiring the planet to assure that the first warning would come decades, if not centuries before the next major divot gets blasted in the earth's crust.
There are better directions for disaster buffs to turn to than Yellowstone. Supereruptions ripped the Pacific Rim not 700,000 years ago but in 70,000 and 7,400 BC. The fact that we are not extinct is not one professional Apocalyptics like to advertise -- it's hard to sell to the survivor's descendants. But you can't blame them for trying. A 125 million dollar commercial is a terrible thing to waste, and sure enough, it is premiering on cable TV this weekend, hot on the heels of the spring volcanic mud season.
Without true believers to perpetuate science's cold war role as an extension of politics by other means, those bent on turning geophysics into an instrument of fear might be out of business.