Dubito, Ergo, Sum - Novel or Global Warming Screed?

I like to read a wide variety of books. The problem I have is hearing about them. The more you read in one genre, the more you learn about it and the more books you come to know in it. If you haven't read any books in a given genre, it's difficult to know where to start. The same is true for non-fiction books. If you've never read any book about a particular topic, it can be difficult to know which books to check out.

The result of this is one's reading list can be insular, with each book you purchase reinforcing your views or expectations. There are a variety of ways to try to get around this, but one I've become a big fan of is asking for recommendations. Sometimes I'll buy a book recommended to me, but I made a vow some years back that I would read any book anyone gave me. I've held to that, and I will happily accept and read any book (physical or digital) given to me.

Today though, I want to talk about a book I bought after having it recommended to me. It's title is Dubito, ergo sum:

It is not what I would call a good book, but it is a very interesting one.

What makes this book interesting is not the story. The story is, to be blunt, weak and filled with holes. The story begins in 2042, with an astronomer and his colleague accidentally detecting a signal sent from aliens on another planet. This leads to him, his family and a few friends being sent on a mission to travel to that planet to meet the aliens and get them to save Earth from global warming.

There is a lot wrong with this story. Some of the problems are simple holes in the plot, like how there is never any mention of anybody receiving training for this trip and there being no professional personal on their spacecraft. The adults on board are an astronomer, a nerdy undergraduate student who deciphered the aliens' message, a child psychologist, a forgettable woman who's profession never receives any attention and some children. That's it. It's not exactly a group you'd expect to be able to complete an interstellar trip that would take 15+ years.

The biggest problem is something entirely different though, and it is what makes this book interesting. This book was written by a person worried about global warming dooming civilization as we know it, and that clearly shows throughout the entire book. The first 40% of the book barely has any action or plot development. It is devoted mostly to narrative flashbacks describing how global warming has affected the planet and how evil corporations have tried to deceive the populace into disbelieving the truth. The stage is set with the first paragraph of the book:

The precipitous 2025 loss of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets followed the early warning signs in 2014. The changes could immediately be seen from spacecraft in the outer solar system.

This immediately tips the reader an interesting facet of the book. The book is quite damning of global warming "skeptics," and one would naturally expect them to disagree with things it says. What's interesting, however, is the book doesn't even agree with what climate scientists of our day say. This paragraph saying "the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets" were lost in 2025 goes far beyond even the most extreme predictions offered by climate scientists.

This creates an interesting dynamic in the book where the author, through his expy of a main character, rants and raves about how the horrible skeptics denied and misrepresented the science while constantly depicting a doomsday scenario beyond anything global warming is though capable of causing. The best example of this comes when the main character and his wife are discussing whether or not to go on this mission to another planet. They decide to go entirely to escape the horrors of global warming, explaining:

"Oh that's frickin' great. So now you're selling out? Those simulations show with 97% certainty a future filled with civil wars driven by water shortages, crop failures, continued displacement of massive populations, massive spread of diseases that have been ` eradicated', need I go on? Can you honestly say you would put your kids on a 3% chance? We were hoping to send the kids to college, not a hospital or god-damned concentration camp!" Rosie's face was a deep purple, she broke into deep sobbing.
...
"But Michael, that is precisely the point." interjected Rosie, "The simulations include not just physical problems, they predict that the stress on humankind will take a serious toll on individuals. The models include everything from the individual to entire civilizations. There will be no more "normal" at all! Some friends and relatives will turn into sociopaths, even dangerously unpredictable desperados. God knows what might happen to young children."

It should go without saying there has never been any science suggesting global warming will turn people into sociopaths or lead to the creation of concentration camps. It should, but apparently it cannot. So to be clear, there is no science suggesting global warming will turn people into sociopaths. There is no science suggesting global warming will lead to the creation of concentration camps.

Now that we've gotten that cleared up, I should note the main character's name is Michael. His wife's name is Rosie. I had forgotten their names as the characters in this book are all but indistinguishable from one another. You could never tell who is speaking by their mannerisms or styles of speech. Characters are so indistinguishable when one character suddenly decides to stop using contractions for a section, all the other characters join in.

Yes, I am criticizing the book's writing on a technical level. It gets tiring to read things like:

It is a one-way trip, as planned, with the Cetaceans providing you with supplies for the return journey our our newly developed interstellar ship.

And:

"Honey, that one gets a bit too close to insanity, no? But you make me thing...."

"Oh the power of words" I whispered to Rosie, "but of course they've never experienced anything like th before!". I had to chuckle, as did Rosie.

The latter example comes from on board the spacecraft, when after half a decade of travel Rosie decides to introduce her children to music. Yes, they apparently hadn't listened to or sang music for year after year of travel. Bizarre, I know. Then they finally sing for the first time, and one of the children's voice breaks for the first time because he is going through puberty. Bizarre and coincidental!

Criticisms aside, that section of the book is actually enjoyable enough. It's about a third of the book devoted mostly to the various characters talking to one another. It doesn't have the random, lengthy diversions like this section early in the book that contributes nothing to the plot:

The Marshall Islands lay in the Pacific Ocean, just north of the equator and west of the International Date Line. Formed of volcanic calderas and lava, they were once host to over 70,000 Micronesians. Less than 6000 souls now remained resolutely perched only on the highest land areas.

Their existence, once peaceful, would have remained so if it had merely been the rise in ocean levels. The loss of the ice sheets had raised oceans enough to take away 90% of their habitable land. Now, entire communities had gone. Every one of them lost several people, mostly the elders, determined to die on the land they were born on, "come hell or high water". (English colloquialisms were common, English being one of the main languages of the Marshalls). Germany, Japan and the United States had taken refugees, being ex-gubernatorial powers of the Islands.
...
Now, in 2042, no eclipse expeditions were imaginable in this part of the world. Hurricanes ripped across and flooded the Islands several times a year, making survival almost impossible. The Islands could no longer support even the smallest community. High water, if not hell itself, had indeed come.

No. This Island Nation was no longer sustainable. It was abandoned completely in 2041. The lonely, battered remnants of land were empty of humanity, except for those wanting to stay, and die, with the ever rising waters. The Marshalls were just one of many lost communities.

I actually cut part of that section out to save space. I wish the author would have done the same. That section has nothing to do with anything discussed in the book. The Marshall islands are literally never mentioned anywhere else. There is also no science that remotely suggests the islands could be lost like this by 2041. Had these superfluous sections been removed with more time spent on interactions between the characters, the book would have been more interesting.

That wouldn't have satisfied the author though. His reason for writing this book becomes clear in that discussion Rosie and Michael have. After the portion I quoted, our protagonist says:

"I don't know. I just don't. So much confusion. I do agree, 3% is not enough, even if we hide out in the back of beyond. And you said the basic role of a parent is to protect the next generation and get them into adulthood. By any measure, the skeptics have been better skeptics than parents or grandparents. They have made a mockery of parenthood by their passive approval of corporate raids on the Earth's future. God damn them! I am so angry!"

This is what the book is all about. While it is presented as a novel telling a story, it is really just a global warming screed. This is shown time and time again. Here are just a few examples:

I wondered. Presumably these people had children, grandchildren? Given their libertarian spirit many of them likely had enormous families. Why the hell would these Skeptics choose to play Russian Roulette with their grandchildren? This question kept me up at night, after I had kissed my own children and said "sleep well".

And:

God damn those bastard skeptics for gambling with everyone's future for the sake of their perceived entitlement to unfettered consumerism. God damn them for hijacking and abusing the English language to that end.

And poetically, I guess:

Through their direct denial they de-clawed the Lion. They sacrificed it on the altar of convenience. The Lion's blood congealed among the flotsam and jetsam of our disposable world. Through plastic cups, bottles, through take-away boxes, electronics cartons, discarded vehicles. Like oil spills, the blood clotted black on Greenland's bare rock, on the child refugees, on their own grandchildren, on all things living. Yes, they the Skeptics are responsible, and yet now completely irrelevant. They took down the Lion. This was tried before, in the very beginning of modern science by the Inquisition. Yet Galileo's legacy endures, the Lion's pride endures, and the skeptics will not. But the "unfortunate" loss of innocents, weak, poor, dispossessed. This was not mere "collateral damage". The skeptics had played Russian roulette with the gun pointed directly at their grandchildren. They, and we, had all lost. The bastards.

This last example also highlights the author's metaphorical fellatio of Galileo in this book, whereby he portrays Galileo as a hero who stood up for scientific ideals and a strict adherance to evidence in the face of a dogmatic Catholic church which refused to believe anything no matter how obvious.

In other words, it shows the author's total lack of knowledge. Galileo's conflict with the Catholic church came about entirely because Galileo tried to force people to accept his claims even though he couldn't provide evidence for them. The Catholic church merely told Galileo he needed to teach his views only as theory unless or until he could prove they were true. Galileo balked at that, insisting people believe him even though there was no proof he was right (and a number of the arguments he made were terrible and wrong).

Ironically, one could draw a parallel with the global warming situation, at least as presented by this author. That's sort of the point. The point of this review is this book is very interesting not for its weak plot or poor writing but because the author's worldview. There are many people who feel the same way this author does. They foresee a future in which this is plausible:

News reels showed physical and political challenges slowly worsening. A pandemic flu virus spread across Eurasia, preferentially taking the poor, underprivileged, young, old, the weak. It was shockingly reported by the BBC as "alleviating pressure on the world's ability to deal with overpopulation". The matter-of-fact reporting suggested to me that we might be witnessing news that was already out-of-date somewhat, and that the initial shock of such news had passed already. However, disposal of infected corpses was being carried out mostly in massive open fires, temporarily replacing Private Idaho as the brightest feature seen from space. Much to the distress of all, digging machines were used to move bodies from deathbed, to mass crematoria. The losses were just too great. The smoke plumes stretching across half of the continents could be seen from the Earth's satellite fleet.

This view has nothing to do with the actual science of global warming, and I can offer no explanation for why people might subscribe to it. All I can say is Dubito, ergo sum offers the most honest insight I've ever seen into such people. For that, it is well worth reading.

8 comments

  1. "Volo, ergo est" describes the worldview/mindset of the author. He wants something contrary to the evidence for who knows what reason (he's easily frightened? his circle of friends limit his experience? he's incurious?). Whatever the reason, it drives emotion rather than reason and therefore must be true. The result is an unimaginative pedestrian screed with cardboard cutout villains. If you want a much better dystopian novel, check out Keith Mano's, The Bridge. Written in the 1970s, it explores an environmentalism gone mad.

  2. MikeN, no clue actually. I only read ~50 pages of that book before deciding it was too ridiculous to finish. My suspension of disbelief goes only so far. When you start having your evil bad guys control lightning to kill the protagonists and creating tsunamis/hurricanes to ramp up public fear, I just find myself wishing for dinosaurs to come out and kill people because that was at least somewhat not entirely implausible.

    Gary, I'm actually not a fan of dystopian novels. All the ones I read seem more interested in pushing some point (often one of satire) than in creating a coherent, believable world. I read this one only because I thought it'd be interesting to see what gets written due to my interest in the global warming debate. I figured it'd be good for a laugh, and I didn't mind spending three bucks for that.

    Plus I think it's interesting to look at what books are getting published on global warming given I've written a couple short ones myself. So far, I've been unimpressed by almost every book I've read on the subject. The only book I've read so far that I thought was actually good was The Hockey Stick Illusion. The rest have ranged from "not good" to "genuinely bad." That amazes me. It's almost like the global warming debate is largely attracting incompetents who couldn't find acceptance in any other field because those ones have standards.

    Speaking of which, I still need to get through this book by Tim Ball I bought for some reason. That and Ted Koppel's Lights Out. These are terrible books, but since I paid money for them, I feel obliged to actually read them in their entirety.

  3. Oh my god, I want this book. I saw it promoted at Skeptical Science, so I downloaded a free sample to see what it's like. Ignoring the foreword written by someone else, the author begins with this quotation from Thomas Jefferson:

    Wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights. —Thomas Jefferson, January 8, 1789

    Which is actually a misquotation as the sentence did not begin with the word "wherever," but rather, read:

    I did not at first believe that 11. states of 13. would have consented to a plan consolidating them as much into one. a change in their dispositions, which had taken place since I left them, had rendered this consolidation necessary, that is to say, had called for a federal government which could walk upon it's own legs, without leaning for support on the state legislatures. a sense of this necessity, & a submission to it, is to me a new and consolatory proof that wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.

    Cutting the quote down is appropriate and commonly done, but people really need to indicate when they do so. Whatever, I get most people won't care much about that sort of thing. What they might care about is when the author goes on to write in his first paragraph:

    Thomas Jefferson’s trust in the well-informed voter lies at the heart of the modern democracy that has, over the course of two centuries, come to guide the world. Much like the “invisible hand” that guides Adam Smith’s economic marketplace, so too does the invisible hand of the people’s will guide the democratic process. Faith in this idea is so central to democracy that George Washington emphasized it in the nation’s first inaugural address. “No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the Affairs of men more than the People of the United States,” he told a joint session of Congress gathered in Federal Hall, which stood kitty-corner to today’s New York Stock Exchange.

    Even the dumbest of dumb people should be able to spot why this is bizarre. Nothing in the quote by George Washington indicates it is in reference to the "invisible hand" of a democratic populace. The phrase "invisible hand" doesn't have any antecedent to such, and any association there might be is purely that given by the author. And if you know anything about George Washington's writings or speeches, you'll know that's not what he would be referring to. I'll quote a more lengthy segment of the inaugural speech to make this clear:

    Such being the impressions under which I have, in obedience to the public summons, repaired to the present station, it would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes, and may enable every instrument employed in its administration to execute with success the functions allotted to his charge. In tendering this homage to the Great Author of every public and private good, I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own, nor those of my fellow- citizens at large less than either. No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States.

    He's talking about the Christian God. George Washington attributed the nation's successes to the God he believed blessed and guided the nation's path. This had nothing to do with an "invisible hand" of a democratic populace. In fact, it was the opposite. Washington wasn't talking about putting trust in the people - he was talking about putting trust in God... who isn't part of the populace. So when the author goes on to write:

    But lately the invisible hand seems confused and indecisive. Democratic governments the world over are increasingly paralyzed, unable to act on many key issues that threaten the economic and environmental stability of their countries and the world. They often enact policies that seem to run against their own interests, quashing or directly contradicting well-known evidence. Ideology and rhetoric guide policy discussions, often with a brazenly willful denial of facts. Even elected officials seem willing to defy laws, often paying negligible prices.

    Apparently God is confused as of late, and as such, the world is going crazy. One result is governments are becoming more corrupt, because... you know, current government officials are way more corrupt than previous ones, I guess? I cannot begin to fathom how a person comes up with such warped views of things/ I mean, how do you conflate God and a democratic populace?

  4. I cannot begin to fathom how a person comes up with such warped views of things/ I mean, how do you conflate God and a democratic populace?

    It's a fairly easy accomplishment if you have been inadequately educated, are undisciplined, believe you hold the truth.

    Steps: 1. Reject God. 2. Look for a replacement. 3. Latch on to anything that will advance your cause.

    Volo, ergo est.

  5. It is interesting that a reader finds "a lot wrong with this story".

    Perhaps the reader forgets that this is fiction (as implied by the word
    "story")? 🙂

    As such there is no such thing as right or wrong.

    I am flattered that the reader took so much time and space in writing their
    criticisms, some of which I find quite reasonable.

  6. I'm not sure the best way for an author to defend his writing is to say "there is no such thing as right or wrong" when it comes to writing fiction. "Right" and "wrong" are inherently subjective, and we can extend relativism as far as we want, even to the point we say there is no such thing as "right" or "wrong" in anything. I don't think many people will go for that though.

    Most people find things like plot holes to be bad. One doesn't have to though. It may turn out a story that is "wrong" in many classical ways appeals to a wide audience. When things like Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey are best sellers, one has to accept the quality of writing does not necessarily correlate with the appeal of a book.

    However, if we accept all things as subjective, then I am free to define "wrong" as I like for my personal use. In that regard, there can certainly be "right" and "wrong" when it comes to writing a book. People don't have to agree with me about what qualifies as "right" and "wrong." They are even free to entirely dismiss the notion of "right" and "wrong" when it comes to writing fiction. I still get to use the word though, and if people have any interest in what I think, the word will be useful in understanding my perspective even if they don't happen to agree with it.

    On a less philosophical note, what I described as the "biggest problem" with the book is it says a lot of untrue things about climate change. If you wish to defend those errors by saying it is a work of fiction and thus cannot be "wrong," I'll respond by pointing out your biography given with this book states:

    I care greatly about the future of our children and grandchildren, and am frustrated by the irrational skepticism.

    It would be quite hypocritical to be frustrated with people's "irrational skepticism" regarding climate change while you are in fact spreading a great deal of misinformation about climate change.

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