Bewilderment, a novel by Richard Powers issued last September, has been praised to high heavens by Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama, Naomi Klein, and reviewers at NPR, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and The New Republic, among others. This ought to be enough to warn any sensible reader to stay far away from its pages and to resign promptly from any reading group that nominates it for collective perusal. But I am not always sensible. The title lured me, for what better word to describe our Zeitgeist?
Russia’s little green men are swarming across an eastern European border; America’s leaders are forcing journalists to plunder the pages of Roget’s for synonyms of “dither” to fill in their descriptions of President Biden’s leadership; and Canada is whirling like a top from protest to dictatorship and back. Anyone who is not bewildered is either comatose or lying.
I am not counter-reviewing Powers’s book, but it is a handy springboard to the pool where I would like to swim. The “bewilderment” of his title refers most of all to the confused rage of Robin Byrne, the eight-year-old son of the narrator, Theo Byrne, a tenured professor at the University of Michigan who specialized in astrobiology. Theo is a pseudo-scientist by ordinary standards, though Powers presents him with earnest respect. His work involves imagining what life might be like on planets in far-off solar systems, based on the barest hints of such exo-planet atmospheres. Widowed Theo is struggling to raise Robin, whose contradictory symptoms include compulsive collecting, drawing, night terrors, inattention, hyper-attention and violent outbursts. Robin is a pure vegan, repulsed by ordinary human food and by ordinary human authority. His public school teachers want to medicate him, but Theo refuses, not wanting to dampen his child’s creative genius. Bewilderment bids to be taken as a heart-warming story of a father’s love for his (doomed?) child.
But MacArthur genius Powers has built his career as a novelist by writing about a New Age-y, sci-fi, doom-laden, we’re-all-connected universe, and Bewilderment is a be-mildewed sponge of all that. It has not only the father as the New Age-y scientist, but also a computer expert who fiddles with ways to use an artificial intelligence lab to alter human perception and re-shape emotions. We have a child suffering from neurological or emotional problems, but who is really just way more perceptive than all the adults. And we have endless descriptions of weather, animals, bugs, trees and plants. This is strung together with frequent screeds — often from the boy — on how humanity is ruining the planet, and things would be better if we went extinct.
Theo and his scientific partners fret about their federal funding, and with good reason. For in this version of history a Trump-like president of the US rallies his ignorant evangelical base against academic science, rejects the results of a presidential election and installs himself permanently in office. It is bad news for Big Science — and bad news for Planet Earth as the regime goes full speed ahead with its environmentally heedless policies.
It isn’t hard to see how this fantasy delighted Oprah, Barack and the NPR crowd. But Powers doesn’t present it as satire. It is his dead serious, mournful depiction of the world he believes we actually live in.
Theo’s dead wife — a fanatical animal rights activist — happened to be one of the subjects whose brainwaves were captured by the AI researcher. Young Robin turns from tempestuous wild child to wise-beyond-his-years when he is trained to channel his mother’s thoughts and emotions. That wisdom is on display when he mounts a one-child protest at the Wisconsin state capitol carrying a sign that says “HELP ME I’M DYING.” The “dying” he refers to, of course, is our planet. But to my great relief Robin himself expires by the end of the book, a victim or a martyr to his own pointless fanaticism. He dies of hypothermia after he sneaks in middle of the night into a frigid mountain stream. His goal is to disassemble cairns — piles of stones — left by hikers. Robin believes the assemblies have disrupted salamander habitat, and he want to put each rock back in its proper salamander-friendly spot.
I hope this is enough to deter every reader of The Spectator from venturing into this star-dust bespeckled story, but I did come away with my own exo-planet realization. The Greta Thunberg-style eco-apocalypse ranting is now embedded as common sense for the progressive left. Powers doesn’t argue any of it in Bewilderment. It is simply there as a premise of the novel. The child-prophet Robin is exceptional only in his demand that adults act on what “everybody” knows. When Robin demands that his father Theo take him out of public school, he argues that attending school is pointless when the world will be a poisoned cinder in a few short years — and Theo has to concede. Precocious Robin self-educates after that, happily missing any facts that might run counter to his map of the universe.
In 2015, my organization published an extended study, Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism. The study was the first of its kind and not easily achieved. Members of my board questioned whether we had cause to doubt this wholesome movement, and finding a foundation willing to underwrite the research was no small task. But I’d been watching the sustainability movement gain steam (or sunshine, wind or money — the ultimate alternative energy source) for about a decade, and I was fairly sure that we were witnessing the birth of a political movement that would wreak havoc if not properly diagnosed and called out.
Within hours of his inauguration on January 20, 2021, President Biden “canceled the permit allowing the Keystone XL pipeline to cross the border from Canada into the United States.” The quote is from the New Yorker’s celebratory account. Biden promptly took the United States back into the wretched Paris Climate Accords and attempted to ban fracking on federal lands. Why would a president of the United States go to war against America’s energy independence? Because he was beholden to the real-life Robin Byrnes in his constituency. Fanatical opposition to fossil fuels is the sacrament of the Church of the Left. The sustainability movement demands that capitalism itself be dismantled. Its hard-core advocates such as Naomi Klein (This Changes Everything) and Bill McKibben (Falter) have been perfectly explicit about this for years. (Klein praises Bewilderment as “transformative and wise.”) The more muddle-headed and shall we say “bewildered” champions of “green energy” think that non-carbon-based energy will miraculously emerge from solar farms and windmills in quantities and prices that will sustain a modern economy.
Behind all this lies two generations of miseducation, first in colleges and eventually in K-12 schools. Generations have been catechized into believing that abundant, non-polluting sources of energy are both possible and easily available should we simply vote them into existence. Leaving aside that solar and wind have their own severe environmental costs and are far from non-polluting, the mythology of green energy entered the zone of topics that could not be disputed in liberal circles. Entry into respectable company required a show of one’s bona fides on key environmental talking points. “Climate change” (née global warming) is believed as indisputable fact, though resting on extravagant projections, dubious models and abundantly fiddled data. Where are the snows of yesteryear? Actually, they are all around us. I have neighbors who swear they see the evidence of climate change in their backyards, when all they could possibly see is the random year-to-year variation that the actual measurements attest.
But no matter the material facts, the political fact is that Biden must appease a constituency of well “educated” worshippers in the Climate Cathedral. And that meant sabotaging America’s energy independence.
Bad enough that oil is now trading for over $100 per barrel. The real costs include the body count in Ukraine, the destabilization of Europe and the prospect of a wider war. Rational observers have amply pointed out that Putin would not and could not have made a move if the United States has maintained its energy production at anything like the level of the Trump years. Instead, we handed him the power of the pump. I am sure this is far from the last major consequence of our national turn away from carbon-based energy production. If we are very lucky, we will see a move towards restoring nuclear power production as an option; and if we very, very lucky, advances in fusion power will reach the stage of commercialization before civilization runs out first. We can expect the green movement to oppose both bitterly, because each would mean that capitalist innovation and free markets would have a new lease on life. The real endgame of the sustainability movement is something else.
If we listen to Robin Byrne and his grown-up counterparts, the real endgame is a remnant human population on a vegan diet perhaps supplemented with insects; the restoration of Earth’s landmass to animal-friendly wilderness; and small-scale cooperative (socialist) societies living in harmony with nature. Less utopian versions of this vision are available, but properly understood, all of them rule out modern life as we know it. People like Biden don’t take any of that seriously. Their interest is in the political game, not the endgame, but it is important to understand the premises and the motives of the activists who are driving the politics. They may never get their utopia, but they can cause profound misery in their attempts to reach it. And we are seeing some of that now.
Bewilderment — the book — is a small testament of that religion. The war in Ukraine is a somewhat larger one. The fiction foregrounds a child — a male version of Greta Thunberg — who is a virtuoso of the new faith and ultimately its martyr. The reality foregrounds an addled old pol who is a virtuoso of smiling vacancy.