Environmentalists share a kinship with devotees of religion the former prefers to ignore and the latter enjoys lampooning. Extremists in both camps have a matching emotional commitment to their cause an anarchist or Taliban mullah would admire. Both have a mystical attachment to an idea, one an invisible spiritual value of nature, the other a devotion to an unseen God. Except for Jake Christianson, the antagonist in John Atcheson’s self-published psychological thriller, A Being Darkly Wise. Christianson brings both traditions together into a megalomanical monster, while another monster worthy of Greek or Norse mythology lurks nearby.
The protagonist, Pete Andersen, is a middle-aged, mid-level bureaucrat in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sick of the insularity and unresponsiveness of Washington D.C. politics. He’s disillusioned by his careerist colleagues, whose drive for power leads to watered-down policies on combating climate change. And he suffers a guilt complex over the murder of his brother, which prevents him from taking on K Street lobbyists working for the coal and oil industries. Andersen is the cubicle drone ordinary people fear becoming.
Andersen is contacted by Christianson, who invites him and other influential operatives and environmentalists on a month-long trip to the Canadian wilderness. Christianson hopes to reconnect them to their passion for the Earth through an experience of true wildness, and drop them back into the Washington lion’s den recharged and ready to be the change Christianson envisages. The adventure quickly deteriorates into an unexpected exploration of humanity’s inner savagery.
Atcheson has written an interesting, sometimes scary page-turner that only occasionally drops into policy wonk hell, a real danger for an author and former EPA worker bee who knows the government hive-mind like a well-used topo map. At times, Atcheson falls into the trap of other eco-novels, always seeing unadulterated nature as “better” than humanity’s 10,000-year drive toward urbanism, conveniently forgetting that urbanism and technology is an evolutionary adaptation to nature’s unpredictability and an expression of homo sapiens’ unparalleled combination of sociability and problem-solving intelligence. Cities and technology are a successful survival strategy in an indifferent universe.
But as Atcheson and many other writers after Thoreau have pointed out, humanity seems to have ridden off the rails since the Industrial Revolution. Climate change is possibly the worst outcome of civilization’s mistakes. That doesn’t mean nature is going to wreak revenge, a wholly human construct. We might just figure a way out of our predicament, or we may not. Nature will carry on, regardless.