What's Tony Thinking

Maybe Not the Apocalypse


My book group is doing a series on Climate Change. Many folks are, I think, reluctant to wade deep into the topic for fear of being overwhelmed and depressed.

Our first two books, Unsettled by physicist Steven Koonin and Apocalypse Never by self-described “environmental humanist” Michael Shellenberger take a different approach. In an earlier blog I reviewed the Koonin book, so will focus here on Shellenberger’s. Shellenberger has movement cred. Time magazine called him “A Hero of the Environment” in 2008. An earlier book won “The Green Book Award.” And he has been an expert reviewer for the periodic UN’s IPCC reports, a new one of which just came out.

But somewhere along the way Shellenberger made a turn. Toward the end of his book (I wish he had put it up front), he writes: “Twenty years ago, I discovered that the more apocalyptic environmentalist books and articles I read, the sadder and more anxious I felt. This was in sharp contrast to how I felt in reading histories of the civil rights movement, whose leaders were committed to an ethos and politics of love, not anger.” He continues,

“It was, in part, my awareness of the impact that reading about climate and the environment had on my mood that led me to doubt whether environmentalism could be successful. It was only several years later that I started to questions environmentalism’s claims about energy, technology and the natural environment. Now that I have, I can see that much of my sadness over environmental problems was a projection and misplaced. There is more reason for optimism than pessimism.”

Much of Shellenberger’s book is devoted to challenging those he terms “apocalyptic environmentalists,” (AEs) like Extinction Rebellion, Greenpeace, EDF (Environmental Defense Fund) and Bill McKibben’s 350.org. They announce the imminent demise of planet Earth. Extinction Rebellion, which recently defaced Van Gogh and Picasso paintings to get attention, has warned that all your children (and I guess the rest of us too) will be dead by 2030 due to the coming climate apocalypse.

While the climate is warming and there are big issues to be addressed a fair amount of the extreme predictions are hooey designed to get public and media attention, not to mention raise money.

But here’s the problem. Their’s is a fear-based approach, which is a notoriously ineffective strategy for getting people to confront complex issues and change. In his 2007 book, Change or Die, Alan Deutschman argues that often those advocating change rely on “the 3 F’s,” — facts, fear and force. Those Shellenberger calls “the apocalyptic environmentalists” take that approach. This emphasis has probably also contributed to the current mental health crisis among young people. (You’ll have to read Deutschman’s book to get his recommended 3 R’s strategy.)

Shellenberger takes a different approach than the AEs. For one, he challenges simplistic and emotionally-driven responses, like banning plastic straws (which Seattle has done) by taking a more complex and longer-term view. In the case of plastics, for example, he points out that had plastics not been developed beginning in the late 19th century, there would be no sea turtles or elephants today at all. Elephant tusk being the raw material for piano keys and billiard balls, among other things. Similar with whales, who have been saved not so much by environmentalists or even whaling bans, as by technologies that made vegetable and palm oil (problems there too) cheaper and more plentiful than whale oil.

Another of his themes is that often environmental groups and leaders have asked of poor nations what their own rich nations are unwilling to ask of themselves. At this stage, poorer nations may need to use energy from natural gas or hydroelectric power. More and more reliable energy will, in time, lead these countries to better systems of wood, water and waste management. “A core ethic of environmental humanism,” writes Shellenberger, “is that rich nations must support, not deny, development to poor nations.”

He also challenges two related ideas. One, that renewables (solar and wind power) can meet all our power needs (without downsides). And, two, that nuclear power must be off the table. His Berkeley-based organization, Environmental Progress, is swimming against the tide by being pro-nuclear.

He argues the case for nuclear’s safety while showing that nuclear power provides ample cheap power without emissions. As such, he sees it as the surest path to reducing carbon emissions. He’s also not above a little muckraking (or backbiting, depending on your point of view), pointing out the ways that renewable-advocating environmentalists have actually made common cause with the fossil-fuel industry. The latter funds groups like 350.org and The Sierra Club as partners in opposition to nuclear energy.

Apocalypse Never is not a counsel for burying our heads in the sand. There’s plenty that needs to be done. But the approach here is more tech and development friendly and open to compromise than the more absolutist and extreme prescriptions of the apocalyptic crowd, who direst predictions are often amplified by a willing media. Fear may not motivate change, but it does get clicks and eyeballs. Like Koonin, Shellenberger has his detractors and not entirely without reason. His book needed better editing and deeper fact-checking. That said, both Koonin and Schellenberger make a contribution to moving us beyond the counter-productive 3 F’s and the despair they often engender.


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