Apocalypse Never

Michael Shellenberger believes that poor nations need more access to fossil fuels. This is likely the only way they will move beyond impoverishment in the forseeable future. But fossil fuels are only a stopgap to get to nuclear and nuclear is the key to an environmentally sustainable future. This is instrumental to the case made in 2020’s Apocalypse Never by Michael Shellenberger.

If you’re not familiar with him and his work, you might assume that this is a man dedicated to economically conservative values or a shill of industry perhaps. But Michael Shellenberger is neither, as any fragment of his biography would reveal. In short, he’s a man who’s devoted his career to advancing the goals of environmental think tanks, having begun as a teenager to take on the social causes of “third world” nations that remain, typically, darlings of the left.

I first encountered his work at a time in life when I was intellectually unprepared to wrestle fully with his ideas but I bought and read through  Breakthrough (From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility) anyway. Having found the book review for this work in the pages of National Review magazine, I did assume I was about to read the work of a right-wing partisan but what I encountered was something much different. In fact, this work did much to break me from typical partisan paradigms on the environment when I was in the early stages of my own greatest environmental endeavour and awakening.  Breakthrough, to capsulize a very original work of environmental literature, disabused readers of the need for, or usefulness of, environmental despair.

Building on the themes of Breakthrough, Shellenberger has gone on, in Apocalypse, to show how necessary the apocryphal messaging of left-wing environmental organizations is to the social change they foment as well as to their own sustainability. The other side of this coin is the perspective that environmental tragedies are seldom as dire as their faithful publicists aver. Amazonian deforestation is not as widespread as commonly thought (or at least not caused by the villains we commonly point to), climate change is not nearly the threat we’re told, aforestation exceeds deforestation globally, plastic straws are not serious threats to marine life, plastics have overlooked positive impacts on the environment, and extinction claims are often exaggerated. Ambitious for such a thin volume but executed authoritatively and convincingly by one of the world’s great environmental movement insiders.

It comes to light herein, and soon becomes consequential, that the author has changed his mind over the last roughly fifteen years on the issue of global warming. I found this heart warming as one of my reservations surrounding Breakthrough had been Shellenberger’s treatment of global warming as settled science. In last year’s volume, he doesn’t spend much time on the matters many of us in the climate skeptic community do: historical temperature and carbon dioxide trends as inferred through proxy data, disputation of relative feedback strengths or the political motivations of our opponents; rather, Mr. Shellenberger places climate impacts in a more natural light, comparing these to other, more pressing environmental threats and saying much about human capacity for adaptation.

Through real-world case studies that he has been a part of, Michael Shellenberger demonstrates that what the third world longs for is the economic opportunity that we in the rich west enjoy and that abundant, inexpensive energy is seminal in these aspirations.

Eschewing the cheap generalizations of todays punditry, Mr. Shellenberger builds “steel man” arguments for his opponents, often quoting from their own best characterizations of environmental ills. Beyond this, he made some effort to reach out to at least some of those thought leaders for whom he offered criticism, giving them further opportunity to correct and clarify. This seemed to demonstrate a certain fearlessness born of deep research and confidence.

But the book seems also born of compassion as his focus remains predominately on poor nations and poor people and what they really need and want, as opposed to what the elites of the rich west want to force on them. And this genuine concern for the impoverished may be what most separates Shellenberger and Apocalypse from today’s prolific environmental pablum. Gradually, Shellenberger makes the case that modern environmentalism remains tied to an incumbent anti-humanism that undermines its viability as a source of inspiration and ties it to endless exaggeration and hopeless proselytizing.

Which brings us to the book’s thesis: Modern men and women pursue environmentalism from the same ancient instincts that inspire religiosity. While claiming adherence to “the science,” people atone for sins and fear the coming just destruction of all. “The end is near,” can be as good a slogan for any environmental movement as it can be apocalyptic epigram scribbled across poster board. Caught up in the righteous dogma of their cause, proselytes make war on non-believers and excoriate apostates. Give the modern climate movement some thought if you doubt this.

Particularly meaningful to me was this insight late in the book: The game of left-wing environmentalists is to turn a problem into an emergency and then staunchly appose the obvious solutions. Shellenberger uses the example of climate change here. The supposed problem has to do with carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. As a matter of meeting all conceivable environmental goals, nuclear is the clear winner, also producing the most energy at lowest cost and safely to boot. But even while raising the carbon alarm, enviros stand uncompromisingly against nuclear technology, keeping their emergency alive as best they can.

To Mr. Shellenberger, hope lies in breaking with eco-dogma. Real solutions are within reach and the looming environmental emergencies should be downgraded to mere “problems” if we are to even start to think rationally about them.

I can’t remember any part of the book I really took issue with. All of the above, I believe, is true. But neglected, or beyond the scope of this work, was the role of raw political motivation, having nothing to do with doing good or saving the earth. The will to power motivates more strongly than any of the altruism on which the author dwells, no discredit to him. What if environmentalism is, by and large, convenient pretext for those who’ve demonstrated no particular love for our planet but evince always a desire to rule?

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