Books

Apocalypse Never — The Polar Bears Are Alive and Well

A female polar bear cub with her mother at Tierpark Berlin Zoo in Berlin, Germany, March 15, 2019 (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)
Michael Shellenerger makes a good case for a hopeful, pragmatic, populist environmentalism.

With the polar bears pictured on the cover of his new book Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All, Michael Shellenberger is here to report that polar bears are alive and well. He is announcing to the world that things are not as bad as we are being told. Throughout the book, the author provides a litany of positive trends for the environment, for a message that contrasts sharply with what he describes as a broad and deep misinformation campaign propagated by environmental advocates. The overall theme of the book is that environmentalists have deliberately exaggerated news of impending climate disaster or the collapse of biodiversity. While threats exist, we have much reason to hope that human societies will adapt to environmental change with the right combination of technology, management, and good governance.

The book is about communication, specifically political communications to the public about the environment. Shellenberger spends many pages describing how the press exaggerates environmental threats, always presenting the worst-case scenarios of computer projections as inevitable. The reader meets the main characters who shaped the history of the communication strategies of environmental advocates going back at least to the 1960s. Early on, Shellenberger notes, activists selected messages based on their shock value, not their veracity. The more devastating the vision of the future, the more effective the message. Promoting misconceptions was effective in rallying support.

The fact that nuclear reactors had little to do with nuclear bombs was no reason not to scare the public into thinking that they did. Using a single instance of habitat loss and extrapolating from there to planetary species extinction was justified because it drew attention to threats to biodiversity. When it comes to the dangers of climate change, propagating fear has become the main communication strategy. Shellenberger decries the culture of despair this has created and the real damage done by scaring teenagers about a grim future. This is deliberate. In the words of Greta Thunberg, the 17-year-old darling of climate alarmists, “I want you to panic.”

Written intelligently and cogently, the book aims at an educated audience but does not cater to the NPR crowd. Shellenberger recoils from the elitism and disingenuousness he sees as typical in the environmental-advocacy community. He directly takes on the New York Times and The New Yorker, revealing strong populist sympathies, though he never expresses these explicitly. Citations of reputable scientific sources such as the IPCC (though he also criticizes the IPCC for being too political) as well more than 100 pages of footnotes back up Shellenberger’s argument. The ambition of the book is vast — as it tries to address the science behind environmental claims as well as the communication strategies used to promulgate them. Shellenberger weighs in on big scientific, philosophical, and even psychological questions that perhaps warrant more circumspection than certainty.

The book is crammed with personal-interest stories, told in a conversational style. We meet a farmer in Africa complaining about wild gorillas eating her sweet potatoes and having no redress, a young woman in Indonesia who moves from the farm to the city, and an NGO staffer who names what technologies she thinks should and should not be available to them. Apocalypse Never is autobiographical in that it marks the conversion of the author from a young activist who embraced the reigning anti-technology bias of environmentalism to a more mature analyst who sees how modern forms of energy and agriculture can improve the environment and the lives of billions. On the flip side, Shellenberger has become convinced of the great damage done by preventing the poor of the world from having modern amenities.

The real threats to the poor, Shellenberger argues, are the absence of economic development, poor local governance, primitive agriculture, and relying on wood for fuel. But the message the public hears is that climate change is the primary problem that poor people face. Every storm, every forest fire, every drought is attributed to climate change. No mention is made of proactive measures such as the development of water-management systems that irrigate crops and protect from floods, sewers that prevent the spread of disease, seed varieties that are drought-resistant, and reliable electrical service that improves daily life in rural communities. Every rich country in the world has used these technologies to advance, yet they are denied to the poor because such solutions interfere with maintaining an image of impending disaster and the mood of all-encompassing panic that must accompany the climate-change cause.

Shellenberger addresses issues of environmental conservation in the global South as well as environmental policies in the industrialized countries of the global North. He notes that, curiously, environmental advocates have made it harder to implement pragmatic solutions. In the poor countries, energy technologies that would allow indigenous people to become more resilient to the effects of climate change are discouraged, as are innovative agricultural practices deemed unsustainable. In the rich countries, zero-carbon-energy solutions such as nuclear energy are dismissed out of hand because they undermine the idea of scarcity — the supposed fate of civilization.

According to Shellenberger, a more sinister motive drives the opposition to technologies that benefit the environment and poor people: simple greed. He extensively documents the lavish gifts bestowed on radical environmental organizations, such as 350.org, by the very oil and gas companies they claim it is their objective to destroy. Oil- and gas-company executives sit next to renewable-energy entrepreneurs on the boards of directors of the top environmental NGOs, thanks to a confluence of interests. For example, because renewable-energy systems inevitably require backup generation for those hours when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow, the companies that provide that backup favor renewables. The two industries also share a competitor in nuclear energy and are happy to promote an environmental agenda that opposes nuclear power and ensures long-term demand for their products and services. The aligned interests ensure that these industries grow together.

Why do renewable-energy systems remain so attractive despite their shortcomings? Shellenberger argues that their popularity derives from the romantic notion that what is deemed natural is always superior to man-made substitutes. Because it is “natural,” energy derived from the sun and wind represents an ideal, even though it blankets landscapes with many tons of industrial equipment exposed to the elements for decades and directly threatens wildlife from desert mammals to rare bird species. Shellenberger argues that society must find a way to get beyond the marketing to see that the artificial product is frequently better than the natural one. The best strategy for saving nature is to use human ingenuity to develop alternatives that allow us to leave nature alone and let it flourish. We should not use nature to save it.

Historically, it was “artificial” products such as coal that saved what remained of the forests of England in the late 18th century. It was petroleum derivatives that replaced whales as a source of fuel in the 19th century. Similarly, in the 20th century, plastics replaced the tortoise shell and whale baleen that had been used in products required to be both stiff and bendable. We focus today on how plastics pollution threatens the world’s oceans, ignoring that the development of plastics substantially reduced the demand for some of the most valued sea creatures. As with many other environmental issues, the problem of plastic waste in the oceans is most readily solved by human action, in this case better solid-waste management in the nations of Southeast Asia.

Shellenberger extends this argument by advocating more-intensive energy and food production to free up more land for nature. Modern farms that grow more food on less land directly benefit nature as whole by removing marginal farmland from production. Similarly, raising seafood in offshore pens is better than scouring the seven seas for wild fish; replacing bush meat with domesticated livestock protects wild animals; and using modern fuels instead of wood for home cooking and heating helps preserve forests.

Shellenberger is passionate about nuclear energy and its potential for reducing global carbon dioxide emissions. One of his strongest arguments for nuclear energy emphasizes its minimal footprint on the landscape, in contrast with renewable-energy systems that must necessarily collect energy from diffuse sources over extensive areas. In sum, he argues that saving nature requires supporting modern agriculture, managed forestry, and nuclear power to minimize the human footprint.

Despite the nostalgia, prevalent in wealthy countries, for some imagined Eden in the past, the poor know that life is made better by modern amenities such as indoor plumbing and energy without smoke and ash. For the rural poor, especially women, in places such as India and Indonesia, having a washing machine and enough electricity to run it makes a whole world of difference. Using renewables to provide rural communities with just enough electricity to run a few light bulbs after dark does not meet their needs. Like Americans and Europeans, the poor worldwide want running water and refrigerators and air conditioning. NGOs advocate low-energy systems for the poor that conform to their idea of “sustainability,” but the poor want real electricity, not “fake electricity.”

Similarly, while protecting wild-animal habitats is a valid goal, those who wish to preserve some pristine vision of the wild — a vision cultivated in Oslo or Tokyo or Boston — should not ignore poor dirt farmers in Africa who lose their crops to protected species. On this topic as elsewhere, Shellenberger rebukes activists for their condescension and lack of empathy. Again and again, he stresses that we must recognize the need for economic development among indigenous people so they can obtain the standard of living that individuals in the global North take for granted.

Just about every rich country in the world has raised its standard of living by industrializing. In the latter decades of the 20th century these countries have reduced pollution by shifting their economies away from heavy industry to providing services, but this happened only after they modernized their agricultural sectors and then aggressively cultivated manufacturing. The shift from agriculture to manufacturing spurred the massive wave of farmers moving to the cities. Today, sub-Saharan Africa is too poor for deindustrialization; it must start with modernizing its agriculture and civil infrastructure.

While economists are drawn to the notion that developing countries can essentially skip the carbon-intensive technologies as they develop, a concept known as “energy leapfrogging,” people in the real world need refrigerators and toilets before they can build an economy on digital applications or become software engineers. The detached vision of sustainability in which the global South lives out the well-laid plans of the rich and is happy with their lot has been criticized as “conservation colonialism,” and it represents an attitude that Shellenberger derides consistently in the book.

Shellenberger’s attitude toward climate change is summarized in a quote he offers from MIT climate scientists Kerry Emanuel: “Lift people from poverty and keep the temperature as low as possible.” Going further, he cites Francis Bacon, who in his vision of modern science argues that charity adds the corrective “spice to science.” In other words, as an ardent environmentalist, one-time vegetarian, and citizen of Berkeley, Shellenberger chooses compassion and hope over indignation and despair.

The arc of the book exposes a building sense of resentment, in keeping with the political currents of our time. He identifies with the frustration and hostility felt by London wage-earners prevented from getting to work by climate alarmists who shut down the London tube. He attacks the celebrity culture that surrounds climate advocacy for its open hypocrisy, vanity, and greed. Both first- and second-generation environmental experts are blamed for deceiving the public under the guise of science communication. From sounding the alarm of overpopulation in the 1960s, to predicting widespread famine in the 1980s, to confusing nuclear weapons with nuclear power, to terrifying the young with the prospects of uniformly calamitous climate change, environmental experts have manipulated the public to impose their vision on others. Not only have they displayed little regard for the human costs of these campaigns, they have consistently clung to a misanthropic view that casts humans — particularly the unwashed masses of the global South — as the chief problem on the planet.

Though he never says it, Shellenberger draws on many of the same deep resentments that brought Donald J. Trump to the White House. He sees progressives as manipulative, and he shows sympathy for many right-wing claims, even citing the recently deceased Roger Scruton on the politics of resentment. He shares populist views right down to his nostalgia for icons of mid-20th-century America, such as the “Century of Progress” slogan of the 1933–34 Chicago World Fair and the “Atoms for Peace” initiative of the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s. This environmentalist who comes from the American Midwest even shows affinity for a religious viewpoint.

Shellenberger is no Republican, but the list of individuals and organizations he praises and those he criticizes overlap substantially with the heroes and villains of today’s libertarian Right. Like Michael Moore in his recent movie Planet of the Humans, Shellenberger discerns a dark side in the world of “green” technology, arguing that it is not as green as advertised and is ultimately self-serving.

In showing his contempt for many notable progressive celebrities and institutions, he bravely opens the door to creating a new constituency that includes both Gen-Xers and the Millennials who grew up on the products of Silicon Valley. He offers a glimpse of what could be a formidable political movement for centrist environmentalism in the United States in the 2020s. The book provides a roadmap for appealing to the political sensibilities of Americans who want a clean environment but may not want to buy into the progressive character of the current environmental movement.

Iddo Wernick is a senior research associate at the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University.

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