How big a problem is climate change? And is the solution “back to nature”, a repudiation of industrial civilisation and the high-energy societies we’ve built over the last 200 years? Or is climate change one of a number of important environmental issues, perhaps not the most important? And is the solution more progress, more development, more high technology, such as nuclear energy? Michael Shellenberger’s Apocalypse Never makes a case against catastrophism, a case for environmental progress, and ponders how environmentalism became “the dominant secular religion of the educated, upper-middle-class elite in most developed and many developing nations”.
This essay appears in October’s Quadrant.
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Shellenberger is a California-based environmental activist. Unlike many environmental activists, he’s been there and done it, from agricultural co-operatives in Nicaragua in the 1980s to the Landless Workers Movement in Brazil in the early 1990s, and he attended the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. He’s been to the Congo to study wood-fuel use, rainforest habitat protection and development aid. And he’s been to Indonesia to “see for himself what the situation was like for factory workers”. Shellenberger co-founded in 2002 the New Apollo Project, a renewables and clean technology program picked up in 2007 by then presidential candidate Barack Obama and backed by him as President with some $150 billion from 2009 to 2015. But it became increasingly clear to Shellenberger that:
In the end, there is no amount of technological innovation that can solve the fundamental problem with renewables. Solar and wind make electricity more expensive for two reasons: they are unreliable, thus requiring 100 percent back up, and energy-dilute, thus requiring extensive land, transmission lines, and mining. In other words, the trouble with renewables isn’t fundamentally technical—it’s natural.
Like some other environmentalists including James Lovelock and James Hanson, Shellenberger came to see nuclear power as essential to reducing carbon dioxide emissions. In recent years, he’s been a prominent nuclear energy advocate, but is adamant he’s not a lobbyist for the industry and accepts no funding from “energy companies or energy interests”.
Now, Shellenberger has broken ranks a second time. He was in London in 2019 during the fortnight of major Extinction Rebellion demonstrations, was bothered by the movement’s “heavy focus on death”, and set out to write the book that became Apocalypse Never, distancing his eco-modernism from the environmental alarmism, which, his subtitle proclaims, hurts us all:
Anyone who believes climate change could kill billions of people and cause civilizations to collapse might be surprised to discover than none of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports contain a single apocalyptic scenario.
Shellenberger devotes about the first 100 pages of the book to debunking many of the articles of faith that are mobilised to give substance to the idea that we are in the midst of an environmental catastrophe, that the end of the world is nigh. Natural disasters are not getting worse, and we’ll have time enough to adapt to sea-level rises. The Amazon is not the lungs of the world and is not being destroyed willy-nilly. It is a gross exaggeration that plastic is significantly fouling the oceans, eliminating plastic straws is an irrelevancy, but improving waste management systems in developing countries would help. We are not in the midst of a “sixth extinction”, and polar bears are not endangered. So-called “sweatshops” in the Third World lift millions out of the crushing poverty of subsistence farming into more affluent, urban lifestyles. Fossil fuels and plastics saved the whales, turtles and elephants—“we save nature by not using it, and we avoid using it by switching to artificial substitutes”. And going vegetarian doesn’t reduce your carbon footprint by much. This part of the book has a lot in common with the recent best-seller Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling and his two daughters.
Shellenberger personalises the story with vignettes drawn from his first-hand experiences. Bernadette is a subsistence farmer in the Congo. She’s livid that baboons and other wildlife come out of the Virunga National Park created to protect habitat and raid her sweet potato crops. She and her family will go hungrier as a result. Nearby, Goma, a city of two million, relies for energy on charcoal produced from the Congo forests. They need hydro-electric power, gas for cooking, and fertiliser and machinery to raise agricultural productivity, but can’t afford it. Proposed projects are blocked by international environmentalists and no longer supported by donors such as the World Bank. “As climate change emerged as an elite concern in the 1990s, efforts within developed nations to cut off financing for cheap energy, industrial agriculture, and modern infrastructure to poor and developed nations grew stronger.” Continued poverty and use of the forest for charcoal are the result.
Suparti is a twenty-five-year-old Indonesian from a small village, who escaped the rural poverty of her family to work in a Barbie factory in the city, and then in a chocolate factory. Her wages have more than tripled since coming to the city. She has a flat, electricity, a television, a motor-scooter, and cooks, with gas, food purchased from a shop. She has a standard of living that far exceeds what would have been hers had she stayed on the farm.
Shellenberger’s style is lively and accessible, yet factual and well documented (with over 100 pages of endnotes). The stories of Bernadette and Suparti, as well as other anecdotes from his many travels, provide tangible human interest and illustrate the daily challenges of life in the energy-poor world. Like a contemporary film, the story jumps back and forth a bit as his eco-modernist perspective unfolds. Some readers may find this a bit annoying; for others it will sustain their interest.
Shellenberger’s claim that natural disasters are not getting worse has been used to discredit him. He bases his argument on the definition from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that a disaster includes widespread adverse impacts on people and property, and that over the last 100 years death and normalised property damage from natural disasters have been falling. He contrasts this with possible increases in extreme weather events, which may or may not be a disaster. For example, nobody cares much about gales in Antarctica. Nick O’Malley of the Sydney Morning Herald pushed hard on this point in his July 8 interview with Shellenberger, claiming his use of the term “natural disaster” was not ordinary usage, so his disasters-are-not-getting-worse claim is misleading. But Shellenberger has support from the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines “natural disaster” as “a sudden accident or a natural catastrophe that causes great damage or loss of life”. Perhaps the key point is that more extreme weather events may not cause worse disasters, because high-energy, industrial societies have lots of ways to protect themselves.
A strength of Shellenberger’s work is his knowledge of, and connections to, many of the scientists and activists involved in climate-change issues. Apocalypse Never reports on his interviews with some of them, pressing them to clarify what seem exaggerated claims, and walk them back. For example, he interviews IPCC author Michael Oppenheimer about claims that sea-level rise presents an “unmanageable problem”. Oppenheimer clarifies that he really means a compelled decision that involves disruption. Shellenberger notes that such situations happen already and societies recover and adapt. Calling them “unmanageable” is an exaggeration.
After debunking these end-of-the-world articles of environmentalist faith, Shellenberger tackles nuclear energy, which Vaclav Smil calls a “successful failure”. It successfully produces lots of electricity but has failed to sustain public support in the developed world. Shellenberger thinks this regrettable failure is the result of misleading anti-nuclear campaigns and a fear of nuclear weapons and radiation. He discusses Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, carefully assembling the low attributed fatality and morbidity rates: “It’s not that nuclear energy never kills. It’s that its death toll is vanishingly small.” He concludes:
Only nuclear, not solar and wind … can affordably create the hydrogen gas and electricity that will provide services … currently provided by fossil fuels … And yet the people who say they care and worry the most about climate change tell us we don’t need nuclear.
Shellenberger goes into the history of the war on nuclear energy, particularly the conversion of major environmental groups like the Sierra Club, and anti-nuclear-weapons groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists, to a focus on stopping nuclear power plants. He provides evidence that the Sierra Club deliberately set out to drive up the regulatory costs of nuclear plants to make them less economic. And Shellenberger agrees with the realist strategists who think nuclear weapons have contributed to the long peace between major powers since the Second World War, and that there is no prospect that nuclear weapons will ever be eliminated. His purpose is to refute the presumption that stopping nuclear power plants will somehow contribute to eliminating nuclear weapons.
In a chapter provocatively titled “Destroying the Environment to Save It”, Shellenberger sets out to demolish the idea that renewables alone are the answer. The critical problems are unreliability and low power density. Large-scale storage is impossibly expensive (even if batteries do get incrementally better and cheaper), and low power density means lots of land and other resources are needed to generate power at scale, which also means lots of end-of-life waste. Wind power also kills birds, bats and insects, and its large-scale towers across the landscape now almost universally generate community resistance.
Shellenberger dates renewables advocacy back to the German-born American technological utopian John Etzler and his 1833 manifesto, The Paradise within Reach of all Men, without Labor, by Powers of Nature and Machinery. A notable omission from his account is a post-fossil-fuels future powered by wind and hydrogen envisaged by the British scientist and declared Marxist J.B.S. Haldane in his 1923 lecture “Daedalus, or, Science and the Future”.
Shellenberger credits US environmentalists Barry Commoner and Amory Lovins with providing the framework that became “the policy agenda of nearly all the country’s environmental organisations” involving “massively redesigning the major industrial, agricultural, energy, and transport systems” to provide a “synthesis of man and nature” based on organic farming, natural materials (not synthetics or plastics), smaller cars and houses, energy and resource efficiency, biofuels and renewable electricity. But Shellenberger is commendably realistic about human beings and the centrality of high power density energy sources to modern civilisation, concluding that the “transition to renewables was doomed because modern industrial people, no matter how romantic they are, do not want to return to pre-modern life”.
But what of big oil and gas companies advertising and advocating for renewables? While some of this is probably just greenwash, Shellenberger argues that the big oil and gas companies have a common-cause interest in renewables: “The big oil and gas companies know perfectly well that batteries can’t back up the grid. The places integrating large amounts of solar and wind … are relying more and more on natural gas plants …”
Shellenberger spends a couple of chapters demonstrating these common-cause interests in anti-nuclear, pro-renewables advocacy and policies between oil and gas interests, environmental groups, and senior Democrats, particularly in California. While some may seek to discredit this as a paranoid conspiracy theory of a shill for the nuclear industry, Shellenberger documents the relationships in considerable detail, and unlike conspiracy theorists, has a credible common-cause interest to underpin his claim—renewables can’t reliably power the grid, and in the absence of nuclear, gas will do the job.
Shellenberger has a crack too at celebrities, like Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, “flaunting their high-energy lifestyles” while “moralising for low-energy lives”, hypocrisy he says upsets many climate activists, including Greta Thunberg. Shellenberger, however, explains the inevitability of the hypocrisy:
The reason even the most sincere greens consume large quantities of energy is simple: living in wealthy nations and doing the things people in wealthy nations do, from driving and flying to eating and living in a home, requires significant quantities of energy.
Shellenberger decries the effect this moralising is having on the world’s poor. The UN developed the notion of “sustainable development”, including that poor nations could grow rich without using much energy. There is also a view that poor nations can “leapfrog” fossil fuels and go directly from burning wood and dung to using renewables, which is described as “avoiding the mistakes made in the industrialised world”. The World Bank and other donors are increasingly following this “sustainable development” model and winding back investments in major infrastructure like large-scale dams, centralised power grids, flood mitigation and the like. But, as a former World Bank economist told Shellenberger, “not a single country in the world has become developed through that route”.
In the final part of the book, Shellenberger ponders why environmental advocates have been so successful in their anti-development agenda. He looks to the legacy of Thomas Malthus and his myriad of fellow travellers since his 1798 treatise An Essay on the Principle of Population, which inspired Thomas Carlyle to call economics the dismal science. Traditionally, Marxists have been hostile to Malthusian thinking, because it condemns the poor apparently as a matter of natural law. But, says Shellenberger, Malthusianism switched sides after the Second World War and became “a left-wing political movement in the form of environmentalism”. Paul Ehrlich with his “Population Bomb” and the Club of Rome with its “Limits to Growth” are heirs to this Malthusianism.
By the 1980s fears of overpopulation lacked credibility. The population growth rate had already peaked, and China had introduced its one-child policy. Malthusians switched to resource scarcity and environmental degradation, followed by climate change. Now, it’s not that fossil fuels are scarce, or running out, it’s that the atmosphere has a limited capacity for carbon dioxide. The obvious answer, nuclear power, which uses few resources and doesn’t emit carbon dioxide, is rejected by Malthusian environmentalists. Shellenberger notices a pattern going back to Malthus himself, who opposed contraception: “Malthusians raise the alarm about resource or environmental problems and then attack the obvious technical solutions.”
Shellenberger discusses the semi-political character of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the incentive towards alarmism created by authors seeking inclusion in the Summary for Policy Makers and the attention of a media headline, the influx of opportunists and exaggerators, and the character assassinations of dissenters, who often just want to respectfully report the science. Nevertheless, Schellenberger regards as basically sound the underlying detailed analyses in the less-often-read technical chapters.
Shellenberger argues that contemporary environmentalism has become a secular religion. He quotes leading environmentalist Bill McKibben that the underlying problem is spiritual and that through our industrial civilisation we have lost our connection to nature. Shellenberger is scathing about the appeal-to-nature fallacy, that natural things are better for people and the environment than artificial things, but accepts that its intuitive appeal is very strong. He also criticises the idea that nature achieves “harmony” like a self-regulating system.
While secular environmentalism appears quite a break from our Judeo-Christian heritage, Shellenberger argues it replays the old archetypes. Instead of human problems stemming from a failure to adapt to God, they now stem from a failure to adapt ourselves to nature. Apocalyptic scientists are cast in the role of priests, interpreting to us the demands not of God, but of nature. Shellenberger believes “secular people are attracted to apocalyptic environmentalism because it meets some of the same psychological and spiritual needs as Judeo-Christianity and other religions”. It provides purpose—to save the world—a story in which they can be heroes and find meaning, all the while “retaining the illusion … that they are people of science and reason, not superstition and fancy”. It’s not that Shellenberger has a problem with religion. But the “trouble with the new environmental religion is that it has become increasingly apocalyptic, destructive, and self-defeating”.
Shellenberger reflects on the fear of death and our desire to transcend it through an “immortality project”, a way of living beyond the grave, whether through children, art, writing, business or other means. Climate activism can be such a project, creating a special purpose, to save the future for our descendants.
But what of those, like Extinction Rebellion, who seem to have a morbid fetish for death and the climate apocalypse? Shellenberger says:
If the climate apocalypse is a kind of subconscious fantasy for people who dislike civilization, it might help explain why the people who are the most alarmist … are also the most opposed to the technologies capable of addressing them, from fertilizer and flood control to natural gas and nuclear power.
Clearly, Shellenberger sympathises with the British columnist who described Extinction Rebellion as “an upper-middle-class death cult”.
However, Shellenberger doesn’t connect apocalyptic environmentalism with the Marxist anti-capitalist movements and thinkers of the past, nor with the more recent post-colonial, anti-Enlightenment scholarship and activism that has become so prominent. They all seek to destroy, or at least revolutionise, liberal, capitalist, industrial societies. He therefore seems a bit naive about the scope and scale of the movements attacking the foundations of our civilisation.
Nevertheless, Schellenberger rejects the anti-capitalist, postmodern, apocalyptic will to destroy and revolutionise. Instead, he promotes an “environmental humanism” in which “we must ground ourselves first in our commitment to the transcendent moral purpose of universal human flourishing and environmental progress, and then in rationality”:
Environmental humanism will eventually triumph over apocalyptic environmentalism … because the vast majority of people in the world want both prosperity and nature, not nature without prosperity.
Shellenberger has done a great service in breaking ranks and exposing the exaggerations, omissions and distortions that drive the apocalypse-is-upon-us narrative, reaffirming mainstream science and humanist ethics, and making the case that environmental alarmism hurts us all. He offers hope that we can tackle the challenges of climate change without sacrificing living standards if only we can come to terms with nuclear energy, the twentieth-century’s promethean gift.
Dr Michael Green has a PhD in Systems Engineering