Over the summer I read a book I’ve been meaning to read but also kind of avoiding: Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All by Michael Shellenberger, an American environmental writer and nuclear power advocate who runs an organisation called Environmental Progress. This organisation “was founded to achieve two goals: lift all humans out of poverty, and save the natural environment” (link).
Responses to the book differ widely. It has been described as a “deeply and fatally flawed […] polemic” and “political propaganda“. Critics further contend that Schellenberger “plays fast and loose with the facts” and relies upon “a strawman argument“. Others readers (quoted on Shellenberger’s website) consider the book to be “balanced and refreshing”, and argue that it “rescues with science and lived experience a subject drowning in misunderstanding and partisanship”, usefully “exposes misrepresentations” along with “one-sided distortions by environmental organizations” and biases, and makes a “persuasive case”.
Following publication right-wing media rushed to get Shellenberger on for an interview – seeming to relish to the opportunity to interview an environmentalist who is critical of climate activists and other environmentalists – whilst others such as The Guardian published a critical review arguing Shellenberger is guilty of science denial and a further article criticising his related writings on what he termed “the climate scare”.
I was unsure of the likely value of taking the time to read Apocalypse Never but for a few reasons I decided to. Firstly, in order to mitigate confirmation bias I try to make a habit of listening to (or reading) all sides with an open mind (to the extent I can). Second, I wanted to consider it myself rather than rely upon the commentary and views of others. Finally, one reason why the book got my attention is that it addresses some of the energy policy and energy transition-related issues which were explored and emerged in the CSIRO-led ‘futures forums’ which I evaluated in my doctoral research (more on this later). Similar to key arguments made in Apocalypse Never, some participants in these forums were highly critical of the limited consideration of nuclear power (it was largely excluded from the discussion and most analysis) and some participants criticised the promotion of biofuels.
Having now read it, perhaps the first thing that needs to be said about Apocalypse Never is that it covers a lot of ground. A vast array of environmental and social issues are explored. Readers of the book may be surprised to discover that it’s not principally a book on what the subtitle terms ‘environmental alarmism’.
Though the book does claim that there is a rise in “exaggeration, alarmism and extremism” (p.xiii) – and posits the existence of a ‘new environmental religion’ (in a chapter titled ‘False Gods for Lost Souls’) – much of the book addresses other subjects. There’s not really a unifying theme other than that most people (according to the author) are misinformed about environmental problems and misunderstand how they have been solved in the past and can be solved (now). Shellenberger’s overall perspective is that such problems principally get solved by technological and economic development, and via actions aimed at both poverty reduction and environmental protection, positing no major trade-offs between them. Additionally, Shellenberger contends that environmental groups tend to make it more difficult to solve environmental problems by opposing rational solutions.
For example, Shellenberger argues that conservationists and other environmentalists made a mistake when they shifted from supporting nuclear power to increasingly opposing it (from the mid-1960s onwards) and then championing renewable energy generation technologies. He argues people are misinformed regarding the threats of nuclear power to public safety and that “antinuclear groups continue to deceive and frighten the public” (p.168).
Indeed it should be noted that others like Guardian columnist George Monbiot and science writers like Mark Lynas have made similar arguments about the anti-nuclear movement. For instance, Monbiot argues that “the anti-nuclear movement to which I once belonged has misled the world about the impacts of radiation on human health”.
A second broad way to introduce the book is to say that if your vision of the future contains elements common to environmentally-oriented visions – such as greater organic farming, shifting to renewable energy (electricity and transport fuels), drastically reduced meat consumption (more vegetarianism, veganism) and abandoning factory farming, “energy leapfrogging” in poorer nations (e.g. from wood energy to other forms of renewable energy), going plastics-free, and broader macroeconomic transformations away from capitalism, etc – then reading Apocalypse Never will entail reading arguments against these ideas.
Indeed, one of the main arguments in this book is that “the evidence shows that an organic, low-energy, and renewable-powered world would be worse, not better, for most people and for the natural environment” (p.285).
Related to these aspects, some of the main ideas and claims in the book are that:
- Energy density and power density should be the overarching factors that determine ‘rational’ energy policies (here Shellenberger cites researchers like Vaclav Smil);
- Nuclear power is “the safest way to make reliable electricity” (p.151) and alternative options (i.e. renewables) “make electricity more expensive” (p.185) and have other major downsides (e.g. impacts on wildlife, land-use related, etc);
- Prominent renewable energy advocates massively underestimate the financial, land-use, practical and other (e.g. conservation) implications of their visions (see the chapter provocatively titled ‘Destroying the Environment to Save It’); and opponents of nuclear power often have undisclosed conflicts of interest;
- By developing and using ‘artificial’ substitutes to natural products we can “save nature by not using it”. For instance, the invention of plastics had conservation benefits by providing substitutes for natural materials derived from other animals;
- Capitalism and economic development tend to solve environmental problems (rather than being the underlying cause of our environmental woes);
- Environmentalists should support the economic development of poorer nations even if this initially entails greater use of fossil fuels (coal or gas);
- Environmentalists and climate activists wrongly warn of imminent catastrophes and are promoting levels of ‘eco-anxiety’ inconsistent with relevant evidence;
- “Hatred of human civilization, and perhaps humanity itself, [may] be behind claims of environmental apocalypse” (p.270);
- There should be a move from what he terms ‘apocalyptic environmentalism’ and ‘Malthusian’ environmentalism to a new form which Shellenberger terms ‘environmental humanism’: “exaggeration, alarmism, and extremism […] are the enemy of a positive, humanistic, and rational environmentalism.” (p.xiii);
- ‘Environmental humanists’ should call on rich nations to better “support, not deny, development to poor nations” (p.275) – especially lifting energy production-related restrictions placed on development aid – and should oppose actors promoting “an organic, low-energy, and renewable-powered world” (p.285); and
- Emotion and ideology drive many environmentally-oriented behaviours and policies not “rational consideration of the evidence” (p.142). In particular, adherents of ‘apocalyptic environmentalism’ are mistaken in believing they are “people of science and reason, not superstition and fantasy” (p.264)
Shellenberger’s arguments imply that he and his fellow ‘environmental humanists’ are people of science and reason and other environmentalists (e.g. Malthusians and ‘apocalyptic’ environmentalists) have succumbed to superstition, fantasy and the influence of ideology.
One can quickly see why this book is controversial and highly polarising!
With this broad introduction in mind, one further characteristic of the book to note is the nature of the claims-making which is often highly certain and/or definitive, e.g.:
- “There is no amount of technological innovation that can solve the fundamental problem with renewables” (pp.184-5);
- “Human civilization would need to occupy one hundred to one thousand time more space if it were to rely solely on renewables” (p.190);
- “The far lower power densities of solar and wind would make today’s high-energy, urbanized, and industrial civilization impossible” (p.192);
- “Only nuclear energy can power our high-energy human civilization while reducing humankind’s environmental footprint” (p.278);
- “Whenever nuclear plants aren’t in use [e.g. when nuclear plants get shut down] fossil fuels must be used and emissions rise” (p.168);
- “An organic, low-energy, and renewable-powered world would be worse […] for most people and for the natural environment” (p.285); and
- “There is more reason for optimism than pessimism” (p.273).
The breadth of ideas and claims makes it highly challenging to do a comprehensive or concise review of this book. So, how to proceed?
One reviewer chose to position the text in relation “tensions and intellectual debates between Malthusians and Cornucopians” which “are now more than two centuries old” (also see John Dryzek’s authoritative work on environmental discourses). On this reading, Shellenberger is just the latest ‘Cornucopian’ (or perhaps ‘promethean’ in Dryzek’s terms) whose work “echoes previous efforts of authors like Herman Kahn, Julian Simon, and Bjørn Lomborg.” Related critics – who may be Malthusians (which, if true, would partly explain their reactions) – suggest the book has nothing substantive or new to offer.
There is an important sense in which Apocalypse Never is the latest ‘shot’ fired in multiple-centuries old conflicts. I agree with other reviewers that it’s not obvious what it substantively adds other than, perhaps, its pro-nuclear advocacy and arguments (viewing nuclear as a means of both mitigating climate change and meeting the ongoing needs of high-energy societies in this context [also see Lynas, 2013]), its critique of renewable energy (though ‘Malthusians’ make similar arguments), and its exploratory analysis of why people oppose nuclear and “are attracted to apocalyptic environmentalism” (p.264). Certainly Shellenberger is one the world’s most prominent nuclear power advocates.
The book also repeats criticisms of ‘Malthusians’ which are presented elsewhere.
Others judge Apocalypse Never to be a polemic, or largely a piece of “propaganda”, and engage with the text in related ways. On this reading, the main consideration is whether the text may support, or provide a new basis for, organised political action. Perhaps the most interesting related aspect of the book is the idea of ‘environmental humanism’ proposed by Shellenberger, which may be contrasted with other ideas like ‘post-humanism’.
Shellenberger is a gifted writer and his style is somewhat polemical. Readers unaware of research and literature supporting different views would likely find it highly persuasive.
But it must be said that it’s a tough book to interpret in part because the style or genre is unusual. It’s not really a ‘popular science book’, though it does discuss current science and reference the scientific literature and other sources (the endnotes are 104 pages long!) with a strong bias towards literature and experts which agree with the author’s views. It’s also not a ‘memoir’ or other first-person book, though Shellenberger draws heavily on his own life and biography and the text is anecdote heavy. It’s not really a ‘scholarly’ book presenting original research and/or arguments, though he does investigate issues and reports his ‘findings’. The book puts forward recommended actions but it’s not a detailed manifesto. It’s sort of a fusion of multiple genres mobilised to support the author’s arguments.
Ultimately, the book reads like multiple books, each only partly written, awkwardly merged into one. I think Shellenberger is genuinely concerned about what he terms ‘apocalyptic environmentalism’ and a book could have been written solely about this and its potential implications, both positive and negative. Second, some of the book has a ‘debunking’ style to it and it could have solely been a more detailed exploration of what the author thinks are core environmental myths. Third, I also think Shellenberger is genuinely worried about poverty in the developing world and how, or whether, contemporary environmental policy harms poverty reduction efforts (and the implications of this). Detailed examination of this issue or question also could have been a book. Fourth, energy policy is also a major focus. The analysis of energy policy and energy transition issues, questions and implications is probably the most technical part of the book and I got the sense that Shellenberger could have written a full length book on this which better defends his main arguments about energy policy. Finally, the idea of ‘environmental humanism’ feels half-baked at present. Perhaps Shellenberger’s next book will develop this frame more fully.
Beyond these general observations, I’ll make a few more specific comments – none of which constitute a strong endorsement of the book – which only address some of the chapters (they don’t address chapters on ‘sweatshops’, vegetarianism, and ‘energy leapfrogging’ visions, etc, nor the chapter examining the funding of anti-nuclear activism):
Firstly, Shellenberger’s take on energy policy and related issues is not completely outlandish. In fact I’ve seen similar analysis by advocates of macroeconomic transformations away from high-energy consumer societies (but who aren’t pro-nuclear). But, in my experience, the assumptions and energy policy complexities that Shellenberger probes aren’t often deeply considered by environmentalists promoting simple visions of 100% renewable energy. These aspects of the book have a stronger empirical and theoretical basis.
In fact, some related themes came up in the ‘futures forums’ run by CSIRO that I studied in my doctoral research. In particular, the Future Grid Forum (which investigated Australia’s future electricity grid and energy future) identified the issue that electricity is likely to get significantly more expensive in coming decades and concluded that it would increase the most in a scenario called “Renewables Thrive” in which there was a goal of attaining 100 per cent renewable share in centralised electricity generation (‘100% renewables’) and other technologies (e.g. energy storage technologies) are used to meet renewable supply gaps and shift demand. Modelling studies done for this project also projected that adding nuclear to the generation mix would significantly reduce wholesale electricity prices and – relative to another scenario (“Set and Forget”) – result in much lower greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 (72% lower). Related to these aspects this study investigated issues such as whole-of-system costs (e.g. the cumulative system expenditure that may be required).
However, there are major differences between this analysis and Shellenberger’s arguments. The CSIRO study explored additional scenarios (e.g. “Leaving the grid”) and concluded that similar downward pressure on electricity costs can be attained via a combination of greater adoption of energy efficiency, peak demand management (i.e. reduction of peak demand), and on-site electricity generation. The CSIRO study argued that so-called ‘schedulable renewables’ (e.g. enhanced geothermal systems and biomass) could play roles in supporting variable renewable sources. The study also argued that the Australian Energy Technology Assessment should be expanded to “to include large-scale storage technologies, which are a potential substitute for gas in supporting variable renewable generation”.
When compared to Shellenberger, the CSIRO-led study is more optimistic that the problems with renewables can be solved. There is no certainty that they can be but nor is there certainty that “no amount of technological innovation that can solve the fundamental problem with renewables” (at least in relation to electricity generation and use).
This brings me to other ‘futures forums’ I looked at which had a transportation focus. The most notable difference between these and Shellenberger’s work is the conclusion from the alternative aviation fuels forum that there is sufficient non-food biomass to “support almost half (46 per cent) of the aviation fuel needs of both Australia and New Zealand by 2020 and over 100 per cent of fuel needs by 2050” and that this wouldn’t require significant land use changes. This suggests that for particular markets or industries biofuels could play a major role without generating issues related to land-use change. However, the study did note that there could be increasing competition for required feedstocks from other alternative uses such as other forms of transportation (e.g. road transport uses) or from electricity generation, amongst others. So, the study didn’t exclude the possibility of emerging issues where/if the use of biofuels and bioenergy generation becomes widespread.
A few related comments can be made. Whilst I’m inclined to think that Shellenberger exaggerates in order to bolster his case for nuclear energy, it may also be equally true that renewable energy enthusiasts understate the potential for major issues. Indeed, part of the value in reading works promoting alternative solutions is they address issues that other writers may be inclined to underplay or avoid entirely. This suggests a useful lesson: we may simply just need to better take account of actors’ prior commitments when judging their assessments of energy policy issues (or other public policy questions).
A second interesting aspect concerns Shellenberger’s argument that many actors misunderstand and frequently misrepresent relevant science and evidence (e.g. in climate change debates, in the news media, etc). Indeed he goes so far to assert “many of the stories people tell about climate change don’t have much to do with science” (p.253).
He further adds the following assessment regarding what he terms “the new environmental religion” (p.264): “so, while I can empathize with the sadness and loneliness behind the anger and fearmongering about climate change, deforestation, and species extinctions, I can see that much of it is wrong, based on unaddressed anxieties, disempowering ideologies, and misrepresentations of the evidence” (p.274). In his view, “the language of science” mainly gets mobilised to (attempt to) generate greater legitimacy (p.263).
This is an interesting aspect of the book. I think Shellenberger cites some valid examples to support his arguments. However – and this is a crucial point – his critics (who often are scientists) also accuse him of “selective cherry-picking and misuse of facts, all interspersed with simple mistakes and misrepresentations of science” (link). For example, Peter H. Gleick, an American scientist, argues that he “misunderstands or misrepresents the extensive and growing literature on the links between climate change and extreme events”.
It’s worthwhile reviewing this example in a bit more detail. Shellenberger’s simple summary of the science is that the evidence shows that climate change isn’t making disasters worse (at least not yet). Indeed there is a research literature which indicates that for many classes of disaster there currently isn’t a clear climate signal showing that climate change has increased the cost or frequency of many kinds of disasters (see Pielke Jr, 2018 for a review). Research also shows deaths from climate-related hazards and disasters have gone down enormously over the past century. So, we should acknowledge that Shellenberger has a leg to stand on. On the other hand, the dominant view within relevant expert communities is that climate change is playing a role in the frequency and intensity of some extreme weather events (e.g. major heatwaves, flooding, etc) and if these changes aren’t effectively mitigated (e.g. via further adaptation efforts, and by reducing emissions) this may result in an increase in the frequency and cost of climate-related disasters. We should also note that additional expert communities which are pioneering related ‘attribution’ studies (which are not cited or discussed by Shellenberger) also contend that there is a likely role for climate change in some extreme weather events such as the recent major bushfires in Australia whilst recognising the importance of other non-climate factors. So, an approach that truly was ‘balanced’ and science-based probably ought to better take account of the full range of evidence on climate change, extreme weather and related disasters.
My overall feeling is that because Shellenberger is non-scientist who is drawing on research from fields he has no training or expertise in he is often on shaky ground. He tends to cite researchers whose work supports his assessment but doesn’t give equal weight to expert views or prevailing scientific consensuses that challenge his views – indeed greater weight should usually be placed on a prevailing scientific consensus (where it is exists or is forming) than on a contrarian scientific viewpoint. Moreover, there is the fundamental challenge of interpretation, particularly where the facts don’t simply speak for themselves (as they rarely do) and the scientific research being conducted is highly complex.
Here we can perhaps mobilise emerging ideas from the social studies of science. In Rethinking Expertise Collins and Evans introduce the concept of the ‘locus of legitimate interpretation’. This idea concerns the location (social location) from which legitimate knowledge claims and judgements of those knowledge claims can be made. Shellenberger is frequently arguably an illegitimate judge of knowledge claims, and ought to rely more upon the views of relevant expert communities. He sometimes appears to try to mitigate this issue by mobilising the assessments of relevant experts (via heavy use of verbatim quotes and other quoted written passages), however similar issues can emerge in terms of the choice of expert – i.e. whose views get emphasised (or excluded).
Overall, this aspect of the book may provide some valuable transferable lessons. I know that I’ve encountered similar problems during the coronavirus pandemic in my own engagement with the scientific literature (an issue that I have discussed in an earlier post).
A final aspect of the book I wish to briefly highlight and comment on is its strong emphasis on the idea of ‘apocalyptic environmentalism’ and his critical discussion of the related emphasis being placed on imminent catastrophes due to problems like global warming. Shellenberger contends that a ‘new environmental religion’ has emerged which is “destructive” and “self-defeating”.
Shellenberger states that he “decided to write Apocalypse Never after getting fed up with the exaggeration, alarmism, and extremism that are the enemy of a positive, humanistic, and rational environmentalism” (p.xiii). Notably, the book begins by discussing the activities and rhetoric of the activitist group Extinction Rebellion in the UK during 2019. He further feels that “the conversation about climate change and the environment has, in the last few years, spiraled out of control” (p.xii). He further claims that the book “defends mainstream science from those who deny it on the political Right and Left” (p.xiii).
Whilst I have some sympathy with some of his arguments I think he often overdoes the rhetoric in referring to what he terms the “religious fanaticism of apocalyptic environmentalism” (p.274). Notably, another reviewer of the book suggests this issue is actually related to a communications challenge (rather than ‘fanaticism’): “One of the most difficult problems in making the case for action on climate crisis is that the elevated levels of greenhouse gases we create over the next few decades will have consequences not fully realised until the next century and beyond. Some campaigners deal with this communications challenge by wrongly warning of imminent catastrophe”. This is a very interesting competing perspective to the one proposed by Shellenberger.
Additionally, as suggested by Steven Yearley’s book The Green Case, there is a key tension in Shellenberger’s efforts to push back against what he sees as overly ‘apocalyptic’ manifestations of environmentalism in the early 21st century. Yearley notes that one of the most powerful arguments underpinning the ecological case is the claim that “disaster for the human race is a natural inevitability” if we don’t make some major changes and he further notes that this green case is a profoundly scientific case. Science that supports this central argument solidifies the green case. But mobilising science to argue, for example, that disasters aren’t becoming more frequent or most costly because of ecological change (e.g. climate change), or to argue that the dominant trends are positive ones, doesn’t quite “fit”. In these cases, science may not bolster the green case. In this context, scientists (and others) who help to bolster the green case are allies; scientists (and others) whose work raises questions about such central arguments are enemies to be defeated.
These underlying sociological dynamics may partly explain the response to Shellenberger and some of the scientists he prominently cites (e.g. Roger Pielke Jr).
Furthermore, we may simply need to better recognised that science is a “unreliable friend” to the environmental movement, as argued by Yearley. Or it may turn out to be the case that Shellenberger and the scientists he cites are misguided on a number of issues.
I can understand why people would dismiss Apocalypse Never as a “flawed polemic” and as a piece of “propaganda”. It is a one-sided polemic, with its claims about environmental ‘alarmism’ and a ‘new environmental religion’, and about actors being driven by ‘superstition and fantasy’, amongst many other sweeping claims. In writing the book Shellenberger has picked a fight with his fellow environmentalists and many environmental scientists, many of whom have returned fire. Some readers have also dismissed the author as someone who (they argue) likes to court controversy and adopt contrarian positions.
I also noted that many critics of Shellenberger argue that he is the one who is misrepresenting and misunderstanding relevant science and providing misleading and inaccurate statements (which prompted responses from Shellenberger). As one reviewer commented (regarding a related article written to promote Apocalypse Never) “it is useful to push back against claims that climate change will lead to the end of the world or human extinction”, but scientists have questioned his interpretation of relevant evidence and argued that, in relation to some issues, he omits important information, presents ‘half-truths’ and often makes statements that are ‘misleading at best’ (link). A reader of Apocalypse Never needs to be aware of the contrasting views of relevant scientists, along with some of the other considerations noted in this review (see the related discussion above).
I’m also reminded of the following John Stuart Mill quote: “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that”. Perhaps reading books like Apocalypse Never can be valuable in providing knowledge of the ‘other side’ on some issues and questions.
On questions related to energy policy and transitions I think Shellenberger is justified in raising many of the issues discussed in Apocalypse Never. Major transitions to decarbonise energy systems and society will involve major complexities, messy trade-offs and significant uncertainties. Some people may conclude that nuclear power is the key solution to some of these issues, whereas others believe a mix of other technologies and innovations can provide ways forward. In my experience the trouble is that most actors and analysts seem to be strongly committed to particular solutions and technologies and I worry that this biases their analysis. Readers of Apocalypse Never should keep this in mind.
Overall, if you decide to read Apocalypse Never I suggest proceeding with appropriate caution and also reading both the many critiques of his claims published online along with other scholars/scientists who have reached contrasting conclusions.