Michael Shellenberger: Apocalypse Never (Book Overview)

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How worried should we be about climate change? And, why is it controversial to even ask this question?

For Michael Shellenberger, Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All is a chance to set the record straight about the climate situation and assess it from a rational perspective. He says it’s harmful when people distort science to push an agenda, and he’s optimistic about the planet’s future.

Continue reading for an overview of Michael Shellenberger’s Apocalypse Never.

Overview of Michael Shellenberger’s Apocalypse Never

Few topics have sparked more disagreement than the debate over climate change. Even though it’s becoming more widely accepted that climate change is real, there still remain the questions of what steps we should take, whether they’ll be enough, and how drastic the environmental situation really is. Many scientists and activists warn that the Earth has already passed a point of no return and that climate catastrophe is imminent and inevitable.

For award-winning science writer Michael Shellenberger, Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All is an opportunity to share what he says is good news. In the book, published in 2020, he acknowledges that climate change is taking place and that humans are having a negative impact on the environment. But, he puts forward the case that we’re in a much better position to curb climate change than the alarmists would have us believe. Furthermore, he insists that exaggerating the climate crisis is just as counterproductive as denying it entirely and that those who bend the scientific truth in order to ring the environmental alarm are actually doing more harm than good.

Shellenberger is an award-winning science writer known for his position that economic and environmental advancement go hand-in-hand. He’s the founder of the nonprofit research group Environmental Progress and serves as an expert reviewer for the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

We’ll lay out Shellenberger’s argument that environmental alarmists overstate their claims and that there are grounds for hope in regard to our planet’s environmental future. We’ll examine his proposal that solving our climate crisis relies on nuclear power and the industrialization of developing countries, while seemingly environmentally friendly ideas (such as renewable energy and natural farming) are wishful thinking at best and destructive at worst.

(Shortform note: Science author Peter Gleick has leveled criticism at Shellenberger’s book, accusing him of misrepresenting science, using strawman arguments to debate other environmentalists, and making unwarranted assumptions about the power of technology to solve the world’s problems. However, Gleick himself is not free from controversy, having publicly admitted and apologized for using unethical subterfuge in the fight against climate deniers.)

The Climate Change Debate

To begin, Shellenberger makes it clear that climate change is real and is primarily driven by the human race, but he’s dismayed at environmental doomsayers who he says spread misinformation just as much as climate change deniers. When climate activists fudge the truth for the sake of spurring people into action, they do their cause more harm than good. To demonstrate his point, Shellenberger discusses the warnings of environmental experts, the way that journalists selectively filter climate reports for the most alarming headlines, and the counterproductive psychological effects of presenting worst-case scenarios as unavoidable.

The leading source of information on the climate change problem is the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC produced a series of reports in 2018 and 2019 that predict irreversible harm to the ecosphere if current climate trends continue. IPCC scientists and others have warned that extreme weather events will endanger food and water supplies for billions of people, greenhouse gas emissions are out of control, and the cost of damage from disasters such as hurricanes and forest fires will continue to skyrocket. In its 2019 report, the IPCC stated that carbon emissions worldwide need to drop 45% by the year 2030 in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and prevent irreversible harm to the ecosphere.

However, the IPCC doesn’t predict the end of the world if their climate goals aren’t met. Shellenberger explains that scientists create weighted probabilities for a variety of scenarios, from best-case to worst-case, with multiple caveats and qualifications for each. To get the most attention-grabbing headlines, journalists fixate on the most dire predictions and present them as foregone scientific conclusions, no matter that such claims are grossly overstated and miss any nuance that might moderate their hyperbole.

Impending Disaster

One argument often cited as evidence for the runaway impact of climate change is that natural disasters are becoming more common, deadly, and destructive. This, says Shellenberger, is a prime example of environmentalist distortion. He argues that natural disasters are becoming more costly, but not because the climate is making them worse. Instead, the rise in damage tolls from events like hurricanes and wildfires is due to more people choosing to live in harm’s way by building subdivisions in dry, fire-prone areas and expanding communities in low, coastal regions.

One thing to consider is that the amount and value of coastal construction have dramatically increased in the last 100 years. When increases in coastal development are factored into calculations of hurricane damage as a form of property “inflation,” Shellenberger says the rising monetary impact of storms is completely explained by the rising value of development. Likewise, according to the United States Geological Survey, the increase in forest fires is linked to the rising number of power lines as an ignition source—a direct result of building more subdivisions in fire-prone areas. Humans are to blame for these impacts, but not in the way that alarmists suggest.

Yet, environmental activists cling to certain narratives, such as climate change making forest fires worse, with an almost religious fervor. Shellenberger goes so far as to label environmentalism as a “secular religion,” one driven by emotion more than reason. In its benign form, environmentalism motivates people to cherish nature and take steps to preserve it. However, in recent years, he says environmentalism has taken on aspects of a doomsday cult, with some groups predicting the end of the human race and even embracing it as a good outcome.

While this may provide some psychological boost to those acting as heralds for the End of Days, to the broader populace such alarmist screeds give rise to anxiety, depression, and worst of all, helplessness—the last thing we need to fight climate change. Shellenberger says that young people are particularly affected by predictions of environmental catastrophe, and why not? Based on the information being presented to children, it’s perfectly reasonable for many to believe that the human race will die out in their lifetimes and that it’s the fault of evil and stupidity, when in truth, that’s far from the case, as we shall see.

Reasons for Optimism

Despite the widespread message that environmental disaster is just over the horizon, there are many trends in current climate data that give us solid reasons to hope. Shellenberger highlights some encouraging trends and suggests an environmentally conscious way forward that makes human well-being a part of the solution instead of the problem.

To begin with, over the last 10 years, carbon emissions have gone down in the developed world, and credit can’t be given to recent environmental policies—for much of Europe, emissions started going down 50 years ago in tandem with the switch to nuclear power. Also in wealthy nations, the amount of land used for farming is shrinking, which is allowing forests to grow back. Even if damage from disasters is getting worse, the death toll from disasters has dropped 90% over the last hundred years, thanks in large part to technological advances that have greatly improved infrastructure, transportation, food distribution, and disaster response.

Shellenberger says that to solve the climate crisis, we should do what we can to accelerate these trends, which means bringing the advances of wealthy nations into the developing world. In place of nihilistic, apocalyptic scare tactics, the environmentalist movement should embrace humanism, the belief that human lives are of primary importance and that elevating people out of poverty and oppression will serve the greater good of all. Shellenberger argues that sharing the benefits of industry and technology can achieve the goal of restoring the planet, though not in ways that the current environmental movement would conceive of. We’ll explore his specific ideas.

Powering the Planet

The primary driver of climate change, and the most important issue to tackle, is society’s ever-growing energy consumption. The trend throughout the history of civilization has been moving from weak, diffuse sources of fuel to more compact and powerful methods of energy use and generation. Shellenberger explains the concepts of energy density and power density while detailing the progression toward energy-dense fuels and how politics and emotion can get in the way of necessary and beneficial progress.

Energy density is the measure of how much energy is stored per volume in any given fuel source. A lump of coal is more energy-dense than a burning log. The opposite of energy-dense fuels are those that are energy-diffuse, which store less energy per volume and require greater effort to extract.

From coal, the next steps on the energy density ladder are petroleum, natural gas, and nuclear power. In addition to providing more power than the next, each step toward higher energy density releases less pollution into the environment per unit of energy than the one before. Nevertheless, Shellenberger points out that we’re burning more trees today than ever before, due to population growth and the fact that people in many poor countries have no other fuel source than wood. Therefore, transitioning developing countries to energy-dense fuel sources should be a top priority for environmentalists, if only to stop deforestation.

Along with the trend toward energy density is that toward power density, the amount of energy used or produced per volume. This shift happens as people and industry cluster into smaller spaces. Cities are more power-dense than rural areas, factories are more power-dense than workshops, and industrial farms are more power-dense than old-style agrarian ranges. Similarly, in terms of power output, a gas generator is more power-dense than a wood-burning stove, just as a chemical battery is more power-dense than a generator run by a hamster in a wheel. 

Shellenberger says the advantage of this concentration is that it reduces per-person energy consumption. It’s more efficient to power a downtown apartment building for people who can walk to work than it is to provide electricity to houses for the same number of people who live in suburbs and burn gas to commute. The march toward more efficient, less polluting energy would do wonders for the environment and human well-being.

The Problem With Renewables

While wind and solar energy may seem like environmentally harmless sources of limitless power, that isn’t actually the case. Both are energy-diffuse and unreliable, leading to serious practical limitations that minimize their ability to replace other power sources and that impact the environment in their own harmful ways. Shellenberger lists the problematic deficiencies and negative ecological consequences of both solar and wind as sources of power, and he discusses their hidden economic costs, of which most people aren’t aware.

The first problem with solar power is its unreliability. Even if solar farms could be placed in a desert with 365 sunny days each year, the simple fact of seasonal change means there will be less light, and therefore less power, during winter months in which it’s needed most. Generating energy for the darkest times of year would require even more solar farms to be built, which leads to the second problem—land use. Shellenberger says that for the US to meet its current electricity needs with solar farms would require more land than some Atlantic states, land that would be taken away from farming or natural habitats.

The third problem with solar power is waste disposal, just as with any other power plant. Nothing lasts forever, and, eventually, solar panels wear out. Those panels contain toxic materials that have to be carefully disposed of. However, most of our electronic waste is shipped to poor countries where those chemicals leak into the groundwater due to poor waste management infrastructure. Recycling is an expensive option; solar companies usually find it cheaper to simply produce new panels than recycle old ones.

The problems with wind power are similar to solar’s. Although the wind blows day and night, all year round, it isn’t consistent and it’s highly unpredictable. Also as with solar, wind farms require a lot of land—more than 400 times that of an equivalent natural gas plant. Wind turbines also present a danger to wildlife. High-wind corridors ideal for wind farms are for the same reason the ideal migratory routes for birds and insects. Bats and large birds are especially vulnerable, and Shellenberger writes that conservation scientists are pushing back against wind farms even as environmental groups promote them.

The Power Storage Problem

The final argument against wind and solar power is the issue of power storage, which is both a logistical and an economic problem. At present, electricity is as cheap as it is because it’s generated, transmitted, and used continuously through the shared electrical grid. Because wind and solar power aren’t consistent, the grid must keep fossil fuel plants on standby to pick up the slack when renewables fail (which is costly and counterproductive to renewables’ mission to replace fossil fuels). To power the grid entirely with renewables would mean finding a way to store massive amounts of power for periods when wind or solar power ceases to function.

Large-scale power storage is both prohibitively expensive as well as a logistical nightmare. While advances in battery technology have done wonders for personal electronics, they don’t come close to meeting the scale of storage needed for the whole power grid, which would cost hundreds of trillions of dollars. Proposals to store energy hydraulically (by using renewables to pump water uphill behind hydroelectric dams), as well as attempts to store energy by producing hydrogen, have proven unworkable from an engineering standpoint. Shellenberger suggests that as much as wind and solar power meet the romantic ideal of “natural energy,” they simply don’t meet the energy needs of present-day or future generations.

The Case for Nuclear

What’s needed instead is a clean, energy-dense alternative. The answer is nuclear power, which is reliable, productive, and has a minimal impact on the environment. Shellenberger explains the advantages of nuclear power, addresses the reservations and misconceptions many people have about it, and argues that anti-nuclear propaganda has drastically clouded public opinion on the topic.

Nuclear power is the most energy-dense fuel source we have available—the amount of nuclear fuel required to generate power is infinitesimal next to the amount of fossil fuels burned by coal and natural gas plants. It’s reliable and affordable enough to provide for the world’s rising energy needs. Building nuclear plants has been costly in the US, which Shellenberger attributes to environmental regulations purposely designed to make nuclear power cost-prohibitive. However, in countries such as South Korea, assembly-line construction techniques have been shown to reduce the cost of newly designed nuclear plants. Modern plants also last longer with less upkeep than those in the US, which are based on designs from the 1960s. 

Unlike the byproducts of other power sources, nuclear waste is not released back into the environment. Once used, nuclear fuel rods are cooled, then encased in nigh-impregnable steel and concrete. Even if a container were to break, which Shellenberger says is highly unlikely, very little would get loose into the environment because there’s so little of it to begin with. There are many places in the world where the natural background radiation is higher than that at man-made radiation sites.

The most realistic cause of nuclear material being released into the wild is in the case of a reactor meltdown, of which there have been three—at Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986, and Fukushima in 2011—but the impact of those accidents is widely overstated. The Chernobyl disaster resulted in fewer than 100 deaths attributed to radiation. For the other two incidents, the nuclear death toll was zero. Shellenberger points out that other energy-related disasters have been far more devastating, such as the collapse of the Banqiao hydroelectric dam that resulted in 200,000 deaths. Yet no one has called for a ban on hydroelectric power.

The Anti-Nuclear Movement

Environmentalists haven’t always been against nuclear power. In the 1960s, it was seen as the obvious way to meet rising energy demands while preserving natural areas. Shellenberger writes that the shift began when some environmentalists deliberately conflated nuclear power with nuclear fallout to stop plants from being built on lands they wanted to conserve. This led activists who were against nuclear weapons to split their focus to include nuclear power. The idea that nuclear energy was as dangerous as nuclear fallout went viral among environmental groups in the 1970s, and by now it’s been infused into environmental doctrine.

The film and television industry has also played an important role in turning nuclear power into a boogeyman, with exploitative and inaccurate depictions that drum up the “scare factor” of nuclear energy. However, Shellenberger admits that the nuclear industry did itself no favors by retreating from the public debate and letting the media’s misinformation go unchallenged. As a result, most of the world is phasing out nuclear power.

Meanwhile, abandoning the nuclear option has its cost. Deaths and illnesses from air pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuel continue, and in some parts of the world, more forests are being cleared to make firewood for heating and cooking in homes. The rising output of solar and wind power have not been enough to offset the loss of nuclear energy, and in places where nuclear plants have closed down, the price of electricity has only increased, placing a greater economic burden on people’s lives.

Saving the Planet

When it comes to rescuing ecosystems, though, how we generate electricity isn’t the highest priority that comes to most people’s minds. The core of existential environmental dread revolves around the idea that humans are actively killing the planet. In order to remove a certain level of panic from the environmental discussion, Shellenberger addresses the issues and misperceptions around the mass extinction of species, the loss of rainforests, and the amount of non-degradable waste such as plastic that we release into the environment.

Conservationists warn that species are now going extinct faster than at any time in the past several million years. Authors who characterize this as the “Sixth Extinction” argue that mass extinctions are not only humanity’s fault but that they also endanger the human race’s survival by toppling the delicate natural systems on which our civilization depends. However, Shellenberger claims that alarmist extinction rate projections are based on a flawed “species-area model” developed in the 1960s that made faulty assumptions about how much habitat is needed for species to survive.

Deforestation

Shellenberger says that habitat loss and declining species populations are more important metrics to consider and that they aren’t the result of “evil corporations” but of the actions of people simply struggling to survive. In Brazil and the Congo, rainforests are disappearing in order to make room for farmland and to use the chopped-down trees for fuel, as was done in the developed world for all of recorded history. Not only are forests disappearing, but what remains is being carved into islands of woodland that break apart species’ natural range of territory.

A misunderstanding that Shellenberger speaks to specifically is the idea that rainforests are vital to providing the planet’s oxygen and removing carbon dioxide from the air. Forest ecosystems actually consume as much oxygen as they produce, and while plants do store carbon, they don’t to the extent that many activists claim.

On the plus side, reforestation has exceeded deforestation for the last few decades, in part due to replanting projects and agricultural land returning to nature, but also because the excess carbon in the atmosphere actively encourages plant growth. However, Shellenberger admits that new forest growth is a poor replacement for the old-growth forests that are home to many species and have more natural diversity. More efficient use of already-cleared lands can halt civilization’s march into old-growth forests that are in most need of conservation.

Plastic in the Oceans

Of equal or greater concern are the oceans, where wildlife is endangered by the vast amount of plastic waste that gets eaten by birds, fish, whales, and marine turtles. Though much of the plastic comes from torn and discarded industrial fishing nets, a great deal more finds its way there by land from countries without strong waste management infrastructures. Meanwhile, the use and production of plastic have steadily risen for over 50 years. Attempts to recycle it result in most of it being shipped to Southeast Asian countries, which are becoming less willing to act as the world’s plastic garbage dump.

Shellenberger notes that the invention of plastic resulted in the stop of the widespread slaughter of animals such as elephants and tortoises, whose ivory and shells were used as materials for many commonplace items. Today there is a push toward bioplastics, but the alternatives to petroleum-based plastic aren’t necessarily better for the environment. Bioplastics require more water, farmland, and energy to produce than normal plastic, and are harder to reuse and recycle. In those respects, green alternatives can be a step in the wrong direction. The environmental cost of petroleum plastic is actually less than our other current options.

The Human Cost

In addition to engineering and logistical difficulties, any solution to climate change is doomed to fail if it doesn’t account for the human variable. Shellenberger argues that first-world countries are shifting the burden of managing the climate onto nations in the developing world in a form of environmental colonialism. Damaging deforestation in places such as Brazil and the Congo is simply the result of people trying to survive, while environmental groups and international organizations counterproductively hold back modernization and make enemies of the farmers in those countries whom they should really be courting as allies.

Life in many countries is hard and hand to mouth. Logging and farming are how people survive and are the only ways for many families to lift their children out of poverty. Deforestation is caused by economic necessity, not “evil corporations” burning rainforests out of greed. Shellenberger says that what’s needed in these countries are modern agricultural techniques that will allow them to produce more food on less land. There is precedent for this in the United States—the Tennessee Valley Authority was created during the Great Depression to bring hydroelectric power and modernized agriculture to impoverished farmers, vastly improving their standard of living while enabling economic growth and education.

However, that’s not what’s taking place today. Instead, environmental organizations are actively pushing against efficient, concentrated industrial farming in favor of small, local farms that produce less food while, in the aggregate, using far more land. Hand-in-hand with this drag on agricultural progress is pressure for these countries to forego efficient and cheap electric power in favor of land-intensive renewables. The American and European groups insisting on these measures are trying to enforce low levels of power consumption in poor countries that they’re unable or unwilling to attempt in the developed world. Meanwhile, by glamorizing the “simple agrarian life,” they ignore the harsh economic realities of the people who actually live it.

Even simple farming life loses its shine when farmers need access to land that Western environmentalists want to protect. Shellenberger writes that, in Africa, whole groups of people were displaced when their farms and villages were made part of national parks. The conservation programs responsible financially compensate the countries for their land and provide some income in the form of ecotourism, but that rarely trickles down to those who lose their homes. Instead, the result is animosity between the people who live in an area and the organizations trying to protect it. Though they could have been treated as allies, local residents become enemies of the conservation effort and sometimes actively fight against it.

The Case for Industrialization

In the end, Shellenberger says that the way to save the planet is to save humans first. Bringing modern industry, modern farming, and cheap electrical power to the world lifts people out of poverty, increases urbanization, concentrates resource usage, and lets more of the planet go back to nature. The current positive environmental trends enjoyed in the developed world can be shared because 1) industrialization frees people from struggling daily to survive, 2) industrial farming techniques let us reduce how much land we need to feed people, and 3) artificial products save plants and animals from being used as clothing and building materials.

It’s a historical fact in the US and Europe that industrialization lifts people out of poverty. It’s been especially empowering for women, for whom it gave a path toward financial independence away from traditional, home-based gender roles. Shellenberger claims this same process is taking place today in the developing world. Young men and women are moving from farms to the cities, where manufacturing work brings them higher wages and gives them more free time to pursue education. And because city dwellers don’t produce their own food, this creates more economic demand for the farmers who don’t choose to move to the cities.

Environmental groups should therefore be working with farmers to increase agricultural yields in concentrated regions close to the cities so that natural areas with more biodiversity can be better preserved. Shellenberger says that this can be achieved by implementing industrial farming, which he admits has a deservedly bad reputation due to issues of animal cruelty. However, public outcry has resulted in improvements in the last 20 years, resulting in more humane conditions for animals while minimizing their impact in terms of land use and emissions. Free-range farms, while emotionally appealing, take a much greater toll on the environment.

In order to accept industrialization as a solution, Shellenberger says the main emotional hurdle is to acknowledge that artificial products are better than natural ones. This is easy to understand in some situations. After all, isn’t wearing artificial fur more ethical than slaughtering wildlife for their pelts? Industrial, unnatural farming techniques let farmers dramatically increase crop production while reducing the amount of farmland needed. And nuclear power, for all its Cold War stigma, will always be the most efficient, power-dense way to heat and light our cities and our homes, far better than “natural” wind and solar power.

And yet, there has always been a “back to nature” movement that prizes a dreamy oneness with the natural world. Shellenberger insists that we give up this fantasy. The only way forward into a green future is to lift people up to all the benefits of modernity, and not turn the clock back to the destructive ways of the past.

Michael Shellenberger: Apocalypse Never (Book Overview)

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  • An assessment of the climate crisis from a rational perspective
  • How climate change alarmists are doing more harm than good
  • The problems with renewable energy and why we should switch to nuclear

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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