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“Michael Shellenberger – Apocalypse Never: A New Approach to Environmentalism” (Two Think Minimum)

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Bob Hahn:

Hello, and welcome to the Technology Policy Institute’s podcast, Two Think Minimum. I’m your host, Robert Hahn. And today we’re very excited, and I feel privileged to talk with Michael Shellenberger as part of our podcast series on energy talks. Michael Shellenberger is a Time Magazine “Hero of the Environment” and the Founder and President of Environmental Progress. He’s been a climate and environmental activist for over 30 years. He’s helped save nuclear reactors around the world, and I’ll leave it for him to explain why when we talk. And he’s a leading environmental journalist and has written many books on the environment and given several Ted talks. Welcome, Michael, and thanks for joining us. 

Michael Shellenberger:

Thanks for having me, Bob. 

Bob Hahn:

So, the reason I wanted to have you on today is because I very much enjoyed reading this book here. I’ll try to show it on my webcam, which isn’t high quality. The title of the book is Apocalypse NeverWhy Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All. So from a leading environmentalist, why would you be against environmental alarmism? And what did you mean by that wild and crazy title?

Michael Shellenberger:

Well, I decided to write this book last year, after the conversation about climate change just really spiraled out of control. You had extinction rebellion, Greta Thunberg, various types of activists saying billions of people would die from climate change. Or to Thunberg, actually promoted panic, which is literally something we shouldn’t wish on our worst enemies since panic means unthinkable action. And we saw very scary, dangerous behavior, including, you know, two guys stopping a subway, or they call it a tube in London, almost getting killed. You saw rising anxiety and depression among young people around the world, at a time when anxiety depression has been increasing, I think for a variety of other reasons over the years. And as somebody that’s been working on climate change for 20 years, I’ve been an environmental activist for 33 years, I just felt like I needed to say something. You know, my daughter’s 14, she’s fine, but a lot of her friends don’t know if they’re going to live long enough to have kids. 

Bob Hahn:

You mean they fear they’re not going to live long enough to have kids? Is that what you’re saying?

Michael Shellenberger:

Yeah. They worry they’re not going to live long enough to have kids.

Bob Hahn:

Gotcha. Gotcha. So, so let me start. There are a couple of… there are two parts to this title, and being an academic, I want you to help me parse it a little. When you say, “apocalypse never,” do you mean, don’t worry, be happy? Or what do you mean there?

Michael Shellenberger:

Well, the book, basically the first third of the book goes through the big environmental fears: climate change, species extinction, rainforest destruction, and plastic waste. And it just separates the science from the science fiction. So climate change is real. It’s not the end of the world. It’s not even our most serious environmental problem. Humans are incredibly adaptive. We’ve actually done incredibly well. Even with sea level rise or with land subsistence, which is effectively the same thing. We grow food at all temperatures. There’s basically every reason to believe that deaths from natural disasters and deaths from infectious disease will continue to go down, even in a much hotter world. Now who will say, but I thought there was science saying that deaths would go up. They can only show that deaths might go up, all things being equal. In other words, a world with no global warming might have even more, a bigger decline in deaths from disastrous or disease than on a world with two, three, or even four degrees of warming. But all else is not equal. And all of those reductions in deaths, in disasters, and disease come from using energy, from making communities less vulnerable, more resilient. And so, I think ordinary people don’t understand. I testified in front of Congress three times this year. The third time I sort of explained that, and I felt I could tell by, you know, as long as you look at people’s faces and you can tell they’re hearing something for the first time. I don’t think anybody had ever really heard that. I think most people think that natural disasters are getting worse. Meaning more people are dying from them, that it’s because of climate change, and then the future is going to get even worse. And that’s just not true. So, at the very kind of basic questions of is the future going to be worse than the past? I think the answer is clearly no. it’s going to be much better. just as things have been getting better really for 200 years. 

Bob Hahn:

Ok, so you’re sort of saying when we look at the broad picture of things like life expectancy and health across the developed and the developing world, the indicators are positive?

Michael Shellenberger:

Yeah. I mean the trends are all going in the right direction, and they’re going to keep going in the right direction. I mean, there’s no scenario in the IPCC for deaths from disasters to go back up again, nor for deaths or infectious diseases to go back up again. I think that I even cited those passages in my testimony to Congress. You know, it’s a little bit like, I was giving this metaphor, sometimes it’s imperfect, but imagine you’re a cancer doctor. Well, for cancer doctors, cancer actually kills people. You can actually, you know, climate change, you can never say, could kill anybody just cause you’re referring to the change in temperature or climate over 30 or 100-year cycles. It’s an indirect effect. Whereas cancer actually kills people. Cancer doctors, you know, they say we’re getting better at dealing with cancer. They don’t go around and say, you know, we’re all going to die of cancer. You know, they don’t they don’t encourage people to panic. My part of the questions I had in the book, which is really the third section of the book, is why if climate change is a manageable problem, all these environmental problems are manageable, why did we come to see it as the end of the world? 

Bob Hahn:

Ok. So, you’re talking a little bit like an economist, I dare say as one who carries that union card but let me ask you a question. You know, you and I have been around for a while and you’ve been around for Earth Day, and I was very influenced when I was a younger person by Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, which I’m sure you’re familiar with, where she talked, as I recall, about some of the dangers associated with DDT. I guess my question is: what’s wrong with environmental alarmism as a way of getting people’s attention on problems they may not be paying enough attention to?

Michael Shellenberger:

Well, there’s a lot of problems with it. I mean, some of them, I just mentioned. I mean, I think it’s not okay to make adolescents feel more anxious and depressed. I think that’s actually just wrong. Now you could kind of say, well, what do you going to do? Overprotect them shield them. Absolutely not. In fact, I think that’s a big part of the overreaction, is that our society is so over protected and so risk and tolerance, but it’s more to say don’t scare them about things that either they can’t affect or that really aren’t the scary things that we’ve been telling them that they are. So it’s actually amazing. You know, the criticisms I’m leveling to some extent are with the activists, but really in some ways the journalists, even more than the activists or the scientists deserve the responsibility for this. I mean, it’s, they’re sort of, they see it as their job to exaggerate some extent. And I didn’t quite realize this until I started doing more journalism myself and getting this question after I wrote these criticisms from journalists, basically defending exaggeration. And, you know, I would point out that, you know, the metaphors they reached for, for cancer, if you contrast the media coverage of cancer, to the media coverage of climate change, the cancer metaphors are not apocalyptic. It’s not that everybody is going to get cancer. I mean, even when they’re trying to drum up support to raise a bunch of money or, you know, Richard Nixon’s famous “War on Cancer”, it’s not that like the civilization’s going to collapse, and that’s what they’re suggesting with climate change. And I think that that’s just, it’s really a metaphor I note in the book of nuclear war. That’s the most recent apocalyptic, you know, metaphor or analogy, I guess you would say, but I mean a nuclear war, it literally consists of destroying the roads, electrical systems, sewage plants, farming, factories, buildings. I mean, it’s, what scenario in a warmer world is there of me in Berkeley, California losing my road, electrical system and sanitation? It doesn’t, there is no scenario for that. And so it’s striking to find an issue. I must say where the gap between what people believe and what the science actually says is so large. I just can’t think of another case like that.

Bob Hahn:

All right. So you’re not saying that climate change isn’t real, but you’re saying we need to put it in perspective.

Michael Shellenberger:

Yeah. I’m saying it’s real. It’s not the end of the world and it’s not even our most important environmental problem. I mean, my next book is going to be about San Francisco, in particularly the homeless, what they call the homelessness crisis, which is really a drug addiction and mental illness crisis. But you know, we have a hundred thousand people living on the street, many suffering from severe mental illness and using methamphetamine and heroin, which no psychiatrist in America would recommend for schizophrenia. I was going to write something that’s like the homelessness crisis is the crisis that people fear will come from climate change in the future. I mean, here you have civilizational breakdown in some ways. I mean, we’re talking obviously at a moment when some of these things that are going on in our country start to feel like the preface to even a larger social breakdown. So, I mean, it’s kind of funny that, you know, we’re sort of worried about climate change or hurting society in 2100, and even then it’s like, there’s no mechanism, whereas boy, if you just, you know, stop enforcing the law, that’s a pretty good mechanism for not having much of a society.

Bob Hahn:

Totally agree. Let me ask you just a couple of hypotheticals. Imagine that Vice President Biden gets elected as president in November and he taps you on the shoulder and says “Hey, Michael I’d really like you to head EPA.” What three things would you try to do off the bat or persuade a Biden administration to do, to deal with environmental issues that you think are important?

Michael Shellenberger:

Could I propose that I take a different job instead? Could I be Secretary of Energy?

Bob Hahn:

Sure. 

Michael Shellenberger:

I think that you know, one of the arguments I make in the book, as you know, is that there’s been a lot of emphasis on regulation, and that really the big difference is often, in terms of environmental pollution, just fuel switching. So, it’s going from coal to natural gas, and then natural gas to nuclear. You go from, you cut your emissions in half from coal to gas, and then you reduce your emissions to zero from gas to nuclear. You know, it’s true that coal plants in 1900 were nowhere near as good as coal plants are today. And we can thank some amount of regulatory pressure from bodies, like EPA for that. But I really wanted to focus in the book on these fuel transitions because I think they’re often tied with the mode of production that societies have, whether you’re a, still a feudal pre-modern agricultural society, whether you’re an industrial society, or whether you’re sort of a post-industrial Europe, United States, Japan, where you have very advanced societies. And so, the reason I think energy is important is both obviously for environmental reasons, it’s better for the environment to use nuclear than to use natural gas or coal. It’s better for air pollution. It’s better for land use because of the principle of power density is being so much higher with petrochemicals over coal and coal over wood and nuclear over petrochemicals. But in terms of energy, I think that one of the big questions that motivated this book is just the future of nuclear. And so, the Secretary of Energy it was originally strictly about nuclear. You know, the agency, it used to be the Atomic Energy Commission, and in the seventies broadened its mandate to include fossil fuels and renewables, but it was really nuclear focused. Nuclear is a radically different technology from what people think it is and from natural gas or from petrochemicals or renewables. And that’s because it’s a dual use technology, its primary function has been to make weapons. Nuclear energy for civilian use as electricity was sort of a spinoff. It was the great hope as a way to redeem humans for having created such a horrible weapon. The left has long tried to control it, through the United Nations at first in the forties, and really through the NPT and through other means since, but then the new left in the sixties turned against nuclear energy entirely, which is a big subplot of the book. And so, I think that as Secretary of Energy I’d want to help the country get a better view of this troubling creation of ours, which Americans have of course more responsibility for than anybody else on Earth because we invented it. To be fair, we invented it with a lot of British and European and Jewish help, you know, or from, or, you know, European Jewery that came over in particularly. But you know, it was an international collaboration, but nonetheless, it’s sort of our responsibility as Americans now, and we’re shirking it. We’re basically conceding the technology to China and Russia, which means conceding a huge percentage of the planet to undemocratic, illiberal adversaries. You know, one of whom is committing genocide against its ethnic Muslim minority. And the other one appears to have installed a dictatorship during the Coronavirus pandemic. So, I’d like to be Secretary of Energy. I’d like to revitalize nuclear energy for America and the world and to sort of save the technology from falling into the hands of, I think, some pretty dark forces. 

Bob Hahn:

Alright. So, let me try to parse that if I can, sort of through an economic lens, being an economist. So what problem are you trying to solve? 

Michael Shellenberger:

The problem with nuclear, at the end of the day, is safely managing the technology. And I think, well, okay, that some people might stop at one. I think not just managing, but also using and maximizing for its true potential. And its true potential of course, is to basically reduce the human environmental footprint to very, very low levels. You know, a world that is, you know, most of them are in the cities, where your agriculture has grown in big greenhouses or really concentrated areas. Your fish are being produced on land and big tanks that are perfectly clean, and healthier fish than you can get from the sea. And it’s all powered by nuclear power plants. That’s a world where nature has really returned in a significant way. All of which made possible by a high energy society, that’s only possible with nuclear. So I think even if you don’t share my view of nuclear as environmental potential, and not everybody does, although I think mostly because of fear of the weapons, even if you think it’s just an issue of managing this dangerous technology, then I think you would agree that America needs to play a more serious, more deliberate, and more proactive role than we’re currently playing, which is basically to let the technology die in the United States, and be taken over by China and Russia.

Bob Hahn:

Okay. So, economists don’t always feel comfortable picking winners and losers in technology. And I believe you that nuclear has some of these desirable features, but I’m less certain just because I don’t know the literature on what the cost of nuclear are today, and how to drive that down. But my question is, if you’re trying to deal with what economists call environmental externalities or pollution or what have you, and you care about climate change or other stuff, why don’t you set up some sort of pricing system where you get entrepreneurs who are building new energy things, whatever, whoever they are, the Elon Musks of the world, or whatever, why don’t you come up with some sort of tax system to tax the bad that you care about reducing or eliminating, and let the market kind of figure things out?

Michael Shellenberger:

You know, in Apocalypse Never, I want to go deeper, I think then economists have been able to go. And I think because the economics has gotten in the way of appreciating some obvious physical realities. And so I think most, even most economists would agree that physics trumps economics. And so, there is the most important concept, you know, I’ve sort of hidden an environmental studies textbook in Apocalypse Never. And the textbook teaches us about a concept, two concepts, energy density of the fuel and power density of its production. My argument is that the power density of a fuel and its production determines its environmental impact and goes further and says the power density of, of all production, not just energy production, but also food and product consumption, similarly determines environmental impact and is enabled by the social complexity and the technological development of a society. So, power dense factories today in China were only made possible by centuries of factory development, but they operate with incredibly high-power densities thanks to electricity. And so I kind of go look, there’s obviously the hierarchy from wood to coal, to oil, to natural gas, to uranium where the power densities rise, the environmental impact declines, it’s all completely determined in the first instance by the physical process. And so you can then go and do, in fact, one of the most interesting studies I discovered while doing the research for Apocalypse Never is this study that uses what may seem like an economic analysis, but it’s actually a physical analysis called energy return on energy invested, where they looked at energy inputs to different energy sources. And then the amount of energy it had produced coming up with these ratios. Basically, you know, this was the problem with, you know, society needs about seven times more energy than it contributes to function. At least today’s high energy size. Solar and wind only gets you five or something like a factor of five. Whereas nuclear plants get you something like 70, or in hydroelectric dams gets you like 50, you know, so you get these huge returns or what economists would sometimes call free energy. It’s a concept I don’t use much because it’s confusing, but the amount of energy, that’s just sort of additional to what you’ve put in. And so, you know, the histories are so fascinating. There’s two books, one by a German and one by a British that both show using basic physical metrics, that there could not have been the Industrial Revolution with wood. I mean, everybody knows that coal and the steam engine were these key factors in the Industrial Revolution, but they kind of show at this physical level, you could not have had the physical outputs from the Industrial Revolution with wood. It just was too power dilute. So you kind of go, that’s the basic pattern. Now, I defend markets in one chapter in particular, in the chapter called “Greed, Saved the Whales. Deny Greenpeace”, where I argue, I show that rising demand for liquid fuels resulted in the discovery and exploitation of petroleum for kerosene, for lighting, which replaced whale loyal in lighting. And then in the 20th century, rising demand for oil, for soap and margarine resulted in the expansion of palm oil and vegetable oil, which then ended up replacing whale oil for margins and soaps in Europe. And that the price signal was essential and that the Soviet Union kept whaling. Oh, God it was a terrible story. Many hundreds of thousands of beautiful whales were needlessly slaughtered because the Soviets protected the whaling industry against the price signal. So, I definitely appreciate and make the case that prices in a kind of Hayekian way, prices contain all this information, and we should allow there to be free markets to communicate that information. At the same time, I also show that nuclear has been made much more expensive by a deliberate campaign against it, motivated by fears of nuclear weapons. And so, it is possible for the costs of something to not reflect its true value, or its true labor saving, or energy saving, or its productivity. And I show that both with the case of nuclear, but I also show it with other technologies where basically, you know, you can make something expensive, and I think that’s what the approach has been. So, so I guess to answer your question could we have put a price on whale oil, and would that have helped with the transition to petroleum in the 19th century, or the transition to vegetable oils in the 20th century? Maybe? I don’t know, but it’s kind of not the main event. The main event are these energy transitions, and those are overwhelmingly determined by having an abundant supply alternative. And in the case of nuclear, I just think it’s just been clearly burdened down, or in some way affected, by the fact that you can make the world’s most powerful bombs from it.

Bob Hahn:

And following from that on the fear that people have, you know, many, many interveners in the process have lengthened the time for getting permits and what have you, but let me raise the stakes in our conversation a little bit. And instead of you being the energy czar or the Secretary of Energy. Let’s imagine you’re the President now. So you have at least a fair amount of power in the United States. What’s your policy on nuclear?

Michael Shellenberger:

Yeah. So the first thing is, I would talk to the American people, because I think actually getting our heads right about nuclear is the most important thing. And that, because right now all of our problems, in fact, inaction on climate change, I think is a result of our heads being confused about this technology. So the first thing I would say is I would say there’s no getting rid of it. So, people that still hold out hope of getting rid of it, the reason we can’t is the one that we’ve known since 1945. Which is that the Yale study group figured out that year, the two countries with weapons, let’s take China and India, that got rid of their weapons, what would happen if they then went to war? And actually got rid of their weapons by the way, so I’m not even dealing with the enforcement problem, but just if they both got rid of the weapons and then they go to war, what happens? They both race to reconstruct their nuclear weapons, and the risks are potentially much higher that they would use them in the heat of war than if they had just kept them in the first place and use them in a way that we’ve been using them as a deterrent to war. So that, that reality is there now, you know, does that mean that it’s okay for every country in the world to get a nuclear weapon? Well, I think nobody is comfortable with that. I don’t think that anybody thinks Portugal needs weapons. You know, Iran, wants a weapon, Saudi Arabia says they would get a weapon for Iran had one. North Korea now has one that nobody thinks they’re going to get rid of it. Our goal should be stability on these questions of nuclear. There has been a slow spread of them. We don’t want them to go and spread rapidly. So, we want to work with our allies to basically responsibly manage this troublesome technology. And that means that we would work with the Saudis to develop a nuclear program rather than saying, “Oh no, we can’t help them because they killed a journalist.” Well, you know, they killed journalists in Iran as well. So, we have to be grownups about this, and we need to work with our allies to develop their own nuclear energy capabilities. And it looks like a lot of countries are satisfied with having nuclear energy and don’t need weapons. And that’s kind of where we would want to keep it. That means that America, though, needs to stay engaged globally on nuclear. We need to work with our allies on their nuclear programs. We need to safely use it and safely spread it. And that’s the most important thing, you know, and that’s important for national security reasons. And it’s also important for environmental reasons because nuclear energy is such an important technology. You know, but again, does Rwanda need nuclear power plants right now? No, I’ve been to Rwanda. I studied their energy environment. What they need is a dam, and they need hydroelectric dams. Aame thing with the Congo. So there’s a natural development of these things. Poor countries often they need to move from wooden dung to hydroelectric dams. In the past, I would say coal plants. Though, I think fewer and fewer of them are going to need to use coal because there’s so much natural gas. They can use natural gas. And then as you become a rich and powerful country with a big scientific and technical elite, then you end up developing nuclear energy, and usually entirely for power production for electricity production. A small minority of countries in very difficult situations have chosen to get weapons, but mostly countries decided they don’t need that. But it’s a technology that requires our highest selves as human beings or requires that we do the opposite of what Gretta Thunberg said, which is to panic. It requires that we think really deeply. Part of my passion for the technology, which I think people find very confusing is stems precisely from the fact that it is our most dangerous technology. I truly believe it’s our most dangerous technology. I also think it’s the safest way to make electricity. And the fact that those two things are true, I think is very, very hard for people. It’s a very paradoxical view. That’s something that is so dangerous, objectively dangerous, and has to be understood as dangerous. That’s how they work for deterrence by the way, is because everybody understands how dangerous they are, that understanding has to be alongside the understanding that it’s also the safest way to make electricity for physical reasons. You know, we’ll worry about these meltdowns, but what’s so striking about them is how little particulate matter escapes from reactors, which is why so few people are actually harmed by it, as opposed to the particulate matter I’m breathing in California right now, which is the smoke from the forest fire, or the particular matter people breathe in Delhi. So again, you know, I’m glad you said as President, because that means I have a lot of time to talk to people about these.

Bob Hahn:

Well, let me try to ask you to have another whack at this as only an economist might. Let’s assume that nuclear doesn’t have any of these proliferation problems, nuclear as a technology for energy production. What would your policy be in sort of getting it out there?

Michael Shellenberger:

Yes. I know that you were driving at that. And I just felt like I had to address the first part first. Think of it like sourdough.

Bob Hahn:

Okay. Give me that one.

Michael Shellenberger:

You have to feed it. You have to take care of it. It’s not something that happens automatically. It’s almost like a craft that we’re committed to as a species. I really believe this. So what that means at the most basic level is that we need to be building new plants at home. You know, at some point, I mean, I think eventually we’ll be 100% nuclear. So at some point you’ll always be shutting down older plants and building new ones kind of on a constant basis. But you know, the plants, you need to be building them because that’s the only way you get practice. They take a long time to build. They’re a huge pain in the ass to build. In some ways that’s just inevitable. And we need to probably be a little bit more understanding of that. We should standardize their type. So, you get one kind of nuclear, that’s it, one kind. Your construction crews have a lot of experience building that kind of plant, making the kinds of welds, rebar, cement. That’s the basic work of building a plant. And then we build it abroad as well. So if Saudi Arabia says we want nuclear power plants, America can compete with the Russians and Chinese to build the best plant in the world at the best price. I’m not going to necessarily say it’s the lowest price because I’m not sure that the lowest price is always the best price, but at the best price, with the best quality product. And so that would mean… That would be having a commitment in the United States to taking nuclear from 20% to 50% of our electricity. And you’d have to have some kind of a good policy there. My view, I’m very much, I think that we have a regulated electrical utility system for physical reasons, for inherently fiscal reasons. And that we’ve experimented with deregulating the supply of power to the utilities and gain some benefits mostly that were driven by the transition from coal to natural gas, and the opening up of markets for oil and gas. And that’s worked out fine, but nuclear is different. This is a national security issue. This is a technology that requires a national long-term commitment. And so it requires that 50% level so that we can properly scale up nuclear, standardize the technology, train our crews to do it right, and then start to build those kinds of plants in nations that are basically our allies, since any country that we build a nuclear plant in basically becomes part of your sphere of influence, which is why I am so afraid of countries becoming, you know, basically getting all their plants built by China and Russia because they end up joining what I think is an authoritarian, illiberal and undemocratic sphere of influence.

Bob Hahn:

Let me, let me turn if I might, to another aspect of your book, which really intrigued me, and that was your discussion broadly of environmentalism. You talk at one point in the book, I think about environmentalism as a religion, sort of using that as a metaphor or having characteristics of religion. What do you mean by that?

Michael Shellenberger:

Well, I, I mean, what you just said, which is that I think that environmentalism is becoming the new religion of elites, in particular in the West, but really of elites globally. And by elites, I just mean the people that write for newspapers, who work at universities, who are part of the broad center-left: politicians, political parties, CEOs, investors. And that it truly is a religion in the sense that it provides a transcendent, moral purpose to people that only religion provides, that it offers actually, other worldly and supernatural qualities that many people apparently seem to need. And so the supernatural claims that get made about climate change, we talked about earlier, which is the idea that it’s really kind of the Book of Revelations in the Bible, apocalypse, but it also provides a moral code that religions often provide vegetarianism or a low calorie, or although I should say a low energy diet, a low energy lifestyle and ascetic lifestyle, a kind of public display of supposedly virtuous behaviors. And, you know, there’s a bunch of evidence for this. So it’s not just, I’m kind of putting down people or something or saying this in a way. In fact, I actually say that I concluded in the book in fact that we need religions, and that most people need religions. And that even people that think that they’re not in a religion, you know, and so I pointed out that a lot of the people that are strong adherence to apocalyptic environmentalism claim to not be religious, but in fact, there’s a scholarship that shows that they end up repeating all of these Judeo-Christian myths, including the Garden of Eden, the fall from Eden, because of violating the laws of God or nature in the form of hubris, through technology, the punishment, the guilt for having violated the natural order. And then ultimately the punishment and the Book of Revelation is they seem to all come from the Bible, which most of us learned in Bible school, but they get repeated unknowingly by apocalyptic environmentalists, in part, because they never went to Bible school, I guess, or they didn’t really ever learn the Bible. So, they’re kind of unaware that they’re repeating these myths, but it’s incredible. They show up in scientific writing, all sorts of weird claims about nature that are just wrong. You know, in nature, just being this completely violent and unstable thing, having no central order, it’s described often by scientists as a kind of Jenga puzzle, where if one piece is removed, the whole thing will collapse. And that’s an idea that comes from, of course Neoplatonism. So, really much of the foundations of what we call ecology itself are religious and based on falsified assumptions, 

Bob Hahn:

We’re maybe running out of time a little bit. Let me ask you, you talk about a concept that intrigued me in the book. And I was wondering if you could sort of boil it down to its essence, this idea of environmental humanism?

Michael Shellenberger:

So, I wanted to find, it’s important to sort of try to describe, I wanted to find a label for what I’m arguing for. And in the past, we had other names that I was uncomfortable with, including ecomodernist. And what people didn’t like about ecomodernist, is they didn’t like the word eco and they didn’t like the word modernist. So it wasn’t a word that was really working for us. People like the word environment, most people do, except for people that have a strong aversion of environmentalists, and most people, you know, kind of have a positive sense of, of the word humans and humanism. And I wanted to combine them because my book is making the case that environmentalists have embraced an anti-humanism, at least philosophically, if not in practice, which views humans as a cancer on the Earth deserving of punishment. And I really want to argue against that in this book. And I also note that there is a tradition. Now the word humanism, is associated with secular humanism. So I’ve had some Christian friends say that environmental humanism doesn’t quite work for them, but in fact, Christianity,      Judeo-Christianity is a humanistic religion in the sense in which it’s putting humans at the center. It’s saying God gave us, gave Earth for humans to use for our own benefits. So, I’m not making a theological argument, at no point, am I making a theological argument in the sense of claiming the existence of God or the nonexistence of God, it never comes up. But I am saying that people do need something to believe in, and they need something to have faith in. And that really this process of industrialization of concentration has had huge impacts, many negative impacts on the natural environment, but those impacts appear to have peaked, and are starting to decline and almost every metric, the amount of land that humans use for meat, production, livestock and pasture peaked in the year 2000. Carbon emissions peaked in Germany, France and Britain in the mid-seventies. Carbon emissions peaked in the United States 13 years ago. The difference in time is not a consequence of our different levels of commitment or concern for the environment. It just reflects the fact that Americans have to drive a lot more. And so we can expect emissions in China and India will peak soon. And there’s a lot of reason to believe that the environmental future is going to be much better, not worse. We still have 2 billion people that use wood is fuel, and that’s bad for them and bad for the environment. So, Africa still needs to develop, but all in all, I think we’ve done a really amazing job. Lifting people out of poverty, protecting the natural environment, reversing a bunch of negative trends going now in positive directions. And I hope ultimately that we, I wrote the book to sort of say, let’s push on those positive trends, because I think first of all, most people are unaware that the trends even exist, but also, they provide the absolutely perfect framework for policy. Our goal should be to accelerate and continue those trends, not stop them, which is what so much of anti-human environmentalism is trying to do.

Bob Hahn:

Well it’s great to hear a note of optimism or get a dose of optimism. Especially in these times. We’ve been talking with Michael Shellenberger, who is the founder and president of environmental progress and has written what I consider a very interesting and alternative perspective on the environment. So, I’d recommend highly Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All. Michael, thank you very much for joining us. 

Michael Shellenberger:                                                                                                               Thanks for having me, Bob.