A senior UN environmental official once told the Associated Press that governments have a ten-year window of opportunity to solve the greenhouse effect before it goes beyond human control.
When was the article written? 1989.
In the decades that followed, many more people have predicted doom if the world does not adequately address climate change.
One in five British children say they’ve had nightmares about it, according to a large national survey earlier this year.
Michael Shellenberger, an environmental activist for 30 years, used to be convinced that climate change was an existential threat to human civilization. But now, he believes climate alarmism is out of touch with science and reality. And he says its diverting attention away from serious environmental problems, like overfishing, preventing desperately-needed development in impoverished nations, and stifling debate about nuclear energy.
In his new book “Apocalypse Never,” he breaks down what the science actually says about climate change and its effects.
This is American Thought Leaders, and I’m Jan Jekielek.
Jan Jekielek: Michael Shellenberger, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Michael Shellenberger: Thanks for having me on.
Mr. Jekielek: Michael, first of all, thank you for writing this book. I think there’s a lot of people outside of just myself who have a sense that humans are creating some change in the climate, and are alarmed by the climate alarmism, but don’t necessarily have the information to justify that feeling or that thought. You’ve kind of separated out the science from the rhetoric which is, I think, a great service to society, frankly. So tell me a bit about your journey to get here.
Mr. Shellenberger: Sure, so I’ve been an environmental activist for 30 years. I’ve been a climate activist for 20 years. I got involved in climate change like a lot of people at the end of the Cold War, as the fears of nuclear war were declining. Also, the fears of overpopulation were declining. And I think people who were oriented towards an apocalyptic mindset were looking for a new vehicle for their concerns. And so I became involved in climate change, I think like a lot of people, believing it to be an existential threat to human civilization, perhaps even a threat to the human species.
I’ve spent the last 20 years working on the issue, advocating both [first] renewables and then I had a big change of mind about 10 years ago, and I came to see that nuclear energy was needed. And over that period of time, the conversation about climate change just got crazier and crazier. People started saying more and more radical things.
Last year in particular, I became very upset because adolescents were starting to believe things like they might not live long enough to have children. My daughter who’s 14 is fine, but her friends are very scared. Some of them don’t know if they’ll live long enough to have their own kids. And I felt like somebody needed to speak out. I kept waiting for somebody else to do it. Nobody did. And so I decided to write “Apocalypse Never” to really help people understand what the science actually says, as compared to what they imagine it says.
Mr. Jekielek:: I noticed you mentioned a few times in the book that you actually were deeply involved in creating the Apollo Project, the predecessor to the Green New Deal. One of the arguments about the Green New Deal—I don’t know much about the Apollo project at this point, but the big argument against the Green New Deal is that it’s a kind of subterfuge to impose more central control, okay, that it’s actually just a means to that end. How do you respond to those kinds of arguments? I’m curious.
Mr. Shellenberger: It’s partly what it is. The people that are advocating 100 percent renewables, if you kind of look at it, really what’s being proposed is a lot of investment in renewables, energy efficiency, mass transit. I don’t think that people that are advocating those things [for central control] themselves. They don’t think to themselves, “I want to exercise control over society.” I mean, I didn’t.
It was more like, “We need to harmonize human society with nature.” [I] Definitely thought that. And there was sort of a sense in which once that would happen, that would be kind of the final event. There is an apocalyptic sense in which it’s like, once that happens, then we’re not going to have any problems anymore—not just environmental problems, but society will sort of heal itself, and there will be this sort of benevolent virtuous cycle where we create good jobs, and we all take the train, and there are solar panels and wind turbines everywhere. So … that involves a lot of control. It involves the desire to pretty radically remake society.
I think what I didn’t realize, and I think most people don’t realize, is just how much land it would require. So just on average, it takes 300 to 400 times more land to generate the same amount of electricity from a solar farm as it does from a nuclear power plant or a natural gas plant. [It’s the] same thing for wind turbines. With wind turbines, you’re putting these spinning blades into the airshed of birds and bats and insects. It’s hard to imagine anything worse for the natural environment or for endangered species than putting spinning blades right where they fly.
You’re dealing with something that’s profoundly ideological and really disconnected, ironically, from the natural world. You know, I always joke that there’s nobody more alienated from the natural world than environmentalists. People that are closest to the natural world tend to be people that still live on the farm or are living in the productive sectors of the economy where they’re transforming the natural environment into food and energy or other products for human consumption.
So environmentalism is really just a kind of upper middle-class fantasy of a future reality. It’s sometimes compared to a kind of new socialism. I think there’s some of that. Some of it also comes from this British economist from the 18th century named Thomas Malthus, who said that there’s just too many people in the world. You know, we’re prone to have periodic famines, so it’s all kind of a mess to some extent.
I’m testifying in front of Congress on Tuesday, and I’m reading the 500-page proposal for the Green New Deal, the congressional version of it. It’s got a bunch of everything in there, you know, including the stuff around mass transit. It’s interesting that in Los Angeles, the number of people using mass transit over the last five years declined. And the reason is because the poor and working-class Latin American immigrants, as soon as they got a little money, wanted to have their own car.
So I think when you look at things like this desire to make people take mass transit, yes, there is a kind of will to control people’s lives. And there’s this hatred, honestly, a real hatred of cars which provide people with freedoms that I think the radical left, the apocalyptic environmental left, really hates I think for reasons that they’re not even aware of.
Mr. Jekielek: Something that’s really interesting in here, which is different from what I’ve seen anywhere else, is basically, you say that the International Panel on Climate Change’s science is right. It’s just that it’s grossly misrepresented even in its own reporting. This is just fascinating because people will use that and say, “You’re not on the right side of history unless you believe everything that’s in here.” Tell me about that.
Mr. Shellenberger: Yeah, I wrote the book in part for other environmentalists, but I also wrote it for conservatives who I think have not known how to interpret the science. What I wanted to do is I show … the basic science that carbon dioxide is a heat-trapping molecule, that the world is clearly warming. We have a lot of different measures of that now, [warming] mostly due to humans, but that doesn’t show that it’s the end of the world.
It shows that humans have a big impact on the natural environment. And, of course, there are seven and a half billion of us. We live these really amazing high-energy lives. We’ve had these big negative environmental consequences. So that’s not a surprise. We’ve been aware of those.
But there is no apocalyptic scenario in IPCC. In fact, IPCC doesn’t predict anybody dying from climate change in the future. It says things like climate change appears to be contributing to disease, to some kinds of infectious disease. But then it also goes on and says that the things causing infectious disease, the biggest things, don’t have anything to do with climate change. It’s just all the stuff that we know.
It’s similar with floods. Well, what determines whether you’re protected from floods is whether you have a flood control system. Could you get slightly more floods in the future? Sure, 2 to 3 inches more rain. But the difference is that my neighborhood in Berkeley, California can adapt to a little bit more rain, whereas the Congo suffers from floods right now because it does not have a flood control system. So … I think there’s been confusion on a lot of this stuff just because people don’t understand that what makes us safe from natural disasters is economic development.
And that points to other things like forest fires. The biggest factors for forest fires, whether in California or Australia is whether or not we suppress the fires to prevent them, which basically allows the wood fuel in the forest to build up. I mean, the fire season’s longer because it’s warmer. But what determines whether we have these hotter, more frequent fires is just that we’ve allowed wood fuel to accumulate in the forests and also whether we’ve built too many houses near forests that are burning. So there’s just usually [other factors].
I mean, in every case, really, there’s more mundane explanations for natural disasters. And the big picture is, of course, that everyone’s doing a lot better. The deaths from natural disasters have declined 90 percent over the last hundred years, just in the same way that we’re all living longer and living better lives. You know, we are much more resilient in our national environments, and there’s no reason to expect that to change or reverse itself. Even if the world gets two or three or four degrees hotter.
Mr. Jekielek: So one incredibly important concept that you outline throughout the book in different ways is this concept of energy density and that there’s this sort of progression. I just love that term “energy density.” It suddenly encapsulates this whole idea, right? You’re starting with really low energy-dense fuels, like wood and charcoal and so forth, and you’re moving up the chain. And the more energy density you get, the better it is for the environment? That’s the case you make. Tell me about this.
Mr. Shellenberger: Yeah, this is a very simple physical concept. It’s as basic as gravity is for physics. It is that the environmental impact of a fuel is determined by the energy density of the fuel and the power density of its extraction or production. So a lump of coal has twice as much energy as a lump of wood. A lump of uranium, which we use for nuclear power, has a million times more energy than a lump of coal. So I can cook a pot of beans with a lump of wood; I might be able to heat my house for 24 hours with a lump of coal; and with a lump of uranium, I can power my entire high-energy life, including all of my jet travel and the things that require so much energy.
Mr. Jekielek: I wanted to ask you about fracking. Because aside from the environmental questions which there’s a lot of discussion about, it kind of revolutionized the U.S. relationship with energy, i.e. it allowed for effectively fossil fuel independence for the U.S., which is a dramatic shift from the past. At the same time, there are some policy proposals that suggest banning fracking altogether at the federal level. What are your thoughts on this?
Mr. Shellenberger: Right. Fracking just refers to a method of extracting natural gas from below ground. My basic view of energy is that there’s a physical hierarchy of energy that also represents environmental and human progress. We go from wood and dung to coal and hydroelectric plants to petroleum to natural gas to uranium. So people sometimes say, “Are you in favor of natural gas?” And I say, “I’m in favor of natural gas when it replaces coal, but I’m opposed to natural gas when it replaces uranium, because you just have bigger environmental impacts from natural gas than you do from uranium, but you have much fewer environmental impacts from natural gas compared to coal.”
When you look at the last 15 years in the United States, but also in the last half-century in Europe, … the biggest driver of the decline of carbon emissions comes from the replacement of coal with natural gas. And in the United States, we do that mostly by fracking below ground, cracking the shale, releasing the natural gas. It’s just much better for the environment to get your natural gas from below ground than to remove whole mountain tops to get coal, which is really what we had been doing. So the transition from coal to natural gas has been fantastic.
If the people who are proposing to ban fracking were similarly proposing to build a lot of nuclear power plants, that might be an interesting idea. Mostly, though, they’re not. They’re saying we should replace it with solar panels imported from China. That’s not going to work for a variety of reasons, including that the solar is unreliable. And usually, by the way, when solar panels aren’t producing electricity because it’s not sunny, the backup electricity is coming from natural gas anyway.
So a better approach in my view is to do what both the Russians but also United Arab Emirates and other natural gas-rich countries do, which is build nuclear power plants to replace the natural gas you’re burning for electricity at home and then export your natural gas abroad for what President Trump calls energy dominance, which is basically a way to have strong exports. And honestly, helping countries to use natural gas rather than coal is great for the climate, great for the environment.
So here we have this incredible blessing in the United States in the form of all this abundant natural gas. I mean, even the petroleum that comes from fracking for shale below ground is the best kind of petroleum, because it’s called light sweet crude. It’s much better from an environmental standpoint than the kind of oil that’s in what they call the tar sands of Canada or in places like Venezuela, where it’s an oil that’s a really heavy, sticky, dirty oil that has to be much more refined. So I think it’s just one more example of apocalyptic environmentalists being opposed to solutions, because they don’t really want to solve the problem.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, this is really fascinating to me because my father was a nuclear engineer. And so, of course, he had his biases and so forth. But I always understood nuclear energy to be an incredibly clean source of energy. And it was always baffling to me that it’s being excluded from the discussion or somehow anti-environmental.
Mr. Shellenberger: Well, … originally I was working on a book about nuclear energy. And this book still has a lot of nuclear energy in it. Nuclear energy has come to be seen as almost a satanic force, I think, to people who think they’re secular. It’s such a powerful energy. Obviously, its primary purpose is as a weapon for national security. In the book, I argued that there was a lot of displacement of anxieties around nuclear weapons onto nuclear power plants.
Those the people who were displacing their anxieties were of a particular political ideology. These are people that tended to think there were too many people on earth. They tended to think there was something wrong with human civilization. They tended to come from the political left like myself. And so one question was always, “Why do people who seem to be secular and in adherence with modern science profess such seemingly religious beliefs about the apocalypse, which is a religious idea?” And [they] start describing nature in ways that seem spiritual. They describe nature as a kind of God.
I’m rushing ahead to the end of the book, but basically, I look at some of the drivers behind this apocalyptic fear, and I think that they really have root in a desire to put oneself in the middle of a major historical drama. And so I think we see a lot of climate activists are adolescents and middle-aged people in the midst of what you might call a midlife crisis, who are seeking to construct a dramatic story in which they are the hero figures out to save the rest of the world.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s fascinating. When I was reading through that part, I was thinking about how this corresponds with a kind of decline in traditional religiosity in society. So it could be a kind of a replacement, I guess, is that what you argue?
Mr. Shellenberger: Yes, and by the way, it’s not my argument in a sense. There’s a way in which the whole book is a synthesis of existing science and existing scholarship. There’s a large body of research showing that environmentalists, particularly apocalyptic environmentalists, tend to be more secular. They tend to not believe in traditional religion, traditional Judeo-Christian religions. And in particular, they reject the idea of dominion, that humans have been given the earth, have been given nature to use.
What we find, most interestingly, in this research is it shows that these people end up repeating many sort of religious ideas from the book of Genesis, where we fell from the Garden of Eden because we sinned against nature or God, to the book of Revelations, where the world is destroyed because of our sins. The people who are repeating these stories don’t know that those are basically religious stories, in part because they never learned them because they were secular people. And so I thought that was one of the interesting twists.
These stories of saving the world are so common in the culture. I mean, you see them in sort of the Marvel comic book movies, but you also see it with Greta Thunberg or Extinction Rebellion, which is this climate activist group in London. Literally people sort of dressing up, standing in front of crowds. Even the word movement, by the way, comes from a religious movement.
If you look at the problem of climate change itself and even if you were at your most alarmed, the obvious solution is to produce electricity and energy without carbon emissions. It’s kind of the work for engineers and people like your dad, who are nuclear engineers. You basically just need different ways to produce power and transportation fuel and heating and cooking. It’s kind of boring stuff actually. It doesn’t really necessarily require standing on the top [in public places], thousands of people marching.
There’s sort of this idea that there’s ways in which the movement part of this, the religious element of this, is the goal in and of itself. That’s what makes it so exciting. I think we see it now with the Black Lives Matter movement. You see it in a lot of the movements that people are actually excited to be a part of something larger than themselves. There’s something, I think, quite beautiful about it, in the same way that there’s something beautiful about a lot of religious movements that you feel like you’re part of something larger than yourself, but you also are feeling courageous. And so I think those needs are being met by the climate movement.
The problem is, it’s creating a lot of anxiety and depression among young people. We see one out of five British children have nightmares about climate change. And then, many of the policies that are being advocated are harmful, both to people and the natural environment. Both in the rich world, but also as I talked about in the book, including in poor and developing countries, where people are more vulnerable. The people that need modern ways to make energy are being deprived of it by the World Bank and other institutions that have been taken over by this apocalyptic mentality.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, so that’s actually a really fascinating piece of this. You have Greta Thunberg, who’s one of the chief public proponents of the apocalyptic worldview that you’re describing. She’s speaking at Davos. These are some of the most influential and wealthy people in the world. You have the World Bank, as you mentioned, basically playing into this. And you have a lot of lobbyists, as you described in the book, a lot of big corporates involved. It’s actually incredible how much support this perspective has or at least, in some cases cynically as you described. Tell me a bit about this. How does that work?
Mr. Shellenberger: I mostly, by the way, don’t think it’s cynical. I mean, I certainly think there’s corporations trying to make money on it. But I think that even the people that run those corporations are true believers that this is the dominant religion of secular people. … I think a big part of this, by the way, and I mentioned it briefly at the end of the book, is the fact that we no longer have a very strong national religion. What I mean by that is we no longer have a very strong nationalism or patriotism.
I think Americans used to have the Soviet Union. At the end of this, during the Cold War, … we were always all against this other system, the Soviet system. Now, I think we should, I think we have a similar system that we’re all against, which is the Chinese system. The Chinese are perpetuating genocide against their own people. They are a dictatorship. I don’t think that I think that there is really another outside opponent, but the global elite are so integrated with the Chinese system and with the factory system and the cheap goods that we get from China. Without that external enemy, we turn in on ourselves.
And so I think that that’s what we’re seeing right now. That’s why you have so many different movements around identity, whether it’s race or sex, and I think climate change is basically an identity movement. It’s a way of saying, “I’m with the good people of science and nature against the evil, anti-environment deniers, the people who deny the truth of this reality.” It’s obviously very troubling, for the United States and for the world. I don’t think it can last. My hope is that we return to a more benevolent, national patriotic identity, which points out the ways in which America is special because of the freedoms that we have, and the ways in which we have a liberal democracy.
But I do see the elites sort of embracing what I think is really a globalizing ideology, supposedly in service of nature, but really, in some ways more in service of a kind of narcissism and a kind of self-congratulation. That really betrays an underlying insecurity. I mean, it’s notable to me … when people need to go around telling you how good they are. Clearly they are worried that they may not be good enough in some way. So I think it’s betraying some underlying insecurity in the culture, and that’s why there’s so much of this hostility antagonism right now.
Mr. Jekielek: I mean, this is really fascinating, too, because what you’re describing, at least to me kind of fits how the relatively new Black Lives Matter movement is functioning. Again, it’s identity. I think similarly, it’s trying to deal with some real issues, but doesn’t deal with the underlying things, doesn’t actually attack the underlying things which are causing the problem. I mean, that’s my take, but because this is your argument for this whole apocalyptic environmentalism as you’re describing it. How many more movements like this are we going to see? This is just a fascinating concept right now to me.
Mr. Shellenberger: Yes. Well, I could go on forever about this issue. For example, I look at the Black Lives Matter movement, and I see basically the same people that were in the streets last year on climate change are now in the streets on Black Lives Matter. I’m in a upper middle-class neighborhood in Berkeley, California. It’s very left-wing. My neighborhood is, you know, mostly white, and one of my neighbors across the street has painted a huge “Black Lives Matter” above their garage. The house is painted white, and they’ve got a big “Black Lives Matter.” And then they’ve painted all the names of African Americans who have been killed by the police, and they’re out there painting almost every day.
They’re doing that to show that they are more moral than their neighbors. … They’re doing that to get recognition and approval from their neighbors like me, for me to stop and say, “Wow, you’re really such a good person for doing that. You’re doing so much more than I am.” That’s the motivation clearly, because the hard work of doing things like improving policing tactics or improving African American performance in the schools, creating a stronger sense of community in African American neighborhoods, or shrinking the wealth gap.
Those things are hard. And my neighbors don’t want to do that, or maybe it’s really they’re not able to do that. Similarly, when it comes to reducing emissions … if you want to reduce emissions, the best way is just to build more nuclear power plants. My neighbors don’t want to do that and don’t know how to do that.
And I think more to the point, if we did do that, if we did solve climate change, if you did improve police tactics or whatever it might be, then you wouldn’t have this issue to moralize around. And so ultimately, I point out that the obvious solutions for reducing carbon emissions are just to use natural gas instead of coal and to use nuclear power. Well, climate activists almost overwhelmingly oppose both natural gas and nuclear power. And they support only solutions that really can’t work, like solar panels and industrial wind turbines.
So I think one view is you can sort of say, well, everybody’s mistaken. They’re ignorant. They don’t really know how the energy system works. I think in other ways, maybe at some level they do know, and they don’t really want to solve the problem. What they really want to do is moralize and feel good about themselves in comparison to their neighbors. I think that’s ultimately what drives ordinary folks.
There’s definitely environmental elites who have a darker view and really want to move towards a low energy society. The whole point of renewables was that they don’t produce very much energy. Renewables can’t power an industrial civilization. We’ve known that for 200 years. There would have been no Industrial Revolution had the British not turned from wood to coal. In some ways, everybody kind of knows that at some level. So I think the fact that people want to go to renewables and move to a low energy society also speaks to some darker impulses. Because of course, such a world could not sustain seven and a half billion people. There would have to be a much significant shrinking of the human population.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, one of the things you pointed out—I don’t know if you put it this way, but this is how I was imagining it—it seems incredibly patronizing to go to the developing world and say, “Hey, you can’t do this; you can’t develop the power generation that allows for our standard of living. We’re gonna prevent you from doing that.”
Mr. Shellenberger: Yes, in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, the World Bank and other international development banks would finance the infrastructure of economic development in poor countries, which is mostly roads, hydroelectric dams, flood control, electric grids, and sewage systems. That’s the difference between poor countries and rich countries: we have those things and poor countries don’t.
Well, after apocalyptic environmentalists exercised their influence over the World Bank, the World Bank now doesn’t fund development, it funds charitable activities. So instead of funding modern agriculture with irrigation, tractors, and fertilizer, it now funds agroecology and other things to basically keep people on the farm.
Well, the process of economic development is that people go from being farmers to being city people. That’s kind of all it is. So, in poor countries, 75 to 80 percent of the country are small farmers. In the United States in Europe, just two to three percent of us are small farmers anymore, and when we are farmers in our country, we farm very big tracts of land and produce a lot of food on very small amounts of land. So that all changed.
Yes, I think it’s unethical. And I wrote the book in part to denounce it, because I don’t think most Americans know that we’re financing activities that everybody knows can’t result in development. You’re right, it’s totally patronizing. Here you have rich people going to poor countries saying, “We’re going to help you not make the mistake we made.” Which mistake would that be, the mistake of jet travel and having too much food?
I wrote this book because I just think it’s wrong. And from a national security perspective, China and Russia and America’s other rivals in the world are out there financing development. So if the West isn’t going to finance the roads and power plants and stadiums and all the things of development in Africa and Asia and Latin America, it’s being financed by China. And China’s not interested in freedom and democracy. They’re just interested in what’s good for China. So I think it’s a scary thing. I think it’s unethical on the one hand, and on the other hand, I think it really threatens national security for the United States and Europe.
Mr. Jekielek: This is an incredibly well-researched book. I mean, your footnotes amount to almost a third of the end, which is incredibly helpful, by the way, because you can actually reference a lot of what you’re talking about. What was one of the most surprising things that you found in this research, and how long did it take you to put this together?
Mr. Shellenberger: By the way, I have a very small nonprofit research institute. We’re lucky that we’re independent. We don’t take up funding from any industry so we can follow the truth wherever it leads. The whole thing—there was a six-month push at the end, but really, maybe a year total. I [wrote it] with a bunch of people helping me. And obviously, I’ve been working on this so long, so I already kind of knew the broad sense of it. So it’s hard to say exactly.
There were two issues that I didn’t really know very well or I only knew from reading the news coverage which was plastics and meat. And that was also where I discovered some really cool stuff. On plastics, I started just reading the newspaper archives. There’s two natural resources that we used to use for plastics. The first was ivory from elephant tusks, which we used for piano keyboards, but also billiard balls, pool balls.
And then the other was tortoiseshell. Everybody’s or most people’s glasses, the dominant style, are these tortoiseshell glasses. Well, these are made out of petroleum plastic. But that used to come from sea turtles, not tortoises; they just named it that. One of the coolest things I discovered—because in this chapter on plastics, we open with this famous viral video of a woman pulling a plastic straw out of a sea turtle’s nose—is that sea turtles had been hunted almost to extinction for their shells, which were used to make tortoiseshell plastic for eyeglasses, jewelry, and all sorts of other things because you can heat the turtle shell, and it’s malleable and strong like plastic.
So the original plastics were all bioplastics. The way that we stopped using them, the way that we are able to leave the elephant tusks—there are still people that hunt elephant tusks, obviously, but [we’ve] massively reduced the amount of elephants that we killed for their ivory and the number of sea turtles that we killed for their tortoiseshell or so-called tortoiseshell—was because of the invention of plastics from fossil fuels. So I think this is the side of plastics we don’t think of which is that they are substitutes for natural resources that we shouldn’t use.
That’s also a parable I tell around whale oil. We used to use whale oil for our lighting. We now use petroleum or we then [began to] use petroleum. And similarly, the Europeans used whale oil for soap and for margarine, and then we invented the substitute in the form of vegetable oil. So this process of substitution, that was such an exciting discovery because it gave me a more optimistic view that actually how you save nature is by not using it. That means that if you want to save the environment, we need to use more artificial products. It sounds completely counterintuitive. But that’s where the facts lead you.
The other interesting thing was vegetarianism in the chapter on meats. The first big thing is just that meat, livestock and pasture, free-range beef is one of the worst things for the environment. So if you want to shrink the human footprint, what you want to do is concentrate beef production. That sounds terrible because people don’t like that idea. But actually the key to saving the natural environment is to concentrate beef so they’re not spread all over natural habitats.
The other thing I discovered is that vegetarianism is really more of an ideology than a practice. I was reading, and I discovered that when you survey vegetarians, most of them admit that they eat meat. I mean, it’s like 90 percent of vegetarians eat fish or seafood, 60 percent eat chicken or poultry, and then about a third of vegetarians eat beef. If you’ve been vegetarian—I was vegetarian for 20 years—or if you know vegetarians, and you’re out with vegetarians, and then something looks good, they’ll say, “Well, I’ll just get them to eat this one time.”
So vegetarianism is really more like environmentalism in that it’s a political ideology. It’s an identity. It’s a set of values. It’s not actually what people are doing. In fact, I think the two are very related. I argue that they’re very related. Again, I just think there’s a lot of things that people are doing and saying to make themselves feel better about themselves in the world. And we talked about it this whole time, virtue signaling or conspicuous compassion. Those don’t have anything to do with saving the natural environment. In many instances, they actually get in the way of protecting the natural world.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, one of the really interesting things in the book is you talk about how one of the biggest environmental problems is overfishing, the decimation of the fish stocks and so forth. To me, I’ve always thought about that because the oceans are effectively a kind of commons. I think back to the tragedy of the commons idea, right? That if you don’t own it, or you’re not responsible for it, hey, you can extract from there as much as you like, and the oceans, to some extent, have become that way. The effect of that though, today is this industrial level overfishing. It’s fascinating. I didn’t realize that it was that bad.
Mr. Shellenberger: This is important because in the book, the first third is debunking myths. And the second third, second part, is how do we save nature? And the third part is, why do we think of these problems as unmanageable or apocalyptic when clearly we can deal with them? One of the points I make is that there’s some really serious environmental problems that we don’t pay enough attention to because we’re so wrapped up in our own personal apocalyptic drama.
One of the biggest things, maybe the biggest still, that really threatens the wild animals in the world is just that we still eat a lot of them. Certainly in poor countries, there’s a lot of eating of wild animals on land, but the biggest consumption of wild animals is wild fish. And the craziest thing is that many environmental groups, because they have this romanticization of nature and harmonizing with nature, have actually condemned farmed fishing.
Farmed fish is how we save wild fish. And we should save wild fish, not just for the wild fish’s sake, but also because that’s how whales and the sea animals that we all love and care about survive. So really, transitioning from wild fish to farmed fish is one of the most important things we can do. And yet we never talk about it.
Sure, there was some farmed fishing 20 years ago I pointed out that had some negative consequences, but it’s improved enormously. The most important thing was just moving farmed fish from being in the oceans itself, where it took up habitat, to on land. And what we find is that if you produce farmed fish on land, you can produce a huge amount of protein, a huge quantity of fish, with very small impacts on the natural environment. So, I think it’s both an inspiring story, but also a reminder that people should distrust what they hear about what saving the environment requires because so many of the people that are telling you things are in the grip of a religion, rather than paying attention to what the science says.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, so this is another big question, right? I feel that across many disciplines right now it’s very hard to find information that you can really trust that isn’t ideologically tainted, if you will, or just pushing you in a particular direction. Again, your book, I’m going to recommend it to our viewers because one of the beauties of it is that it’s sourced. And it, I would say, breaks down a lot of mental barriers. I found it very helpful that way to just basically have a healthy approach and even think about how to explore further if you’re not buying what you’re reading in “Apocalypse Never.”
Mr. Shellenberger: Thank you so much. I don’t want people to take my word for any of it. There’s no reason anybody should trust me. That’s why, you’re right, a quarter of the book [is footnotes]. There’s over 1100 footnotes in the book; a quarter of the pages are dedicated to references. People would always [question me]. I testify in front of governments a lot and journalists and policymakers. They always say, “Why should we trust you?” And I say, “Don’t trust me. Why would you?”
It’s so easy now [to look things up]. You read something that sounds shocking, so for example, plastic waste mostly breaks down in the ocean. That’s not to say it’s not a problem, but it’s kind of good news. It’s shocking that so much of the plastic waste, 99 percent of plastic waste, breaks down in the ocean. Don’t take my word for it, just look at the footnote and Google it and read it yourself.
That’s what I always joke—because I wrote this book, and I did dedicate it to my children who are 14 and 21 years old, so they’re high school and college-age kids. I joke that I’ve hidden an environmental studies textbook in a book of stories and kind of fascinating characters and a little bit of some events from my life that’s meant to be readable. I want kids to read this, I want adults to read it. I want people to read it and get some pleasure from these stories, but also learn a lot. So I wanted it to be something that was both entertaining and educational at the same time.
Mr. Jekielek: One of the things you talk about is how the media take information that’s published in scientific journals or by scientists and look for the exciting or dangerous sounding or threatening elements and publish that. I think you even talked about it in the IPCC stuff, how the initial report is in that direction, and then the media took that and took it further. And then this is what influenced a lot of the alarmist thinking about climate change in the first place. … How should media behave with respect to the information that they’re getting?
Mr. Shellenberger: Well, I think the first thing we have to understand is that most mainstream environmental journalists are environmental activists who went into journalism to be activists. That’s not some conspiracy or something. I just know them. I mean, I know many of them personally. And that’s also why I went into it. I’ve been an activist, but also an environmental journalist. So informal journalism is basically a kind of environmental activism. So you should just intuitively distrust what you’re reading.
I think what’s cool right now is that people don’t really trust the news media. I think that’s good. We now have a bunch of different information sources, including yours, including YouTube. And so this diversity of viewpoints is really healthy and excellent. People should know not to trust The New York Times or The Washington Post, particularly those two newspapers which have been absolutely pseudoscientific in many of the claims that they make, grossly misleading. And so in some ways, it’s a little bit harder.
I guess if you thought, “Oh, there’s just one newspaper I could read and trust for all my information,” that’s kind of a child’s view of the world. A more grown up view says, “I don’t trust anybody for all my information. I don’t trust myself for my information. I’m going to go look at a variety of sources and try to sort it out.”
Environmental journalists are one of the groups that [mislead people]. It’s really scientists, activists, and journalists. Those are the three groups of people that have perpetuated so much of the misinformation. For me, I see this book coming at a time when people are more capable and more interested in cutting through the official sources and at a time when many of our institutions are clearly failing.
The World Health Organization said not to wear masks. We now know masks are really important for preventing the spread of coronavirus. We have the New York Times, supposedly “all the news fit to print,” but it won’t print a lot of important information. It’s at a time when the older institutions are losing their power, and we need to look to new voices. I’m hoping to contribute to that, but also allow people to investigate this stuff for themselves.
This is not theoretical physics by the way. Most of the science in this [is simple]. I’m not a STEM person; I’m an ordinary dude. I’ve read a lot, but this does not involve [complicated science]. There’s no advanced math that’s required on most of these questions. Most of the cases, it’s arithmetic. It’s fairly simple physical processes that are simple to understand. And, like you said, certain concepts like energy density, once you understand energy density, once you understand that the higher the energy density of the fuel and the higher the power density of the production, which includes farming, by the way, the less environment and the less natural resource you use, once you understand that, it’s impossible not to see it everywhere.
Mr. Jekielek: First of all, I guess I should, in that case, invite you to become a contributor to the Epoch Times because I think you have a very, very valuable perspective on the environment, which is frankly quite important to us. So that’s one. Second, I should wish you luck in the testimony you’re going to be doing in Congress. And thirdly, any final words before we finish up?
Mr. Shellenberger: No, thanks very much for being here. I guess I would just say to parents and kids, I hope that they read “Apocalypse Never.” I think it’s a great thing to read together. There have been a lot of readers who buy a copy for themselves, and they also buy copies for their children, their grandkids, their cousins, for people who are particularly alarmed. The people who need to read “Apocalypse Never” the most are the people who are most afraid of environmental problems. And, so I would encourage them to read it. You don’t have to agree with it, but it seems like if you are really so concerned about the natural environment, then it would be worth your while to confront the facts and the evidence and see where it takes you.
Mr. Jekielek: Yes, and also learn its frankly, profoundly hopeful message, which I really appreciate. Michael Shellenberger, such a pleasure to have you on.
Mr. Shellenberger: Thanks for having me.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.