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The End Is Not Near

Michael Shellenberger shatters the illusions of the environmental movement with both facts and anecdotes. And I love it. It's not about agreeing with everything Shellenberger writes, but if it's one thing that many environmentalists need, it's more reality and less ideology.

Apocalypse Never is a well researched, well-written manifesto from an unconventional environmental activist. Shellenberger's brand of activism does not have your run of the mill «green new deal» flavor, and he often argues against the consensus narrative. Unfortunately, that often places him in the company of climate change deniers and right-wing fossil fuel proponents. That is an unfair categorization. Shellenberger has a deep love for nature and does not deny climate science. However, he does oppose the way climate science is communicated to the public.

In his book, he argues that many aspects of environmentalism have become so politicized that the balanced and objective qualities of the foundational research are almost unrecognizable once it has passed through the media/political environment. Like in a game of Chinese whispers the original message is lost in translation between actors with an increasing alarmist agenda, and what was initially a measured account of a complex problem can ultimately devolve into AOC or Greta Thunberg claiming that the world will soon come to an end. Regrettably, such highly unscientific messages are what reach the masses. Adding to the chaos we have a social media ecosystem comprised of tools that select for misinformation and sensationalism, which in turn leads to the public becoming overwhelmingly uninformed, and bad or ineffective policy inevitably ensues.

Shellenberger also dives into the narrative about climate change and its connection to extreme weather events. Relying on big data and long-term trends he shows how extreme weather killed far more people in the past and argues why labeling every hurricane or heat wave a disaster caused by climate change is highly misleading. This is much like what Steven Pinker pointed out in his recent book «Enlightenment Now». It may be that this sort of argument is more of a semantic discussion about the use of the term disaster, but it nevertheless supports the overall point Shellenberger makes and shows how effective alarmist terminology can be.

Energy production, especially nuclear energy production, is another of Shellenberger's areas of focus. He also takes on the renewable energy industry. In line with the recent Michael Moore/Jeff Gibbs documentary Planet of the Humans, the book argues that renewable green energy sources are indeed very far from what they are portrayed to be. It is hard to disagree with Shellenberger's argument on this issue given the rather obvious limitations of intermittent solar and wind energy and the capabilities of current battery technology. His basic argument is that we should strive towards ever greater energy density and that the huge investments in renewables are really a step in the wrong direction given the energy dilute nature of solar and wind. He argues that nuclear energy is the obvious endpoint on the energy ladder and if we want a prosperous society with abundant carbon-free energy there is hardly any choice but to embrace it. Argued from a purely math and physics perspective this is certainly a logical conclusion, but unfortunately logic alone is not sufficient. In an ideal world, every nation should have followed Eisenhower's UN speech «Atoms For Peace» in 1952, in which he offered the world abundant atomic energy to rectify the invention of the atomic bomb. As we now know the story did not unfold in the way that Eisenhower envisioned. Nuclear energy was and is inevitably connected to the nuclear bomb.

The problem of nuclear waste and the concerns around proliferation are mentioned by Shellenberger but handled rather lightly in the book. His arguments could have benefited from describing these problems to a greater extent, without having the core message diminished as a result.

Steelmanning the other side of an argument is sometimes a useful tool and Shellenberger does not take advantage of this as much as he could. On the other hand, his arguments wouldn't hit as hard had he taken a more diplomatic tone. In the end, he makes a fairly convincing argument that environmental alarmism does indeed hurt us all. Although this alarmism likely comes from a place of compassion, in dealing with large-scale systemic problems like environmental degradation and carbon emissions it might not be the most productive way of communication.

Environmental alarmism is perhaps one of the root causes of bad environmental policy. Rushing to implement large scale renewable energy projects has already caused many problems and huge costs to consumers around the world, yet there seems to be a consensus that this is the way forward regardless of the obvious shortcomings. That is why Shellenberger's voice is important. He never argues with the best available science or the scientific method, but he strongly resents the need people have to obfuscate the science to promote their preferred narrative or economic interests.

Shellenberger's reliance on hard data rather than emotion often results in solutions that can appear counter intuitive, and that certainly goes against «approved» solutions in current environmental policies. Well-founded criticism that goes against the consensus on highly complex issues should always be taken seriously. You always have to consider the possibility of someone being a Semmelweis before the paradigm shifts.

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