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What are the long-reaching effects of apocalyptic rhetoric on environmental issues?

Shellenberger: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All

By Michael Shellenberger @ShellenbergerMD

The following is transcribed text of a recent book forum for Michael Shellenberger’s “Apocalypse Never.” Video of the event can be found here.

My own history is that I’m a longtime environmental activist as well as a writer, journalist, and energy expert. I changed my mind about nuclear power about 10 years ago. I decided that it was good, not bad — mostly good, not bad — and that we needed more of it if we were going to solve environmental problems, including mitigating climate change. And I’ve been frustrated by the fact that many on the Left are still very anti-nuclear, including and especially those who are very alarmist about climate change. I couldn’t understand why this was, and I was working on a book about nuclear energy and the opposition to it. Last year, the rhetoric became even more crazy than it all already was, about billions of people dying, and adolescents were experiencing a lot of anxiety and depression. I have a 14-year-old daughter. She’s fine because I talk to her about the science, but her friends are worried that they’re not going to live long enough to have kids. I think that’s not okay. I think it’s wrong. I’ve also been long bothered by efforts to deprive poor countries of cheap reliable energy, whether hydroelectric dams or coal plants or nuclear plants, and that’s been increasingly occurring, including denial by the World Bank of funding traditional financing for baseload cheap energy in poor countries. 

Obviously, I still wanted to address the concerns that people have about nuclear energy and explain what I think nuclear energy is and why it’s so important at greater length than articles were able to do. I have a lot of different motivations to write the book. I think those are in the book, and you can see them. 

I’ll say something about climate change: my views actually didn’t change as much as I think people might have thought they did on climate. My view of climate change is that it is real. That it’s mostly, if not entirely, being caused by us, by our carbon emissions. That it does pose serious challenges, threats, you could say, risks, to a good future and a positive stewardship of the natural environment. But also, that it’s not the end of the world, and climate change is not even our most serious environmental problem, which I think continues to just be our use of landscapes and effect on habitats. 

So, you can think of the book in thirds. The first third is a debunking of the widespread myths. Climate change is not the end of the world. The Amazon is not the lungs of the Earth. And, more importantly, the solutions that people have pursued in places like Brazil have been counterproductive in that they have imposed fragmented agriculture in an effort to get “small is beautiful” agriculture. We’ve ended up fragmenting forests in many places, when what you want to do is concentrate agriculture to reduce its environmental impact. I talk about how plastic waste is not the most important problem in the world, but much of what people are doing on it is also counterproductive. That’s increasingly become clear, that we don’t recycle our plastics as much as people think they do. Often, the plastics are sent abroad, including to poor countries that don’t have waste management systems, and the plastic waste ends up in the ocean, actually contributing to the problem. It wouldn’t be as big of a concern of mine, and I point this out in the book, as overfishing, bycatch, and the outright killing of sea life. 

The middle part of the book is how humans save nature. The second-third of the book is a part of the book that I think many Cato supporters would enjoy. I make a defense of what you might call a Hayekian view of prices as offering information that no centralized authority could possibly manage. And I use the case study of whales, which were saved not once but twice through artificial substitutes. The first time was in the 19th century with kerosene from petroleum to substitute for whale oil, which was being used for lighting fluid in lights. And then again in the 20th century, when vegetable oils replaced whale oils for margarins and soaps in Europe. The continued over-whaling that occurred by the Soviet Union, and to some extent by some managed economies in Japan and Norway, happened where they interfered with the price signal that was being sent that the alternatives were cheaper. So, I make a defense of that.

At the same time, I think Apocalypse Never is also trying to say that there’s a physical reality here when you’re dealing with environmental resources that precedes the economy. We should pay attention to the physics of energy. The environmental impact of energy, food and agriculture production, which is overwhelmingly our major impacts on Earth, are a function of power density, of efficiency and economies of scale. I point out that maybe the first page of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith is about a physical process, about a pin factory that is gaining efficiency. That physical transformation results in what we call economic efficiencies, and those efficiencies are also important for what we call “sparing the natural environment,” using less natural resources to allow for more nature. 

Let me say something about what I think some of the implications of it are. Because I know Cato is a Washington D.C.-based think tank, and you guys think a lot about policy. My view of energy policy is that we should be supporting transitions from energy-dilute to energy-dense fuel. So, if you say: Michael, are you in favor of natural gas? I say, I support natural gas when it’s replacing coal, but I don’t support natural gas when it’s replacing nuclear energy. Nuclear energy is zero pollution, zero air or water pollution, zero carbon emissions, a tiny footprint, a smaller mining footprint than oil and gas even — which is smaller than coal — and so that gets to questions of nuclear energy. Nuclear energy, I point out, is a very special and very different technology from any of the fossil fuel technologies or other technologies in that it has always been a dual-use technology, and it’s always been involved in questions of national security. So, for me, at a policy level, what really matters is supporting that transition towards energy-dense fuels and paying special attention to nuclear energy’s role as a dual-use technology and one that the United States has long had an interest in being heavily involved in, both at home and abroad because of the special powers that it gives us. 

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