Does the sight of a dolphin make you sad? Does the gentle lapping of the sea only make you think of the plastic water-bottle in your hand? Does a sunset fill you with fear and panic? Do you look at the world around you and in the place of wonder see only death?
You might be suffering from apocalyptic environmentalism – the world’s newest secular faith, which is also a death cult.
Arthur Koestler once wrote of socialism, “Every period has its dominant religion and hope, and ‘Socialism’ in a vague and undefined sense was the hope of the early twentieth century.” But that was then, a century ago. The new religion is apocalyptic environmentalism. “Environmentalism today is the dominant secular religion of the educated, upper-middle-class elite in most developed and many developing nations. It provides a new story about our collective and individual purpose. It designates good guys and bad guys, heroes and villains. And it does so in the language of science, which provides it with legitimacy.”
But socialism, that great hope of the masses, was wrong. After all the marching and the philosophizing, they couldn’t make the math work and it died in the bread lines. So too “apocalyptic environmentalism”, because they can’t make the science work – but will they destroy the world in their attempt to square the circle?
In that spirit, what if everything you thought you knew – that was screamed in your ear all day long and filled your Twitter and Facebook and your browser, what if all of that is wrong? Because that’s what Michael Shellenberger is telling us. And it goes for both sides – the apocalyptic environmental death cult as well as those who say not a care need be given to the world around us (but I am of course focusing this review on the former, because they are the audience to whom Shellenberger is directing his extraordinarily well researched book). Did you know plastics saved the turtle, and the whale and the elephant? Did you know that power density is the only possible solution to our energy crisis – and the greatest density is found in nuclear, the only source of energy where all waste is literally put in a cement bucket and stacked in a (relatively small) cave? Even more – the great power unleashed by nuclear could, with the expansion of breeder reactors double the capacity of our fissile material and reduce the waste to a tiny amount of plutonium; yes weapons grade perhaps (“But what about the terrorists?”), however in such a small quantity we could just shoot it into space. “But what about the aliens?” – now you’re just being silly. Did you know that the use of renewables cannot power Africa – and without power, Africa will continue to burn her forests? Did you know that the wildfires you care so much about are a result of putting houses too close to the forests and of allowing underbrush to build up without proper care and maintenance? Did you know we are not paving paradise – in fact all of construction in the world covers only .5% of the world. Land for agriculture use is going down, land for cattle grazing as well – due to efficiencies. And the deforestation? Global deforestation is being reversed, global population growth is on a decline, global land use is receding dramatically as our world urbanizes.
Why don’t we know these things? We all suffer from confirmation bias. We carefully prune our twitter feeds until they deliver us only a fire-hose of half-truths, but they are our half-truths!!! I have already been yelled at by a friend for putting a Shellenberger quote on my public FB page (I no longer have a FB account, and my wife manages my public author page – for exactly this reason). I interrupted my friend’s perfect waterfall of self-confirming half-truths; and he called Shellenberger a stooge of greed, attacking not his work, which he has not read, but his integrity. This is what Koestler in “The Invisible Writing” called a “closed circle” or what in Washington DC is half-comically and half-sadly referred to as a “self-licking ice-cream cone”. Where we fawn over an ignorant 13 year old girl, and throw invective at a consummate intellectual like Michael Shellenberger.
So what is the problem? “You’re saying everything is just fine. You want to destroy the world!!” You might be saying. Far from it, for I am an environmentalist – not of the quality and character of Shellenberger, alas, but I do love our world and the beauty she holds. I’m raising my son to be a scientist (he wants to be a marine biologist), we do our best to reduce waste and to recycle plastics. My “environmentalism” has taken more the form of human activism, specifically trying to end the wars (mostly in Africa). Because while countries are at war with themselves, destroying their infrastructure and murdering their citizens, they cannot even begin to solve the epic problems that the use of low-density energy has pushed their environments into. And I wish I could do more. Because we have a lot to do. Overfishing is the worst problem. Only 8% of the oceans are protected, for example. Plastics – though they don’t last a million years, in fact probably only decades because though they are not broken down by bacteria they are by the sun – are still produced in too great of quantities. Rwanda has banned them altogether. We must recover from our terrible 20th century, because though we cannot “leapfrog” past denser energy forms which are the motors of development (coal is better than wood, LNG is better than coal, nuclear is better than LNG), we must find a way to help Africa develop without the mess that the 20th century did to Europe and the western world.
But we can’t do that by subjecting the poor to poverty, it is not only immoral but impractical, for Africa’s population is still growing out of control, the only part of the world where that is the case. And correspondingly that ancient of places is being burned down to create charcoal over which the famished fishermen cook the last minnows they have pulled from the desiccated lake, before they pack everything into a plastic bucket and march with it on their heads to the camps. For let’s be honest with ourselves, “sustainable development” failed. The only path to prosperity is the one we took – and we must not deny the Africans that opportunity.
Because poverty is the greatest polluter, and wealth, the greatest environmentalist.
Unlike the apocalyptic environmentalists, Shellenberger in “Apocalypse Never” gives us an alternative. “Environmental humanism” he calls it, a return to a love of the wooded spaces, the gloriously tall trees and the deep blue oceans – our love of our wondrous world. And out of that love, the desire to protect and to preserve the natural places for ourselves, because they fill our hearts with joy. “Happily, nobody saves mountain gorillas, yellow eyed penguins, and sea turtles because they believe human civilization depends on it. We save them for a simpler reason: we love them.”
Yes, things are tough and we have a lot of work to do. So read this book, and then let’s get busy! Let us all go, with joy, eschewing irrational fear – and glory at being gifted with such an amazing planet and an opportunity to enjoy her as we serve her.
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Joel, I agree Africa is in dire need of every ounce of assistance that can be provided. A question: do you believe we here in the U.S. are precariously close to civil war and losing our democracy? It seems we could use some intervention here, and since you have experience in heading this kind of thing off, wandering how you might be involved with this here. Thanks.
Civil war is a big concept. USA needs reconciliation, we need to remember our common culture, our common threats and that if we win, we all win together. That has been threatened by the increasingly oligarchic nature of our democracy (we don’t really have a democracy, we have an oligarchic duopoly right now). And the decline in inter-generational elasticity (people scream about inequality, but they are actually talking about this). One problem is that our youth are extremely ignorant, and not sure what to do about this. But at the same time, our society is getting older – median age is about 40 now, like most developed countries. That tends to calm things down. We have a lot of work to do, but we have the resources (human and capital) to solve our problems. Can we get out of our own way?
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