What a relief, I was wrong, we’ll be ok…

I just listened to Michael Shermer’s interview of Michael Shellenberger on his new book Apocalypse Never.

Here is the publisher’s summary of the book:

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/50173134-apocalypse-never

Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All

Michael Shellenberger has been fighting for a greener planet for decades. He helped save the world’s last unprotected redwoods. He co-created the predecessor to today’s Green New Deal. And he led a successful effort by climate scientists and activists to keep nuclear plants operating, preventing a spike of emissions.

But in 2019, as some claimed “billions of people are going to die,” contributing to rising anxiety, including among adolescents, Shellenberger decided that, as a lifelong environmental activist, leading energy expert, and father of a teenage daughter, he needed to speak out to separate science from fiction.

Despite decades of news media attention, many remain ignorant of basic facts. Carbon emissions peaked and have been declining in most developed nations for over a decade. Deaths from extreme weather, even in poor nations, declined 80 percent over the last four decades. And the risk of Earth warming to very high temperatures is increasingly unlikely thanks to slowing population growth and abundant natural gas.

Curiously, the people who are the most alarmist about the problems also tend to oppose the obvious solutions.

What’s really behind the rise of apocalyptic environmentalism? There are powerful financial interests. There are desires for status and power. But most of all there is a desire among supposedly secular people for transcendence. This spiritual impulse can be natural and healthy. But in preaching fear without love, and guilt without redemption, the new religion is failing to satisfy our deepest psychological and existential need.

Key points from the interview:

  • It’s unhelpful, unscientific, and depressing to describe our problems in apocalyptic terms.
  • Doomers are angry depressed people who want the world to collapse.
  • Environmentalism fills a spiritual need within atheists. When you’re living a life of prosperity and you stop believing in god and think you’ll become worm food after you die, you ask yourself what’s the purpose of life?
  • There is no 6th mass extinction underway. We are only causing 0.001% of species to go extinct each year. It is a problem that we’ve reduced wild animals by 50% since 1970 but the solution is to end poverty.
  • People are overreacting to Amazon deforestation.
  • CO2 emissions in advanced countries have been falling for years.
  • Nobel price winning economist William Nordhaus has shown that 4 degrees temperature rise is optimal considering the benefits of burning fossil energy and the costs of climate change; it’s a good thing we’re only going to experience 3 degrees rise thanks to us switching from coal to clean and amazingly abundant natural gas.
  • Nothing bad is going to happen at 3 or 4 degrees temperature rise, nor will it remove the flood control system that protects my house in Berkeley. The only bad thing that might happen at 4 degrees is we grow less food, but that can be solved by providing tractors, irrigation and fertilizer to farmers in poor countries.
  • The Netherlands has proven that sea level rise is not a problem for rich countries.
  • Eating less meat will not help climate change nor improve your health. We evolved to eat meat and CAFO’s have reduced our use of land for livestock by an area equivalent to Alaska.
  • People wanting to lower their impact should drive a used car and fly less.
  • Cheap abundant energy is the source of our well being.
  • Renewable energy has too low power density to support our lifestyle. If you want to reduce climate change you should support nuclear energy.
  • Using more energy is good for people and nature because it reduces the consumption of materials.
  • The solution to environmental problems is to bring poor people up to our standard of living.

To summarize what I think is Shellenberger’s message:

  • A modern affluent lifestyle is good for the environment and is enabled by abundant low cost energy.
  • Renewable energy does not have sufficient power density, we need fossil and nuclear energy.
  • There are serious environmental problems but helping poor countries achieve a similar lifestyle to ours will solve many of them, and if we’re wealthy we can cope with the remaining problems.

I think Shellenberger is intelligent and is correct on many of his points. Unfortunately the points he’s wrong on are fatal:

  • Affordable fossil energy will deplete much quicker than he assumes. Our economic problems of the last 12 years are evidence that power down is underway.
  • If I’m wrong on the depletion rate of affordable fossil energy, our economic growth will be constrained by other non-renewable resources.
  • Nuclear energy was once a good idea, but not now that fossil energy depletion is weakening economies and governments thus making good governance a too risky bet. Nuclear also doesn’t solve our dependency on diesel for tractors, combines, trucks, trains, and ships.
  • The consequences of our current 1 degree temperature rise are already dire due to the loss of ice. The 3 degrees Shellenberger is comfortable with will create a planet incompatible with modern civilization due to the impact on food production and sea level rise. Even if I’m wrong, we won’t have the wealth to cope.

People like Michael Shellenberger, Eric Weinstein, Matt Ridley, Steven Pinker, and Yuval Noah Harari demonstrate that regardless of how intelligent or well educated you are, if you deny the reality of energy depletion, then most of your beliefs are probably wrong, because pretty much everything depends on energy.

Perhaps this is why Nate Hagens once likened discussing peak oil to eating a bad oyster.

I’ve added Shellenberger to my list of famous polymaths in denial.

On the other hand, if you think Shellenberger is right, then I’ve got just the tune for you.

25 thoughts on “What a relief, I was wrong, we’ll be ok…”

  1. Other than cheap fossil energy produced our affluent lifestyles and renewables have low energy density, I don’t see much else to agree with. Barry Commoner years ago said that nuclear power was the most expensive method ever devised to boil water.

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    1. A small affluent population with nuclear as its main source of electricity would be a very good thing. I’m pretty sure nuclear could be designed and operated to be “safe enough”, especially when compared to the negative externalities of all other sources of electricity.

      The problem is that when you’re in a state of overshoot, adding anything to the consumption pile makes the inevitable outcome worse.

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  2. Since Shellenberger, born in 1971, was raised Mennonite and attended a Quaker college, he obviously hasn’t lost the religion virus. However, it’s quite the money-making scheme to throw in that bit about spirituality: it appeals to both the church-goers and the New Agers.

    And he thinks that driving used cars and flying less will help? Of course, he doesn’t mention overpopulation since he married young and produced two children, not just the one.

    I like this better:

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jimmy-hats are needed far more than masks to prevent future pandemics. Many people don’t realize China legalized wildlife farming in the mid-80s because they couldn’t feed their population with standard foods. It wasn’t just done because they like eating disgusting stuff.

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      1. We’ve forgotten how fortunate we are to have abundant food. And that there are much more important inventions than the iPhone. When Nixon opened up trade with China, the very first thing China ordered was some Haber-Bosch fertilizer factories.

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  3. Dr. Peter H. Gleick wrote a decent takedown of the book in Yale Climate Connections (July 15). Though hardly exhaustive, he did document enough of Schellenberger’s mistakes, sloppy thinking, misuse of sources, and the use of ad hominem attacks against those he disagrees with to discredit the book. Last month Schellenberger gave testimony in Congress as a star witness for the Republicans. No wonder some of us continue to maintain our “apocalyptic” frame of mind.

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    1. Thanks. I like this paragraph from the review.

      https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2020/07/review-bad-science-and-bad-arguments-abound-in-apocalypse-never/

      There is uncertainty about the best path forward. Those who believe the evidence shows our current path crosses dangerous planetary limits and may lead to severe environmental and social disruption can’t prove an apocalyptic future will happen – they’re arguing we must do what we can to avoid it. But neither can Cornucopians prove that narrow technological solutions and unconstrained economic growth will avoid those catastrophic futures. The imbalance of these viewpoints is key however: if Malthusians are wrong, all they would have done is made the world a better place. If Cornucopians are wrong, apocalyptic outcomes are indeed a real possibility.

      This is why I focus on population reduction. Fewer people improves every single one of the problems we face. It might be too late for the good old days, but it might not be too late to make the future less bad.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. More than the issue of population is in the predicament my kids (deniers in real time both!) and grandkidlettes (not wishing to hear anything that gets in the way of their having at least a ‘regular’ lifestyle) face with the “catabolic collapse” that M.J. Greer espouses – that whole systems of what goes into making our livelihoods will degenerate because, in the main, there has been no effort to ‘maintain’ even the general ‘status quo’, nor do the resources exist to forever re-create such. That some 40% of our so-called ‘developed world’s economies’ is in the financialized sectors (FIRE = Finance, Insurance, Real Estate), there is so much less that people do to get their hands dirty in any type of soil or making/repairing of what is needed.
          Shellenberger’s argument that the ‘developed’ world’ has peaked in emissions is totally bogus since most of the manufacturing that contributed to emissions is now in ‘developing’ (low wages, low taxes, etc.) regions whose emissions are not counted in our totals when we purchase those goods. And his gleeful exuberance over natural gas as our energy saviour in no way takes into account methane leakage from every point on the extraction to consumption of said natural gas that has been shown as making natural gas as emissions intensive as burning coal.

          Liked by 2 people

        2. Shellenberger’s extinction lies make him a shill, but then you have Greens who trivialize wind power’s growing bird, bat & insect kills, and promote the death of scenery as well. Human overpopulation is amplified with machines that used to be much smaller and geologically constrained.

          I recently noticed the Wilderness Society has sold out to public land development, using “responsible” corporate lingo while ignoring scale math. https://www.wilderness.org/articles/blog/its-time-harness-potential-responsible-renewable-energy-public-land

          Witness that same group quoting Wallace Stegner, who sought the opposite: https://www.wilderness.org/articles/article/wallace-stegner

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          1. I have seen too many “environmentalist” groups going for the corporate $$$, which surely entails little to no ‘progress’ to even sustainability, much less to what is really needed – degrowth. Sierra Club is worst of the bunch.

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      1. I suspect he accepted a substantial sum of money to be completely wrong, not sure if that also makes him an idiot. On the other hand if what he has submitted to the IPCC is his actual position (some might say ‘belief’) then yes he is indeed an idiot.

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  4. Follow the money.

    Fuck Shillenberger & that neo-liberal piece of shit Shermer too.

    I have a different song for that cabal of scamming professional environmentalists (gate keepers) & their true believer supporters (assholes).

    WRONG KIND OF GREEN

    The road to hell is paved with corporate profits and compromised NGOs

    http://www.wrongkindofgreen.org/

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    1. Shermer’s another interesting case study in denial. He’s spent his whole life as a professional skeptic debunking false beliefs. He gets almost everything right, except peak oil. When that topic comes up his demeanor changes and he becomes viscerally angry at the Malthusians who’ve cried wolf too many times. I can visualize his denial circuit kicking in and overriding his rationality.

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      1. Shermer’s a very intelligent man & has exposed much human horse shit, but he’s also a magical thinking ‘free market’ disciple. It’s his secular religion. The great debunker is blind to his own horse shit. Shermer would have made for a great case study in “The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life”

        Btw, do you know what I think of the free market? Sounds like a good idea. Perhaps we should try it some day.

        Kevin Simler, Robin Hanson

        “Human beings are primates, and primates are political animals. Our brains, therefore, are designed not just to hunt and gather, but also to help us get ahead socially, often via deception and self-deception. But while we may be self-interested schemers, we benefit by pretending otherwise. The less we know about our own ugly motives, the better – and thus we don’t like to talk or even think about the extent of our selfishness. This is “the elephant in the brain.” Such an introspective taboo makes it hard for us to think clearly about our nature and the explanations for our behavior. The aim of this book, then, is to confront our hidden motives directly – to track down the darker, unexamined corners of our psyches and blast them with floodlights. Then, once everything is clearly visible, we can work to better understand ourselves: Why do we laugh? Why are artists sexy? Why do we brag about travel? Why do we prefer to speak rather than listen?

        Our unconscious motives drive more than just our private behavior; they also infect our venerated social institutions such as Art, School, Charity, Medicine, Politics, and Religion. In fact, these institutions are in many ways designed to accommodate our hidden motives, to serve covert agendas alongside their “official” ones. The existence of big hidden motives can upend the usual political debates, leading one to question the legitimacy of these social institutions, and of standard policies designed to favor or discourage them. You won’t see yourself – or the world – the same after confronting the elephant in the brain.

        https://b-ok.cc/book/5199271/c2e542

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Americans claim to be capitalists, but have a large government and subsidize social programs like socialist countries (except much more inefficiently), and when free markets push asset prices down, they turn on their denial circuits and behave like communists.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. To me it is very simple. We will burn through all of our fossil fuel lagacy by 2100. After 2100 it will be impossible to renew our renewable or nuclear infrastructure. Nuclear waste will be dumped down abandoned mines. Exclusion zones will be placed round old nuclear infrastructure because we won’t have the energy to decommission them.

    Also … there is absolutely nothing we can do about it. The Earth will recover and the human population size will converge to the long term carrying capacity which could be as low as 500 million from our peak population size of around 10 billion at 2050 give or take.

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