Book Review - Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All, by Michael Schellenberger

"Apocalypse Never" is an interesting read for those of us who urgently desire to make real progress on climate, environment, and the living conditions of the developing world.

3 minutes
July 18, 2020

Michael Schellenberger, the renowned (and often misunderstood) conservationist and environmental policy writer, has emerged this spring with what Amazon is calling "unputdownable" and the #7 book in the country: Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All.

Schellenberger's long history as an advocate for conservation and environmental progress is also not entirely uncontroversial in the space. He has been called an eco-modernist and an eco-pragmatist, because he isn't a noisy "sound-bite" environmentalist. In 2003 he founded the Oakland, California-based environmental research center Breakthrough Institute, and he typically advocates for a balance between protection of the environment and progress of the living conditions of the developing world.

Michael Schellenberger doesn't just dive deep into the studies from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change); he knows those researchers and scientists personally and discusses the reports' nuances with them. This hasn't always been received well by those who make their living by creating alarm and unrest to draw big-time attention (and funds) to their organizations. At the same time, it offers zero "safe harbor" for climate deniers and those who oppose environmental action. Because he speaks out in clear and well-researched language against both extremes, Michael Schellenberger is one of the bravest environmental writers of our age.

Schellenberger advocates primarily for advancing the developing world to benefit quality of life. He rightly accuses some alarmists (such as the organization Extinction Rebellion that repeatedly halted public transport in London and sprayed blood-colored beet juice at their protests) of over-sensationalizing stats and actually harming public attitutdes towards climate action. He also advocates strongly for nuclear energy as the solution to cheap and clean energy (some have said he is personally too close to the nuclear industry, and ignores its risks and downsides). What is lost in all of this is the fact that some fission energy technologies, such as Oklo based in the Bay Area, hold tremendous promise for clean and safe energy.

With chapter headings such as "Enough with the Plastic Straws" and "Greed Saved the Whales, not Greenpeace," it's easy to see why some would feel he is "betraying the cause," and even singling out their organizations specifically. But the core of his argument can probably be best illustrated by a point he makes about halfway through the book, in a chapter titled "Sweatshops Save the Planet." His point is that by increasing crop yields, using larger agricultural machinery and better fertilizer, we can lift populations in developing countries out of subsistence farming and into a greater diversity of jobs that actually reduce the land required to support an individual, thus leaving more land for conservation and wildlife.

In a conversation with a Ugandan woman, he shares that only one in every two hundred Americans are involved in farming, whereas two of every three Ugandans are. The woman asks incredulously: "How can you grow enough food?" He replies, "With very large machines."

"For more than 250 years, the combination of manufacturing and the rising productivity of farming have been the engine of economic growth for nations around the world. Factory workers like Suparti {a girl who left the countryside to work in a clothing manufacturer in the city} spend their money buying food, clothing, and other consumer products and services, resulting in a workforce and society that is wealthier and engaged in a greater variety of jobs. The declining number of workers required for food and energy production, thanks to the use of modern energy and machinery, increases productivity, grows the economy, and diversifies the workforce...

"Cities, meanwhile, concentrate human populations and leave more of the countryside to wildlife. Cities cover just more than half a percent of the ice-free surface of the earth. Less than half a percent of Earth is covered by pavement or buildings...

"The replacement of farm animals with machines massively reduced land required for food production. By moving from horses and mules to tractors and combine harvesters, the United States slashed the amount of land required to produce animal feed by an area the size of California. That land savings constituted an astonishing one-quarter of total U.S. land used for agriculture.

"Today, hundreds of millions of horses, cattle, oxen, and other animals are still being used as draft animals for farming in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Not having to grow food to feed them could free up significant amounts of land for endangered species, just as it did in Europe and North America.

"As technology becomes more available, crop yields will continue to rise, even under higher temperatures."

Refusing to allow developing countries the same access to technology and fertilizers the developed world has used for generations, by invoking alarmism of how those countries may de-forest their land, is really just a way for the developed world's agriculture lobbyists to prevent lower-cost commodities from Africa and Latin America to threaten prices in the markets. The developed world was able to feed their populations with a fair amount of de-forestation themselves, in Germany, France, the U.S., and elsewhere. Now that the agriculture industries of those countries have their land cleared and arable to feed their populations, they want to control the supply of this land (and thus, keep commodities supplies artificially low to maintain high prices). This is unfair to developing world populations, and actually hinders progress on conservation and the environment in those developing countries. De-forestation alarmism is thus a form of corporate protectionism, and keeps the developing world from advancement.

For anyone who desires to do more than just make noise, and instead make real progress on climate, environment, wildlife, and the living conditions of the developing world, Apocalypse Never is a fascinating read in 2020. We need the courage of individuals like Schellenberger who are willing to face the anger of both climate dogmatists and climate deniers and forge a strong, compassionate, and scalable path forward for climate action. However, in reading it we must not be lured into thinking that a single solution like nuclear is the "silver bullet" out of this, and that de-forestation isn't a threat. Neither of these points is entirely true. And Peter Gleick from the US National Academy of Science and a MacArthur Fellow made a good point, when he described those with an optimistic abundance mindset such as Schellenberger as "Cornucopians" and those such as himself who raise more impassioned climate warnings as "Malthusians": "Cornucopians [cannot] prove that narrow technological solutions and unconstrained economic growth will avoid these 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 possibility."

The right road forward? Alarmists often hurt public attitudes towards the very cause of climate action that we need to pursue, and holding down developing countries in the name of the environment has immediate, real, and great human costs, too. Nuclear isn't the only answer. Instead, we must pursue a multi-pronged effort across diverse disciplines, government action, and market incentives. But we can't be so callous to the developing world that we block their ability to lift themselves out of poverty, either. Michael Schellenberger gives voice to those climate stakeholders in the developing world who often don't have a megaphone, but they are absolutely worth weighing in the balance of any climate debate.

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