Michael Shellenberger is a lifelong environmentalist who wrote the best-selling 2020 book Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All. “Last year, the rhetoric became even crazier than it already was, about how billions of people are going to die -- and adolescents were experiencing a lot of anxiety and depression. I have a 14-year-old daughter, and she’s fine because I talk to her about the science, but her friends are worried they aren’t going to live long enough to have kids... That’s wrong,” he observed. “I have also been long bothered by efforts to deprive poor countries of cheap reliable energy.” In addition to writing about climate change, Shellenberger also writes about homelessness, addiction, and California’s forest fires. In this wide-ranging interview with CEO Jennifer Grossman, Shellenberger shares his views on socialism, environmentalism, Venezuela, homelessness, and Greta Thunberg. Watch the entire interview HERE or check out the transcript below.
JAG: Hello, everybody. Welcome to the 25th episode of The Atlas Society Asks. I'm Jennifer Anju Grossman. My friends know me as JAG. I'm the CEO of The Atlas Society, which is the leading objectivist organization introducing young people to the literature and ideas of Ayn Rand. Today we are joined by a very special guest, Michael Shellenberger. Before I even get into introducing Michael, I want to remind all of you—I think we have record numbers on Zoom—to please type in your questions. You know what to do. Also, all of you that are watching our live stream on YouTube, just type the questions in. I'll get to as many of them as possible, so please keep them short. Michael is the author of the bestselling book, Apocalypse Never. He is a lifelong environmentalist and activist. He's been fighting for a cleaner environment for decades, and was even named Time Magazine's Hero of the Environment.
JAG: But his growing concern about what he saw as a lack of science in the public discussion on climate change, as well as a kind of apocalyptic outlook and partisanship in the environmental movement inspired him to write this book. Michael has saved the world's last unprotected redwoods in Humboldt County, California. Near and dear to my heart, he's a supporter of nuclear energy, having done four Ted Talks on the topic. He writes on a variety of topics, including homelessness and California's forest fires. As someone who lost their house in a California fire and rebuilt, I'm really eager to hear what you have to say on that. Michael has quite the fan club in The Atlas Society, all the way from our chairman of the board, Jay Lapeyre, who brought this book to our attention, to our Atlas Advocates, who recently did a Book Club on Michael's book; and he also graciously joined us for that. So, Michael, welcome again. Thank you so much.
MS: Thanks for having me. It's a pleasure.
JAG: So, Michael, what is the biggest potential harm posed by climate alarmism, in your opinion? And, what do we have to gain, particularly with regards to taking concrete and productive positive action on the environment by abandoning this discourse and fear?
About half of humans around the world, according to a very large survey that was done, think that climate change could make humans go extinct. There's zero science to support that. There's not even very much science fiction to support that.
MS: I think there's three broad areas where climate alarmism is causing harm. The first is the impact in terms of our relationship to the developing world. The World Bank used to support development. Now it supports underdevelopment or the persistence or the sustainability of poverty. The second is the impact on young people in particular, but just on the psychological and mental health of people in all parts of the world. About half of humans around the world, according to a very large survey that was done, think that climate change could make humans go extinct. There's zero science to support that. There's not even very much science fiction to support that. And, the science fiction that does exist is not very good, by the way. And, then the third is that it just actually undermines the policies that we need to protect the environment, ironically.
MS: So, I think maybe the biggest environmental problem in the world is just poor people working as small farmers trying to eke out a living on the forest frontier in places like Brazil or Central Africa, who are basically being denied actively, by European greens and Americans and the World Bank, the main drivers of development, which is urbanization, industrialization, a chance to seek a better life in the city, more freedoms for everybody, including women and children, but also a solution to the environmental problems that are created by having a lot of frontier agriculture in particular, which both threatened species, but also as we've seen with the coronavirus, is probably a main vector for the spread of zoonotic viruses from animals to humans. And so, we now know that that kind of poverty, that kind of agriculture, is actually a threat to all of us in the form of new diseases.
JAG: So, we just cited that astounding statistic that half of the global population believes that there's a very good chance that the human population is going to become extinct, and that there's zero evidence for that. Why has this kind of alarmism thrived despite a massive body of evidence to the contrary, and how do we push that against this narrative of doom and gloom?
Carbon emissions peaked in Britain, France, and Germany in the mid-seventies. They peaked in the United States 13 years ago. We're in a transition from coal to natural gas.
MS: Well, you're right that the narrative has persisted and in some ways gotten worse over the decades, despite the evidence all going in the opposite direction, basically. I mean, you have to remember that there's prior scares. Prior environmental scares have been around, like too many people. In fact, the height of that scare, which was in the late sixties, is also when the rate of population growth peaked and started to decline. We now know that the human population will almost certainly peak at 9 to 11 billion. And, for it to peak at the lower number, which most of us that care about the natural environment would like to see, that would mean more wealth and prosperity and industrialization for places like Central Africa, not less. And so, unfortunately, despite so many of these trends . . . Let me just name a few: carbon emissions peaked in Britain, France, and Germany in the mid-seventies. They peaked in the United States 13 years ago. We're in a transition from coal to natural gas. Everybody agrees natural gas is better than coal, you just have to use it to cook in your kitchen, and you know that you would rather be cooking with gas than with coal. So, it's a very benevolent transition. But, unfortunately, the alarmism has just gotten worse and worse.
MS: And, I've had people sort of say to me, “Why, if you're an environmental activist, a climate activist, why are you pushing back on the alarmism? Doesn't the alarmism help?” I compare it to being like a doctor that works on cancer, for example. If you work on cancer, we're getting much better at treating cancers. It's this huge success story. We're turning a lot of cancers into chronic diseases like we've now done with HIV AIDS. It's this major thing we should be celebrating and seeking to provide for everybody in the world. And so, if somebody was coming along saying that, you know, billions of people are going to die from cancer, which in one sense is actually true over several decades, but for somebody to come along and say, the world's going to end because of cancer, you'd kind of be like that's actually communicating the wrong information.
MS: Things are getting better. So, in the book, just in short, the last three chapters of the book describe what I see as the underlying causes of the alarmism: money, power, and religion, ultimately concluding that climate alarmism and environmentalism more broadly, which stems from the intellectual class, and scientists, and media, and elites, is really an alternative religion. It's really the new dominant secular religion. You might group it with Black Lives Matter or other kinds of left-wing movements as really an alternative religion to the decline of Judeo-Christianity. And so, I conclude that actually as much as we push back against it, and we should based on the facts as we've done in Apocalypse Never, that we can expect this kind of alarmism to increase because people are engaging in it really to provide their own lives with meaning, and to gain some kind of status and power through conspicuous compassion and virtue signaling.
JAG: Well, that's really interesting because some of our viewers might be asking, “Well, what does Objectivism have to do with what we're talking about right now?” But, of course, the central tenet of Objectivism is “A is A”: that reality exists. And, of course, it's a philosophy of self-esteem, of productivity, of finding a purpose in your life. And, finding that purpose, living that purpose. And, I think that regardless of where you ultimately end up in terms of your politics or your purpose, when you have this existential vacuum and you just abandon trying to find your own personal purpose, you open up a need to find an alternative form. So, I want to also encourage everybody, please ask your questions of Michael. This is a really unique opportunity, so just go ahead, and type them in.
JAG: But first, I've got a few of my own. So, I thought this was interesting, Michael, that you, in terms of politics, identify as more politically left-leaning in your writings, not a big surprise. You're in Berkeley, I think <laugh>. I certainly started out much more on the left side of the political spectrum myself and much to my parents' chagrin <laugh> have had my own evolution. But, you are undeniably gaining a lot of popularity among conservatives, libertarians, and, clearly, in the objectivist community. Why do you think that might be?
I'm in favor of prosperity. I'm in favor of wealth. I'm in favor of individuality. I think what I share with Objectivists—and libertarians, if I could define it broader, I know you're not the same—is, for sure, a commitment to reality and facts and science, but also committed to the idea that every human is special, and every human has this internal potential.
MS: I think the underlying reason is that we share the same values. I'm in favor of prosperity. I'm in favor of wealth. I'm in favor of individuality. I think what I share with Objectivists—and libertarians, if I could define it broader, I know you're not the same—is, for sure, a commitment to reality and facts and science, but also committed to the idea that every human is special, and every human has this internal potential. And, we're not victims, we're not helpless victims of our natural environments, that we can take control over our lives. You know, much of the environmental discourse paints humans on the one hand, as these terrible greedy predators and destroyers of nature. On the other hand, it depicts us as helpless victims of (one of the most ridiculous is) sea-level rise.
MS: I mean, sea level, climate—my view: climate change is real. We should do something about it. It's not the end of the world. It's not the biggest environmental problem. Sea-level rise, the median estimated sea level rise is a half-a-meter point, six meters. That's about two feet over the next century. We think people can't deal with one centimeter sea-level rise a year. We farm seven meters below sea level in the Netherlands. Anybody that's been to Venice in Italy knows that this is an entire city constructed on the water. We put a person on the moon, we do things technologically that are unbelievable. So, this idea that we’re these passive, helpless victims, I reject that in a primordial way.
MS: I think in the same way that probably many Objectivists do, which is to say, “That's just gross.” It treats humans as machines, or it’s a simple stimulus-response behavioral view or a view that basically is dehumanizing. So, I think we share that in common. I also support market signals. I think prices contain a huge amount of information, and that Hayek is basically right about that, and that there's no substitute for it. I point to the case of the whales where countries that had more centralized control over supply of oils—by the way in the 20th century, they were using whales for vegetable oils for soap and margarine. Some of the worst whaling was done because the Soviets were avoiding market signals that were coming from vegetable oils becoming a lot cheaper, and whales becoming a little more expensive.
MS: So definitely we share some stuff on that. Yes, people are always curious. I am a Democrat. I remain a Democrat. I'm unhappy with the Democrats. I live in California, so therefore I'm unhappy with the Democrats. It's a single party state. My view is that there's some services that are probably better, that are natural monopolies, and are probably better provided by the state, and we can talk about that or disagree about that. But I just think there's some things that are like that, including electricity. You know, we're in the middle of a psychiatric crisis here, and, if there's some way to solve that psychiatric crisis with market forces, I’ve yet to see it. So, I think there's certainly some things that should be in the domain of collective action. But yes, I admit that I'm a bit of an outlier when it comes to Democrats in California, certainly in Berkeley as well.
JAG: Oh, that's for sure. I spent most of the past year in San Francisco with my parents and wrote an article called, “Vagrants in our Driveway, A Teachable Moment.” And, I took a video because I heard my mother upstairs—my mother who's a Democrat and a social worker—and we were at home and she was concerned that there was someone who was completely out of it, stumbling around half naked in the driveway. And I was saying that I thought that there was usually not a lot of upside when that happens, and it probably wasn’t a very good day for that individual either. But I was saying, at least from an Objectivist perspective, that it was possibly a teachable moment because of the language we used. In Ayn Rand's literature, particularly in Anthem where the word “I” has been abolished, when you are so focused on, well, we use this word and we don't use that word, you not only limit debate, but you limit even your ability to think about it.
JAG: And so, I said we used to have a very rich, broad vocabulary of the way that we would talk about people who were living on the streets. And, some of them weren't very polite, you know, vagrants or bums or panhandlers or beggars or whatever it might be, roustabouts. So, I mean, the list goes on and on, and now it's just homelessness. And that, at least to me, makes us think that it's about housing, you know, as opposed to what you're talking about. Would you tell us a little bit about the writing that you're doing on that, and maybe some of your thoughts?
The word homelessness is a propaganda word. It's a word that is designed to make us think that the problem is essentially poverty rather than being a problem of untreated mental illness and addiction, which any of us who live here knows that it is right.
MS: Sure. I'd really happy to. I'm happy to say, too, I just signed a book deal with my publisher, Harper Collins. My next book is going to be about the so-called homeless crisis in San Francisco. I agree with you. The word homelessness is a propaganda word. It's a word that is designed to make us think that the problem is essentially poverty rather than being a problem of untreated mental illness and addiction, which any of us who live here knows that it is right. There are extremely poor people. I think that there are policies that we should have to help them. There are also people that are addicted to meth and are sleeping on the street. Those are not the same people. Sometimes they might be, but this idea that we have one word that combines all these different people, it means it's a propaganda word.
MS: And, you're absolutely right. I'll make two observations. The first is that that person in your driveway—if you're going to be able to have friends and <laugh> polite conversations in San Francisco—you're supposed to call that person “unhoused” and suffering from a substance abuse disorder. That's the correct language, which you'll notice about all the language is it's all aimed at eliminating any sense of responsibility or agency or power from what they do. So the very idea that people are victims as opposed to people that have undergone hardship and, in fact, have a lot of heroic potential, because victimization, of course, is a stage in becoming a hero. Victimization is part of what it takes to become a full human being that has suffered and suffers and has overcome that. I'm more in the tradition of Friedrich Nietzsche, who says “That which doesn't kill us, makes us stronger.”
MS: He's not saying that's how it's for everybody. He's saying that that's what you should tell yourself. That's the attitude you should have when faced with hardship. Well, the left here, mostly the radical left, but the left here says, no, no, no. You could not possibly demand anything from anybody. We can only help, (it's a really social worker mentality gone crazy—not to criticize your mom at all; and my family, by the way, has social workers in it and teachers, and they're all very empathic). But, it's not rocket science to figure out what's going on around here: if you just go give people all sorts of money and benefits, and you let them shoot drugs in public and defecate in public and sleep on the sidewalk, that's what people will do.
MS: And I think it's interesting. There's a writer, whom I've become really interested in. He's a psychiatrist, he's from Britain, and he describes the language that the most challenged folks in our society use to describe their circumstances. He talks about one guy who talks about how he stabbed a guy. As he was describing it, he said the knife went in. You know, it completely erased his agency and his responsibility from it. If you think that responsibility is essential to being an adult and to transcending a familial or paternalistic relationship, then what you want is to have policies that reward responsibility, that require responsibility, where there's some amount of reciprocity. And we have all sorts of words that we use to describe this relationship. We call it carrots and sticks.
MS: We call it rights and responsibilities. We call it tough love in San Francisco. In the San Francisco Bay area, we basically eliminated one half of that equation, which is madness. And we see it, but you know, we see it in the whole culture. We're all going soft and we all know what this problem is. It's a challenge, and I think you guys probably think a lot about it, certainly Ayn Rand thought about it, which is what do you do when you become really rich and soft and coddling and you don't create any of these strictures? I'm a father. I'm not going to claim to be the best father in the world. Like a lot of parents, I have a lot of regrets. But, I do know that my experience with kids is that they want to have things demanded of them.
MS: People need responsibilities to give their lives meaning and purpose. So, what is a political movement doing that is depriving people of a chance to feel powerful, to feel responsibility, to take control of their life? I mean, one of the worst things you can say about somebody in the Bay Area right now is you say, “Oh, well, that's somebody who thinks that you could just pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” That would be the worst thing in the world to think that you would actually want people to do. Now, of course, as I said, I still think there's some role for the government here. I think there's a role to help people when they're down and out, but it should be tied to some sense of responsibility. So, that's where the book is headed. And you just see it everywhere.
Harm reduction has gone from giving people clean needles so they don't transfer HIV or Hep C to each other, to providing people with meth pipes and with foil to light fentanyl on and smoke it. What's the public interest in that? How is that harm reduction at all? It's just enabling terrible behavior.
MS: You see it everywhere. I love being asked this because you can understand that my poor wife and friends are just sick of me ranting about this. Harm reduction has gone from giving people clean needles so they don't transfer HIV or Hep C to each other, to providing people with meth pipes and with foil to light fentanyl on and smoke it. What's the public interest in that? How is that harm reduction at all? It's just enabling terrible behavior. So, the punchline to it all is that it's pretty simple. You have to restore some sense of some requirement of responsibility. You have to have more strictness in how we raise our kids, including, particularly how we raise our boys, because they need it more than girls need it, but everybody needs it. And, the good news is that mothers can father just as fathers can mother.
MS: It turns out that both sexes can play these roles, and kids need that and they need to have things expected of them. We all need that. And, I think that we're in a moment in American life right now where nobody knows what's expected of each other. And, that's why every institution in society is failing from the White House to Congress, to the New York Times, to the United Nations to the CDC and World Health. Every institution is in crisis in Western civilization. I think the reason for that is because there's no vision. There's no sense of what do we owe each other as taxpayers and citizens. There's no sense of, if I get something, what do I owe for it? I think that ultimately Californians will, and Americans will, come back to this balanced place of rights and obligations, rights and responsibilities. There is some obligation, I think, on the part of society to provide some basic shelter, particularly to people that are pretty low-capacity and incapable in some ways of taking care of themselves.
MS: We have some obligation to them, but everybody can work. Everybody can do their part, everybody can contribute. You know, I was in the Netherlands, which is one of the most liberal countries in the world, and people with pretty high levels of severe mental illness also do work. They are constantly doing work for themselves. And I think it makes social work a little bit harder, and sometimes it's easier just to provide the service than to demand things from people. But ultimately, the whole society needs to be demanding both individual and some sense of social responsibility for ourselves if we're going to solve this untreated addiction and mental illness crisis and frankly just prosper, develop and continue to protect and strengthen our institutions rather than allow them to be completely denigrated and dismantled.
JAG: Yes. There's so much there that resonates when you also talk about people with mental illness or other kinds of disabilities who can work. And one of the reasons that I patronize the particular grocery stores that I do is because I see that grocery store going out of its way to provide some kinds of work opportunities for such people. Sometimes it can be a little strange, right? That the guy that's bagging groceries clearly is autistic or something like that. I also did it at The Atlas Society gala. I had my dress made by a 23-year-old Guatemalan fashion designer, who also happens to have Down syndrome. So, we can each of us make these kinds of choices as individuals, as organizations, as businesses to live our values. So, we are going to get to some of these questions. But, I didn't want to let you go without also asking a little bit about your origin story, Michael. How did you become so interested in the environment, and what was your path? Were there people that were influences? Were there books that were influences?
MS: Sure. Boy, a lot to talk about. Yes, I've actually started to understand a little bit more about my family. I am from a long line of Mennonites, which is a Christian Protestant sect that, including in my family, was pretty anti-statist, held a lot of ideas that I think Atlas Society members would share, ironically, though others not. They're not the Amish, but the Amish are close. And often, when you stop being Amish, you just become Mennonite. And so, for example, my grandfather's parents were Amish, and then they became Mennonites. So in that tradition, there's a lot of radical thought, a lot of outsider thought, we were suspicious of the states, suspicious of the nation, very pacifist. My whole family was like that.
I was never Malthusian. I never thought there were too many humans. I never thought there were too many people. That always struck me as racist, even from a very young age.
MS: I was not; I was a pacifist. And then, I became more of a radical, more of a radical leftist, certainly had a socialist phase, certainly had a Marxist phase, spent a lot of time in Latin America. I was never Malthusian. I never thought there were too many humans. I never thought there were too many people. That always struck me as racist, even from a very young age. Always loved the natural environment, never thought there should be a conflict between people and the natural environment. There was always something strange about some environmentalists to me. The other part of it was, I was always struck by how wealthy they were and how aristocratic so many environmental folks were compared to other left-wing movements. And then, what can I say? I was mugged by reality.
MS: I lived in peasant communities in Latin America. People want prosperity. Prosperity is good. Progress is mostly good. We all suffer some of the consequences of progress, but all else being equal, we'd rather have it than not have it. And, what else? I guess the stuff on markets was some of the most recent, in the sense of, I never really was against that stuff, but I came to appreciate it more. You get older and you just understand how the world works better, and you think markets are important. So it was a gradual process. You know, I actually did some work in Venezuela. The final stage of my socialism was being in Venezuela. And it just got crazy. The Marxists were just nuts. And, I just remember thinking there's something really wrong about this at multiple levels. I just remember that being the goodbye to all that <laugh>.
JAG: That broke the camel's back. Well, it's interesting, yes, what you're saying about Venezuela, and we'll have to make sure that you see our latest Draw My Life video. My Name is Venezuela, which we've also translated into Spanish, and after the United States—that's our biggest audience—the second biggest audience, the most engaged audience for the United States in the entire globe at the moment, is Venezuela. So, it's interesting. It's interesting that there are still enough people physically there when so many have left. And, I identify with your journey kind of in the reverse because I was raised in a very liberal, moral-belief-in-state-intervention background. You went through your Marxist phase, your socialist phase. I went through my Republican phase. My Libertarian phase. And then I arrived at Objectivism. We have here a question from the man that made this possible. He is Jay Lapeyre, the chairman of the board of The Atlas Society and, he wants to know, Michael, has your book made converts among environmentalists. And what are the legitimate criticisms your book received, if any?
MS: Well, unfortunately, this environment is so polarized. My book did not really get a fair hearing on the left. I've written for the New York Times and Washington Post before, I've reviewed books for the Washington Post, and neither of them reviewed the book. One of those newspapers, I won't say which, so I don't get anybody in trouble, the review editor sent back a note, sort of saying that he thought it was too bad that the newspaper decided to shut me out. It's not, as you know, from reading it, this is not some right-wing book. It's not even really a libertarian book. It's not really very ideological at all. But, it got iced out of the left. So, there's just a lot of people that have never heard of it. It's just sad.
MS: But, I can't do anything about that. So, unfortunately, not enough. I did get some very nice notes. Some of the most rewarding notes I get are from people who were depressed about environmental problems. Especially from adolescents, young people emailed for sure, and they were like, “thank you,” and “I felt better,” “I know the world's not going to end,” and “you kind of broke it all down.” Those were extremely rewarding to get. I think it has had an impact as well on the discourse; it's not as obvious to some people, but if you pay super close attention to the conversation about these things, I can see it's just slightly less acceptable to be hysterical about climate change, particularly in elite media audiences, like on Twitter, still a bunch of it around the forest fires.
MS: We saw it where it was just ridiculous. But, I do think in some other areas it's gotten better. Legitimate criticisms of the book: I'll say there's criticisms I've felt the need to respond to, and criticisms I haven't felt the need to respond to. The ones I felt the need to respond to, I put them on the website and I responded to them. The most substantive criticism of the book came from somebody who defended Reverend Thomas Malthus, who's the villain in Apocalypse Never. So, it's funny because, on the one hand, environmentalists said, “Oh, Michael, you're constructing a straw man. Nobody really follows the ideas of Thomas Malthus anymore.” And then, the main attack on me was they had a huge photo of Thomas Malthus's face, a painting of Malthus as an attack on Apocalypse.
MS: Never substantively, just ticky-tacky stuff. I have issued a small number of corrections that mostly were typos on the website, but nothing of significance. It's hard to ask an author, <laugh> what criticisms are valid. But, I will say there were some people that said my book's not super original. I think there's part of it that's true, which is that I wasn't trying to break new theoretical ground or new journalistic ground even. I think where the novelty in the book exists is that I synthesize it. I was praised recently for being good at synthesizing. And, it's actually something I take a lot of pride in being able to do, to explain some complicated ideas in a small amount of space. So for me, what's special about the book and what I am proud of with the book is that it covers a lot. It covers both the debunking of the alarmism, but also tries to get at some of the deeper psychological, and I think even spiritual, motivations that underlie so much of the alarmism.
JAG: Speaking of motivations, we have another question here from another one of our donors, Phil Coates. Hey, Phil, great to see you and appreciated those kind comments that you had about The Atlas Society on Carl Barney's blog. So, Phil wants to know why has the apocalyptic version of climate change taken over among scientists? And, I guess first, whether or not you'd agree with that premise. Phil wants to know, are they confused politically, intimidated from speaking out, or three, are there quite a few out there who do like you but just really aren't getting picked up by the media?
There hasn't been an increasing cost from natural disasters once you account for economic growth or more property in harm's way; once you account for that, hurricanes don't cause more damage today than they did in the past.
MS: The answer is yes, <laugh> to all of those. One of the characters in the book is one of my favorite people in the whole world. A gentleman named Roger Pielke, Jr. who's a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and is one of the most just balanced scientists in terms of he's famous because he shows that there hasn't been an increasing cost from natural disasters once you account for economic growth or more property in harm's way; once you account for that, hurricanes don't cause more damage today than they did in the past. And, he suffered significantly for that. Not a victim, <laugh>, he's actually the hero of the book, one of the heroes of the book. But, he said, “Look, a lot of this is just that people, the majority of people are just herd animals.”
MS: Most people just kind of follow the herd, and they're obedient, and most people just don't want to be criticized publicly. They don't want be attacked on Twitter. Of course they don't. Nobody likes that. And so, I just think a lot of people are just intimidated into silence. I think most scientists are not radical left, and alarmist. There's definitely a handful that are, they're true believers, every single one of 'em. There's financial motivations always, but the main event is, I just think they're true believers. And I think it makes sense that, for me, at the end of the book, I talk about how I think that the narrative that alarmist scientists say, and they want to say is, “Well, I'm just more in touch with the facts, and that's why I'm so alarmist.”
MS: But I think that that's not true. And, I think a deeper motivation is that, remember, scientists were the first ones to struggle with purpose. Once you accept, if you believe, there's no God, scientists were the ones out there making the world godless, so to speak, saying, “Look, we can explain a lot of evolution without God. We can explain a lot of things in the world without the Bible.” And I think that undermines a very powerful basis for human civilization, which is the idea of our morality, that we should behave properly because if we don't, then we will suffer for it in the afterlife or be rewarded for it. So, once that's gone, I think people then search for some other ways to make meaning, and they decide to make meaning through really trying to enforce power in this new morality. So, there's been this effort in particular, by alarmist scientists to do that, by activist scientists. But like I said, they're in the minority. Most people are just intimidated.
JAG: Thomas Oday has a question. He wants to know, “How do you answer the question of human impact on global warming? I believe we are impacting it, but not as much as is being stated. Nature has a much bigger impact. Correct? Is that your view?”
MS: Well, it depends. It sounds like he wants to talk about climate change. My view of climate change is pretty close to the mainstream view, which is that carbon dioxide is a heat-trapping molecule. It makes sense that a lot of carbon dioxide would be contributing to warming. The mechanism is well understood scientifically, and it has been since the late 19th century plus we have good observations of temperature changes. There have been some problems with land-based temperature records, but we have good temperature records for the oceans. So, we know the world is getting warmer, and we see the impact of climate change. Is nature playing a role? Well, of course. It's a funny word, nature, because it just refers to everything.
MS: So, people might want to say, “Are there natural cycles?” Could be, although we may have been heading towards a cooling period. In fact, a lot of scientists thought we were headed towards a cooling period and then were surprised that we got warmer. That is part of where the theory comes from. But, I think the evidence is pretty strong. And, with the book you'll see that I sort of defend that more mainstream view of the effect of carbon and other heat-trapping gases on climate change. But, I just pushed back on the idea that we're just victims of it all and that we can't have any control over it. In fact, I show that fighting adversity, including in terms of where you live, whether it's Venice, Italy, or Amsterdam, can bring great achievements.
What I'm really pushing back against is the idea that this is some apocalyptic threat that we're incapable of dealing with. And I'm also pushing back against the fact that there are other things that we do to the natural environment that are pretty terrible that we don't need to do, and that we could stop doing.
MS: Arguably the greatest achievements, only great achievements are achieved through some sort of struggle and challenge and adversity. So, what I'm really pushing back against is the idea that this is some apocalyptic threat that we're incapable of dealing with. And I'm also pushing back against the fact that there are other things that we do to the natural environment that are pretty terrible that we don't need to do, and that we could stop doing, like eating less wild fish, like not using biofuels at all, like not spreading garbage energy sources like solar panels made in China over vast landscapes or killing birds with wind turbines; we don't need to do those things. In the name of climate change, we're causing significant amounts of harm. But, in some ways I wrote the book for my conservative friends, or I wrote the book for my friends on the right, which is to say don't just be anti-the-malthusians, though that's important, but we should have a positive program.
MS: And, that's a positive program that's built around human aspiration, human development, innovation, energy transitions, intensified agriculture, and the move towards more energy-dense fuels.
JAG: I think that that's a wonderful way to put it. And, our most recent honoree at The Atlas Society gala in October was Peter Diamandis. And, he is an environmentalist as well, but he has a perspective on technology, exponentially accelerating innovation, and an optimistic perspective on the ability to overcome challenges. I think that's part of what I'm hearing from you, because if ever we're heading into a vortex where we're able to source solutions for some of these global crises, it's now. But, of course, if we enact socialism and we get rid of these sources of capital which can fund these efforts, then we're going to be in trouble. A question from Joe L. Dread. He wants to know, “Have you written about Greta Thunberg? I don’t know if I'm pronouncing her name right. What's your opinion of her and the things that she says?”
MS: Yes, she's a character in the book. I write extensively about Greta. She's a very interesting, very important figure. I treat her as an adult, which means that I make criticisms of her substantively. I reject this idea that somehow she can denounce all of Western civilization, and that anybody who responds to her is somehow picking on a girl, which has been the nature of her advocacy in her defense, which I find pretty terrible, honestly. So, I treat her as the adult that she is, and I point out that what she's recommending is panic. In her own words, <laugh>, she says, “I don't want you to have hope. I want you to panic.” Well, I don't wish panic on my worst enemies. And, the reason I don't do that is because what panic means is unthinking behavior and action.
MS: Why would you wish unthinking behavior, particularly on your opponents? I don't think we want anybody engaging in unthinking behavior and action. And you might say, “Well, that's just rhetorical, Michael, why are you making such a big deal of it?” But, I point out that, in fact, two radical environmentalists with Extinction Rebellion were dragged down from the top of tube cars. That's the subway in London, of course. From the tops of tube cars where they were protesting. They were kicked and beaten and could have been killed. I mean, genuinely, they could have been killed. There's been a lot of harm caused by that sort of rhetoric. So, I think it's irresponsible. I also point out that in the end, at the beginning of last year, she started by talking about how poor countries need to use a lot of energy.
MS: They need to develop. She at least recognized that by the end of the year she was denouncing economic growth at the United Nations. And, I point out Greta Thunberg, upper middle class child of an opera singer and an actor, and stay-at-home dad, who are clearly very affluent, lives in very affluent circumstances. There is no Greta Thunberg without economic growth. She is a product of economic growth. And, it's that lack of gratitude and awareness. She came to the United States, this is after I finished the book, and I've never written about it because it's just annoying, but she did this podcast of her trip around the United States, and it was the most patronizing, insulting talk. She was criticizing Americans for having cattle ranching. I mean, what do you think?
MS: In Sweden, they don't eat meat? It was the most typical, stereotypical European put-down of Americans I'd ever heard. And I'm not some red state-or-bust guy. I live in Berkeley, for Pete's sake. But the kind of disrespect that she levels at people that share her class, actually at people that are slightly below her class—at working class people—is offensive. It's a kind of European snobbery. So, I think that ultimately, and I sort of conclude this at the very end of the book, a lot of this climate alarmism and effort to try to control how countries produce energy and food has to be read as a rear-guard action to protect globalization and elite privilege at a time when nations are reverting towards nationalism and working classes are asking what's in it for them, at a time when people are asking, what does it mean to be an American. And, to assert the dominance of Greta Thunberg and United Nations officials over domestically elected governments is just terrible and nobody wants that.
JAG: You know, what you were saying about panic, I thought was interesting; that you certainly wouldn't want anybody, but particularly somebody who actively wished you harm, to revert to a mode of unthinking behavior. It also struck a chord with what you were saying about the ingratitude that you observed and that you're picking up in Greta's message. And something that our chairman has talked a lot about is gratitude. We have a My Name is Gratitude video, and it's like, “Well, you’re an Objectivist, how does that fit in?” Because just as panic is not going to help you or anybody function in a productive, goal-oriented manner, constantly thinking about what you need, what other people have, resenting other people is a very disempowering agency reducing the ways for moving forward in the world. So as we move towards Thanksgiving, we definitely recommend a dose of gratitude every day, 365 days-a-year. “We are getting to the end here. So, maybe we can get to one or two short questions. “Since Michael should be congratulated for the course correction he made, it would be useful to present the arguments and facts in the book in a visual documentary format. Anything underway to do that?”
MS: Well, on the one hand, we did in the sense that if you go to environmentalprogress.org and you go to the dropdown page for Apocalypse Never, you can see all the graphs and charts of all the scientific stuff that's easy to quantify. We did do some qualitative stuff on those slides; but, my colleague—by the way, Madison Czerwinski—who did it, who is a amazing researcher, there's something like 200 slides of all the charts and graphs, and they are easy to download and also easy to right-click and paste into social media so people can share them. And then, yes, should each chapter of Apocalypse Never be its own episode on a Netflix documentary series? Absolutely. <laugh>. I would love that. I wrote that the story of the book is that I was contacted by a talent agent who, after she saw my Ted Talks, wanted to see if I wanted to do a TV show about nuclear.
MS: And, I said, “Yes, I'm working on a book about that.” Then she said, “Well, do the book first, then we'll talk about the TV show.” Then I did this book and it changed in the middle, and it became this new book. And, I have talked to folks that want to make it into a TV show, but, so far it hasn't panned out. And, it's disappointing because I think it would make for better television than a lot of stuff that's on Netflix right now, <laugh>. I think it would be great. Also, my daughter, she's 15. She's not quite into the book yet, and I really wanted her to have something for Gen Z, for Zoomers and young Millennials and others, and people who just don't read; you know, people don't read that much. So, yes, if anybody's listening, I would like a TV show on Netflix <laugh>. But apparently what the universe wants is for me to write a book about the homeless crisis in San Francisco. And so, I've kind of made my peace with that. And, that's what I'm working on.
JAG: Yes. And, the universe wants you to write a book on fires, too. I certainly would. I can do a whole chapter on that in terms of what, from my own personal experience, I've seen that contributed to the very precarious situation in which we find ourselves. So, we have a few other questions. People are asking your thoughts on some others, like Matt Ridley. I think we also have a question about if you have any thoughts on the animated film director, Hayao Miyazaki? I'm not sure who that is.
MS: Oh, I love Hayao Miyazaki.
MS: Yes. Well, those are two very interesting characters. Matt Ridley and I are friendly. I've met him in person. I like him. We don't see eye to eye on everything, you know? I did a history of the fracking revolution in the United States. I did find more US government involvement than he acknowledges in his history. But, you know, it's at that level of disagreement. We're good friends. And I think his books, he's written some very fine books. Hayao Miyazaki is a very interesting character. He, of course, is the Japanese filmmaker who made his most famous movie Spirited Away. But, he has made other movies that are absolutely some of my favorite movies in the entire world, not just animated films. I mean, I think he's a genius. I love all of his movies.
MS: His movies are deeply nostalgic. They're actually nostalgic in an interesting way. They're steampunk. They tend to be nostalgic for the early Industrial Revolution. They tend to be very nature nostalgic. He's definitely hardcore. I think he's a Malthusian low-energy, romantic reactionary, that's who he is. And I see it in a lot of artists. I forgive it more because I think artists are romantics, right? And so, they have a view that things were always better in some past period and when we were either hunter-gatherers or farmers, or the early industrial period for Hayao Miyazaki. I don't think it's very healthy for politics, but it seems like it's just a really deep part of art. So, I don't write about Hayao Miyazaki in the book, because he's not depriving poor countries of energy, <laugh>, he is not a villain or anything.
The most important thing is that you should not recycle your plastics, because the chances are that they'll end up being shipped to poor countries that don't have waste repositories and end up in the ocean.
MS: But, it's interesting that one of your folks asked about it. I think one of the most interesting things about Miyazaki's films is that he made a movie called Nausicaä, I believe, where the world is polluted and contaminated, but then when they get beneath it, they discover that the earth is healing itself. That actually it's clean. That earth is clean itself. And I think it's important for people to remind themselves of that. One of the things we found in the plastics chapter, well, the first thing, the most important thing is that you should not recycle your plastics, because the chances are that they'll end up being shipped to poor countries that don't have waste repositories and end up in the ocean. But, the other thing is that the ocean actually does degrade a lot of plastics, and we should just be appreciative of our natural environment for breaking things down. And that it's not the case that our pollution is everlasting, it's not an excuse to pollute, but, it is to say that nature is much more resilient than we give her credit for being.
JAG: Well, I'm going to see if I can get my parents to read your book because especially after spending several months under the same roof with them, they are religious recyclers. I mean, even to the extent that neighbors complain that my father goes out, he smashes the cans, and they're just very meticulously organized. I said, I'm not really sure that this is doing much, and what I'm hearing you say is it actually could be doing some harm to countries.
MS: Yes. Aluminum and glass recycle really well because they're heavy. But, plastics are light and they're made from a byproduct from oil and gas production already. So you're already down-cycling and we have these perfectly good solutions for plastic, which is incineration and landfills. The incinerators are now burning really hot and clean, and the landfills are fine. We capture the methane gas that comes off of the waste and, in fact, the waste problem, the plastic waste in the ocean problem, and it is to some extent a problem, is really a consequence of poor countries not having achieved high enough economic development to have their own waste repository system. So, it is one of these classic things where, if you care about the natural environment, then you would actually embrace prosperity and economic growth, not resist it.
JAG: So, I talked about the message that I'm going to be bringing as a daughter to my parents. I would love for you as a father to bring a message to your 15-year-old daughter: that she is welcome here at The Atlas Society. I especially feel for young women. I know it was true for me that being exposed to Ayn Rand, who did things that no other women did, and wrote books in which there were very strong female heroines and role models—and yes, a few villains—was something very unique and helped me give myself permission to not necessarily have to conform to social expectations or be in a subservient role, but to pursue my own habits. And we would be more than thrilled to send her a shipment, if and when she's ready.
MS: Thank you. Yes, it would be great.
JAG: So, well, thank you again, Michael. I hope we can still continue to think about your message. I know that our chairman's going to have some ideas. I can hear a Draw My Life taking shape in his head as we speak on how to bring your message to others. What are other ways that we can learn about your work? Is there a site or social media that we should be following you on?
MS: Yes, sure. I'd love to stay in touch and definitely when the new book comes out next year, I'd love to come back and talk with you all. I think for me it's a chance to offer a new vision of how we should think about the social contract and what obligations we owe to each other. And I hope it's appealing both to left and right, to folks in a society and people outside of it that understand that something's that we need: a new social contract. We need some way to know what our obligation is to each other as taxpayers and citizens. And so, that's what the book is going to try to confront. And yes, people should definitely stay in touch. I'm on Twitter at Shellenberger md, which are my initials. I'm not an md. And also on Facebook. And, yes, buy the book and send it to your relatives for Christmas, please. We need to get the book out there more.
JAG: That's great. And, we will be doing what we can to get it out there, including memeing it, and then linking all of those memes to this interview. And, you're definitely invited back for next year as well. We will make your upcoming book a subject of The Atlas Society Book Club. And so, taxpayers, citizens, and all of you out there, donors who are supporting our work, making it possible for us to bring not just the ideas of Ayn Rand and other philosophers and libertarians to the younger generation, but also new and contemporary thinkers and writers like Michael—thank you. Oh, and by the way, Jay would not want me to get off without saying all new $5 donations between now and the end of the year are going to be tripled, essentially, because they're going to be double-matched by our board. So, thank you all. Thanks for joining us. Thank you, Michael. Hope to maybe see you up in the Bay Area.
MS: I'd love that. Thanks, Jennifer. Take care.