An environmentalist apologises…

Various half-written blog posts litter the Small Farm Future office, but let’s go with the news cycle and address the kerfuffle surrounding an old acquaintance of this site, Michael Shellenberger, who’s just published a new book, Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All. If nothing else, it’ll help prepare the way for my next couple of posts.

More than the book, the kerfuffle has surrounded an article heralding it that Mike published in Forbes in which he reportedly said “I feel an obligation to apologize for how badly we environmentalists have misled the public” and “I would like to formally apologize for the climate scare we created over the last 30 years.” I say ‘reportedly’ because Forbes pulled the article on the grounds that it violated their editorial guidelines around self-promotion, so I only have reports from such bastions of unmotivated journalism as this one to go on, though I daresay the article’s out there somewhere for those who care to look. Ah, here it is. No, wait. Oh, here.

Probably the most important keywords for unlocking Mike’s approach to be culled from my opening paragraphs are ‘kerfuffle’, ‘environmentalist’ and ‘self-promotion’ for reasons I’ll come to, and that are captured in this fine post from some time ago by David Roberts that I found only recently. In that article, Roberts explains why it’s so easy to end up feeling sullied when you try to push back against the use and abuse of evidence by Shellenberger and other luminaries of his ‘ecomodernist’ project. A few things clicked into place for me when I read Roberts’ article. And yet here I am, riding the douchecanoe again…

Luckily, Sam Bliss has donned his overalls and boldly set himself to the push back task in this excellent thread on Twitter, which points up some of the numerous rhetorical sleights of environmental complacency in the ecomodernist armoury fully displayed in Mike’s piece – the untruths, half-truths, and over-confident predictions, the truths that are misleading because of their lack of context and the banalities that have no meaning at all like “wood fuel is far worse for people and wildlife than fossil fuels”. Sam’s takedown is based on Mike’s promo piece – he comments “if Shellenberger’s bullets were meant to spark our interest in the book, it worked on me. I am curious to see how he defends such indefensible statements!”

Well, likewise, I guess. Just as soon as I can get hold of a used copy. Meanwhile, even some of Mike’s erstwhile associates seem to be dissociating themselves from him as a result of those indefensible statements. Mike says that his ‘facts’ might sound like climate denialism, “But that just shows the power of climate alarmism”. A parallel that springs to mind is how a lot of the things Donald Trump says sound like racism, while others argue that just shows the power of liberal political correctness. To me they sound racist because, well, they are quite racist – though usually sufficiently ambiguous to be arguable.

Arguable. Now there’s a word. With Shellenberger as with Trump, you get the sense that there’s a deliberate strategy to get people arguing. Not debating big issues. Just arguing. Both men love to pick fights with whoever they can. Hell, Mike even picked a fight with me. In both cases, I think it’s partly because they like getting attention. In fact, as David Roberts pointed out in the post I linked above, in this world of media attention peddling, Shellenberger and his Breakthrough Institute co-founder Ted Nordhaus made their renegade environmentalist shtick a winning publicity strategy:

nothing, but nothing, draws media interest like liberals bashing liberals. They enjoy conservatives punching hippies. They dig centrists punching hippies. But they looove ex-hippies punching hippies. A pair of greenies bravely exposing the corruption and dumbassery of all the other greenies? Crack rock.

One of the problems with this strategy, you’d think, is that it’s time limited. You can only punch hippies for so long before people realise that you’re not actually a hippy, even if you once were. Unfortunately, ‘environmentalist’ is a much more protean label than ‘hippy’. We all care about the environment, right? We all like walking in the woods. Nobody wants polar bears to die out. And so on.

So the argument becomes one about the means of achieving these widely shared goals of a liveable climate, wild biodiversity and so on. Perhaps it’s then worth looking at how one’s messaging is received and interpreted. Here are a few below-the-line comments from the Breitbart report on Mike’s apology:

“Confirmation that climate change is a massive fraud-and-fail scheme. Shows just how far the leftists will go to gain control and power”

“I want my 11 years of carbon tax back.. I want earnings seized from Al Gore, David Suzuki, Greenpeace, WWF, Climate Action.. All the thieving Greenie bastards, who have driven the up cost of Everything for the past decades.. Jail the crooks.”

“Great scam for Globalist [sic] while it lasted”

“I hope millions go to Greta’s twitter page with links to the article. Make that snot-nosed twit squirm…”

“Man sets house on fire and finally admits his guilt. Too late mate the buildings just a big pile of rubble now”


So, on the basis of the narratives that Mike is feeding, it seems to me a stretch for him to claim he’s an environmentalist (if he ever was), or that he’s not (to use his own vocabulary) a climate change denier. And yet his fellow travellers still won’t accept him.

With Donald Trump, you get the feeling that, as well as feeding the ego, all the sound and fury of his words is designed to create smokescreens that enable other things to get done behind the scenes. You wonder whether it’s the same with Mike Shellenberger, but it’s harder to figure out what those things might be. There are those who argue that he’s a nuclear industry shill, something on which I couldn’t possibly comment – though if he is, it seems a bit strange for him to be downplaying climate change so egregiously. My hunch is that the main hidden interest that Mike Shellenberger is promoting is…Mike Shellenberger. Every age throws up unscrupulous hucksters who cash in on other people’s fears and gullibility. The interesting questions revolve not so much around the motivations of the huckster as the social conditions and cultural tensions that make their huckstering possible. This is something I hope to address in my next post.

Thinkers of integrity do change their minds – the sign of the huckster is when they signal their change of mind with portentous apologies, self-publicising recantations and public curation of their good-guy credentials (“At 23 I raised money for Guatemalan women’s cooperatives”). Sadly, there’s all too much of this among renegade environmentalists, and there’s all too much of it in Mike’s oeuvre. Maybe an upside of his latest turn is that it seems like a defensive response to surging public concern about climate change that ill suits the technocratic, light-touch-on-the-tiller position where he’s planted his flag. He says he felt compelled to speak out when, last year, “things spiraled out of control” – in other words, when public concern about climate change finally started rising to meet the levels of threat it poses. Thank goodness for that spiral. But with Apocalypse Never riding high in the bestseller lists, I fear it may still be one that proves too long and winding.

So I want to close by addressing Mike’s apology on behalf of environmentalists. Normal social conventions are such that you really can’t apologise on behalf of other people without their consent, especially when you have no allegiance to them. Mike apologising on behalf of all environmentalists for climate alarmism is a bit like me apologising on behalf of all Minneapolis police officers for brutality. It might be welcome in some quarters, but I just can’t do it without the consent of my fellow officers – especially when I am not, in fact, a Minneapolis police officer.

But while normal social conventions forbid apologising on behalf of unknown others without their consent, they don’t forbid apologising to unknown others. So I’d like to offer this apology on behalf of all of myself to present and future generations:

When I came to appreciate the course the civilization I was a part of was taking and the consequences it would have for future generations in relation to climate change and other critical problems, I tried to do a few things to help change its course. I apologise that I wasn’t clever enough, courageous enough, wily enough, media savvy enough, wise enough, dedicated enough or hardworking enough to have done more and to have made enough of a difference. I apologise for my part in a civilization that made Apocalypse Never a bestseller. I hope that you will have both the capacity inherited from my generation and a fortitude of your own to learn from my failings, and to build a better civilization over the ashes of mine.

11 thoughts on “An environmentalist apologises…

  1. But with Apocalypse Never riding high in the bestseller lists

    Maybe, for Schellenberger, it’s all about the Benjamins.

    Chris, if you run short of cash, you could write a book apologizing for your errant interest in farming. You could claim that you had a sudden epiphany: that since agriculture is only 6% of world GDP, farming is totally unimportant and we could stop farming altogether, let all farmland go back to nature, and only take a small hit to the economy. Who needs farms when we can order everthing we need from Instacart? Sure-fire best seller.

    As for Nordhaus, since he thinks even extreme climate change will only make a minor dent in GDP, I wonder why he thinks we need a ‘breakthrough’ bad enough to create an institute?

  2. Thanks Chris for giving me a clue about this little tempest.

    Let me start this by saying that I know nothing about any of the characters involved except by stereotype with their ilk.

    But never mind that. I would happily make the same apology as yours.

    I would also happily apologize for all the capitalist & neoliberal policy makers & implementers for creating and enforcing a system where destruction of the living world is considered normal business. And for making it very difficult to pry ourselves away from such day-to-day destruction if we would like to live a reasonably comfortable life.

    But I am not famous enough for anyone (except my wife) to care about what I apologize for or don’t.

    And as you say, I think this gets at the root of much of the behaviour of your Mike Shellenberger, or at least his stereotypical ilk. You gotta be famous.

    It has seemed to me for quite some time that while Climate Change is a very complex topic to study, our responses to the situation are really simple logically.

    We can admit or deny that our activities are warming the planet. We can argue about how much, but in collecting data to know whether or not, we will get a clue to the magnitude.
    The experts have collected a preponderance of data. They have even identified what kinds of activities contribute to warming.

    The only other decision is whether we care enough to alter our behaviour enough to try to make a difference.

    I commend your efforts. You are doing more to limit climate change than I am. I am doing a tiny bit – not nearly enough.

    I have a friend who has the smallest carbon footprint possible while still living in a house within the city limits of Lawrence, Kansas.
    I believe it is quite accurate to use dollars as a measure of environmental impact. My friend uses money for just about nothing other than property taxes, cooking oil, baking soda, salt, and an occasional new pair of boots. I hope I have convinced him to stop paying for bicycle repairs, because I will do them for free. He grows food for a living, using only hand tools. He lives alone. None of us want to live like he does. However, I am deeply grateful for his example.

    From this I learn that fossil energy reduction is not enough. It might not even be the real problem. What we need to do is remake our values such that living down low on the economy and the food chain is the desirable thing to do. All the cool kids having fun are dirt poor. Money doesn’t need to be evil, just unnecessary, and too much of a bother, and it doesn’t get you what you really want anyway.
    I believe this is the way to start. In community. (Which is even harder with a quarantine)

    But the Mike Shellenbergers of the world are clearly still clinging to the moneyed values that caused this destruction of the living world in the first place. If those famous eco-pundits really believed the things they say, their hearts and consciences would cause them to live differently. They would spend less time being famous and more time giving a good example, and offering useful ideas. Maybe move to the country and grow vegetables, for instance. Write up their ideas on a web page so people could follow along.

    Thanks again.

    • Thanks Eric – I think this –
      “From this I learn that fossil energy reduction is not enough. It might not even be the real problem. What we need to do is remake our values such that living down low on the economy and the food chain is the desirable thing to do.”
      – sums up the conclusion I’ve come to regarding all this. I had a discussion with my father in law a while ago – he’s involved with the Green Party and was off speaking to the great and the good at various institutions about divesting their pension schemes from investments in fossil fuels. I couldn’t get him to see that that the very idea of a pension scheme, of investing for a return on capital and the economic growth implicit in that, meant that where those schemes invest at best affects the rate at which humanity destroys the natural world but does nothing to ensure we won’t.

      Damn I’m reading Small Farm Future again when I should be doing other things 😉

  3. Misinformation and doubts are easily sown and laboriously eradicated. The honest can be disadvantaged by their propensity to play fairly against the cheaters. Cherry pickers can claim that “the data says otherwise.” Sensible ideas like “A Small Farm Future” can be decried as “destroying the planet.”

    Chris, I expect that your upcoming book will handily counter this recent article, “Local Farming Can’t Save the Planet,” which criticizes what it says are “…anxieties about our mass-industrial approach to food creation, and longings for smaller, family-run, more sustainable, and humane production closer to our communities. Instead of hauling foodstuffs around the globe, we’re told, we need to appreciate local and seasonal crops again… The data, however, says otherwise… there is an inconvenient truth that proponents of local and self-sufficient farming tend to ignore: We can’t feed 10 billion people this way without destroying the planet.”

    Local Farming Can’t Save the Planet
    written by Hidde Boersma and Maarten Boudry
    Published on July 3, 2020

  4. Seems to be the season for mea culpas all around. We could use a bit more acknowledgement of each individual’s shortcomings in general, as long as it doesn’t devolve into theatrics, virtue signaling, disingenuous kneeling and kente cloth, etc…

    My disclosure, after seconding Chris’ sentiment, is to admit my career before retirement was in the employ of a company that built the facilities for the fossil and nuclear energy industries. I’ll never plant enough trees.

    Regarding the kerfluffel over climate change hippie bashing, my contention has been that the environmental community actually might have made a strategic mistake ( or were sucked in, not sure) of trying to evoke societal change by pointing out the impending climate disaster. The real impending dilemma is that of the end of the fossil fuels era. Climate change is just one of many side effects of our brief binge. Maybe a different tack for reacting to the techno optimists is to force them to defend BAU without fossil fuels.

    Alice Friedemann over at Peak Energy & Resources does a great job of pointing out the many glaring holes in the techno optimist rationale.

    I briefly covered this idea that focusing on climate change might the wrong approach a while ago.

  5. Yep, maybe a recanting sequel to SFF would be the way to go. It would certainly be interesting to compare sales. Though I think my USP is being a somewhat out there advocate for small farm localism. “Man nobody’s heard of says modern society is OK” would probably go down like a GOP rally in Tulsa. The other problem is I couldn’t live with myself.

    Indeed the BTI’s existence is something of a puzzle, until you realise it’s mostly about Messrs N & S breaking through into the media.

    “Implausible denial”. Yes, I’ll accept your raise.

    Agreed with Eric, Bruce and Steve C on culture change (apologies Eric I didn’t respond to your point under my last post … in some sense a similar issue … does humanity have the cultural flexibility to reimagine its place in the trophic hierarchy? I think possibly yes, but only possibly – more on that another time I hope).

    Bruce, reading SFF is EXACTLY what you should be doing…

    Steve L – thanks for the Local Farming Can’t Save the Planet link. It’s a better article than many in the genre, but still unseaworthy. My book does address many of the points it raises, but I think I’ll try to write something soon that specifically engages with the article, because it sweeps up several points of interest. Simon’s right that it’s worth looking at the comments under the line – many of which are refreshingly nuanced in the right ways. As to the title, I’m hoping Clem will reappear here soon and apply some critical scrutiny…

    Interesting line of argument from Steve C in relation to de-emphasizing climate change. But my feeling is that a switch in focus to fossil energy dependence invites the counter that a renewable energy transition is underway. A key problem as I see it is partly that such a transition actually isn’t underway, but also that even if it starts right now it’s unlikely to be fast enough to buy us out of climate breakdown … except with cultural change.

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