Cowboy philosopher Will Rogers once said, regarding ignorance, “It’s not what we don’t know that gets us into trouble; it’s what we ‘know’ that just ain’t so.” Michael Shellenberger’s just-published book, Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All (HarperCollins, 2020) challenges a lot of what we “know”—or rather, what we have been told over and over again by the media—about the climate, global warming and related topics.
Shellenberger has spent his entire life in environmental activism. He was named a Time magazine “Hero of the Environment” and won a major award in 2008 for environmental science writing. He was invited to be an expert reviewer for the Net Assessment Report for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. When he challenges widely reported, and repeated, myths about climate change and the environment, he writes with authority.
Shellenberger doesn’t deny that climate change is happening, nor that some of it is driven by human actions. Indeed, he cites scientific studies, including by the IPCC, for all of his claims. What he denies are the apocalyptic scenarios and conclusions drawn by activists and abetted by the media, which he sees as driven by a quasi-religious fervor not based on science.
Each chapter is titled after the particular myth Shellenberger is refuting. Chapters 1 and 2, for example, are titled “It’s Not the End of the World,” and “Earth’s Lungs Aren’t Burning.”
Meat-eating and climate
Chapter 7, titled “Have Your Steak and Eat It, Too,” refutes myths about modern agribusiness and meat consumption. Shellenberger himself was a vegetarian for many years. He notes that a widely cited IPPC study claimed that “if everyone followed a vegan diet, land-based emissions could be cut by 70%” by 2050. However, that statement never referred to all “land-based” emissions, as many thought, but only to agricultural emissions, “which comprise a fraction of total greenhouse emissions.” A separate IPPC study found that even in an extreme scenario of total global veganism—if all humans on the globe completely stopped eating animal products and reforested all land used for livestock—total carbon emissions would decline only 10%. Another study found that, if every American went vegan, total U.S. emissions would decline only 2.6%.
Shellenberger admits that raising meat “represents humankind’s single largest impact on natural landscapes.” But the total amount of land used to produce meat peaked globally in 2000 and has since declined by 540 million square miles (an area the size of Alaska)—without a radical switch to veganism. In the U.S. land used for meat production peaked in the 1960s.
Some of this decline is due to a shift toward eating more chicken and less beef globally. But most of it, says Shellenberger, came from increased efficiencies in meat production. Since the 1960s, U.S. meat production has doubled—yet greenhouse gas emissions from livestock declined by 11%. This is due to what its critics call “industrial agriculture.” Grass-fed cattle grow more slowly and live longer, so they produce more methane-emitting manure; feedlot raised cattle are slaughtered earlier.
So Shellenberger calls for more, not less, “industrial agriculture” —not only as the best means of feeding a hungry planet, but as the best way to reduce the environmental impacts of agriculture. “The World Bank and other agencies should support farmers seeking to intensify agricultural production,” he writes. This may jar against what has become the established narrative in some media quarters. But Shellenberger, as always, backs up his arguments with facts.
Let developing nations develop
Early in his career, Shellenberger learned Portuguese and moved to Brazil to work with poor farmers. He observed first-hand the often patronizing, harmful and self-serving efforts to help such people by European-dominated non-governmental organizations. What some have called “NGO colonialism” often serves to protect agricultural interests in their home countries under the guise of environmentalism.
In Uganda, for example, a local “charcoal mafia” sends crews into protected forests and gorilla habitats to burn trees for charcoal. That is because for most of the local people charcoal is their only fuel for cooking and heating. The answer, says Shellenberger, is to fund those countries’ efforts to build power stations and electricity infrastructure and remove their people’s dependence on charcoal—even if it means these power plants might be coal-fueled at first.
Yet many NGO’s have adopted a doctrine called “leapfrogging” that opposes letting poor countries follow the same development path that Western countries have already taken. Instead of building coal-fired plants and factories to move people into cities and away from the country, these NGOs make the dubious claim that poor countries can somehow “leapfrog” straight to cleaner renewable energy source. But “there is no rich low-energy nation just as there is no poor high-energy one,” he writes. Allowing poor nations to become richer through development and infrastructure is the right way to help them save their environments.
Shellenberger argues that “reducing carbon emissions in energy, not food or use of and more broadly, matters most.” That’s why he’s a strong advocate of nuclear energy. He believes there is no absolutely “good” or “bad” energy source. Denser energy sources—those that produce more energy per unit—are better for the environment than less dense ones.
Poor people forced to use wood and charcoal for fuel devastate whole landscapes. Thus, coal is “good” when it replaces less dense wood and charcoal. Petroleum was “good” when it replaced coal and whale oil, thus saving the whales, and natural gas is “good” when it replaces coal and oil. Nuclear is the cleanest energy source of all. Shellenberger shows how a concerted campaign funded by oil companies succeeded in virtually killing nuclear power development in the U.S.
One of Shellenberger’s most important arguments is that in every case where a cleaner or less destructive energy source displaced a dirtier one, market forces propelled the energy transition before any protest movement developed. Thus, whaling reached its peak around the turn of the 20th century and began declining thereafter because of petroleum-based substitutes for whale products—not only kerosene and crude oil that replaced whale oil but also petroleum-based plastics, which replaced the many products once made from baleen and whalebone.
There’s much more to this book. Shellenberger’s writing style is straightforward and easy to read. If you are looking for a smart, well researched and factually based book that refutes widely repeated myths about the climate with science and panache, I heartily recommend Apocalypse Never.
David Murray can be reached at email@example.com.