Enlightening the Apocalypse
Updated: Aug 14, 2020
Michael Shellenberger may have inverted the title of Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now for Apocalypse Never, but their aims are identical.
Like Pinker, Shellenberger says his mission is to achieve "universal prosperity for all people." Another Pinkerian touch is the steadfast emphasis on science, reason, and progress in the face of doom and gloom. In short, the goal is to support human flourishing by separating scientific fact from science fiction.
As The Wall Street Journal recounts, Shellenberger helped start a movement called "ecomodernism," an idea which anchors this book. Ecomodernism shares environmentalism's end goal of preserving ecosystems but aims to achieve that with technology, adaptation, and economic growth rather than through sustainability. In typical ecomodernist fashion, Shellenberger caveats his concern about climate change---he does not consider it the foremost problem. Moreover, he sees some environmental "solutions" as setbacks that are actually counterproductive.
With chapters on the Amazon, plastic straws, vegetarianism and whaling, Apocalypse Never covers plenty of ground.
Thankfully, there are interesting and accessible points throughout. For instance:
• "Electricity is, technically, an 'energy carrier,' not a fuel or primary energy."
• "Nuclear has what energy experts call a 'negative learning curve,' meaning we get worse at building it the more we do it."
• "Problems in Germany's Energiewende are manifesting in "all three Dimensions of the energy industry triangle---climate protection, security of supply, and economic efficiency," according to McKinsey.
More substantively, three ideas stand out: 1) Systems Analysis, 2) Power Density, and 3) Anti-Malthusianism.
1) While consulting for General Electric in the 1970s, a nuclear physicist named Cesare Marchetti used a model which calculated how quickly new products replaced older ones. While Marchetti did not ordinarily think much of economic modeling, he was so taken with this one that he took it with him to the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), which pioneered an interdisciplinary approach to systems analysis. In Shellenberger's words, "At IIASA, Marchetti tested the replacement, or substitution, model on primary sources of energy, which he treated like 'commodities competing for a market.'" Conventional wisdom held that major events, such as soaring prices, wars, or depressions determined the fate of energy sources---but Marchetti found that these had no effect on the rate of energy transition. With this new approach to systems analysis, the study of "energy transitions" was born.
2) Power density is essentially a measurement of energy per square foot (it's also an excellent book by Vaclav Smil). Power density also has explanatory value in terms of energy transitions because humans have historically abandoned fuels with lower “power density” (such as wood) for fuels with greater power density, such as coal and oil. This concept is also useful for illustrating how energy dense sources, such as nuclear and fossil fuels, are less land-intensive than wind and solar. While the benefits of energy density are real, Shellenberger is being selective with his Vaclav Smil citations. To wit, he discounts other constraints, such as limits to growth, which would otherwise undermine his pro-growth energy approach.
3) One cannot analyze the Enlightenment, or environmentalism for that matter, without encountering the ideas of Thomas Malthus. Put simply, Malthus argued that human progress was unsustainable because people would run out of food. He was the original pessimist who saw overpopulation and famine as an inevitability because humans reproduced "geometrically" while food production only increased incrementally. While this is common knowledge, Shellenberger provides some rich historical insights. For instance, Malthus' famous book, An Essay on the Principle of Population, was written in an attempt to refute Enlightenment optimism, which apparently annoyed Malthus considerably. Notably, Malthus was also unpopular with socialists. Marx and Engels referred to him as a "stain on the human race."
Apocalypse Now concludes with a religious comparison: "Environmentalism today is the dominant secular religion of the educated, upper-middle-class elite...It provides a new story about our collective and individual purpose." As an alternative, Shellenberger urges a kind of "environmental humanism." He argues that we need to "re-embrace humanism, which affirms humankind's specialness, against Malthusian and apocalyptic environmentalists who condemn human civilization and humanity itself."
In sum, Shellenberger isn't just questioning environmental claims---he's an outright skeptic. To some he may be an ecomodernist messiah, but to others he's a false prophet, or worse, a pariah. Of course, the only way to find out for yourself is to read him.
“ [It] will make you feel optimistic about the future of people and the planet.” — Robert Bryce, author of A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations [Read the EconPwr review]