|Alma mater||Earlham College (BA, 1993)|
|Subject||Energy, global warming, human development|
|Notable awards||Hero of the Environment, 2008, Green Book Award, 2008|
Michael Shellenberger (born 1971) is an American author. He has co-edited and written a number of books, including Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility (2007), An Ecomodernist Manifesto (2015), and Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All (2020).
A former public relations professional, Shellenberger's writing has focused on the intersection of climate change, nuclear energy, and politics. A self-described ecomodernist, he argues for an embrace of modernization, and technological development usually through a combination of nuclear power and urbanization. A controversial and polarizing figure, Shellenberger sharply disagrees with other environmentalists over the impacts of environmental threats and policies for addressing them. Shellenberger's positions have been called "bad science" and "inaccurate" by environmental scientists and academics.
Education and career
Shellenberger graduated from the Peace and Global Studies program at Earlham College in 1993. After graduating from Earlham, Shellenberger moved to San Francisco to work with Global Exchange. He then founded a number of public relations firms, including "Communication Works," "Lumina Strategies," and "American Environics" with future collaborator Ted Nordhaus. Shellenberger co-founded the Breakthrough Institute with Nordhaus in 2003. While at Breakthrough, Shellenberger wrote a number of articles with subjects ranging from positive treatment of nuclear energy and shale gas, to critiques of the planetary boundaries hypothesis.
In February 2016 Shellenberger left Breakthrough and founded Environmental Progress, which is behind several public campaigns to keep nuclear power plants in operation. Shellenberger has also been called by conservative lawmakers to testify before congress about climate change and in favor of nuclear energy.
Shellenberger was a Democratic candidate in the 2018 California gubernatorial election. In a field of 27 candidates, he finished ninth, with 31,692 votes (the winner was Gavin Newsom with 2,343,792 votes). In the 2021 California gubernatorial recall election, he backed recalling Newsom and endorsed former Mayor of San Diego Kevin Faulconer.
Writing and reception
"The Death of Environmentalism: Global Warming in a Post-Environmental World"
In 2004 Nordhaus and Shellenberger co-authored "The Death of Environmentalism: Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World." The paper argued that environmentalism is incapable of dealing with climate change and should "die" so that a new politics can be born.
Former Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope called the essay "unclear, unfair and divisive." He said it contained multiple factual errors and misinterpretations. However, former Sierra Club President Adam Werbach praised the authors' arguments.
Former Greenpeace Executive Director John Passacantando said in 2005, referring to both Shellenberger and his coauthor Ted Nordhaus, "These guys laid out some fascinating data, but they put it in this over-the-top language and did it in this in-your-face way."
Michel Gelobter and other environmental experts and academics wrote The Soul of Environmentalism: Rediscovering transformational politics in the 21st century in response, criticizing "Death" for demanding increased technological innovation rather than addressing the systemic concerns of people of color.
Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility
In 2007 Shellenberger and Nordhaus published Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility. The book is an argument for what its authors describe as a positive, "post-environmental" politics that abandons the environmentalist focus on nature protection for a new focus on technological innovation to create a new economy. They were named Time magazine Heroes of the Environment (2008) after writing the book, and received the 2008 Green Book Award from the science journalist John Horgan.
The Wall Street Journal wrote that, "If heeded, Nordhaus and Shellenberger's call for an optimistic outlook -- embracing economic dynamism and creative potential -- will surely do more for the environment than any U.N. report or Nobel Prize."
However, academics Julie Sze and Michael Ziser argued that Break Through continued the trend Gelobter pointed out related the authors' commitment to technological innovation and capital accumulation instead of focusing on systemic inequalities that create environmental injustices. Specifically Sze and Ziser argue that Nordhaus and Shellenberger's "evident relish in their notoriety as the 'sexy' cosmopolitan 'bad boys' of environmentalism (their own words) introduces some doubt about their sincerity and reliability." The authors asserted that Shellenberger's work fails "to incorporate the aims of environmental justice while actively trading on suspect political tropes," such as blaming China and other Nations as large-scale polluters so that the United States may begin and continue Nationalistic technology-based research-and-development environmentalism, while continuing to emit more greenhouse gases than most other nations. In turn, Shellenberger and Nordhaus seek to move away from proven Environmental Justice tactics, "calling for a moratorium" on "community organizing." Such technology-based "approaches like those of Nordhaus and Shellenberger miss entirely" the "structural environmental injustice" that natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina make visible. Ultimately, "Shellenberger believes that community-based environmental justice poses a threat to the smooth operation of a highly capitalized, global-scale Environmentalism."
An Ecomodernist Manifesto
In April 2015, Shellenberger joined a group of scholars in issuing An Ecomodernist Manifesto. It proposed dropping the goal of “sustainable development” and replacing it with a strategy to shrink humanity’s footprint by using natural resources more intensively through technological innovation. The authors argue that economic development is necessary to preserve the environment.
An Ecomodernist Manifesto was met with critiques similar to Gelobter's evaluation of "Death" and Sze and Ziser's analysis of Break Through. Environmental historian Jeremy Caradonna and environmental economist Richard B. Norgaard led a group of environmental scholars in a critique, arguing that Ecomodernism "violates everything we know about ecosystems, energy, population, and natural resources," and "Far from being an ecological statement of principles, the Manifesto merely rehashes the naïve belief that technology will save us and that human ingenuity can never fail." Further, "The Manifesto suffers from factual errors and misleading statements."
Environmental and Art historian T.J. Demos agreed with Caradonna, and wrote in 2017 that the Manifesto "is really nothing more than a bad utopian fantasy," that functions to support oil and gas industry and as "an apology for nuclear energy." Demos continued that "What is additionally striking about the Ecomodernist document, beyond its factual weaknesses and ecological falsehoods, is that there is no mention of social justice or democratic politics," and "no acknowledgement of the fact that big technologies like nuclear reinforce centralized power, the military-industrial complex, and the inequalities of corporate globalization."
Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All
In June 2020, Shellenberger published Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All, in which the author argues that climate change is not the existential threat it is portrayed to be in popular media and activism. Rather, he posits that technological innovation and capital accumulation, if allowed to continue and grow, will remedy environmental issues. According to Shellenberger, the book "explores how and why so many of us came to see important but manageable environmental problems as the end of the world, and why the people who are the most apocalyptic about environmental problems tend to oppose the best and most obvious solutions to solving them."
Before publication the book received favourable reviews from the climate scientists Tom Wigley and Kerry Emanuel, and from environmentalists such as Steve McCormick and Erle Ellis, but reviews after publication were mixed. For example, Emanuel said that while he did not regret his original positive review, he wished that "the book did not carry with it its own excesses and harmful baggage.” In The Wall Street Journal, John Tierney wrote that "Shellenberger makes a persuasive case, lucidly blending research data and policy analysis with a history of the green movement", and favorable reviews were also published in the Financial Times and Die Welt.
However, in reviewing Apocalypse Never for Yale Climate Connections, Environmental Scientist Peter Gleick argued that "bad science and bad arguments abound" in Apocalypse Never, writing that "What is new in here isn't right, and what is right isn't new." Shellenberger responded on his Environmental Progress foundation's website. In a review for the Los Angeles Review of Books environmental economist Sam Bliss said that while "the book itself is well written," Shellenberger "plays fast and loose with the facts" and "Troublingly, he seems more concerned with showing climate-denying conservatives clever new ways to own the libs than with convincing environmentalists of anything." Similarly, environmental and technological social scientists Taylor Dotson and Michael Bouchey have argued that as an "Environmental activist" and "ecomodernist," Shellenberger's writing in his books and on his foundation's website, "bombards readers with facts that are disconnected, out of context, poorly explained, and of questionable relevance," and ultimately, his "fanatic, scientistic discourse stands in the way of nuclear energy policy that is both intelligent and democratic."
A 2020 Forbes article by Shellenberger, in which he promoted Apocalypse Never, was analyzed by seven academic reviewers and one editor from the Climate Feedback fact-checking project. The reviewers conclude that Shellenberger "mixes accurate and inaccurate claims in support of a misleading and overly simplistic argumentation about climate change." Zeke Hausfather, Director of Climate and Energy for The Breakthrough Institute, wrote Shellenberger "includes a mix of accurate, misleading, and patently false statements. While it is useful to push back against claims that climate change will lead to the end of the world or human extinction, to do so by inaccurately downplaying real climate risks is deeply problematic and counterproductive."
San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities
In 2021 Shellenberger published San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities, a criticism of progressive social policies.
Manhattan Institute fellow Charles Fain Lehman summarized Shellenberger's topic: "Many major municipalities are marred by violent crime, homelessness, uncontrolled mental illness, and general disorder. This all in spite of an ever-advancing cadre of progressive leaders, who promise their latest tax hike will finally target the 'root causes' of the breakdown." San Francisco journalist Benjamin Schneider described the book's thesis as "[P]rogressives have embraced 'victimology,' a belief system wherein society’s downtrodden are subject to no rules or consequences for their actions. This ideology, cultivated in cities like San Francisco for decades and widely adopted over the past two years, is the key to understanding, and thus solving, our crises of homelessness, drug overdoses and crime."
Wes Enzinna, writing in The New York Times, charged that Shellenberger "does exactly what he accuses his left-wing enemies of doing: ignoring facts, best practices and complicated and heterodox approaches in favor of dogma.” Tim Stanley, writing in The Daily Telegraph, described it as "this revelatory, must-read book", but added "There is much in the argument for liberal readers to contest."
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A good Anthropocene demands that humans use their growing social, economic, and technological powers to make life better for people, stabilize the climate, and protect the natural world.
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On Tuesday, a group of scholars involved in the environmental debate, including Professor Roy and Professor Brook, Ruth DeFries of Columbia University, and Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute in Oakland, Calif., issued what they are calling the "Eco-modernist Manifesto."
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- Breakthrough Institute web site for Breakthrough Institute
- on YouTube
- "Colbert Report: Michael Shellenberger" video interview with Michael Shellenberger
- Interview at Grist.org
- "Two Heretics Anger Their Brethren," Wired magazine
- Appearances on C-SPAN
- Interview at the Heartland Institute
- Interview with Alex Epstein
- Appearances on PragerU