“We need to resist the apocalyptic environmental religion” — Interview with Michael Shellenberger

The author of Apocalypse Never told us that renewable energies cannot sustain our energy-intensive civilisation, and that climate activists have created a new religion, because if you don’t have a religion, you will eventually make one for yourself. Interview.

Michael Shellenberger is the author of several best-selling books. He has written numerous articles on energy and the environment for the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. He is a strong opponent of “progressive woke ideologies” and is the founder and president of Enviromental Progress, an independent research organization in California.

The author was invited to Budapest to present the Hungarian translation of his book. Apocalypse Never was presented at the MCC Budapest Lectures.

Michael Shellenberger/Flickr/TED


If somebody reads the headlines in connection with climate change, there is a sense of urgency. ‘The earth is boiling up’ – these headlines state, ‘the leaders of the world need do something, and they need to do it now…’ Is the situation really that bad?

We are in a grip of a moral panic, a religious movement. Climate change is real, but it is not the end of the world. Apocalypse Never is a serious review of the scientific literature including the best available science in the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.)

Most people are surprised to learn that there is no apocalyptic scenario in the IPCC. There is no scenario of more people dying from natural disasters in the future, then die today. Natural disasters have declined 90% over the last hundred years. We produce so much food, 25% more food, then we need.

I believe that what we are seeing right now is more of a religious phenomenon, that come from a response to rising secularism. The idea is that, when people don’t have a religion they construct new ones.

This a way to make meaning it has a lot of different political agendas, particularly asserting the power of Europe at a time when Europe’s role in the world in uncertain. We are dealing with an existential crisis for different countries, that emerges really from the last 30 years in response to the end with the Cold War. The Cold War itself provided meaning for nations in that, there was an existential conflict between East and West, and when the Cold War ended and the threat of apocalyptic destruction ended from nuclear, I think humans constructed an alternative existential reality.

We should not change the temperature of the plane by very much. We have our civilization set up around a particular temperature. If you had to change the temperature you would rather get slightly warmer, then slightly cooler.

But most of the trends are going in the right direction. Carbon emissions have declined 25% in Europe over the last 30 years.

They declined 22% over the last fifteen years in the Unites States. We’d like to be able to keep temperatures to below 2 degrees. It looks as the we are on track to keep it below 2,5 degrees. So, I think there are a lot of things people have to worry about in the world, I don’t think climate change is one of them.

If it is as you say, and the science does not suggest that it is the end, then why does the mainstream media in the West, many of them respectable sites like the BBC still act like it is the apocalypse?

There is obviously an incentive for the news media to be alarmist, it sells newspapers, it attracts attention. Before we had apocalyptic scenarios around climate change, people were apocalyptic about what we call ‘overpopulation’ in the 1960’s all the way up to the early 80’s, there were concerns there being to many people in the world, now there are concerns of being a population decline, particularly in Europe, where people are not replacing themselves at the same rate as in the past.

There is a confluence of interests, obviously the scientists, who have an interest in exaggerating the phenomenon for attention and funding, the journalists who have an interest in exaggerating the phenomenon also for social status and for attention.

To give ourselves meaning in a world that feels increasingly meaningless, particularly for secular people. I don’t think it is a surprise that this apocalyptic religion shows up among the people who claim to have no religion, and that tends to be the secular political left, rather then the political right.

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They have all these dramatic ideas how we should change our societies. For example, in America there is the Green New Deal. What is your opinion of these plans?

We know this is a religious phenomenon because there is a desire to return to a supposed period of harmony. The idea is that in the past we lived in harmony with nature. This is an old idea, it’s a golden age idea among the Greeks, revived by Jean Jacques Rosseau. It is a fantasy of a world without conflict, and a world without social hierarchy, and social competition, or inequality.

We know that renewables cannot power a high-energy industrial civilization. It was not possible to have the industrial revolution without fossil fuels.

The only alternative to fossil fuels is nuclear power, and nuclear is viewed as apocalyptic as well by the radical left, which became the environmental movement in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Green New Deal has to be understood as a utopian fantasy, as a delusion of secular people. It is not a technical program in the sense that, we see that everywhere in the world renewables are deployed in scale there is negative environmental impacts. I just tweeted out images of hillsides covered with solar panels in China and the devastation were so surprising to people.

It is a shock for people to see, that a technology that dilutes sunlight into electricity requires so much land use. Those are just things that most environmentalists are unaware of, and they don’t seem to care particularly about, because they are overwhelmingly ideological in orientation.

The movement also suggest that not only should we change our countries dramatically, but that we should change our lifestyles too. For example, everybody should go vegan to save the planet.

Food is very important aesthetically. Food is an important part of this new religion. Early Christian religions, but also in pagan religion there was a kind of obsession with food, with purity. Vegetarian, vegan people are obsessed with that meat is the symbolic representation of death. You also see this attempt of immortality, an attempted transcendence of this world by not eating meat. Meat reminds us of our deaths, so veganism is an escape from the reminder of our infinitude. So, I think in that sense the turning towards veganism is also a spiritual pursuit, similar to the Green New Deal and renewables. If you look at the language, it’s language around sustainability, renewables, vegetarianism, it is a language that is looking to escape from this world into a different world.  Into a transcendent world, into a world where you escape the finitude of human existence. So ultimately it is an escapist religion. It is one that doesn’t want to deal with reality that so much our prosperity and our wealth, and our civilization rests in destruction. And this world requires destruction along with creation.

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The idea of the apocalypse is a religious idea, there are many end time prophecies in Christianity. Did the climate groups borrowed it from Christianity, this idea of the divine punishment, or are there different religious elements to it too?

They borrowed heavily from Christianity, but there are also traces of paganism. From Christianity apocalyptic environmentalism borrows the idea of an Original Sin. ‘The original sin’ is the use of fossil fuels, and the Industrial Revolution. There is also a supernatural belief, which is the belief that climate change is making natural disasters worse, that it is killing more people, we know that it is not true and yet you can’t convince people otherwise. There are also taboos, the main taboo is nuclear power, nuclear power is a taboo because with nuclear power you don’t have climate change. Nuclear power reduces, basically eliminates air and water pollution. Therefore, it is a threat to apocalyptic environmentalism because it means there is a simple technological fix, as opposed to having to do lifestyle changes which is the main objective of a moralizing religion. There is also a purifying ritual, that can be engaged including eating, it also includes traveling, traveling by train, walking or bicycling, they are viewed as things that illuminate guilt and expunge sin from the body. So, you see structurally it has many similarities. It also has sacrifice, which has been an important part of religions. Then you also have the hypocrisy, which has been a traditional aspect of religions. Which is really trying to impose sacrifice and suffering on others as a way to supposedly purify yourself.

What characterizes apocalyptic environmentalism is a hatred of modern civilization. Or at least a symbolic desire to return to an earlier period. Most apocalyptic environmentalists are upper middle class or aristocratic or wealthy so they themselves don’t want to sacrifice. They want to make other people sacrifice as a power move. And so for example, Harry and Megan in Apocalypse Never I write they traveled by private jet to climate change conferences. They were widely criticized for that in 2019. But they just did it again in September of this year and they must have known that they would be criticized for it. So it raises the question of, is it truly accidental? Are they behaving hypocritically or are they actually performing their hypocrisy as a way to demonstrate their superiority. So one way that you demonstrate your superiority is you establish rules for other people that you yourself do not follow because you are above those rules. And so that, in that sense, it is a reversion to a pagan religion, although we would see the hypocrisy in some forms of Christianity too. But the idea would be that there’s one set of rules for the commoners, for the people but another set of rules for elites.

So you do see this as to some extent a demand for a return to an aristocratic period, a feudal aristocratic period. And one where there was different rules for Noblemen and there were for commoners.

Talking about double standards in the book you write about the farmers in Brazil, how they are criticized by Europeans for cutting down the forest. It’s a very interesting case. And I think many people don’t know about what is really going on with the Amazonian forests.  

– It is such an interesting case. So the Amazon represents Eden. It represents a garden in a state of harmony. The idea is that the Amazon is primeval, that there’s never been destruction there. We now know that this is false in the historical record.

There was vast human civilizations in the Amazon, including a whole much more farming and then the Europeans brought diseases to Brazil in the 16th century that killed many of the indigenous populations. And so what we see as primeval rainforest is actually the regrowth of forest over farms that existed before Europeans came.

Meanwhile, elites both Brazilian and Americans such as Giselle Buncheon, the supermodel, when she flew over the Amazon and saw farms. She cried and I point out that she doesn’t cry when she flies over Tuscany or Provence or NAPA in California even though those were once forests as well. And that’s because she thinks that the farms in the Amazon are unnatural, whereas the farms in Provence and Tuscany are natural.

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And so natural is to impose the perception of a place as natural is itself an active power. It’s a way of dominating a place that is perceived to be out of control.

Why are Green parties so against nuclear power, when it is a clean solution? Is it because of fear especially in Europe since Chernobyl?

Nuclear is viewed by apocalyptic environmentalists as a demonic force. It is the greatest human power, and it is a radical event in human history the ability to split the atom. It emerged from ordinary science. So it emerged from laboratory level experiments. It did not emerge as many who believe from industrial processes. It emerged directly from very simple low-cost lab level experiments. And it was first used as a weapon. So it has all of the features of being a sin against nature and a sin against God, a sign of human hubris. The other problem of course is that if you have nuclear power then there’s no there’s no air or water pollution.

And that’s a problem because environmentalists want they need pollution in order to give their lives meaning and to have an alternative morality. So the problem with nuclear is that it means that you don’t have to have lifestyle change and there’s no justification for making other people sacrifice in order to conform society to your will.

And so ultimately, it was very difficult for me to reduce the anxiety around nuclear to either the anti-humanism or to fear nuclear weapons. They both seem like powerful causes in and of themselves.

And the paradox of course is that only nuclear can truly provide a sustainable society.

And so the extent of which I’m concerned about climate change and other negative human impacts. I believe nuclear energy is essential.

Have you ever been called a climate denier?

Yes, of course. And what’s important is that people will call you a climate denier or apocalyptic environmentalist call anybody a climate denier if they deny that climate change is an apocalyptic threat.

It used to be originally applied to people who denied that the planet was warming or that it was warming from human interaction. Now, it’s used as a way to attack anybody who criticizes or stands up to the apocalyptic mythology. And so, in some sense, the word itself reveals the religious nature of a mock-up to environmentalism. It’s an accusation of heresy of being a heretic or being somebody that refuses to accept the new religion.

If you could advise Western governments, what would advise them to do about climate change?

There is a benevolent process of moving up the energy ladder from wood and dung to coal and hydroelectric dams to oil and natural gas and then to uranium. And so, if you’re using coal, try to use natural gas if you can afford it. If you’re using natural gas and coal, try to use nuclear, if you have the capability of it.

The goal should be human development, prosperity, resilience because that improves people’s lives and makes us resilient to all sorts of challenges including climate change, but not limited to it.

But also we need to resist the new religion, the apocalyptic environmental religion because it is a threat to our mental health and a threat to human solidarity and to human flourishing.

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