The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent


Standing Athwart Apocalyptic Visions Is Useful but Not Enough

My review of Michael Shellenberger's Apocalypse Never


There is a consistent apocalyptic strain in modern environmentalism. This is a feature and a bug. On the one hand, sounding ecological alarms has, at times, seemed to spur policy responses. On the other hand, when exaggerated appeals are proven false, it can undermine environmentalists' credibility and discourage environmental concern.

Apocalyptic environmentalism is the primary target of Michael Shellenberger's Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All. This book, which I reviewed for the Winter issue of Regulation, is very effective at debunking alarmist scares and identifying actual environmental problems, and is appropriately bullish economic and technological development. This makes it worth a read. Unfortunately, it is unduly focused on the promise of nuclear power to deliver a low-carbon future, and spends too little time exploring what sorts of policies and institutional reforms are most conducive to technological innovation and ecological conservation.

Here is a taste of my review:

Growth and technology are often conceived as environmental problems. In a famous formulation, humanity's environmental effect is the product of population, affluence, and technology, with each variable magnifying the effect of the others. Shellenberger challenges this formulation, arguing that technological advance and the wealth to deploy it are essential to the preservation of nature and controlling pollution, while still making room for people. Economic growth and technological advance have the potential to increase humanity's ecological footprint, but they also can increase resilience to ecological threats and make it easier to meet human needs with less ecological effect. "For poor nations, creating the modern infrastructure for modern energy, sewage, and flood water management will be a higher priority than plastic waste, just as they were for the United States and China before them," Shellenberger writes. In much of the world, industrialization, urbanization and the proliferation of modern technology are more environmental boon than bane. Increased agricultural productivity and energy density leave more room for nature and help generate the wealth necessary for environmental improvements. Those of us in developed nations should "feel gratitude for the civilization we take for granted, put claims of climate apocalypse in perspective, and inspire empathy and solidarity for those who do not yet enjoy the fruits of prosperity." More plainly, "rich nations must support, not deny, development to poor nations." . . .

Apocalypse Never is clearly intended to provoke as much as persuade. Shellenberger is correct that economic development and technological advance are essential for successful environmental conservation, and he properly excoriates those environmental activists who obstruct such developments. Yet, the book provides minimal exploration of the sorts of policies and institutional arrangements necessary for such changes to take place.

Economic growth and innovation are necessary, but insufficient, for continued environmental progress. Neither is automatic. The broader legal and institutional framework in which technologies are developed and deployed often determines
whether they are used in ways that enhance or undermine ecological sustainability. The environmental horrors of former Soviet countries were not due to a lack of industrialization or urbanization. Nor are the ecological problems in developing nations solely a consequence of poverty. Legal institutions, and the incentives they create, channel human ingenuity. Fulfilling Shellenberger's vision of a "high-energy, prosperous world with flourishing wildlife" will ultimately require attention to such concerns. It cannot be just willed into existence. Shellenberger has stood athwart the visions of apocalypse, yelling stop. The next step is to chart the course for a new destination.