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Climate change is real but it’s not the end of the world. It is not even our most serious environmental problem.
Michael Shellenberger has been fighting for a greener planet for decades. He helped save the world’s last unprotected redwoods. He co-created the predecessor to today’s Green New Deal. And he led a successful effort by climate scientists and activists to keep nuclear plants operating, preventing a spike of emissions.
But in 2019, as some claimed “billions of people are going to die,” contributing to rising anxiety, including among adolescents, Shellenberger decided that, as a lifelong environmental activist, leading energy expert, and father of a teenage daughter, he needed to speak out to separate science from fiction.
Despite decades of news media attention, many remain ignorant of basic facts. Carbon emissions peaked and have been declining in most developed nations for over a decade. Deaths from extreme weather, even in poor nations, declined 80 percent over the last four decades. And the risk of Earth warming to very high temperatures is increasingly unlikely thanks to slowing population growth and abundant natural gas.
Curiously, the people who are the most alarmist about the problems also tend to oppose the obvious solutions.
What’s really behind the rise of apocalyptic environmentalism? There are powerful financial interests. There are desires for status and power. But most of all there is a desire among supposedly secular people for transcendence. This spiritual impulse can be natural and healthy. But in preaching fear without love, and guilt without redemption, the new religion is failing to satisfy our deepest psychological and existential needs.
Now, in a special issue of Breakthrough Journal, a group of scholars argues that rather than playing a moderating role, the expert class is contributing to America's political polarization. On questions of economic growth and inequality, global warming, obesity, and polarization itself, battling tribes of ideological experts frame new social and environmental problems in ways that undermine pragmatic political action. And rather than counter-balancing the expert ideologues, the news media have been caught up in the hyper-partisan spiral, making it easier than ever for politicians and voters alike to insulate themselves from information that challenges their assumptions.
The special issue draws on the theory of "wicked problems." Problems like inequality, climate change, and obesity are problems of affluence, not scarcity. Where the mortal problems of old — infectious disease, hunger, deprivation — unified the public, "wicked problems" divide us. Our wealth allows us to self-sort into ideologically conforming Congressional districts and fund intractable political battles. Against the view that corporate power has corrupted democracy and disempowered citizens, the authors argue that greater, not diminished democracy is behind today's political divide. The real problem is not that our democracy is broken but rather that much of the American electorate has lost confidence in national institutions, whether big business or big government.
What will it take for Americans to come together? The creative destruction of the old ideological fault lines on both the Right and the Left. Reformers must challenge the simplistic framing of issues as the consequence of either unchecked corporate power or unchecked government. This will require a renewal of the American tradition of democratic pluralism — and a pragmatic commitment to concrete common actions.
About the Breakthrough Institute: Breakthrough's mission is to accelerate the transition to a future where all the world's inhabitants can enjoy secure, free, and prosperous lives on an ecologically vibrant planet. The Breakthrough Institute is a paradigm-shifting think tank committed to modernizing liberal thought for the 21st century. Our core values are integrity, imagination and audacity.
In this provocative collection of essays edited by the authors of “The Death of Environmentalism,” leading ecological thinkers put forward a vision of postenvironmentalism for the Anthropocene, the age of humans. Over the next century it is within our reach to create a world where all 10 billion humans achieve a standard of living that will allow them to pursue their dreams.
But this world is only possible if we embrace human development, modernization, and technological innovation