In blending together research data, policy analysis, and learnings from a rich history of environmental justice movements, Michael Shellenberger makes a compelling and surprising argument for why the environmentalists are hurting more than helping. Put simply, he argues in Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All that the important work of environmentalism is being undermined by the priests & priestesses of the green movement. This is occurring as they overuse the tools of fear and anxiety in their attempts to grow global awareness and urgency.
The screaming environmentalists, according to Shellenberger, are the very reason that environmental issues are not being addressed. These apocalyptic activists are so rigid in their rhetoric, critiques, and commitments to untested solutions that they “tend to oppose the best and most obvious solutions” to the real problems. According to Shellenberger, the extreme reactions that their fear-mongering is producing are leading to very little change.
The alternative to alarmist environmental apologetics that Shellenberger suggests is three-fold: work together, encourage growth, and think laterally.
Activists can so quickly become the alarmists who wield arguments laden with violence in order to both dominate and transform the masses. In today’s world, this pattern seems to transcend issues. Whether within environmentalism, racial injustice, political polarization, or even American Christian reformation, there exist the well-intentioned dominant-culture apologists who seem to be losing ground.
The journey for this person often begins with loyalty. They are loyalists to the system. Gradually, they discover limitations and how these deficiencies are causing harm to the planet and/or to people. Still loyal they ask questions and offer critiques that are, at first, well-received. However, over time their questions become a source of too much anxiety for the power brokers. In the eyes of the decision-makers, the change agent shifts from provocateur to be tolerated to the problem to be solved. In response to this shift, the change-maker alters her approach from subversive to bombastic.
Already moved with urgency for change, the change agent discovers another fuel for the journey: cynicism. Unfortunately, this second source of fuel, while it burns hot, is rarely productive. It often causes the change agent to not only fight for the cause, but also against those who disagree. As a result, winning replaces invitation as a primary approach to change. The change agent becomes an alarmist.
So what may be a better approach to change than alarmism? Let’s nuance Shellenberger’s three recommendations.
- Work together. Alarmists are remarkable in their capacity to alienate those who don’t agree with every nuanced argument, strategy, and outcome. This shame-based approach reinforces individualism and a misunderstanding that change will happen because “I” willed into being. Instead, “we” must, together, acknowledge that the change we seek will only come about as “we” bring all of our best energy, resources, and even nuanced perspectives to the table. From the environmental problems brought to the surface in Apocalypse Never to those that plague Christian institutions, each one of them requires “us” (even those with whom we disagree) to work together in trusting relationships.
- Encourage growth. While incremental change is not the scaled impact we dream about, it is growth…and it is worth celebrating. Once we’ve done the hard work to shift from the “me” to the “we,” we have to grow the habit of measuring growth (in and around us), celebrating it, and utilizing it as the fuel for more. When we can learn to identify and celebrate growth, we become inspired to pursue it at a realistic pace.
- Think laterally. This is the practice of deliberately ignoring obvious, rational, logical solutions and choosing, instead, to pursue more oblique or unexpected ideas. In order to do this, we need to set aside “what’s been done before,” acknowledge our tendency toward premature conclusions, and move beyond homogenous thinking spaces. Inviting conversation partners into the innovation process that have no obvious connection to the problem nor its solution can awaken new possibilities. So too does the practice requiring alternatives to proposed solutions.
Imagining solutions to the world’s pressing problems demands that we as leaders set different tables and invite diverse friends and conversation partners into the fray.
 Shellenberger, Apocalypse Never, xiii.