Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

A Word of Caution to the Alarmists

Written by: on March 1, 2021

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.[1]  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.[2] 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.


[1] https://www.wsj.com/articles/apocalypse-never-review-false-gods-for-lost-souls-11592770585

[2] Shellenberger, Apocalypse Never, xiii.

About the Author

Jer Swigart

10 responses to “A Word of Caution to the Alarmists”

  1. Dylan Branson says:

    The path towards growth is slow and steady, like you said. We live in such an instantaneous culture where we want to see results and change immediately, but reality is much different. Taking the time to celebrate the small steps provides encouragement along that long and weary path. Perhaps embracing more realistic micro-goals along the way to the macro-goal would allow the momentum of movements to continue.

    Shifting the “me” to “we” is also important. When we begin to alienate others, that often begins the process of dehumanization to where we see them as “Other”. That was something I noticed during conversations with people during the HK protests in 2019.

    • Jer Swigart says:

      I really agree with the slow and steady. The problem this presents within a consumer and ADD milieu is that slow and steady seems to translate into “boring” and “not worth my time/energy.” In my work, I’m seeking to elevate the importance of germination and a slow evolution. I wonder if what folks aren’t truly looking for is a slow, steady journey in which we and our surroundings are gradually transformed.

  2. Shawn Cramer says:

    As you consider Shellenberger as a person on a journey steeped in an ideal, having a catalytic, disorienting aha! moment, and the following journey of re-orientation, how does this shed light on your work of guiding those on a journey? Is there anything from this case study of an individual here for you?

    • Jer Swigart says:

      That’s a really good question. One of the pieces of Shellenberger’s work that I paid attention to was his transformation from apologetic for environmental alarmism to apologetic for a more measured activism. One of the skills he deployed that I admired was his ability to critique the very stance/beliefs that he not only held but perpetuated with fervor. An indicator for transformation is the ability to allow your own narrative and core beliefs to be critiqued. And, there’s that moment when the pilgrim not only gives consideration to the critiques but is willing to do the work of interrogation of the claims that they have previously held. Shellenberger models this process well. What I’m not left with is a sense of if and how he was able to maintain relationship with those of the alarmist tribe. I’m left to wonder who among his previous echo chamber is listening to him now?

  3. Darcy Hansen says:

    In Bowling Alone, Putnam notes how social capital plays an important role in binding community and avoiding extremes. In a nation where social capital continues to diminish, how do you envision bridging the “me” to the “we”? What does that “hard work to shift from the “me” to the “we” involve? What needs to happen at the grassroots level to begin healing the divisiveness and extremeism that comes from siloed living? Getting people to even come to the table is very difficult; getting them to agree on things, even more difficult. What does the way forward look like, and might it first entail taking 10 steps back to build relationships and trust in different ways so as to first increase social capital?

    • Jer Swigart says:

      Speaking out of my own story, the shift from “me” to “we” is less a cerebral exercise and more an experiential one. I had to find myself in situations where, if alone, I wasn’t going to make it. I need to continue to unlearn independence and learn interdependence by choosing to find myself in spaces where I have something to offer not everything. I need to be in spaces with folks who understand interdependence far better than I do so that I can learn my way out of independence and move toward the “we.”

      As a white, male, leader, the inertia toward independence is among the strongest that I feel in my life and leadership.

  4. Greg Reich says:

    As I read your post I am reminded on how a steady stream of water wears away solid rock. The rock at first appears unaffected by the water but eventually it shows that the water is slowly changing the formation of the rock. Do you see a correlation between living in an instant everything have it your way society and the extremist you face in your social justice work? How do you personally prepare for the log haul knowing that change is often slow?

    • Jer Swigart says:

      In my experience, there is a role for alarmism. Our systems need shocks from time to time to be reminded of the urgency of a situation. Too many shocks in succession, though, seems to diminish their impact. We stop paying attention. In social change work, my sense is that we need the hard, slow, hidden work in relationship with the sudden, abrupt, shocking, and memorable.

      With regard to preparing for the long-haul, I’m observing that I believe more in that work the older that I get. In our youthful zeal, we tend to idealize the work of change and hear people encourage us to “change the world!” We engage in the work in fits and starts and appreciate the adrenaline rush of it. But once we begin to discover that human transformation and social change are grueling endeavors, we’re forced to ask ourselves if we’re up for this for the long haul. Those I respect most have said yes and I want to be like them. I want to walk and love and lead at their pace. For at their pace, I can see the how the water is altering the rocks.

  5. John McLarty says:

    I think our posts were similar this week, but I appreciated the way you parsed out the action steps. Keeping people in the conversation is both the hardest and the most productive means of finding workable and lasting solutions.

  6. Chris Pollock says:

    A ‘status quo’ activism?

    This sentence stands our for me:

    …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.

    Especially the titles ‘power brokers’ and ‘change agents’. These are the ones that together can make the difference?

    This movement entails the ‘setting aside’ of what has been done and the current approach of (alarmist) activism?

    I was just thinking about the kind of person, or unexpected-kind of person, to have at the table that could awaken ‘new’ possibilities to the conversation…a professional who can identify those at the table who should not be there. At least all the liars, fakers and cheats.

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