Discovering and uncovering the driving questions of leaders and thinkers fascinate me. Behind most divisive topics usually lies a driving question best attributed to the fields of philosophy, ethics, and religion. Here I will make a brief argument broadly for the arena of underlying questions, then specifically through the issue of environmentalism with the artifact of Michael Shellenberger’s Apocalypse Never, and finally, provide a call for reimagining liberal arts educational practices to include robust training in worldview, ethics, and civil discourse.
Few people understand the foundational level at which they argue. If these core differing arguments were made more explicit (more clarity that is, not more expletives), then I believe it would provide easier ground for conversation. Trump’s Mexico wall, for example, wasn’t about a wall. At the heart of this conversation lies issues of inclusion, exclusion, fear, openness, xenophobia, justice, and mercy… all ethical and philosophical issues. Staying in the room with differences and understanding the underlying issues will be necessary to move forward in a more generous era.
Michael Shellenberger provides a poignant example of unearthing deeper questions and concerns in his book Apocalypse Never. Spending decades serving and supporting far (even extreme) left organizations, he came to a personal conviction that while caring for the environment is important, the alarmism around the subject is a hoax at best and extremely unethical at worst. Spurred on by his 14-year-old daughter’s friend’s increasing anxiety around the subject (p. 22), Shellenberger risked his entire career by reporting against his previous beliefs. On one level, he is asking the question, “What is worth adding to the already astronomical numbers around anxiety in Generation Z?”
Even deeper, though, Shellenberger is asking the ultimate question, “What do we owe each other?” What do developed countries owe poorer countries? What do we owe our posterity? What do we owe each other? Shellenberger is not unaware of the ethical areas in which he makes his argument. He states, “It is hypocritical and unethical to demand that poor nations follow a more expensive and thus slower path to prosperity than the West followed” (275).
Shellenberger also realizes the very philosophical and religious nature of the environmentalism conversation. “Apocalyptic environmentalism is a kind of new Judeo-Christian religion, one that has replaced God with nature” (263). Moving into the realm of religion begs for a more robust understanding of the Christian narrative that begins in a garden, with humans as fallen caretakers, called to honorably use the raw materials of this world for the flourishing of all humankind. One day God will restore and bring about a garden-city where the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
Apocalypse Never also traverses issues of money, power, and faith. Environmentalism is not primarily an issue of science. Many engaged in the environmentalism conversation from both sides try to prove their stance based on scientific research. This will never work. It’s as if both sides say, “If I could just show empirically how they are wrong, I can move my agenda forward.” Shellenberger falls into this trap, and it’s no wonder that the most consistent critique of his work is a poor approach to science (consider Gleick below). Both sides will continue to worthlessly fire scientific proof and data at the other. We must move beyond science in this conversation to topics around money, power, and religiosity.
A Way Forward
Increasing polarization and the inability to debate at the level of fundamental concern are lacking in the West, but these skills can be taught. Critical thinking, worldview formation, ethics, and civil discourse should be taught at the most basic levels of education.
Shellenberger provides a hint in his assessment of religious fervor around environmentalism. He observes, “Because Judeo-Christian myths and morals are prevalent in our culture, environmentalists know them subconsciously and repeat them unintentionally, albeit in the ostensibly secular language of science and nature” (263). In Christendom, a set of ethics, philosophy and worldview are assumed. However, as we move more and more to a post-Christian society, those previously assumed ethics are doing two things. First, they are still part of the fabric of our collective understanding of ethics (like equity and justice, for example). Second, other worldviews, philosophies, and ethics are forming a bricolage without the training and understanding of how or why to piece those particular beliefs together. In other words, a Christian worldview is being rejected without educating and helping others understand worldviews themselves.
In terms of training on civil discourse, I’m reminded of Jim Henderson’s three practices for crossing the difference divide. His rules are:
- I’ll be unusually interested in others.
- I will stay in the room with difference.
- I will stop comparing my best with your worst.
His simple (but not easy) rules create an atmosphere of not demonizing the other, engaging in conversation, and staying present. Many higher educational institutions have lost the emphasis on the formation of their students. These practices proposed by Henderson are formational at their core – forming participants into generous, curious students of humanity.
Generosity and curiosity. This is what the world needs.
Michael Shellenberger, Apocolypse Never (New York, Harper: 2020).
Peter Gleick, Book Review: Bad Science and Bad Arguments Abound in “Apocalypse Never” by Michael Shellenberger. Yale Climate Connections. July 15, 2020. Accessed February 26, 2021, https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2020/07/review-bad-science-and-bad-arguments-abound-in-apocalypse-never/.
Jim Henderson, 3 Practices for Crossing the Difference Divide, accessed February 26, 2021, https://3practices.com/.