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

Snappy Slogans and Conversation Stoppers

Written by: on March 4, 2021

In the introduction to his book, “Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All,” Michael Shellenberger says that he wrote the book “because the conversation about climate change and the environment has, in the last few years, spiraled out of control.”[1] His general thesis is that extremist activists, organizations, and efforts can actually do more to hurt one’s cause than help it. He argues for a better understanding of the other issues related to the issue and how the issue is not always the issue.

Shellenberger’s book is focused on the environment and the offering of alternative ways of framing the conversation and approaching the problem. He writes as a self-described advocate for the environment, thereby positioning himself as one who cares, an “insider” with a “modest proposal” for a better way. Not surprisingly, Shellenberger has received both support and criticism for his efforts.[2]

Is Shellenberger the voice of reason here? Is he offering the prophetic word that might be a difficult and uncomfortable, dare I say inconvenient, truth to the environmental alarmists? Or does he merely offer the perspective that other “itching ears” have been craving to hear, a means of reorienting the conversation back toward economic practices and policies? Time will tell.

In the meantime, this book does offer a question about leadership and influence, especially when an ally or an insider tries to offer critique within his or her own sphere of influence. Has our society finally ushered in an era in which multiple perspectives and nuance is no longer acceptable. Have we moved to an “all or nothing” approach when it comes to our support of various causes? Does the fear of being “cancelled” now keep influential leaders from speaking out or asking questions?

One particular case related to this question happened in late 2020 when former president Barack Obama weighed in on the “defund the police” movement. Obama questioned whether the slogan, while “snappy” in some political and social circles, was doing more harm to the issue than good. Kenya Evelyn writes, “As a policy initiative, defunding police departments involves the reallocation of local and state resources away from law enforcement into public services, designed to address issues of poverty, inequality and mental health – factors that contribute to crime.”[3] At its core, proponents were advocating for resources to be shifted to other social aspects of justice and law enforcement. Only a handful of extreme cases went so far as to completely eliminate police departments from municipal budgets.

But the phrase “defund the police” became a lightning rod. Obama suggested that the slogan was detracting from the actual work. He said, “You lost a big audience the minute you say it, which makes it a lot less likely that you’re actually going to get the changes you want done….The key is deciding, do you want to actually get something done, or do you want to feel good among the people you already agree with?”[4] Obama was not speaking out against the idea of reform in law enforcement policies and procedures, only questioning the slogan and suggesting that the message could be communicated in less polarizing ways so as to invite more people into the conversation.

Other leaders quickly took issue with the former president. They defended the language as intentionally inflammatory in order to convey the depth of their convictions. Rather than accept the critique as a constructive suggestion for reframing the conversation, many “defund the police” advocates accused Obama of soft-peddling, even abandoning members of the black community.

This is just one example of what can happen when leaders exercise their influence and lend their voice to issues. We live in a society in which we act as though others are “either with us or against us.” We get defensive when we are questioned. We believe we must be passionate, loud, perhaps even angry or violent in order to accomplish our agenda.

I recognize that I write this from a certain perspective of privilege and understand the complexity in asking these questions, but still, who will be the first to resist the urge simply to react? Who will be the first to reflect more deeply and seek ways that bring people together, rather than further push people away from each other with divisive language and rhetoric? Our world needs activists and advocates. But it also needs conversation and respectful debate.

When we ignore, cancel, and dismiss those who offer critique, we cut ourselves off from greater learning and the opportunity to become better acquainted with another person’s story. If we cannot accept where there may be flaws in our own logic or approaches, why should we expect those who disagree with us to acknowledge the flaws we can so easily see in theirs?

Shellenberger seeks to articulate why environmental alarmism hurts us all. It is not just the extreme tactics of environmental activities that hurt us. It is the myopic and short-sighted, “win at any cost” approaches we all are sometimes tempted to take to score quick points or make a big splash. These methods may be effective at raising campaign dollars and winning elections, but they do little to invite dialogue that may actually lead to lasting change and improved lives.

[1] Michael Shellenberger, “Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All,” (New York: Harper Collins, 2020,) Kindle, x.

[2] For a counter perspective to Shellenberger, see Dr. Peter H. Gleick’s July 15, 2020 book review at https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2020/07/review-bad-science-and-bad-arguments-abound-in-apocalypse-never/.

[3] Kenya Evelyn, “Barack Obama criticizes ‘Defund the Police’ slogan but faces backlash,” www.theguardian.com, December 2, 2020,  https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/dec/02/barack-obama-criticizes-defund-the-police-slogan-backlash.

[4] Ibid.

About the Author

John McLarty

Husband. Dad. Pastor. Play a little golf.

6 responses to “Snappy Slogans and Conversation Stoppers”

  1. Greg Reich says:

    John great insights! I think both the extremist alarmist and the “win at all cost” approaches numb the willingness of most people to cooperate and take a place at the table. It seems in each case that little is accomplished unless there can be a common area of agreement. Even then we in the U.S. tend to leave the heavy lifting to people of power that in many ways have been bought and paid for by lobbyists and big business.

  2. Darcy Hansen says:

    “Ditch the straw, save the turtles!” sounds way better than give up all your single use plastics and the convenience they provide to help protect the environment.

    I sense a bit of skepticism in your post regarding the content, but appreciate the leadership thread of internal critique you highlighted. It would seem few take criticism well. That makes me think back to our first posts on An Everyone Culture. It’s a unique environment that welcomes such critique for developmental purposes. Mostly that critique is perceived as an attack.

    As a pastor in a church that leans pretty heavy toward one extreme, how do you offer insider criticism in a way that isn’t discarded as an attack?

    • John McLarty says:

      I’m fortunate that my church is more centrist than my town, but there are times when it does feel like any critique I offer- toward either side- is seen as an attack. I’ve tried at times to try to present the other side’s perspective when one extreme seems to exaggerate or overgeneralize something. Sometimes people are receptive. Sometimes they just dismiss me. As far as the book goes, it seemed at times that it was just the frustrated rants of a guy whose ideas weren’t being embraced by his own team so he took a more provocative approach in an attempt to win friends on the right who might have otherwise never given him a chance.

  3. Dylan Branson says:

    Extremism is often an emotional and reactionary response that seeks to gain favor by curating to our basic immediate response. During the protests in Hong Kong, it was also an “all or nothing” environment – you were either “yellow” (pro-democracy) or “blue” (pro-establishment) and there was no in-between. Families were torn apart as it was more common for the current younger generation to be “yellow” while their parents and families were “blue.” In talking with my students and other friends, a theme that came out was that their parent’s generation seeks harmony while their own generation wants change.

    It was sobering to see how different family relationships played out as a result of this. There’s too much shouting and not enough listening.

  4. Shawn Cramer says:

    Great angle, using “Apocalypse Never” as an artifact for persuasive speech on a controversial topic. (I wish I would have thought of that! haha.) I suppose finding language that cuts through the noise and provokes while simultaneously not being dismissed because of the potential alarmism is the challenge of anyone wanting to bring meaningful change.

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