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

Sound the Alarms

Written by: on March 1, 2021

When you think of alarms, what do you think of? At first glance, perhaps it’s that dreaded morning “wake up alarm” when your phone sounds off like death siren screaming at the top of its lungs at you. Maybe you think of an alarm as a warning of something bad is about to happen. We think of “warning signs” that are supposed to alert us that things may not be as they seem. As much as we hate alarms, at times they’re necessary.

But what happens when there are too many alarms going off in different directions?

Enter Michael Shellenberger, a former public relations professional whose writing mostly focuses on the intersection of climate change, nuclear energy, and politics. In his book Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All,Shellenberger seeks to dismantle the climate of fear that environmental activists cause. The core of his argument is that many environmental facts are mishandled and used to promote specific political agendas or are exaggerated to promote emotional reactions. A quick Google search will show that Shellenberger himself is quite controversial – even among his supporters.[1] However, it’s not his science that I want to focus on, but rather another elephant in the room.

Alarms are emotional tools. When we read through The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt uses the metaphor of the Elephant and the Rider where the Rider represents our conscious, rational thought patterns and the Elephant represents our unconscious, emotionally charged reactions.[2] The problem is that an Elephant is much bigger than the Rider, so in reality it is much easier for our emotions to take over and be our driving force. Chip Heath and Dan Heath also hit on this in their book Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard. At the core of their argument, in order to facilitate change, one must first appeal to the elephant to start the change and then appeal to the Rider to bring it under control.[3]

Bearing this in mind, what Shellenberger describes (and uses himself when promoting his own personal views) is the notion that environmental activists appeal to Elephant to promote change. He mentions the infamous viral video of marine biologists removing a plastic straw from the nose of a sea turtle and how the video sparked the ban of plastic straws in many businesses.[4] Regardless of the actual science on the impact of straws, the appeal worked because of the emotional nature of the video.

Alarms get people on our side. If you want someone to believe what you’re saying, you have to appeal to an emotional response. Once you have people onboard with the basic premise of what you’re trying to say, then you can start sprinkling in the hard evidence. Every story is driving toward an end – it wouldn’t be a story otherwise. How we get to the end is a matter of debate. We argue whether the “means justify the end” or the “end justifies the means” all while standing on a podium of self-righteousness for whatever side we’re advocating.

Alarms can be good and bad. Alarms can be both beneficial and detrimental. They are good in the sense that they provide an awareness that we’re careening out of control in some fashion. But they are also bad in that when you have so many voices shouting their own alarms, it becomes overwhelming and difficult to parse out the truth. As leaders, we need to be able to discern truth from fiction, emotions from rationality, and understand the motivation behind the narrative.

It isn’t difficult to see that Shellenberger has his own goal – to promote the safety of nuclear energy and the need to modernize as a means of helping the environment. That’s part of his narrative and the journey on which he’s taking his audience.

But maybe the loudest alarm isn’t the one that’s screaming in our faces.

Maybe it’s the absence of an alarm that speaks loudest.


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jul/04/the-environmentalists-apology-how-michael-shellenberger-unsettled-some-of-his-prominent-supporters

[2] Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind (Penguin Books, 2018), 34–35.

[3] Chip Heath & Dan Heath, Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard (New York: Currency, 2010).

[4] Michael Shellenberger, Apocalypse Never (Harper Collins, 2020), 45.

About the Author

Dylan Branson

Small town Kentuckian living and learning in the big city of Hong Kong.

11 responses to “Sound the Alarms”

  1. Jer Swigart says:

    I love your analysis of alarms and feel like the end was a cliff-hanger. Help me understand what you mean by the silent alarm that is blaring the loudest and that we’re not hearing.

    • Dylan Branson says:

      I’m thinking of those moments when we suddenly snap to a realization that something is wrong or missing, but nothing is blatantly alerting us to it. Like, for example, when you wake up late because you didn’t hear your alarm or you wake up earlier than your alarm with a feeling of panic, thinking you missed it.

      Or thinking of Hong Kong now. Before the National Security Law was put into effect, there were whistleblowers and articles warning people about what would happen once it was passed. Now that it has, there are no “alarms” anymore, which to me speaks louder because they’re missing.

      • Darcy Hansen says:

        Like Jer, I was curious about the “absence of alarm.” What are you hearing in HK now that the alarms have stopped? What do you infer or notice in that silence? Have the previous alarms proven to be true, is the house really burning down? Or is something else happening?

        As I considered your thoughts, I’m thinking of the Bill Gates documentary I recently watched. He believes, like Shellenberger, that nuclear energy is the way to go. But he and his team of the brightest and best in the world are reimagining nuclear energy and then developing innovative technology to solve the problem. I’m don’t maintain a large presence in the environmental alarmist world, but it seems to me Bill Gates did his research, asked tons of questions, dreamed of different possibilities, and put his head down and simply got to work. Does that type of action fall into the silent alarm category?

        • Dylan Branson says:

          I hear the silent wails of a generation that’s been silenced from expressing their fears and values for fear of losing their future. There’s been an exodus as a result, or at the very least there’s preparation for one. A lot of the alarms that people raised did prove to be true, which sobering to reflect on.

          I would think in regards to Gates, it does fall into a silent alarm – an action that we aren’t aware of until it’s already happening. I’m pretty disconnected from the environmentalist movement as well (apart from the loud anti-plastic voices), so even being made aware that nuclear energy is still being developed was eye opening for me in a way. The only voices I ever hear out of energy sources come from the solar and wind power parties.

  2. Shawn Cramer says:

    I’m really enjoying this week’s posts because the level of critical engagement seems like we are hitting our sweet spot. Great assessment of Shellengerber’s agenda of nuclear energy. I listened to a few podcasts and he mentioned that every time. Good insight!

    • Dylan Branson says:

      Yeah, I was talking with my housemate about it the other day. He spends a lot of time listening to and researching the future of energy and he recognized Shellenberger’s name because of his nuclear agenda. Like I mentioned in my comment for Darcy, nuclear power hasn’t been in my mind at all when it comes to the future of energy. It always seemed like that type of energy that was automatically dismissed.

  3. Greg Reich says:

    Sadly there is fine line between manipulation and actual conviction of a situation when we appeal to the emotions of others. There are tons of examples of magicians using the process of suggestion and slight of hand to manipulate the audience. To play on the emotional susceptibility of others have moral implications.
    Shellenberger definitely has a personal agenda when it comes to nuclear energy despite the 1986 Chernobyl accident. Though I question some of his motives I do appreciate his desire to reduce the emotional outbursts that numb most peoples willingness to respond and holding a common sense discussion. You currently live in one of the business cities in the world. Does there seem to be an environmental concern raise by individuals? Do see any attempt by the local church to be a green example?

    • Dylan Branson says:

      We always say that environmental protection is just “lip service” here. Plastic straws aren’t really a thing unless you ask for one and for the most part, they’ve been replaced with rice straws or some other substitute.

      While there are recycling bins and some people try to recycle, it’s not as clear cut as it is the States. There’s not a ton of support for recycling and environmental protection for the most part.

      My church doesn’t do a lot with it, but my friend’s church started a “Creation Care” cohort that was doing some pretty cool things. A lot of people in that particular congregation were passionate about lessening their environmental footprint. So it isn’t completely without its proponents. It just isn’t as vocal as other places.

  4. John McLarty says:

    Your post reminded me of the Amber alerts that go off on our phones and how the noise is so startling that I often invest all of my energy on getting it to stop and completely miss the information communicated to me. Granted, 99% of the time, I’m not in close proximity to the situation of the Amber alert, but I would hate for someone who could help to miss the chance simply because the alarm was such a distraction.

    • Dylan Branson says:

      It’s this weird line we have to balance. You want to make people aware of problems, but you also want them to listen. Just because you’re shouting doesn’t mean people are listening to what you’re saying. At some point, we begin to plug our ears.

  5. Chris Pollock says:

    Yes, passion is vital. It can be expressed loudly as an alarm.

    What about when it is numbed out? Has become silent.

    Love this sentence…

    “As leaders, we need to be able to discern truth from fiction, emotions from rationality, and understand the motivation behind the narrative.”

    Integrity and credibility are so key. That’s why I’d love to go for a coffee with the author, to get to him, his heart, his original truth. See if there’s a ‘shine’ to him 🙂

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