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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
 Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind (Penguin Books, 2018), 34–35.
 Chip Heath & Dan Heath, Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard (New York: Currency, 2010).
 Michael Shellenberger, Apocalypse Never (Harper Collins, 2020), 45.