March 17, 2023

Catching up with Michael Shellenberger ’93

This activist and author is changing the conversation about nuclear power and homelessness.

Michael Shellenberger '93 sits at his desk writing on his laptop.

Michael Shellenberger ’93 is up for a challenge. He’s made the case for nuclear power as an environmentalist—even as environmentalism has historically been one of its greatest sources of criticism. A progressive for most of his life, he’s been critical of progressive laws that, in his view, have led to worsening issues of homelessness, drug addiction and mental illness, particularly in cities like San Francisco. In 2021 he ran for governor of California as an independent against a well-established incumbent. Though he has his critics and, for the record, did not win the governorship (he placed third in the primary), even his critics wouldn’t call him a “go along, get along” sort of thinker or politician. He’s not easy to categorize.

“On some issues, I agree with Democrats and on other issues, I agree with Republicans—and then there are some issues where I think both are wrong because they’re not getting at the core issue,” says Shellenberger.

He’s been in search of core issues for a long time. Following in the footsteps of his sister Kim Shellenberger ’91 to Earlham, he was attracted to the College’s commitment to progressive values, particularly peace, international solidarity and eliminating poverty. He became a peace and global studies major.

“I think I took those Earlham values with me, particularly around social change and how to make it.”

After Earlham he worked for Global Exchange, a progressive international organization, and picked up a master’s from UC Santa Cruz in anthropology. Establishing his home base in San Francisco, he worked on various progressive media campaigns. In 2002 he founded Breakthough Institute, a think tank for climate change and energy. In 2016 he shifted his focus to saving nuclear power plants and then in 2020, he shifted again and began spending most of his time as an author and journalist, so far publishing two best-selling books: Apocalypse, Never and San Fransicko. He now makes his living as a journalist writing on Substack and is working on his third book, expected in 2024.

You’ve been an environmental activist for many years and observed the changes in the environmental movement. What’s your perspective on where environmentalism stands now?

Michael Shellenberger headshot

The most important change that’s occurred is that the environmental movement is returning to support for nuclear power, which has been a very controversial technology, in large part because of its relationship to nuclear weapons. But using nuclear also means that there’s no need for the kind of lifestyle changes that are required with renewables. With nuclear you can have a high-energy life. So, the big change has been the return of support for nuclear power, because, of course, nuclear was supported by progressives in the 1950s and ’60s. It was only in the late ’60s that progressives turned against it. That’s the biggest change, and that’s been in part due to efforts by the pro-nuclear movement of which I’m a leader. It’s also due to the energy crisis in Europe, which showed that simply scaling up renewables was not enough to end dependence on fossil fuels.

What do you see being the mix of nuclear and renewables in the future?

The largest source of renewables is hydroelectric dams. And hydroelectric dams are the main way that poor countries begin to climb out of agrarian poverty—it’s simple to damn a river and build a hydroelectric dam. Solar panels and wind turbines are limited because of the weather dependent nature of them. I think they are destined to remain niche technologies rather than primary energy technologies like hydro-electric, coal, oil, gas and nuclear. Of course, the other main source of renewables that is used is wood. And wood is a terrible fuel because it obviously robs the forests of their trees but also produces a significant amount of smoke that is toxic to inhale. In general, I think renewables are pretty limited.

No one who holds a strong vision for improving the environment, including yourself, probably believes that we’re making progress fast enough. What’s the right approach?

I think a lot of frustration, sometimes extremism, comes from not accepting certain technical pathways that make dealing with the problem much easier. Carbon emissions in the U.S. declined by 22 percent between 2005 and 2020. Sixty-one percent of that reduction was due to the transition from coal to natural gas. So, I think it’s a contradiction to express anxiety and urgency around climate change, but then turn around and oppose technologies like nuclear power and natural gas which are the two main technologies needed to reduce carbon emissions. The answer to anxiety is pragmatism and humanism in the sense that you need to find solutions that work for human beings, and not just for your ideology.

Another of the subjects you’ve written about is care for the mentally ill and the way their lives affect others in a great city like San Francisco, for example. Do you have a sense that more people are open to discussing this set of knotty problems?

The conversation has changed around this issue significantly in the year since my book, San Fransicko, was published. Not long ago, the mayor of New York announced that he was going to expand the involuntary hospitalization of mentally ill homeless people. That’s a huge change from where Democrats in particular had been on this issue. U.S. civil libertarians have worried that more involuntary hospitalization would be repressive. Meanwhile, Europe has many more people in psychiatric hospitals than we do. And the truth is that when mentally ill people are allowed to commit crimes and hurt people, they end up in jails and prisons. It’s much more humane to mandate some amount of medical care for mentally ill people than it is to allow them to remain in psychotic states on the streets where they are three times more likely to be killed, and also more likely to victimize others—and then they end up back in jail or prison. I think the conversation has changed pretty significantly. People also recognize that we’re in the midst of a terrible drug overdose and poisoning crisis. In the year 2000, 17,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in poisonings. In 2022, over 107,000 people will die. That’s three times more people dying from drugs and car accidents, five times more than die from homicides. So, I think people recognize that drugs are the main event, and will also require some amount of mandating treatment to people.

You’ve spoken about the need for people to love and appreciate civilization more. Could you explain what you mean by that and what do we do with the excesses and downright failures of civilization?

If we care about people in the natural environment, you need to have a civilization. I think the pillars of civilization are cheap energy, law and order, and meritocracy. Some people would go further and they would say, the nuclear family or maybe God and religion, but I think that goes too far because not everybody believes in God and not everybody has a family. Civilization has traditionally been something that conservatives have been concerned about, and I think that we need to evolve and become more capable of holding three different value seat the same time, one around concern for the vulnerable, the other around individual freedom and the third, around the need for civilization. You go too far in any one of those three directions, and you end up and bad things happen. But if you can keep all three of them in balance, I think you can have a more humane society, a freer society and also a more secure society.

Your own views have changed quite a bit over the years. What advice would you give to college students, for example, or others who are being confronted with differing visions of how the world should be? How should they weigh things out?

I think humility and curiosity are essential. We’re limited in what we can know and therefore we should not be so dogmatic. I’ve certainly changed my mind on a lot of issues over the years as I learned more—and I was a bullheaded young man. When considering a difficult issue, be able to fairly articulate the point of view of the people you disagree with. Be able to disagree in a thoughtful way and continue to maintain curiosity and humility. I think you’ll have better life outcomes in general when you do that and keep the humanity of the person you are arguing with in mind. In soccer, the expression is to “play the ball and not the man.” I think that’s the right way to go about it. It’s better to depersonalize the arguments. That said, you also have to hold people accountable—if the president of the United States is doing something wrong, you have to name the president of the United States. I also think it’s important to understand the motivations of people and to be skeptical about motivations. The vast majority of problems are due to foolishness, not evil. With social media especially, it is easy to get into the grip of negative emotions, which also acts as a drug delivering dopamine rewards when people approve of your speech or of your language. These are really big challenges. I think we’re going to look back on this moment 50 years from now with a lot more appreciation of what we’ve put ourselves through in terms of this intense amount of social information, because it’s not just that you’re getting a lot of information, it’s that the information is tied up with people with whom you have relationships. I think that managing that well is a huge challenge

Interview by Dan Oetting.

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