Nuclear Dread as Memento Mori

Activist Michael Shellenberger on “coming to peace with this radical technology”
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New Atlantis associate editor Brendan Foht sat down with environmental activist Michael Shellenberger, the author of Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All, to discuss the moral vision of mainstream environmentalism, why nuclear power can save nature, and how to make the most of nuclear anxiety. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Brendan Foht: Michael, you have been described as one of the leading voices of “ecomodernism,” a movement that aims to apply science and technology to solve environmental problems, as opposed to trying to force human societies to harmonize with nature. In your most recent book, Apocalypse Never, you take aim at the mainstream environmentalist movement for its alarmism about the impacts of climate change and other threats. What do you think distinguishes the ecomodernist perspective? Is it more of a disagreement over what the science shows about the severity of human impacts on the environment, or is it more of a difference in moral visions of the relationship between humanity and nature?

Michael Shellenberger
Environmental Progress

Michael Shellenberger: I definitely think it’s the latter. In Apocalypse Never, I trace back what we call modern environmentalism to its most important thinker, Reverend Thomas Malthus, the British economist who believed that technology would not be able to keep pace with human needs. It’s been maybe one of the most spectacularly wrong theories that human beings have ever created. We produce 25 percent more food than we need, and deaths from natural disasters have declined 99 percent in many countries, over 90 percent globally. People are living ridiculously long lives that were unimaginable just a half century ago.

We’re doing astonishingly well, and most environmental trends are going in the right direction. Carbon emissions have declined more in the United States than in any other country over the last twenty years, mostly due to fracking. Carbon emissions peaked in Europe in the mid-seventies, in the main European countries I should say. And some people think carbon emissions have peaked globally. I personally think they probably have another ten years of growth, but we’re close to global peak emissions, after which they will go down. We appear to be at peak agricultural land use, and that will go down. So Malthus was sort of spectacularly wrong, both on human progress, but also environmental progress.

But I don’t think that apocalyptic environmentalists are wrong because they are not good at math, or because they don’t know how to read a scientific paper, or because they don’t know what the UN Food and Agriculture Organization data say, or because they don’t know that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change doesn’t predict any increase of deaths from natural disasters or food scarcity.

It’s not that they don’t know those things. They do know those things. They are motivated by something much more, much deeper, and it is definitely a morality. I think it’s actually a religion in the sense that it has a supernatural component as well. The supernatural component is the claim that somehow all of this, despite the trends, is leading to some kind of environmental apocalypse. And I think that’s a supernatural claim.

BF: By “supernatural” do you mean that it is a claim based in a kind of faith that goes beyond reason? Because “supernatural” is a specific metaphysical kind of idea as well. And it seems obvious that they’re not thinking that some ectoplasmic entity is going to emerge out of the world in order to cause this apocalypse, once carbon emissions get to a certain level.

MS: I mean, the tipping point stuff gets close to ectoplasm. Vaclav Smil, who Bill Gates says is the most important intellectual, and whom he relies on for most of his energy analysis, wrote a really comprehensive survey, as did Richard Posner, and I’ve reviewed the rest of the tipping point literature.

And when you start to look at “fat tails” — low-probability, high-consequence events — you’re looking at wars and asteroids and volcanoes, and now you probably add alien invasions and pandemics, and climate change. Climate change consistently comes out — in terms of apocalyptic climate impacts — at the lowest probability and the lowest fatalities. Especially when you consider the catastrophic scenarios like losing the West Antarctic’s ice sheet or Greenland’s, those are 700-year to 1,000-year events. It’s hard to make a Hollywood disaster movie with science like that. So Vaclav ends up ranking those things at the bottom, he puts wars and pandemics at the top. Nuclear war would obviously be apocalyptic or at least catastrophic. There’s a debate around whether humans could survive, but there’s no debate that we could destroy our civilization with nuclear weapons.

Pandemics — we’ve just experienced what a real catastrophe looks like. We did pretty well as a human race, despite, you know, hundreds of thousands of people dying. But it’s really hard to come up with something like that for climate change. In a Forbes column, I’ve described my interview with Timothy Lenton, the academic who puts together the most recent tipping point, end-of-the-world, doomsday climate scenario. And it just is what it is. They kind of say: There may be some thing we don’t know about how these ecosystems are set up, and you may have a catastrophe.

And of course that’s true because you can’t prove a negative. But you could actually say that could be true regardless of what carbon emissions are. And so if that’s the case, where everybody ends up going — Smil, but also Roger Pielke — it’s just obvious, the place that you go is that we should have societal resilience in general.

That means that we should have functioning electricity grids. We should have a functioning military. We should have functioning public-health systems. And those things all require energy. And that means that climate change is a side effect of them. But you certainly wouldn’t want to do anything that undermined the basis of your civilization in order to address a problem that could, in some way that we don’t know, be a threat to civilization.

A Political Agenda

BF: It seems that the concern you have, or your disagreement with the mainstream environmentalist movement, does seem to focus on their outsized weighing of probabilities of catastrophe, which overwhelms their weighing of the costs and benefits of producing energy, which, as you say, is the basis of our civilization.

You were mentioning earlier that you do think there is a moral difference with environmentalists, and not that they simply are unaware of these facts — about IPCC estimates and things like that. So what do you think motivates them? What makes them invest so much in these highly unlikely scenarios of catastrophe?

MS: The catastrophe scenarios are tied to a political agenda, and the political agenda is to return the energy sector back to unreliable and weather-dependent energy sources. That’s number one.

That’s why solar and wind are the highest priority to basically make energy more expensive and scarce and to make food production more land-inefficient and scarce and expensive, out of an idea that doing so will result in there being fewer people in the world. And that’s according to them, that’s just what they say. I’m just repeating what their agenda is. So it’s basically to make energy and food more scarce and expensive.

And then there’s a kind of genuine romanticism tied to it as well. The idea is that we were in greater harmony with nature when we were all farmers or even hunter-gatherers, depending on which radical environmentalism you want. And there’s two varieties. One is kind of Elizabethan England romanticism, and the other is more radical and more hunter-gatherer — one is more feudal and one is more anarchist.

Those exist side-by-side with, I think, a much darker view of human nature. And so you see environmentalism really has these two impulses. One is the Paul Ehrlich, Malthusian view, which is that there’s just too many damn people and we need to do policies that will reduce the number of people at all costs. And then the other has been that we need to grow tomatoes in our backyards and harmonize and heal our relationship with nature. And they — if not being the same — have worked together for a really long time.

The other thing I would just say is that I have never met anybody who has worked in a really poor country for any significant amount of time, either as a researcher or as a volunteer with the Peace Corps, who agrees with any of the things that environmentalists say. In fact, I think the experience for a lot of people when they work in poor countries is very similar to mine, which is that they go, “Wait a second, cheap energy and cheap food is fundamental to prosperity. Anybody seeking to deny those things is seeking to deny prosperity, and that’s just wrong.” So I do think there are people who have these ideologies of Malthusianism and romanticism, but there’s nothing about them in particular — in some ways I do think it’s just a function of their lack of experience of actually living within or near poverty.

Nuclear Existential Anxiety

BF: One of the subjects you’ve written and spoken a lot about is nuclear power. Where do you think nuclear power fits into the way the United States and the world can deal with climate change and other environmental challenges?

MS: Nuclear is such a radical event in human development that we still haven’t come to grips with its meaning or significance or implications for us as a species.

The first and main purpose of nuclear is as a weapon, and that is extremely troubling for a lot of people. They wish it weren’t that way. And the more you learn about it, the more you learn that the ability to split the atom came right out of science. It came right out of the laboratories. It came right out of experimentation. It did not require a big industrial project to split the atom. That’s something that just comes right out of the science and right out of the physical theory. And so the problem is you can’t get rid of this technology even if you really wanted to.

And we now know that, we’ve known that really since World War II. In fact, before the bomb was invented, Niels Bohr — maybe the first, most important thinker about nuclear energy — said to Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the bomb, it’s going to end war. And it basically appears to be in the process of doing that.

I think nuclear as a weapon is continuing to spread, as everybody predicted it would. It’s spread much more slowly than anybody thought it would. Only nine countries have it, and most countries don’t need it and are under somebody else’s shield. And if you just look at the situation today and you think that if the future is going to be more like today, then eventually you’ll have a bunch of big powers in the world that will provide nuclear shields to their spheres of influence.

And that’s the end of the story. And there’s no reason to think that every little country is going to go get a bomb, and a lot of the early fears about nuclear were centrally about that and they turned out to be wrong. And that’s great. I get a lot of people suggesting that what I’m saying is bad news. It’s not bad news.

The Enrico Fermi Nuclear Generating Station, on the shore of Lake Erie
Joe Sohm / Visions of America / Getty Images

I was born in 1971 and so I grew up when ABC News told parents to watch a special made-for-TV movie about nuclear war, called The Day After, that showed a classroom of children being, um, carbonized. And then Chernobyl happens. To change your mind about nuclear power after that — it is a big deal, that’s why it’s the biggest deal in some ways.

Because it’s about coming to peace with a really radical event in human history.

Now, we haven’t even begun to use nuclear for its benefits. I mean, we’ve done amazing … we now understand the human body in ways that would never have been possible without radiation or isotopes. And we now have proven that nuclear power plants can desalinate water and make hydrogen — in fact, that they’re the best at doing that. And they operate peacefully and we have a great technology, these water-cooled reactors. But because of the overhang, the hangover — either, or both — of nuclear weapons, we haven’t begun to take advantage of nuclear energy’s real benefits.

Its real benefits are to be the energy transition after fossil fuels. Basically, what nuclear does is it allows for everybody on Earth to live high-energy prosperous lives with a radical reduction in our environmental footprint. And, yes, part of that is the power plants, particularly not using renewables, which require 400 times more land than a nuclear plant. But even when you get to fuels, transportation fuels, you don’t have to do fracking anymore, you don’t have to do any oil drilling, you’ve solved your heating and your cooling, and eventually it’ll make hydrogen for next-generation jet planes. Then you kind of go, “Wow, it actually is the solution to all of the carbon in the energy system.”

The journey for the human race is you overcome your fear of the bomb and be free of that … let me correct that: We will stop letting our fear of the bomb be an obstacle to taking advantage of nuclear energy’s benefits — because, of course, the only way the bomb works is if we have a fear of it. We have to remain fearful of the bomb, and somehow remain at peace with it.

That was Niels Bohr. Niels Bohr was a well-read person and he read Søren Kierkegaard. And this was Søren Kierkegaard’s most important philosophical contribution, which was: How do you live a happy and fulfilling and vibrant, and — I love this word — flourishing life, knowing that you will die?

Because Kierkegaard believed in heaven and he was a Christian, he hopes there’ll be an afterlife, but we all have doubt and we all have fear of death. What I love about Bohr’s role here is that the answer to nuclear anxiety, which is also existential anxiety, comes from not avoiding your death, but actually coming to terms with it and accepting it and actually finding a way to have a thriving, vibrant, beautiful human civilization, while recognizing that we have really powerful technologies that could destroy it.

The Nuclear Power Debate — Just the Facts?

BF: One of the criticisms that’s been made of you, including in our pages by Taylor Dotson and Michael Bouchey [Fall 2020], is that you have treated the nuclear-power debate as a straightforward one that’s just about facts, where you can look at the number of deaths caused by nuclear power and look at the number of deaths caused by coal plants and just pick the one that’s fewer. And so one of the criticisms here is that these kinds of estimates actually vary over several orders of magnitude, and that there’s a great deal of complexity to nuclear safety that makes it very different from technologies like coal-fired plants, so that these comparisons are more complicated than they’re sometimes made to seem. What do you make of that kind of criticism?

MS: I’m not sure I disagree with it, and I’m not sure what they’re criticizing of mine. We just got talking about why I think that the main event with nuclear is existential anxiety.

I think that some people have tried to characterize me as a kind of — rationalist or something? — as somebody who thinks that if I just show facts, that’ll change people’s minds. But in Apocalypse Never I discussed at great length why I don’t think that’s enough. And I’ve been trying to say, in so many words: I’ve been trying to tug on your heartstrings. I kept Bernadette in the foreground of this book to remind us what a moral disaster the Congo remains, and why economic development is a moral imperative. [Bernadette is a twenty-five-year-old Congolese mother of seven whom Shellenberger interviewed for the book, and who depends on sweet potato crops that were eaten by legally protected baboons. –Ed.]

You know, I’m a simple person in the sense that I just think you have to have some balance between heart and head and gut. I don’t think people are calculators and I’ve never thought that. And I don’t think I treat them that way. My TED talks, yes, and my book use a lot of facts, but I also try to take people on a journey, and I think that this is one of the most important human journeys that we have, which is coming to peace with this radical technology. I don’t think I’m going to just browbeat people with mortality data.

The specific question, though, which is about mortality, is that maybe it’s not being measured right, or there’s something there…. I have to say, I hear some kind of unstated bomb anxiety in that. I kind of go: Where are all the hidden bodies? In the uranium mining, and the uranium reprocessing? I’m not seeing that, neither in the data nor do I know what the mechanism would be. Are there higher rates of leukemia among nuclear power-plant workers?

Gerry [Geraldine] Thomas, who is the person I rely on in Apocalypse Never, started the Chernobyl tissue bank. She has been the author of major UN reports on Chernobyl, she’s maybe the world’s leading Chernobyl expert. In fact, she just sent me a new article in Science showing just what we’ve always known: that radiation is not this super potent toxin. She doesn’t buy it, she just thinks that even if you think there is some slight increase, it’s very, very slight.

And the numbers on the fossil side are just so darn large. I think we can overstate the deaths from fossil fuels too. The official numbers from the World Health Organization are something like 6 million. I try to say, in my language, that it “contributes to early death.” You know, you smoke fentanyl on the streets of San Francisco and die — you’re killed by the fentanyl. If you breathe dirty air in London or New York or whatever, especially if you’re in a bad neighborhood, you’re talking about dying an earlier death. I’m not minimizing it. I’m just saying those two — we should not lead people to think they’re the same.

And similarly with most of the nuclear deaths. The firefighters at Chernobyl are killed right away. The question is, has it increased mortality? We can’t see it in any cancers other than thyroid. I come across a lot of expressions of fear around nuclear where people insist to me that it’s not about the bomb and it’s about the power plants. And I kind of go, “I don’t know. It kind of sounds like you’re talking about the bomb.”

BF: Of course the bomb is an important thing, as you were saying, but it’s easy to see how it would play into concerns about power-plant disasters.

MS: We know it displaces. Psychologists have actually measured and can detect this displacement. I can describe it in myself and people I know — there is displacement occurring of nuclear weapons fear onto nuclear power plants. Spencer Weart — who wrote, in some ways I think it’s the greatest book ever written on nuclear, which is the Rise of Nuclear Fear, it’s a very scholarly, very learned, very wise book — that’s where he comes to.

You kind of see it in the language, and you see it in the emotions, like “The waste! The waste! Ah!” It’s a really exaggerated view of some fuel rods that have never hurt anybody and that are, like, fine.

I’m not even sure I got to the bottom of it, but I think a lot of it is also anthropological. The minimal academic training that I allowed myself was anthropology, and one of the things anthropologists have always been obsessed with is your treatment of the dead. So you bury things. And when you’re starting to say “We have to bury these fuel rods as far into satanic territory as possible! They have to be returned to the devil!” It’s hard not to say that’s supernatural, not natural or material.

BF: It’s a consequence of the long time it takes for its decay, this almost anthropological work that goes into designing these eternal warnings that will be understood by any possible humans thousands of years down the road. It does have an almost ritual significance.

MS: Just one more thing on that, which puzzled me for the longest time. We said, well, we have to have these warnings, but not using our language, that will warn people in the future that there are dangerous places. I’m sorry, are humans going somewhere? And is someone arriving? Did I miss some minute in the UFO and aliens debate that now we’re going to Mars and Martians are coming here, and we’re worried that we can’t communicate about where the dangerous things on Earth are?

I can’t even quite understand what it’s about. In terms of the decay, well, yeah, so here’s the substance that’s getting less dangerous, as opposed to: “The substances that will always be dangerous on Earth,” including toxic heavy metals, which are basic elements of the periodic table — they’re atoms. Toxic heavy metals are toxic and heavy-metal and dangerous to humans and humanoids forever. So why this disproportionate concern over the metal and fuel rods?

It’s not a technical issue, because I talk to nuclear people all the time, and I say, “So, I’m curious, explain specifically what you’re worried about.” And they say, “That it … leaks?” And I say, “But we’re talking about solid metal fuel rods in solid metal containers.”

“And you’re worried that somebody will somehow, in some way that you can’t even explain, be poisoned by nuclear fuel rods when humans aren’t on Earth anymore?” You’re talking to somebody like they should be in therapy, because you can’t get to an answer with actual facts or things. And I get that. I mean, I wrote Apocalypse Never because I wanted to embed nuclear and be able to see nuclear for what it is — a way to save nature — not as a site of phobias and superstition.

Environmentalism as Terror Management

BF: There are a lot of policy questions in the environmental movement around “unnatural” technologies like nuclear, but especially things like GMOs or geoengineering, where public concerns are based on deeper moral and philosophical objections about playing God or changing our relationship with nature, and the way that alienates us. So debates that are on the surface about safety and costs and facts and figures are really concealing these deeper disagreements. As a proponent of some of these technologies — nuclear, especially, but some of these other ones as well — how do you respond to these kinds of concerns that can’t be settled just by the facts and figures? We’ve talked about it a little bit already, but this is a question that I particularly want to hear your thoughts on in detail.

MS: This is the most important question in many ways, and it’s a question, of course, that people have been wrestling with for over 150 years. Social scientists describe one of the most important trends of the last several hundred years, which is a process of secularization and declining belief in traditional religion, traditional gods, whether Christian, or Hindu, or Jewish, or just all religions. We’ve seen a decline of belief in gods and in the afterlife. And we now have a very large body of research that shows that for most people that is a very anxiety-provoking belief system — the belief that we’re just like animals and we decompose after we die and there’s no afterlife and there is no God who loves us, and that really our actions don’t really have any meaning beyond whatever material effects they have, and that we’re really no different from protoplasm or other animals. I think that we now know that it provokes existential angst. It’s now very well established in the literature, beautifully titled “terror management.” We can demonstrate effects of terrorizing people, which is just a way of scaring them about their deaths.

Not everybody, though. And what I point out in Apocalypse Never is that we can trigger closer to opposite effects if we ask people to imagine that they’re dying right now. If you ask people to imagine dying right now, then you would say, “How would you look back on your life”? and people end up feeling gratitude and love towards the people closest to them, but even broader love for their fellow humans. They end up with a more generous view of other people, and I would say less Malthusian view of their fellow humans.

I’m not an atheist, but there are some atheists I know who really don’t believe in God and really don’t believe in an afterlife, and nonetheless are able to find that place of love and gratitude, and I think even a kind of faith. But for most people that’s hard. And so they tend to create alternative religions. Obviously, the two great political religions of the twentieth century were fascism and communism. They both went into crisis for different reasons, and similar reasons, around the same period, but also different periods, and have reconstituted themselves in various forms in our existing societies around nationalism, environmentalism, democratic socialism.

In some ways they go really, really horribly, I think, not because they’re religions, but because they lack any awareness that they’re behaving like a religion. So I think that the reason that apocalyptic environmentalists tend to believe that they are atheists is because they are engaging in a supernatural moralizing religion — but don’t think that’s what it is.

They think that they’re just representing facts of the world and a basic morality, rather than a morality that is actually quite different from the Western Enlightenment ideology, or religion, of equal justice under the law, which of course comes from equality under God, which is a Judeo-Christian idea, and in other religions too.

BF: Following up on terror management, and the way that asking people to think about if they were to die today changes their perspective: Is it that they have more gratitude for the life they’ve lived, as opposed to a terror of what might happen in the future?

MS: If I’m an experimental psychologist and I have Michael Shellenberger in the room, and I say, “Michael, I want you to think about how you’re going to die one day. Maybe at eighty or ninety, but you’re going to die one day. And, really, what’s your life amounted to? Not much, you wrote some articles that — whatever, maybe it had some impact or maybe it didn’t. You had a couple of kids, but they’re going to die too. And let’s face it, there’s no meaning to any of this. This is just meaningless and your life is meaningless. And you should just accept the fact that you’re really no different from your dog.”

And then in the experiment you have to give people a few minutes, and then you say: “Okay, so now that I’ve told you that, I want to talk about sports cars.” And you change the subject. And what you find is that people who got the death-priming, which is really a kind of atheism-priming — the men wanted sports cars, and they were more racist too, I think — there’s some bad stuff. Because people say, “Oh my God, I have to show that I’m important, so I have to want a sports car and I have to be better than, you know, people that aren’t my skin color.” And these bad, sad things that we know about humans start to show up.

As opposed to, if I say: “Michael, imagine that I’m a doctor and I’ve told you that you have one week to live, and this is it. It’s over. There’s no chance. So forget about treatment. This is just one week to get your sh** together and say goodbye to this world. How would you look back on your life and how would you spend the next week?” You find, you know, I’m really grateful for my life. I feel like I’ve created these kids and grandkids that really make me proud, or maybe I don’t have kids, but I’ve written books and articles and people have read them. I don’t know if they’ve changed the world, but I do know that people have appreciated them. And I’ve always tried to be a good person.

And so I’m going to go to my death with a kind of peace. And so we find that people are just much more like, “Yeah, these day-to-day problems that we have with each other are really petty and we should have fewer of them and we should spend more time appreciating one another, not just as Americans, but as human beings and our family. And I really want to go tell my kids again how much I love them and how I will always be there with them. And that something in me will live on.” Even if you don’t believe in God or you don’t believe in the spirit, something in me will live on, it’ll be my memory — and I’m going to go to my death really peaceful.

So I think that’s how they do the experiments. And you can feel it just describing it. When I discovered this research … in the book I described how I had this conversation with Dick Rhodes, who’s the author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, and we were at lunch and I was saying, “You know, the bomb is a little bit like a reminder of your death, because it’s not going to go away.”

It’s like your death. I don’t want to die! Nobody wants to die. But so far no one’s done a workaround. And similarly with the bomb: Maybe they’ll get rid of bombs one day, but probably not before you’re dead. So it’s kind of the same thing. And then he says, “Oh, it’s like memento mori. You know what that is?” And I said, “Totally.” I bought a memento mori. I have a beautiful German-made skull and it sits by my bed and it had a very powerful impact on me. It sits right next to the piece of…. At that same lunch, Dick gave me a gift. It was this piece of the first nuclear reactor ever built under the squash courts in Chicago. It’s a piece of graphite, just a tiny piece of graphite encased in, plastic, I think, or plexiglass or something. And it was like he’s passing the baton. That was the lunch. He’s like, I’m passing the baton on nuclear to you.

For me, I have my memento mori and the piece of the first reactor and they have a special significance for me. I want to live my life with an awareness that we could die at any time. And I don’t want to live a life where I’m anxious that I haven’t lived my life like I wanted to live it. And the way I think about nuclear is the same, because I think that the real-world technical and economic obstacles to nuclear all boil down to this spiritual and psychological question, and that the sooner we can resolve that personal, psychological, and spiritual question, the economics and the technology and the politics and all that will take care of themselves.

Michael Shellenberger, “Nuclear Dread as Memento Mori,” The New Atlantis, Number 66, Fall 2021, pp.97–110.
Header image: The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in California was shut down in 2013. It houses 3.6 million pounds of nuclear waste in dry storage canisters. (D. Ramey Logan / Wikimedia)

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