Book Review: Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All

By Caroline Fyvie

In 2019 news organizations and activists reported the world was going to end by 2030. Famous climate activist Greta Thunberg stated, “Around the year 2030, in ten years, 250 days, and ten hours, we will be in a position where we set off an irreversible chain reaction beyond human control that will most likely lead to the end of our civilization as we know it.” This wasn’t the first time alarming headlines about climate change made the news, as Michael Shellenberger notes in his best-selling book Apocalypse Never, fearmongering headlines on climate change doomsdays have been around for a while, like this Associated Press headline from 1989: “UN Predicts Disaster if Global Warming Not Checked.”

You may have heard of Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All when it was released by Shellenberger in mid-2020. The book provides a different take on some of the most popular climate change ideas today. Shellenberger is a Time Magazine “Hero of the Environment” and the winner of the 2008 Green Book Award from the Stevens Institute of Technology’s Center for Science Writings. He has written on energy and the environment for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Nature Energy, and more. He’s also the founder and president of Environmental Progress, an independent research organization based in Berkeley, California.

As an environmental and social justice advocate for over 25 years, Shellenberger helped save California’s last unprotected ancient redwood forest and advocated for a “new Apollo project” in clean energy, resulting in a $150 billion public investment from the Obama administration in the U.S. between 2009 and 2015. As someone who dedicated much of his life to advocating for renewable energy, he changed his tune once he began to see solar panels and wind energy in action, and the unreliability of these fuel sources. He became a supporter for nuclear energy and gave a few TED talks on the topic including Why renewables can’t save the planet and How fear of nuclear power is hurting the environment.

His best-selling book takes a critical look at difficult topics like climate change, deforestation, plastic waste, sweatshops, species extinction, meat consumption, green energy, and nuclear energy and although it has gained popularity (it has a 4.7 out of 5-star rating on Amazon), it also has a variety of critiques from scientists who claim the information presented is cherry-picked to support Shellenberger’s opinion. As part of the book promo, Shellenberger published an op-ed on Forbes, which was reportedly taken down due to editorial guidelines on self-promotion.

For a quick glimpse into the book’s key points, here are the messages shared in his op-ed:

  • Humans are not causing a “sixth mass extinction”
  • The Amazon forest is not “the lungs of the world”
  • Climate change is not making natural disasters worse
  • The amount of land we use for meat — humankind’s biggest use of land — has declined by an area nearly as large as Alaska
  • The build-up of wood fuel and more houses near forests, not climate change, explain why there are more, and more dangerous, fires in Australia and California
  • Carbon emissions are declining in most rich nations and have been declining in Britain, Germany, and France since the mid-1970s
  • Netherlands became rich not poor while adapting to life below sea level
  • We produce 25% more food than we need and food surpluses will continue to rise as the world gets hotter
  • Habitat loss and the direct killing of wild animals are bigger threats to species than climate change
  • Wood fuel is far worse for people and wildlife than fossil fuels
  • Preventing future pandemics requires more, not less, “industrial” agriculture

The list above may look shocking at first glance, or perhaps support your opinion. I’m sure most people wouldn’t agree with every single point Shellenberger makes, but throughout his book he carefully defends each idea. He makes his case by referencing the best-available scientific studies, including those conducted by or accepted by the IPCC, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and other leading scientific bodies. As a reprieve from the constant references and footnotes, the book includes a series of interesting anecdotes from his travels, tying his ideas together with a human element. Those stories were what I found most enjoyable throughout the book.

Nuclear power plant in Belgium.

In the end, Shellenberger makes it clear he believes the only reliable zero-emissions clean energy is nuclear energy. While many may not agree, he provides solid evidence on its effectiveness, and also some history on why many nuclear projects were cancelled throughout the past. As someone who knows little about nuclear energy, other than its ill-effects, I found the information was fascinating. Overall, the book provides the narrative that we’re not on the path to complete destruction, but you might already know that. Check out this book if you’re interested in taking a deep dive on any of the main points referenced above, I guarantee you’ll learn something new.