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Robert Zubrin: Why we need a technological environmentalism

Robert Zubrin, The New Atlantis

Saving the planet means going high-tech, not back to nature.

In the 1930s, many idealistic people of good will enlisted in the communist movement, only to discover that its promised land offered not heaven on Earth but hell. Having gone through that experience, writers like George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, and Whittaker Chambers shared their hard-won wisdom in some of the twentieth century’s most noteworthy books, so that others like them, and most certainly society as a whole, might be duly warned from making the same mistake.

In Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All, veteran environmental activist Michael Shellenberger makes an excellent attempt to deliver a similar signal warning against today’s most seductive political cult.

Shellenberger’s personal voyage of discovery began as a young green movement missionary seeking to protect indigenous peoples from the alleged harms of economic development. On these travels he discovered the real evil crushing the lives of billions of people — poverty — and how the limitations imposed on them by some of the richest of the world’s elites in the name of conservation not only prevented their escape from brutal grinding poverty but undermined the putative goal of preserving the wonders of nature.

In further pursuit of this insight, Shellenberger then takes the reader on a tour of the African horror show. There, European aristocrat–led organizations like the World Wildlife Fund — following the example of Sierra Club founder John Muir, who advocated for the expulsion of Native Americans to create the Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks — have paid local potentates to clear vast lands of over 14 million poor natives to create game reserves for their aesthetic pleasure. Far from protecting wildlife, however, these cruel projects have served to incite their victims to seek revenge by killing the animals that displaced them.

Shellenberger contrasts this model of environmental preservation with that of economic development fueled by electricity generation, which gets people off the land not at gunpoint, but through the offer of city jobs in factories and offices. Environmentalists have denounced these opportunities as “sweatshops,” but Shellenberger shows that for those able to seize them they are godsends, allowing them to leave behind backbreaking rural lives hauling water and chopping wood to become motor-scooter-liberated commuters, riding home from work to electrified apartments with lighting, air conditioning, electric stoves, indoor plumbing, and flat-screen TVs.

Shellenberger then generalizes from such particulars to develop a broader theory of environmental conservation that is not in conflict with human needs, but coherent with them. His theory is based on two main principles. First: that to preserve the natural we must embrace the artificial. And second, as a central example derived from this, that we must base our civilization on the densest possible energy sources. A substantial part of the book is devoted to unpacking these two principles.

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