Against Apocalyptic Environmentalism

A discussion between Jordan Peterson and upbeat environmentalist Michael Shellenberger

Jordan Peterson, the celebrated psychologist and campaigner against restricted speech and other forms of censorship, has been back for quite a few months now after a long bout of mental and physical illness. His new, preferred format is long (1 to 2 hours) discussions with people who, like him, have done their homework and have something to say.

His latest discussion is with Michael Shellenberger, author of the book titled “Apocalypse Never”. I’ve watched the whole 1 hour 50 minutes of the conversation, and here are my notes and impressions of it. (I don’t claim my rendition is exhaustive. However, I think it provides a good idea of what was said.)

First of all: What a blessing it is, and how refreshing, in this age of quick memes, talking points and “cancellations”, to be able to follow two highly intelligent human beings involved in an exchange of ideas, ranging far, wide, and above all, deep, on some highly topical, contentious and relevant issues.

Early in the discussion, Shellenberger says that working on his book helped him come back to Christianity. He found that “having faith is rational.” He says he now says grace before meals, and had to overcome some pushback from family and friends. This statement is doubly interesting in light of what is discussed later on, namely that saying grace is also a kind of apology for having killed the food, or taken it from the ground, from nature, in the first place. Every religion has some such ritual with regard to food. The rise of vegetarianism and veganism in the wake (literally) of Christianity is a strong sign that this impulse is not dead at all.

[This is, BTW, the proper response to Stephen Hawking’s totally unscientific claim that all humans are, essentially, “parasites”.]

Shellenberger points out that groups like Extinction Rebellion promote things that don’t work, or are unreliable, like wind and solar farms, but they are against things that would work in the quest for a low carbon economy that doesn’t starve us to death, such as nuclear energy. The two men come to the conclusion that these groups want to “destroy the system”, and that this is typical of people who are (clinically) depressed.

Shellenberger also observes that all the utopianism that characterised environmentalism until about the year 2000 is gone. It’s now all about “preventing the worst”.

The drive to recycle plastic is irrational, Shellenberger contends, it would be environmentally friendlier to put it in landfill or incinerate it. In that context Peterson says that this reminds him of extreme cleanliness, a version of obsessive compulsive disorder, which is “conscientiousness gone astray”.

On an even deeper level, they discuss environmentalism as religion. God had been “overintellectualised”, Peterson says, and, being too lofty, got “blown away”. Now we see the re-emergence of the religious instinct as something concerned with the body – “the lowest level”. He predicts it will rise up to something too lofty again. The extreme drive for “sustainability” can be seen as an expression of the denial of death. Speaking in psychological terms, it’s an unbalanced manifestation of the (over-)caring mother. Without balance from the manifestation of the heroic, outgoing father, the caring mother will become the devouring mother. (There is also a devouring, tyrannical father lurking in our psyche, who will also gain ground if the heroic father is gone. These unbalanced psyches have an effect that goes far beyond the individual. They shape the destiny of whole societies.)

The notion of a climate apocalypse started in the late 1980s, when the threat of nuclear war was in a steep decline. That too points to the apocalyptic climate view as being a mass psychological problem, which simply tries to find a reasonably believable expression.

To be resilient to a number of different possible disasters, including climate change, we need continued economic growth – and to stop making the children depressed.

Another aspect of the climate apocalypse is that European and North American elites realise, with the rise of China, that their power and place in the world is diminishing. They are therefore desperately looking for something that gives them continued power. Telling the rest of the world how slowly, and with what means, they should be developing is their hope for continued relevance. (My take: These elites have a very strong grip on the mass media and therefore always try to shape the narrative to their advantage. The internet allowed for some pushback against this, but now the elites are trying to control content on the internet as well. Hopefully, that genie is out of the bottle for ever.)

Peterson makes the point that people who side with the free market against elite and government interventionist methods of supposedly saving the climate haven’t got a strong enough story to counter the apocalyptic narrative.

(Unfortunately neither Peterson nor Shellenberger come up with a suggestion what this story might be, other than reviving the concepts of personal responsibility and finding meaning in life. While these are necessary conditions, they are not sufficient to measure up to the strength of the “apocalypse” narrative. My suggestion is the Kingdom of God as a worthy goal, achievably by adhering to God’s commandments, as promised in Deuteronomy 28. We need to return to the God of Christianity. Shellenberger is at least on the right path here.)

The last half hour or so of the discussion is about Shellenberger’s new, upcoming book about “pathological altruism” preventing victims of the system from escaping their fate. The title of the book “San Fransicko”, referring to the permanent tent cities in San Francisco kept running by so-called “progressives” pushing back against anything that might smack of “blaming the victim”.

Here again we encounter the “devouring mother”. The progressives are claiming that there are people who are exclusively victims, says Peterson. Therefore, there must be exclusive oppressors. This is an unbalanced, pathological view of reality. It blends out the possibility of “heroism”. It therefore not only not demands it, it actively suppresses it. The hero’s journey, Peterson explains, is always a journey of spiritual transformation.

Here is Shellenberger’s website:

Here is Peterson’s Youtube channel. Note in particular is series “The Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories: Genesis