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February 11, 2013


Michael Shellenberger and Me

David Dean, February 11, 2013

By David Dean

As someone without a background in environmental science, I reacted to many of Michael Shellenberger’s comments with more questions than emotional opinions. His grand statements contradicting dominant voices of the environmental justice movement made me realize exactly what he wanted me to come to grips with: my own deficit of specific information regarding this movement and the vision it proposes.

Despite close contact with friends who are both educated and passionate about these subjects, I can tell you right now that I could not successfully counter Shellenberger’s argument for growing more food on even smaller plots of land to feed our large population. Though I have identified with the belief that sustainable local communities are the best bet for a more prosperous future for humanity and the environment, I have no evidence that suggests that this plausible in our current world. Aesthetically and even spiritually I find value in the idea. It really does “feel” right to me. But I still could not provide a cogent viewpoint as to why it would be more likely to save us from the climate crisis than Shellenberger’s proposed strategy of harnessing the competitive and innovative forces of global capitalism to produce affordable and cleaner energy sources.

Many of Shellenberger’s comments seemed cynical to me. I especially didn’t appreciate the ways in which he shrugged off the need to address hardships faced by poor communities because of things like fracking – or how he suggested that the positives of American global hegemony (i.e. an increase in some aspects of the global standard of living) could outweigh the negatives (i.e. overthrowing governments and massacring citizens throughout the world who refuse to comply with US political and economic interests). My confidence in my own critiques of Shellenberger’s social views gives me increased skepticism regarding his environmental ideas that I know less about.

To me, those in opposition to Michael Shellenberger’s claims should take his critique seriously, and use his presence as motivation to further cement their own beliefs in pragmatism – exactly what he claims they don’t have. Show him that you do not have naïve convictions rooted in religious zeal or idealism. He does not have the authority to decide if you are being a simple-minded romantic with revolutionary angst and emancipatory musings. Ground your vision in practical wisdom and then show it to the world. That’s what I’m going to do.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. learyn
    Feb 11 2013

    Growing food more efficiently (more yield per unit land), and the positive role technological advances can play in enabling people to feed themselves, are important, as highlighted by Shellenberger in his talk. But two thoughts on this:

    First, I think he is wrong to dismiss organic, sustainable farming as inadequate to the task. There is nothing low tech about the way sustainable farming is conducted today, and reported yields per acre are sometimes greater than achieved by conventional farms. Sustainable farming practices, which lessen undesired impacts of producing food while also offering high yields, warrant continued experimentation, consideration and expansion.

    Second, there is truth in what Amartya Sen wrote in 1981 (Poverty and Famines) about hunger not being a problem of there being enough food to eat, it is a problem of not having enough food to eat. Yes, low yields and poor harvests play a role. But the primary problem is insufficient access to food – which is a function of poverty, poor governance, and social inequality. The technologies Shellenberger talked about will not address the underlying causes of hunger and malnutrition. But they could be addressed by the broader sustainability movement.

  2. David Dean
    May 5 2013

    Thanks for the comment Neil!


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