Michael and Me

Why I won’t be commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Death of Environmentalism with its coauthor

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the publication of the Death of Environmentalism. Its publication began my personal journey from progressive political consultant, operative, and pollster to a leader in the ecomodernism movement and advocate for nuclear energy and a non-catastrophic view of climate change. Next month, we’ll be commemorating the essay and reflecting on its import and impact at the Breakthrough Dialogue. And I’ve written quite a bit the last few years about the ways in which the essay remains highly relevant today.

But one thing I’ve not said much about as that anniversary approaches is my coauthor. Michael Shellenberger is far better known today as a right-wing political influencer than he ever was during the period we worked together. He left Breakthrough almost a decade ago, over significant differences in political strategy, policy priorities, and personal style. I’ve been happy to account for and stand behind the work we did together. And I’m proud of Breakthrough’s work and the impact that we have had before and since his departure. But while I feel no particular responsibility to account for what he has been up to since he left, I, like many others who were once close to Michael, have been increasingly troubled by his trajectory.

Like Michael, I long ago left the progressive environmental echo chamber. But Michael has gone through a MAGA-tinted looking glass and now trafficks in deep state conspiracies about UFOs, January 6th, and social media censorship far nuttier and more extreme than anything that his former progressive allies could ever have conjured up.

We’ve long been committed to open conversation and debate across the political divide at the Breakthrough Institute. And I’ve always believed that ecomodernism needed to be a big tent that welcomed a wide spectrum of ideological viewpoints. But Michael won’t be invited to the Breakthrough Dialogue in June when we celebrate the Death of Environmentalism. As that event approaches, I think it’s important for me to make clear exactly what I think is troubling about Michael’s current incarnation, what, at least in my view, is not, and how that relates to the work of Breakthrough and ecomodernism.

How it started

For me, reckoning with the work Michael and I did together and its continuing legacy, alongside what has transpired since that time, is personally complicated. Many of my most important professional accomplishments are tied up, inextricably, with Michael’s. I would not be the person I am today had we not been friends and collaborators for almost twenty years and business partners and co-founders for almost ten.

I first met and started working with Michael in the mid-1990s, on the campaign to save the Headwaters Forest. We founded the Apollo Project and authored the Death of Environmentalism in the early 2000s. We became close through our work, traveled the world, and built our careers together. We were best men at each other's weddings and shared many personal and professional triumphs and difficult losses as well.

He was, I think it is fair to say, the Id to my Ego. Michael was an unguided missile to whom I often provided strategic vision and intellectual discipline. Absent that relationship, I doubt that I would have found my voice as a public intellectual, so determined was Michael that the two of us would have a voice, even if he really had not much idea what exactly it would be.

I also don’t believe that Michael would have found his way to the heresies that we authored absent our relationship. Michael was a voracious reader, researcher, and writer. But he didn’t really possess a particularly skeptical mind. His ambition tilted him much more toward the current thing than questioning it. He liked the idea of being a revolutionary but was prone to simply accepting whatever it was that the left wing experts he preferred believed and then turning up the volume and controversy.

I think that was why he was drawn to me. I possessed something he didn’t have, a bullshit meter and congenital skepticism towards the things that everyone in our social and political circles seemed to believe without often knowing why, or at least having dug very deeply or skeptically into the underlying basis for those claims and beliefs.

We worked off and on together for a few years after we first met. But our collaboration, and the beginnings of Michael’s disenchantment with the Left, really began in earnest amidst the madness of the post-9/11 George W. Bush era. He had been a left-wing firebrand and something of a public relations prodigy, a Chavista and darling of Earth First and the anti-globalization Left. Though he was young, he quickly worked his way up the progressive food chain, raising money from foundations to work for progressive NGOs to get them in the news and on the agenda.

Around 2001, he sold his PR company in a deal that didn’t work out as he had hoped. In the aftermath, Michael was unmoored. He had lost his firm and his clients. And in the absence of those clients, Michael had no one to direct his talents. Our collaboration was always iterative and creative. But during those years, I often played the role of de facto client and sounding board and Peter Teague, the newly hired environmental program director at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, became our funder.

The genesis of virtually all that came after, the Apollo Project, the Death of Environmentalism, the shift in climate policy toward public investment and away from carbon regulation, and the birth of the pro-nuclear and ecomodernism movements, have their origins in the collaboration between the three of us. We didn’t always get all of it right, at least not at first. And there were many others who played important roles. But I remain immensely proud of that legacy and grateful to both Michael and Peter for the roles that they played in it.

How it ended

That collaboration came to an end in 2015. Growing differences around what sort of organization Breakthrough Institute needed to be, around how much of our work would focus primarily around nuclear energy, and around how and in what ways we would have conflict with mainstream environmental advocates led to Michael’s departure from Breakthrough.

I think that Michael expected to eat our lunch after he left, that our funders and allies all knew that he was obviously, as Reggie Jackson famously described himself, “the straw that stirs the drink.” But it didn’t work out that way. Michael, it turned out, had not much talent for organization, fundraising, or strategy. For a time, he played a role as a kind of pied piper for the pro-nuclear movement. And there are, without question, plenty of nuclear advocates he inspired. But the organization he created, Environmental Progress, was never anything more than a personal vehicle for whatever his ambitions of the moment happened to be.

As he has shifted steadily to the right politically, many progressives — some former admirers, most long-time haters — have concluded that this is the inevitable endpoint of the environmental heresy that we initiated two decades ago. But that misunderstands both heterodoxy and Michael. The challenge of being heterodox, of doing something politically or intellectually in the world that is genuinely new, is to live without a country. I have always been proud to wear the label that Bryan Walsh, then at Time Magazine, now at Vox, bestowed upon Breakthrough in 2010, as being “unclassifiable Californians.” The pressure, and almost all of the incentives, politically, socially, professionally, and financially, are, as a branding consultant we briefly retained many years ago urged, to “get classifiable.” I’m proud to have resisted that advice and intend to continue to do so.

Michael, by contrast, is back to where he started, just on the other side of the political spectrum. His original superpower was for finding an audience and getting its attention. There is nothing particularly original in anything he is doing these days, whether it entails UFOs and January 6th conspiracies or transgender issues. He has simply followed his audience, the folks who liked his nuclear advocacy and his arguments about homelessness and addiction and most especially “owning the libs” and leveraged it to aggregate and, not incidentally, monetize a larger audience. He is MAGA because much of that audience is MAGA. And while he always had some inclinations toward conspiratorial thinking, I believe he has become increasingly conspiratorial because the audience is conspiratorial - the paranoid style being very obviously alive and well in American politics today.

Part of his brand is that he used to be on the Left and “changed his mind.” But that is the classic tale of the convert, not the heretic. And while it is convenient for many on the Left to conflate the two, doing so only blinds progressives to their own weaknesses and dogmatisms. Michael, despite his many excesses, is not wrong about everything. Nuclear energy is an important environmental technology. Apocalyptic environmentalism is both wrong and, increasingly, bad for the mental health of people who have come to hold that view. On both points, growing numbers of people across the political spectrum agree.

And while I am no expert on either homelessness or disinformation, one doesn’t need to spend much time walking around my hometown of Berkeley to see that Michael is obviously not entirely wrong about the limits of compassion in helping the hardcore homeless. Nor does one need to believe in a government-led conspiracy to censor conservatives (hatched supposedly during the Trump administration) to see that public fact checking and other ostensibly neutral efforts to combat disinformation have often had a partisan bias, even if one recognizes that there is a lot of genuine disinformation that needs, in some way, to be addressed.

Is it dangerous?

Many people I know now believe that Michael is dangerous. Perhaps he is. To me, he mostly looks like a somewhat different flavor of right wing outrage jockey. Whichever is the case, one thing I am pretty sure about is that insofar as Michael is dangerous, it is his conspiracism, his insistence that the future of civilization itself is at stake in the various culture war tropes that he has chosen to amplify, and the convert's zeal to prove his bonafides to his newfound brothers and sisters, not his criticisms of environmentalists, his advocacy for nuclear energy, or his support for local resistance to renewable energy projects, that we should worry about.

Agree or disagree on the latter issues, they are manifestly important debates that we should be having much more publicly and civilly. When progressive climate and energy gatekeeping shuts down open discussion and debate about the nature of climate risk, the role of government in accelerating the adoption of low carbon technology, the trade-offs between climate mitigation and other important societal objectives, and the technological pathways to and constraints upon a low carbon global economy, it doesn’t serve efforts to build a sustainable social consensus for climate action or implement an effective climate policy agenda but rather undermines them.

The result of that gatekeeping has been that progressives, environmentalists, and leading Democratic politicians today increasingly make claims about climate change and climate risk that both poison the well and debase climate science, even as climate change, despite these deceits, remains a low priority issue for every sector of the American public, including the mythical youth vote.

Progressive technocratic climate wonkery has not fared much better. Just two years after its passage, it is already clear that the Inflation Reduction Act is likely to cost significantly more than promised while delivering far less, in terms of emissions reduction and deployment of clean technology. Subsidies for clean energy have not been followed by necessary regulatory reform that might allow its deployment at rates that begin to approach the targets set by the Biden administration. Electric vehicles remain play things for the rich and liberal — despite heavy direct subsidies for both producers and consumers — while every US automaker, from Tesla to the Big Three, is bleeding money from their EV divisions. Meanwhile public support for once popular policies to support wind, solar, batteries, EV’s, and heat pumps has curdled in the face of the entirely partisan reconciliation vote for IRA, heavy handed regulatory proposals from the Biden administration and blue states like California, and rising electricity prices.

Love or hate the Breakthrough Institute and ecomodernism, the project has always been in service of breaking the grip of the zealotry and dogmatism that environmentalism holds over the Left and the Democratic Party, in order to create some space for a non-catastrophist ecological politics that embraces modernity, growth, development, and technology both pragmatically and unapologetically.

Whether in regard to climate change and the environment, or many other issues, we need more people and institutions willing to live without a country. The object of extremism, whether on the Left or the Right, is to force the rest of us to choose, to limit our options to 1 and 0 and make it untenable for anyone to sustain any other posture. Acceding to those demands can not conceivably serve pluralism or revitalized, democratic self-government.

Almost thirty years after I met him, I find what Michael has become in recent years, on the one hand, entirely predictable - not because of his politics, which were always more malleable than many might have imagined, but because of his personality, which always cast himself as a heroic agent of history. And yet, it is also completely gobstopping. His politics, his writing, his demeanor, and even his physical appearance is hardly recognizable to me any longer.

There are ample reasons to condemn his turn toward demagoguery and conspiracy. But progressives eager to use Michael’s transformation as a cautionary tale and cudgel to shut down criticism should be careful what they wish for. For if recent years have shown us anything, it is not at all clear which side will prevail in the zero sum political battles that gatekeeping and ideological enforcement of this sort inevitably produce.