In his latest book, “Enlightenment Now,” Steven Pinker credits ecomodernists — a new breed of environmentalists — for their forward-thinking approach to challenges such as climate change, energy, and land use. Pinker praises Michael Shellenberger, a founder of the ecomodernism movement, for defying old-guard greens who reject modernity and fantasize about a future without carbon dioxide emissions and “small co-ops in the Amazon forest where peasant farmers and Indians would pick nuts and berries to sell to Ben and Jerry’s for their ‘Rainforest Crunch’ flavor.”
Pinker now has joined other scientists and Nobel-Prize winners to ask California media outlets to allow Shellenberger, a long shot candidate for governor in that state, to participate in upcoming debates: “By including Michael into the debates, you would allow a broader set of ideas to be discussed that have not been discussed to date, such as changes to the school calendar to allow more instruction time; the use of nuclear energy to mitigate climate change; and new approaches to the state’s housing and homelessness crisis.”
But his fellow Democratic opponents, including front-runner Gavin Newsom, California’s lieutenant governor, may not want voters to hear what Shellenberger has to say before the June 5 primary. He is taking direct aim at the state’s corrupt cronyism, fueled by Newsom and incumbent Gov. Jerry Brown, and “California’s political machine [that] is controlled by family dynasties whose wealth has come from oil and real estate since the 1960s.” Shellenberger’s campaign platform focuses on affordable housing, poor-performing schools and the state’s spiraling public pension debt.
In a national political climate ruled by tribalism, Shellenberger, 46, has no tribe. After years of environmental activism, he reversed his opposition to nuclear energy, making him a foe to one-time allies. His new nonprofit, Environmental Progress, bucks the dogma of stale green groups such as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club and he fights to keep open nuclear plants here and abroad. A longtime resident of Berkeley, the birthplace of the local, sustainable food crusade, Shellenberger supports genetically engineered crops and questions how organic agriculture can feed a growing world population.
In 2004, Shellenberger declared that the traditional environmental movement was dead, blasting its insularity, myopia and elitism. “We have become convinced that modern environmentalism, with all of its unexamined assumptions, outdated concepts and exhausted strategies, must die so that something new can live,” he said.
His diagnosis was prescient: Legacy environmental groups are increasingly hostile to technology and progress while the public becomes less interested in their agenda such as anthropogenic global warming.
Fourteen years later, Shellenberger is sounding the same alarm about the Democratic Party. A lifelong progressive who voted for Hillary Clinton, Shellenberger last week admitted President Trump was right when he said Brown has “done a very poor job running California.” He lamented the fact that California has “the highest rates of poverty and inequality in the country.” He criticized Clinton’s recent comments in India about how Trump voters are “backwards” and white women voted for Trump because their husbands and bosses told them to.
I connected with Shellenberger in 2015 when I was researching agricultural biotechnology, commonly known as GMOs. He had just released “An Ecomodernist Manifesto,” which, much like Pinker’s book, celebrates how “humanity has flourished over the past two centuries.” While nearly all environmental groups oppose genetically engineered crops, ecomodernists acknowledge that due to “technological improvements in agriculture, the amount of land required for growing crops and animal feed for the average person declined by one-half.”
The manifesto’s optimistic and somewhat patriotic tone was unlike anything I had read from mainstream environmental activists, and Shellenberger is not your typical, laid-back, crunchy green. A tall, slight man, he’s wired with an unending supply of energy (his full platform is 100-pages long). His accent has a Valley-like sound to the untrained ear, although he assures me it’s native to his home state of Colorado, where he grew up before attending college in Indiana and settling in the Bay Area. He speaks effortlessly about Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Malthus.
Shellenberger is also not your typical progressive.
“A lot of manufacturers here are relocating to Texas because we’re hostile to manufacturing,” he told me from his Berkeley home. “If we’re being honest, we are in the current situation we’re in because of labor unions and environmentalists who have put all these regulations in place. Their policies are responsible for the flight of jobs and the housing crisis.”
Shellenberger also breaks with national party leaders from California, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, on key parts of the immigration debate. “The truth is that everybody basically agrees on immigration,” he said. “We need to control the borders and create a situation where the people who are here undocumented can earn a chance to stay.”
Even though he opposes deporting illegal immigrants not accused of a crime other than being undocumented, Shellenberger rejects tactics by Democrats to subvert federal law enforcement. “By warning undocumented immigrants of an impending Immigrations and Customs Enforcement raid, [Oakland] Mayor Schaaf both imperiled the law enforcement agents involved in the raids and the law-abiding immigrants she and other sanctuary advocates claim to be protecting,” he wrote on his campaign website.
But it’s the arrogance and elitism of the Democratic Party that concerns him the most. “White, working-class workers have been displaced and liberals have failed in having any empathy for them. They are victims of unfair trade policies and failing schools. There is a lack of care for these folks,” he told me. He also repudiates the race-baiting and name-calling prevalent in Democratic political messaging. “Everything is racist, all the time. It’s at a point of absolute ridiculousness.”
In a state where the Republican Party is essentially non-existent, Shellenberger hopes to attract independents and center-right Republicans to his unlikely but pragmatic candidacy. Regardless of what happens on June 5 in California, Shellenberger should keep talking — and Democrats should listen.