«We’ve become lost in a dream world»
California is economically successful, but its cities have been destructed, says author Michael Shellenberger. He explains why he fell out with progressives and how Hollywood turns people into victims.
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Jim Morrison was once asked: «Why is so much happening in San Francisco?» He answered: «The West is the best.» Is the West still the best?
It depends what we call the West. In a way, San Francisco is a symptom of Western civilization, so we might ask whether Western civilization is still the best.
What’s your answer?
Absolutely. In human history, we’ve never recorded so much prosperity and freedom as under Western civilization. Our success has led us to forget that it depends on a material reality. We’ve become ideological – lost in media, lost in a kind of dream world. This started well before social media.
What is happening now?
We now see particularly the most civilized parts of civilization turning against civilization and undermining its own bases. We see this in the United States and very dramatically in its western part, where an ideology of de-civilization is being promoted, which is fundamentally a nihilistic philosophy. We see the destruction of some of the greatest cities of the West Coast, such as Seattle, Portland, San Francisco or Los Angeles, caused by people who reject Western civilization, but offer no positive alternative.
We grew up with American TV and movies. Hollywood has long exercised a lot of soft power. Does it still?
Hollywood retains significant global cultural power. But it’s also working to undo Western civilization. Maybe the greatest living filmmaker is Denis Villeneuve, the Canadian director of Dune, Blade Runner 2049 and Sicario. Villeneuve is advancing the anti-humanistic, deterministic ideas of philosopher Michel Foucault through film. In his films, heroes have no agency, they are products of a system that they can neither understand nor control. In Sicario, the female protagonist played by Emily Blunt has been sucked into a broader conspiracy, whose own protagonists are simply responding to broader forces. We can see the same in the films by the Coen brothers. It’s reminiscent of the pessimism in Schopenhauer’s work, where we are all just meat puppets, animals driven by urges and instincts, desires and drives that we’re blind to. When you see in a Hollywood film protagonists who do have agency, they’re often in service of a narrative that favors the Chinese government. Our best artists are making films that reinforce the idea that we don’t really have any control of our lives, that we’re victims of broader forces.
Recently, American actor John Cena has apologized in Chinese on Chinese social media after calling Taiwan a country.
Yes, that was like watching a horror movie. What a nightmare.
But still, Europeans see California as a dynamic and successful region. Would you describe it that way?
If you look at the numbers, California is the greatest economic success story in human history. With a Gross Domestic Product larger than India’s, it’s the fifth largest economy in the world. It has a gigantic quantity of billionaires. On the other hand, we have the highest poverty rate in the United States. An underclass of migrant workers is here illegally and works in often dangerous conditions, doing work that California citizens won’t do. The elite lives on hills like Beverly Hills or Berkeley Hills without seeing human misery and suffering. The downtowns of San Francisco, Los Angeles or San Diego have all been taken over by large open drug scenes. People overdose and die at shocking rates from smoking fentanyl and meth. One block from Civic Center, the main subway station in San Francisco, a 16-year-old girl was raped while she was overdosing. This depravity, this breakdown of civilization is occurring in the heart of our cities. These cities that moralized to the rest of the US about the need for walkable, livable cities have destroyed the ability to walk safely in the cities.
In your book «San Fransicko», you write that calls about human feces almost doubled between 2014 and 2018. In 2015, a lamppost corroded by urine collapsed and crushed a car.
Feces on the sidewalks, tent encampments, people acting like zombies because of hard drugs: These things are not the consequence of poverty. They’re the consequence of decadence and wealth. To some extent, you would say this is the end of American civilization: America has succumbed to entropy, it has turned on itself in the way that all empires do. And yet, the economy has never been more productive. In that sense, California still has incredible potential. I think that determinism is an illusion, it’s arrogant. The late senator Patrick Moynihan once said that the central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. But the central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save itself from itself. I think that California is ripe for a political intervention.
What are the main problems that need to be addressed?
The main goal is to restore our civilization and our humanity. That means we must shut down the open drug scenes, which requires three things. First, we need a «shelter first, housing earned» policy: Subsidized housing should be earned by people who need it as a reward for good behavior, and they should lose it if they behave badly. Second, we need universal psychiatry, with the same approach to psychiatric illnesses and drug addiction as in Europe. Finally, we need to enforce laws. There’s a big debate around whether we need to expand the ability to involuntarily commit the mentally ill or addicts. We may need to, but we can provide help just by enforcing the laws. We must deal with the drug scenes and the destruction of our cities before we can move on to our other huge problems. A 33 percent math proficiency rate and a less than 50 percent reading proficiency rate in our schools – those are numbers with which civilizations die. By enabling parents to have greater choice and students to get more personalized education, we can improve academic performance.
But law enforcement alone doesn’t solve the drug problem. In Zurich, we had an open drug scene in the 1980s. And it was changed to the better when the government stopped hunting junkies and let them take drugs in a clean environment. Could that be a solution for California?
The key is law enforcement and social services. In Zurich, they shut the open drug scene at Platzspitz down, but it moved to the Letten railroad station. If you just offer social services, then the addicts will say: «No, thanks.» If you just put people in jail, it doesn’t work either because you need to help people to achieve recovery. Zurich has 2000 housing places for different target groups. But there is zero tolerance for certain types of behaviors such as drug dealing or large gatherings of users. Zurich created the «four-pillar strategy» consisting of prevention, therapy, harm reduction and repression. There are social services, but they work in close cooperation with the police. Yes, you need love, but love is not all you need.
What made you turn to the problem homelessness and addiction?
In the 1990s, I worked to help decriminalize drugs for George Soros, the most important financier of these efforts. The original vision that I believed in was that we would help addicts in terms of rehabilitation. I believed in that. In the year 2000, 17 000 people were dying from drug overdose or drug poisoning in the US, which is already too many. But 17 years later, the number increased to 70 000. I wanted to know what went wrong. I asked myself: Why do progresses ruin cities? Why do the people who say they care the most about victims, who say they love cities the most, ruin cities and lives?
You paint a rather dim picture of California. The Democrats have been dominating all branches of government for years. What are they doing wrong?
It’s the idea that you can divide the world into victims and oppressors, and that people are frozen in those identities by nature of their identity or experience. To victims, everything should be given and nothing required. Furthermore, progressives think they must take revenge against the so-called victimizers by taking from them and redistributing to the victims. This victim ideology is central to the destruction of our cities. However, there are also financial motivations to maintain an untreated mentally ill and addict population. For example, there are housing providers that benefit.
You describe yourself as a lifelong Democrat and progressive, yet you sound like a conservative. Did you change, or did progressives?
Today, 106 000 people a year are dying of drug overdoses and poisonings and there are about 200 000 homeless people in California. That’s at least a fivefold increase in the last 30 years. When I was in my 20s, my heroes were Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. The idea was to get to a society where racism and race matter less. Today, the dominant view among liberals is that race and racism are the most important things. And if you suggest that they’re not, then you’re accused of racism. Clearly, something has changed. Have I changed? I have. I think that we need civilization. Western civilization allows for the liberation of everybody, not just rich white men. A friend of mine said liberals care about the poor, libertarians care about freedom, and conservatives care about civilization. If that’s the case, then I am all three. To care for the vulnerable and to have freedom, you need to have a functioning civilization with rules and laws.
As you mentioned, moving to Beverly Hills or some other rich neighborhood seems to be the preferred solution for those who can afford it. Is Californian society lacking a common ground? Is it heading toward a civil war?
There’s an expression in California: «Crime don’t climb.» If you want to live in California at peace from the open drug scenes, live on a hill. The addicts don’t push their shopping carts up the hill. That’s the current reality. But not the end of the story. I take a lot of hope from the experiences with open drug scenes in Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Vienna, and Zurich. They also lost a big chunk of their downtown to victim ideology until the residents got organized and said: «No, we don’t want to lose our civilization. We want to have our cities.» I am not a Republican in the pessimistic sense. Civilizations don’t have to die, and particularly not the greatest civilization that ever existed. Most human beings would rather live in free, democratic and capitalist California than in Putin’s Russia or Xi’s China. As long as this is the case, we win.
Let’s talk about another threat to civilization: environmental policy. Environmental activists want us to drive less, fly less, eat less meat. What’s wrong with that?
There’s nothing wrong with people choosing those things for themselves. What’s wrong is when people want to impose those things on others, particularly on people weaker than themselves. This kind of apocalyptic environmentalism is anti-human, nihilistic and destructive. It’s a power move by privileged people to keep Africans and South Asians poor and trapped in renewable, organic poverty. This is immoral as well as terrible for the natural world. It’s a way to maintain low efficiency agriculture, which is the greatest threat to our rainforests, and to keep us using wood and coal when we could be moving to nuclear and natural gas. We are in this wonderful transition away from coal to natural gas. But the radical anti-human environmentalists sought to shut down natural gas production worldwide. They lobbied to stop fracking for gas, and it now appears that many of them were funded directly by Russia. They have blood on their hands. We should hold Greta Thunberg, Al Gore and the United Nations (UN) Environment Program accountable.
Why the UN?
The UN last fall proposed that Africans should not use fossil fuels, at the very moment when Europe is shutting down its nuclear plants and returning to coal. The best thing for Africans would be to withdraw from the UN entirely. European and American elites want Africa to remain a playground where they can fly around and go on Safaris, a place to look down on. The thing that they’re most threatened by is that Africans will become rich through hydroelectric dams, fossil fuels and modern agriculture. We’re in a global revolt against this grotesque anti-human, pro-scarcity ideology, and those who most need to revolt are Africans and South Asians.
In your book «Apocalypse Never», you describe how you traveled to Latin America as a young activist and tried to convince small farmers to work in socialist cooperatives, but realized that they rather want to move to cities. Why do people in the West seem to be so much more enthusiastic about primitive lifestyles than people in poor countries?
Power and ideology. People want to feel powerful. Europeans look around the world and see that their power globally declines. Europeans don’t control Africa’s Destiny anymore. They’ve constructed an ideology of ostensibly altruism, aimed at keeping Africans in poverty. When I was in Rwanda, I went to a party at one of the great elite hotels of Kigali. A Belgian diplomat explained to me what benevolence he was doing by helping the Rwandans to develop a system to create natural gas from human feces. I asked him: «Is that what you do in Belgium? Do you get your power from human feces?» – «Well, that’s different. Belgium is civilized, you know.» I’m sure he thinks that he’s helping these poor primitives. In that sense, he’s no different from the Belgian colonizers in their attitudes.
The known total death toll of nuclear power is very low. Still, people are very afraid of this technology.
Nuclear power is the safest way to make electricity. We know that about 200 people have died directly or over time from Chernobyl. That contrasts to the 6 million deaths from air pollution every year. We know that nobody died from the radiation after Fukushima, but many people died from the panic and the relocation. Germans turn nuclear into a secular devil because it fits a secular religion that exists in all the West. Humans need demons, and nuclear energy has occupied that part of our mind. In 1000 years, it will be different.