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Interview with Michael Shellenberger
Michael Shellenberger is an author. His books include Apocalypse Never and San Fransicko. He is the founder of the publication Public.
Liberal Conservative Libertarian Christian
Max Raskin: From your politics, it’s pretty clear that you have positions on both the right and the left, but I wonder — in terms of your actual day-to-day life, do you look more like someone on the progressive left or someone more on the conservative right?
Michael Shellenberger: What do you mean by that?
MR: Do you own a gun, or do you go to Equinox?
MS: That's so funny. Culturally, I'm definitely more on the left. I just went to Stonehenge.
MS: Because it's incredible. It's one of the great mysteries. It's a calendar aligned with the summer solstice, and we don't know what it is. I think there's a bunch of questions that have not been resolved about our pre-history that are super interesting and are starting to come out now.
But culturally, I live in the Berkeley Hills. To boil it down, at the end of our political campaign we said, "I'm a liberal in my compassion for the vulnerable. I'm a libertarian in my love of freedom. And I'm a conservative in that I believe you need civilization to protect both of those things." The identity question is a very interesting one.
I think that the old view that liberals are important to move society forward and for progress, and conservatives are here to protect what you need to protect — I think that's still basically right. I do think that we have a better sense of the values that undergird these political ideologies thanks to the work of Jonathan Haidt and other social psychologists.
MR: His next book is going to be about the harmful impacts of cell phones and social media on Gen Z and I wonder — do you do anything in your personal life that would differ from your average person of your caste? Do you limit your phone time, for example?
MS: I regret not having limited the phone for the kids and some of it wasn't totally in my control. I think Jonathan Haidt has won that argument. I'm convinced. Keep the smartphones out of schools. I would just not allow kids to have them before the age of maybe 16, kind of like with cigarettes.
MR: Do you have a religious practice? Are you religious at all?
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MS: Yes, I'm a Christian.
MR: And are you sectarian?
MS: I am definitely Protestant, not Catholic. First of all, I'm not very good at talking about it. I had Michael Shermer, the skeptic, ask me about it, and he sort of assumed that to be Christian, one had to believe in the resurrection. That's not my view. My Christianity is centered around a particular three words, which is “love thy enemies.” For me, the center of being a Christian is attempting and perhaps failing to love your enemies.
I also think that living requires a kind of faith that your life is worth living and that you can't get there by reasoning your way to it.
But I'm very interested in the whole UFO phenomenon. That's traditionally been a more liberal secular concern, but it's very interesting to me that conservatives are covering it now. Tucker Carlson, the Daily Wire.
MR: Do you have a religious practice or a dogma?
MS: My wife and I pray before dinner. I believe in prayer. I have spiritual experiences all the time. I have spiritual experiences in nature. One of my most profound spiritual experiences was in a mosque in the UAE. I've always loved the ways that Muslims pray, getting really grounded. I love all the Eastern traditions and the sense of just being right here. I love death meditations.
MR: Like memento mori?
MS: Memento mori — this moment is so special, Max, you and I are never going to have a moment like this ever again in our entire lives. This is it. It's never going to be 9:11 AM this day for you and me. And so this moment is absolutely special.
MR: I believe that.
MS: We should make the most of it.
MR: Although I guess if you believe in eternal recurrence we’re going to have to deal with this conversation over and over again. Oy.
MS: Yes, but Nietzsche said that he actually thought it was true, which I don't believe for a minute, because he was famously deceptive. But eternal recurrence is a way of even more intensifying the moment.
Gen-X, Del Rey
MR: Let me ask you, what was the last book you read cover-to-cover?
MR: What was the last song you listened to front-to-back?
MS: It a must have a Lana Del Rey song. Is that my most cringe cultural reference?
MR: No no, I know who that is.
MS: I'm obsessed with Lana Del Rey.
MS: Because her songs are so full of emotion and they're so good at manipulating.
Emotion is still a hugely underrated aspect of human life. We're still in our heads so much, and we underrate that everything is a feeling, that everything has a feeling. And her music takes you there. So for me, it's so cathartic and therapeutic and she's such a different person than me. "Wow, I'm sharing emotions of heartbreak with this millennial female." But it shows the universality of it. And I think it gets out of that thing, this bad woke idea that you can't share experiences with people or something.
MR: Do you consider yourself a Gen X-er?
MS: Very much so.
MR: Where are your glasses from?
I'm obsessed with Caddis. We always don't take any advertising, but we always thought if we were going to take advertising, I'd want to get it from Caddis and Grammarly and Descript, all these things that I actually use all the time.
I'm not a materialistic-type person. My car is from 2002. I take pride in how old it is. But I just buy Caddis glasses that I don't need because I just am into them that much.
MR: Are you nearsighted or farsighted?
MS: No, no. It's just old age resulting in the requirement of reading glasses.
Tools of the Trade
MR: So let me ask you, so a couple of questions which are leading up to a final question in this series of questions.
You mentioned Grammarly. I'm really interested in the things that people use.
MS: I'm obsessed with Grammarly. I love it. I love Descript. I consume a lot of material, and I read quickly — I can move through texts.
If someone says, "God, this two-hour video is amazing." I'm like, "God no."
I can drop it in Parallels and then it yanks it from YouTube, then I put it into Descript and I get a transcript and then I can print it. And if I can print it, then I read it fast. So my printer, Descript, Parallels are amazing.
MR: Is there any app on your phone that you use that you'd recommend to people that they might not have heard of?
MS: I would say we use Signal and WhatsApp.
MR: When you say “we” are you speaking in the royal “we”?
MS: My staff and me.
MR: Can you check what your screen time is?
MS: Daily average is six hours.
MR: How does that number make you feel?
MS: Happy. I think I have a good relationship with my phone. I'm working in information, do you know what I mean? So I don't think I should have a normal time. Also, that's just the phone. If you were to combine the phone and the computer, I mean insane.
MR: Do you sleep a lot?
MS: Yes — I try to get eight hours.
MR: When your eyes open first thing in the morning, what's the first thing that you do?
MS: It alternates. It's either I just get out of bed, get my running shoes on, and go for a run.
MR: Immediately, without looking at your phone?
MS: No, if I'm running, I don't want to look at the phone usually.
MR: Do you listen to music while you run?
MR: What do you listen to?
MS: I cherry-pick good songs for running that are usually somewhere in between kind of pop, like high quality pop, and then more a faster beat with indie Gen X type music.
MR: Who's the first Gen X-er cultural figure or writer that comes to your mind right now?
MS: Douglas Copeland — he wrote the book, Generation X. I read it when I was in high school, and I was blown away. It's amazing.
MR: What do you think about David Foster Wallace?
MS: I love his essay on Federer as a religious experience, but I didn't love his books. I couldn't finish them, I found them pretentious.
MR: That's the correct answer.
MS: But the Federer essay is freaking amazing, you have to admit.
MR: Let me ask you this: How do you feel right now? Because you talked about being in the moment.
MS: I'm feeling happy because this is a totally different interview than what I had anticipated. This is much easier.
MR: What’d you think it was going to be?
MS: Well, I thought it was just going to be more boring. I thought it was going to be, “Why do you support nuclear power? What is your view of homelessness? What about censorship?” And I just do those interviews all the time. And so to be asked about really easy questions like “What's your favorite software?” Makes it an easier Monday morning conversation.
MR: Do you drink coffee?
MS: Oh my God, so much.
MR: Where's your favorite coffee shop?
MS: That's hard because I think that mostly they don't do a good job. I travel a lot and I find Google Maps to be to shockingly reliable. Especially if you're getting something at 4.7 or above. If you get a coffee shop that's like 4.9, those coffees are amazing really.
MR: And how do you take your coffee? What do you get?
MS: If it's a good coffee shop, I'll either go with drip or a cappuccino or a latte. My favorite drink — and this will make me sound super basic — is a flat white.
MR: What’s in your fridge?
MS: Just half-and-half.
MR: And it looks like there’s a bottle of wine there too.
MS: It's not for me because I don't drink. And it has been there for a year.
MR: Why don't you drink?
MS: I quit drinking in 2018 because I'd had enough. I had enough to drink.
MR: This is like what Churchill said — I’ve taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.
MS: That guy woke up drinking. I mean, he just drank all day.
MR: What brand of coffee do you like?
MS: I'm a total coffee snob. Right now, we're only drinking Intelligentsia because the flavors are just fucking unbelievable.
Six Feet Under Over Succession
MR: Is that “we” you and your wife or you and your staff?
MS: No, me and my wife.
MR: Why do you say “we” so much?
MS: That's interesting. I don't know. My wife and I are very different and very close. We're definitely in a very, very good place in the relationship, which relationships are always hard.
MR: How long have you been married?
MS: 10 years this fall.
MR: What would be your recommendation for a healthy marriage?
MS: The first is, don't put so much pressure on the relationship. Your partner doesn't have to be everything to you. The second one is, it's mostly got to be good. It definitely can't be half good, half bad. For me, it needs to be more 90% good or else what the fuck are you doing? And even that seems low — like you want to put it in 95%.
MR: Is that a question of just choosing the right partner, or is there something you can do to work towards that?
MS: I think choosing the right partner plus not putting too much pressure on the relationship.
MR: And what about exercise? You mentioned you run. What else do you do?
MS: I also lift weights.
MR: What routine do you do?
MS: Just free weights with a bench.
I bought these Ativafit weights that you can adjust with a little button and they're amazing. They take up no space.
MR: Do you have any hobbies?
MS: I do — although, as I'm getting older, I'm becoming simpler. I love my work so much that I'll do something else and then I'll be like, "God, I could just be working right now." I don't like the culture right now; I don't think it's producing very good TV or movies.
MR: What's the last show you binge-watched?
MS: The last show we binge-watched?
MR: Just for the record you said “we.” Very healthy.
MS: She likes more TV than me. I think it was Borgen.
MR: What's your favorite show that comes to mind right now?
MS: Well, we love Succession.
MR: What about of all time?
MS: Of all time, probably Six Feet Under.
MR: And why that?
MS: Because I think that having death at the center of it made it a really existential, life-affirming show.
Death and Therapy
MR: You mentioned the memento mori — do you think about death a lot?
MR: What do you think happens when we die?
MS: I think we have souls and that the souls live on. I don't know about dogs. So it's been a big question: What happens to my dog?
MR: How certain do you feel that we have a soul? If you had to assign a probability to it.
MS: It’s been a little challenged by some of the UFO stuff, but I would say depending on my mood, between 75 and 90%.
MR: Have you ever had any ghost or weird experiences?
MS: No ghost experiences.
MR: Are both your parents alive?
MR: What about for mental health — what do you do to stay mentally healthy? Do you go to therapy?
MS: I did all my therapy in my 30s.
MR: What kind did you do?
MS: Well, I did couples counseling — I'm divorced. I did couples counseling, then I did regular psychotherapy.
MR: Is couples therapy helpful or not helpful?
MS: I don't think couples therapy is helpful. I'm not saying for everybody, but I'm saying for me, it was more like I needed therapy and then I needed to not be in that marriage.
MR: What were some of the insights from the therapy you did in your 30s?
MS: The most important thing for me from therapy was just to get comfort with discomfort and to get comfortable with the feeling. I'm a big believer in CBT, which is kind of therapy, but it's also just sort of stoicism. For me, one of the biggest insights is there's a famous Robert Frost poem called, "Happiness Makes Up in Height for What It Lacks in Length."
I think the theory has been, and I kind of agree with it, that if you're happy, you want to feel it. It's a positive emotion, you're just going to be fully happy and then it's gone. Whereas sadness, you might resist it more, "I'm not sad” or “I'm not angry." So one of the things that you just learn is if you're feeling sad, you just feel sad. Say, "I'm feeling sad. Here’s why." And then I find that it actually doesn't tend to last. It still lasts longer than happiness, but it doesn't last as long as if you're denying.
I'm a high energy person, and so if I don't exercise and get the energy out physically, then it'll turn into anxiety and then the anxiety will turn into depression or sadness, I should say. And if you've got energy, go for a hard run or work out. And anger, in particular, I do think requires some kind of weightlifting. I find that when you're lifting weights sometimes you actually might feel some anger come out.
MR: You’d like jiujitsu.
MS: I know that's what Joe Rogan said to me. He was like, "I got a kickboxer you should work with in Berkeley." I think I'm a little old now.
MR: How old are you?
MR: Get out of here. There are guys in my gym in their 60s.
MS: I've always been attracted to it. So maybe you could recommend somebody in Berkeley or maybe I just need to text Joe.
MR: Why don't you ask him? But also, my jiu-jitsu instructor in New York might know someone.
MS: My friend Peter Boghossian is obsessed with Judo.
MR: The philosopher at NYU?
MS: Well, no. Peter Boghossian, he was a philosopher at Portland State, and he quit because of woke-ism.
MR: Oh. I'm thinking of Paul Boghossian.
MS: That's interesting.
MR: It's not like laugh out loud funny, but it's okay.
Mania! UFOs! Flossing!
MR: You made a point of saying sadness instead of depression. What was that about?
MS: Mental illness is a big part of my work. I think people sometimes say, "I was depressed." And they were really just sad. And I think that we should reserve the word depression for people that have it in a clinical way.
MR: Have you ever been clinically depressed?
MS: No. I'm very sympathetic to people that have been, I think it's a major issue. Same with schizophrenia, you know what I mean?
MR: So one of my guests said something like — everyone has a mental problem, that if left unchecked, could turn into a serious mental illness. What would be your mental illness?
MS: There’s a lot to this question because there's a bunch of people who argue all mental illnesses are on a spectrum and that depression is just being in sadness for a really long time.
It would probably be manic depression for me in the sense that I have to be careful not to be too excited about things because usually there's something wrong with some idea. And if you're too enthusiastic or overconfident in that idea, then you need to be more skeptical of it. I would say being too confident or too maniacal about something. I'm trying to bring that to the UFO stuff now. There’s something here, but people glom onto some ideas that they don't have evidence for, and so you try to stay evidence-based. That's why I like reporting being evidence-based.
MR: Do you take your dreams seriously?
MS: Yeah, mostly. Although today I woke up with a dream and it wasn't super interesting. It was more clearly just reflecting on some anxieties that I had recently. So sometimes they're interesting, but sometimes I think they're just noise.
MR: Do you want to share what the dream was?
MS: It was a dream around anxiety having to do with being in Britain and engaging in some sort of political activities. And I was just in Britain engaging in some kind of political activities. And so the anxiety was just related to a different issue.
MR: Do you want to share what that issue is or no?
MR: Do you floss?
MS: I do floss. I think the evidence was not great for it though.
MR: What do you mean?
MS: Well, I think there were some studies that it didn't have an impact.
MR: No way. I was just talking to someone who said if you don’t floss bacteria gets into your brain and causes all kinds of problems.
MS: It's more important to floss than to brush?
MR: That’s without a doubt true.
MS: I am very interested in that. My dad has Parkinson's. Both my parents have Parkinson's. I tend to blame their high carb diet.
MR: Did they floss?
MS: That's a good question.
Interviews with Max Raskin is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.