Transcript: Michael Shellenberger On Homelessness, Addiction, Crime
The former far-left activist has a sobering reality check on the woke policies of West Coast cities.
I belatedly came to Shellenberger in my research on nuclear power’s potential to help cut carbon emissions. But his new book — on the terrible progressive governance in many American cities in recent years — is what gave me the idea to interview him. On homelessness, crime, addiction, and the fast-deterioration of our public spaces, San Fran-sicko, despite its trolly title, is empirical, tough-minded and, in my view, humane.
But make up your own mind, in what was one of the more timely conversations I’ve had on the Dishcast. We recorded it in mid-December 2021, and you can listen to it here. A few of Michael’s money quotes:
“What’s important to understand is that this woke ideology is supporting the same narrative that criminals use to justify committing heinous crimes, often homicide.”
“The thing is, liberals don't like crime either.”
“How would a society maintain its schools if people went around saying ‘Defund the Teachers’ and ‘the teachers don't matter to teaching’? I mean, it's twisted.”
Andrew: Hi there, it’s me again for the Dishcast. We have another really interesting discussion today, I hope with an interesting guest: Michael Shellenberger. He’s written the new book San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruined Cities, which is an aggressive title, but it’s also a really interesting book in a discussion of where we are in major American cities, especially on the West Coast where we’re obviously seeing quite horrifying, at least to me, scenes of homelessness, crime, shoplifting — just a sense of urban collapse in some parts of these big cities.
And I notice it also happening, to some extent, in other cities. You can feel it here in DC; the general sense of crime is definitely up, the general sense of fear and insecurity. There are tent camps just across the street from me where I'm in the studio, which never existed before. The plaza right in the middle of my neighborhood of Adams Morgan now has several tents in it, with people living. And it’s a confusing place — where have we gone? What are the roots of it? And that’s what Michael Shellenberger is trying to get at in this book. So thank you, Michael, for joining us. Tell me, first of all, where did you grow up?
Michael: I grew up in Greeley, Colorado, which is about an hour northeast of Denver in Boulder, on the plains. It’s famous for having one of the largest meat packing facilities in the country — a pretty conservative mid-size town.
Andrew: What do your parents do?
Michael: My father was a community college professor of psychology, and so is my stepmother. And then my mother and my stepfather were public school teachers.
Andrew: So what would you say was the most influential thing in your childhood and adolescence, in forging you as an adult?
Michael: I would definitely say my parents divorce and being hit by a truck and almost killed around on the exact same time. Had a big impact on me.
Andrew: Woah. How old were you then?
Michael: I was eight years old. And so I knew that no one had to give me lectures about why life was precious. I knew it was, and I wanted to make something of it and was an ambitious kid. My parents divorce was a difficult event, like for a lot of kids. So that was probably it. But nine years later I was going to San Nicaragua, living out a messianic complex.
Andrew: Let's take this step by step. So you are this nice boy from Colorado who had a horrible early life experience. And how do you get to Nicaragua to support — explain that trajectory to me?
Michael: Well, my father was much more radical left, grew up talking to us about Noam Chomsky — someone I read very early on, the famous American anarchist and linguist at MIT. My mother was more probably conventional FDR Democrat. I was a bright boy and strongly encouraged. I was bored by my hometown, which was very conservative. Even though I knew I was radical left, even before I knew what that meant, I just was almost instinctively, intuitively —
Andrew: Because of your parents, you think because of your parents?
Michael: Yeah, for sure. Central America was where I was at in the Eighties. That and the fighting of AIDS, but in terms of big left-wing causes — that and South Africa, that’s where the adventure was.
Andrew: So what did you do in Nicaragua and how did you go there?
Michael: Well, the left had organized these really sweet little schools in Nicaragua. It was in the middle of a civil war, but it was actually pretty safe in much of Nicaragua, much safer than it is now, since so much of the drug trade has moved through there. But it was a sleepy farm economy, almost pre-industrial, with a kind of futile aristocratic overlay. I studied Spanish and then traveled through Honduras and Guatemala into Mexico with a couple of older boys, learned some Spanish, entered tons of meetings and interviews. It was really quite a lovely experience.
I wrote an essay a few months ago called “Why I'm Not a Progressive,” where I talk about what changed for me, or what I see changed on the left is that in the Eighties, we had this idea of heroic, left-wing figures, Latin American socialists or Nelson Mandela, certainly King and Gandhi. And now it’s just so victim oriented, that stuff’s almost all gone. But that was a real attraction to me, the sense of adventure, but also a sense of being part of something bigger than myself.
Andrew: So you were a bit of a “red diaper baby,” as they used to call them. And how old were you when you were in Nicaragua?
Andrew: So you’re doing the sort of run-around-the-globe thing in your teens, then what happens to you?