C O N T R O V E R S Y
This film has aroused heated controversy, and we find that to be justified given the inherent contradictions we often encounter in this subject (which the film is very good at highlighting). As things stand we tend to side with director Gibbs, his critique of "greenwashing" and the virtual capture and evisceration of the environmental movement a truth requiring much ampler dissemination. However, since the debate about the urgent problems covered by the documentary is an ongoing process, we are presenting here both the film and its critics, hoping to expand and deepen the discussion—while we still have some time to correct our course. But, can we do that, short of a complete overthrow of the current capitalist paradigm?
Michael Moore Presents: Planet of the Humans | Full Documentary |
Directed by Jeff Gibbs
[dropcap]R[/dropcap]ecently, petrolhead pundit Jeremy Clarkson was thought to have disgraced himself by pointing out that the hi-tech sea yacht used by Greta Thunberg for her transatlantic crossing, for all its solar panels and underwater turbines, had an old-fashioned diesel engine aboard for emergencies. I thought about Clarkson’s jibe while watching this refreshingly contrarian eco-documentary from environmentalist Jeff Gibbs, which has been uploaded for free online viewing by its executive producer, Michael Moore.
Gibbs has a cheeky habit of going backstage at music festivals that solemnly declare themselves to be using 100% renewable energy, only to find that the fancy array of solar panels behind the tent is enough to power a single bass guitar. The rest of the energy is provided by just plugging into the shameful old electricity grid, provided by fossil fuels. He sees it as symptomatic of the mainstream environmental movement, running on delusional piety.
All the green, liberal A-listers – Bill McKibben, Al Gore, Van Jones, Robert F Kennedy Jr – are attacked in this film as a pompous and complacent high-priest caste of the environmental movement, who are shilling for a fossil fuel industry that has sneakily taken them over. (Although it should be said that, for all his radical bravado, Gibbs does not dare criticise Thunberg.)
Big Oil and its corporate and banking representatives have, according to this film, found a way to rebrand themselves as green or greenish, to use the green movement for their own ends, and to get their mitts on the huge subsidies that taxpayers around the world are handing over to anyone claiming to be developing renewable energy resources, which turn out to be the same old fossil-fuel entities in different packaging.
Solar panels and wind turbines? These provide no energy when there is no sun or wind and degrade after only a few decades, says Gibbs. And in any case they need a lot of fossil fuels in their manufacture: silicon, cobalt, silver, graphite, rare earths – and of course coal. The same goes for manufacturing storage batteries. Factories claiming to have gone “beyond coal” again and again turn out to be relying on natural gas. Corporate behemoths such as Apple make spurious claims for their energy usage. But how about the ultra-fashionable new “renewable” energy source: biomass or wood-chips? This is basically a colossal logging industry that requires a lot of fossil fuel energy to harvest and transport the material. As Gibbs’ interviewees point out, you might just as well as burn the fossil fuels in the first place. And it is laying waste rainforests and areas of natural beauty.
This, says Gibbs, is the queasy merger of environmentalism and capitalism – and he makes a refreshingly sceptical case. But he takes it further, suggesting that unfettered capitalism and its insanity of eternal growth on a finite planet is also what is leading us to the cliff edge. True enough, although his comments on overpopulation have an unintentionally ironic chime, in the middle of the Covid-19 outbreak.
Most chillingly of all, Gibbs at one stage of the film appears to suggest that there is no cure for any of this, that, just as humans are mortal, so the species itself is staring its own mortality in the face. But he appears to back away from that view by the end, saying merely that things need to change. But what things and how?
It’s not at all clear. I found myself thinking of Robert Stone’s controversial 2013 documentary Pandora’s Promise, which made a revisionist case for nuclear power: a clean energy source that (allegedly) has cleaned up its act on safety and really can provide for our wholesale energy needs without contributing to climate change, in a way that “renewables” can’t.
Gibbs doesn’t mention nuclear and – a little lamely, perhaps – has no clear lesson or moral, other than the need to take a fiercely critical look at the environmental establishment. Well, it’s always valuable to re-examine a sacred cow.
Planet of the Humans is directed and narrated by Jeff Gibbs, a self-proclaimed “photographer, campaigner, adventurer, and storyteller” who has co-produced some of Moore’s films. The documentary came out on Earth Day, positioning itself up as some tough, real talk not just about renewable energy but environmental groups. And by real talk, I mean it cast renewables as no better than fossil fuels and environmental groups as sleek corporate outfits in bed with billionaires helping kill the planet. As Emily Atkin put it in her HEATED newsletter on Thursday, “[e]ntertaining good-faith arguments about how to stop climate change is my job, and I have no reason at present to believe Moore and director Jeff Gibbs argued in bad faith.” Indeed. So I decided to listen to what they had to say.
I’ll leave the film criticism to those wiser than me (though I will say I feel like I didn’t watch three acts but three separate movies), but I will say this: The movie—which is available for free on YouTube and is currently on the service’s trending list with 1 million views in 24 hours—is deeply flawed in both its premise, proposed solutions, and who gets to voice them.
The movie’s central thesis is that we are on the brink of extinction and have been sold a damaged bill of goods about all forms of renewable energy by environmental groups motivated by profit. Essentially, the argument is we’re all dirty and the stain will never come out no matter how hard we try.
The film also goes through great lengths to throw solar and wind in the same boat as burning biomass for power. The latter relies on serious carbon accounting bullshittery to be carbon neutral. A critique of biomass is fair and something I would honestly have watched a whole film about. And ditto for the film’s critique of large environmental organizations, which rely on large funders that may provide money with strings attached (though Bill McKibben, one of the film’s targets and founder of 350.org, came out strongly critiquing how he and the organization were portrayed).
The film, for example, highlights the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, which has helped shutter more than 300 coal plants around the U.S. The program’s biggest donor is Mike Bloomberg, who sees natural gas—which has replaced much of that coal capacity—as a bridge fuel (which it is decidedly not).
And this is where the narrative Gibbs tells and the one we need to be telling diverges. Gibbs is happy to trash the unholy alliance between big green groups and big dollar funders who have, in some cases, made their fortunes on extractive industries and the system that relies on their existence. That can lead to conflicts—real or perceived—about how green groups spend their time. And frankly, I’m there with him.
Gibbs’ uses this situation to take the leap to population control as the only solution. Yes, renewables are bad and so are billionaires and the corporate-philanthropic industrial complex so, Gibbs concludes, we should probably get rid of some humans ASAP. Over the course of the movie, he interviews a cast of mostly white experts who are mostly men to make that case. It’s got a bit more than a whiff of eugenics and ecofascism, which is a completely bonkers takeaway from everything presented. If renewables are so bad, then what does a few million less people on the planet going to do? Oh, and who are we going to knock off or control for? Who decides? How does population control even solve the problem of corporate influence on nonprofits and politics?
Those questions lead to a dark place. We’ve already had a glimpse of what that ideology looks like in the hands of individuals. The alleged manifesto penned by last year’s El Paso shooting suspect sounds an awful lot like Gibbs’ movie, arguing that extractive companies “are heading the destruction of our environment by shamelessly overharvesting resources” and that we to “get rid of enough people” to get things back in balance. Which is a whole lot of nope.
I don’t mean to say Gibbs is therefore an ecofascist. But to see an ostensibly serious environmental movie backed by an influential filmmaker peddle these ideas is genuinely disturbing, especially at a time when we’re seeing it pop up elsewhere in response to the coronavirus. Also side note that it’s also incredibly myopic that Gibbs goes after environmental nonprofits for taking corporate money while ignoring the Sierra Club’s and other early conservation group’s history of support for racist ideas about population control he nods to as a solution (it should be noted some groups are trying to make up for past misdeeds today).
What’s most frustrating about Gibbs’ film is he walks right up to some serious issues and ignores clear solutions. The critique of the compromised corporate philanthropy model is legit. We should absolutely hold nonprofits to account when they don’t live up to their missions. But the solution isn’t to take the leap to population control. It’s to tax the rich so they can’t use philanthropic funding as cover for their misdeeds while simultaneously filling government coffers to implement democratic solutions.
There’s a reason that Breitbart and other conservative voices aligned with climate denial and fossil fuel companies have taken a shine to the film. It’s because it ignores the solution of holding power to account and sounds like a racist dog whistle.
We also should absolutely interrogate the systems and supply chains of renewable energy. The lithium industry’s violent toll on land and people in Latin American countries with vast reserves is real. Letting corporations run the show promises to lead to future violence, regardless of how many people live on Earth. The film doesn’t interview any of the new wave of environmental leaders who see the fight against these injustices and the climate crisis as intrinsically linked. It’s too bad since that’s a message Gibbs—and the rest of the world—need to hear now more than ever.
Puke if you must
This bloodsoaked monster is probably the most evil person on planet earth https://t.co/nGq2H1EPHt
— Ben Norton (@BenjaminNorton) April 9, 2020
^3000US citizens have no real political representation.
We don't live in a democracy. And our freedom is disappearing fast.
I don't want to be ruled by hypocrites, whores, and war criminals.
What about you? Time to push back against the corporate oligarchy.
And its multitude of minions and lackeys.
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