by Philip Cafaro and Jane O’Sullivan
A full-length feature film from Michael Moore and long-time collaborator Jeff Gibbs, first screened last year, has just been released for free viewing on YouTube, garnering over 3 million views in less than a week. While flawed in several ways, it nevertheless makes a valuable contribution to the public discourse on environmentalism. In our view, it is essential viewing for serious environmentalists.
Planet of the Humans’ main thesis is that modern environmentalism is a failure. It’s a plausible thesis, according to the recent scientific literature on climate change and biodiversity loss. Greenhouse gas emissions are increasing, the planet is getting hotter, and extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and more dangerous. The Earth has lost 50% to 60% of its wild vertebrate numbers in just the past 50 years, with most species declining in numbers, many drastically. Whatever your views on the way forward environmentally, we can probably all agree that the status quo isn’t working and that we need more frank public discussion of these matters. Kudos to Gibbs and Moore for spurring such discussions.
Many critics of the film have noted inaccuracies and outdated information in its treatment of renewable energy. The film arguably gets the importance of quickly transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy drastically wrong. But many environmentalists err in the other direction by inflating the benefits of this transition and more importantly, by failing to fit it into a larger context of limiting overall human demands on nature.
Contemporary mainstream environmentalism has degenerated into advocacy of technological solutions to climate change, narrowly understood as a matter of efficient resource use. Environmentalism needs to return to a comprehensive critique of human overpopulation, overconsumption, and overdevelopment—and become a movement aimed at creating societies with fewer people, more protected areas, and economies that support limited numbers of people comfortably rather than ever more people in luxury.
If the public comments on YouTube are an accurate indication, many viewers of Planet of the Humans agree with its criticisms of environmental leaders’ cosiness with big business and the movement’s over-reliance on technological fixes to deal with our environmental problems. But many of them also wonder: if technology won’t save us, what will? Unfortunately, as critics have noted, the film is short on solutions. It quotes Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute (“There are too many human beings using too much, too fast”) and Nina Jablonski, an anthropologist at Penn State University (“Population growth continues to be, not the elephant, the herd of elephants in the room”). But it chooses not to wade into the realm of policy proposals to tame economic and demographic growth—a missed opportunity in our opinion (see TOP’s comprehensive policy suggestions here).
Being a Michael Moore film, Planet of the Humans has a general anti-capitalist vibe. It is certainly a concern, if the same deep pockets that are thwarting climate action are controlling the clean energy transition. But do the film’s producers fall for the temptation to paint any link with big-money as disingenuous profiteering under cover of environmental activism? If the Koch brothers, evidently major backers of climate denialism, have quietly cornered the market for wind turbine parts, does this make all wind energy advocates co-conspirators?
This is what we are encouraged to believe, when Planet of the Humans takes a hatchet to various “villains.” But among these, climate activist Bill McKibben has written one of the most trenchant criticisms ever published on the foolishness of the endless growth economy. Jeremy Grantham, dismissed as a “timber investment billionaire,” has done more than most to bring to the climate response the depth that this film advocates, through both philanthropy and advocacy, including scathing criticisms of capitalism and an insistence on addressing human population growth.
Cheap shots at these people can only undermine the film’s intent. And with its grim tone and paucity of positive suggestions, it can be misinterpreted as a counsel of despair (just scroll through those YouTube comments to see plenty of examples). It could be hard for viewers who are not already intimate with a full range of potential climate change responses to know whether we should do anything at all, given that whatever we’re likely to do might profit some underhanded capitalist.
In sum, the film isn’t perfect. But it raises important issues. If you haven’t done so already, we urge you to see Planet of the Humans and decide for yourself what it gets wrong and right.
Update June 1: Despite garnering over 8 million views over the past month, or perhaps because of that, Youtube recently censored Gibbs’ and Moore’s “Planet of the Humans,” removing it from the site for five days on a fair use technicality (4 seconds of footage in an hour and a half film). The film is now reposted. Below Michael Moore discusses the film and its recent censorship, in a fascinating and wide-ranging conversation on the “Useful Idiot” videocast from Rolling Stone.