Planet of the Humans: New Film Shakes Up a Complacent Environmental Movement

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Many critics of the film have noted inaccuracies and outdated information in its treatment of renewable energy.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.

5 thoughts on “Planet of the Humans: New Film Shakes Up a Complacent Environmental Movement

  1. Just because human beings have become geological agents does not make us special – at least not in the sense most males would like to be thought of as special; which is, special in understanding, special in interpreting supernatural authority, special in cleverness, special in the ability to synthetize authoritative philosophical systems, special in being endowed by nature with imperial teleological insights.

    Cyanobacteria became an agent of geological change by simply transforming the toxic atmosphere of the planet into one rich in oxygen. The preening patriarchs who feel proud that our species has become a geological agent should deeply consider the humble one-celled organism that made it possible for us to breathe.
    Those pretentious patriarchs who rule the planet, those who have established and are perpetuating the economic and societal games we all are obliged to play, are blindly (even though they claim great insight) making it impossible for anything to breathe. How can one take pride in that? Blue green algae studiously followed their unconscious proclivities in becoming geologic agents. The ruling planetary patriarchs have become geologic agents only in the name of an economic system the prime motive of which is to further enrich themselves at the fastest possible pace. Becoming geologic agents was an unforeseen (because of willful blindness) accidental consequence. We as a species never set out to become geologic agents. We set out only to follow a patriarchal ideological construct that places the efficient maximization of wealth above all else – and damn the consequences! Calling this period in history the “Anthropocene” insidiously dignifies what the patriarchs are doing, which is why it is the term favored.
    The suicide bandwagon era, much better describes what is going on. Consider for a moment how suicide rates have dramatically increased with increasing affluence. And yet, providing wealth for all is a goal that no self-respecting patriarch would ever question. A discussion among patriarchs concerning what actually constitutes wealth would never deviate one iota from the conventional notion that wealth must consist of an ever accumulating personal mountain of consumer “goods.” Hunter/gatherer societies possess an abundance of leisure time but very little “wealth.” And yet, when one delves into the ethnographic record for evidence of suicide in these cultures, one finds nothing. Absolutely nothing!!!

    Suicide however is rampant and accelerating in what patriarchs term “advanced” societies – nowhere more so than in the United States. Suicide has become an everyday news story. Somewhere today, in an “advanced” society, someone is killing innocents in a suicide bomb attack. One could conceive of the entirety of patriarchal industrialist society as a burly would-be male superhero wearing a collective, prettily digitized, suicide vest someone has convinced him is a tuxedo. Countless indigenous groups have been raped, slaughtered, subdued, pillaged and their souls ripped out because the patriarchs perceived them to be obstacles in the path of imperial triumphal industrialism. So what is to prevent the patriarchs from adopting the same attitude towards any and all species that present a similar obstacle? “We are not going out alone,” say the patriarchs with a slobbery grin of self-satisfaction on their hideous visages; “We are prepared to take millions of species out with us, unless our demands are met – that God the Father suspend the laws of physics so that we can keep getting away with our delightful and exponentially accelerating accumulations of wealth.”

    We as a species are working ourselves to death, and sacrificing (completely in line with the dominant suicidalist ideology) ourselves to death on the altar of an impossible work ethic designed to make the patriarchal bandwagon a more efficient fountain of consumer items that no one needs. Death, death, death!!! What is there to be proud of here? What is there in our current existential situation that in any way justifies us? The debate about the so called “freedoms” at play is simply a cosmetic jumping through philosophical hoops in stunning displays of discursive virtuosity in order to rationalize the dearly beloved suicidal juggernaut in the name of progress.

    Are we wrong to consider Homo sapiens just another species inhabiting the planet? If we truly do wish to divest the concept of Humanity as agent of all traces of anthropocentrism we should jettison anything of a self-congratulatory nature and place ourselves on the same footing as other species and consider ourselves within that framework. In point of fact, anything that can be said with regard to agency as manifest in the destructive effects of a noxious invasive species, or disease organisms, can also be said of Humanity with regard to its cumulative effects on the planet.

    The philosophical question to be asked then is how is that not the case? And why? Perhaps it is not the case in the same way that with some disease transmitting organisms, the infectious agent consists of a particular gender; the female mosquito to take an easy example. Male mosquitoes do not bite and thus do not transmit malaria. Agency in this case is confined to half the population of the species.

    As far back in history as once cares to look, at least with regard to those groups of humans that decided to build cities and hierarchical societies, so called progress, has been the work of males. Empires, the domination of one group by another, male deity monotheism, Inquisitions, nationalism, wars, slavery, technology, genocide, capitalism, notions of the capacity of the planet to endure an exponentially accelerating parasitism, nuclear weapons, suicide bomb attacks, all are male projects. Perhaps in their perceived need to dominate women and keep them “in their place” males were gingered up by resultant swelling egos into a perceived need to dominate as well other groups of humans, materiality in general, and the natural world in particular – all in the name of progress. And yet another motivation can be seen peeking out from behind the curtain.

    Kendall Powell writes, “In the vast arsenal of animal weaponry, the most exaggerated, elaborate and diverse devices such as tusks, claws and antlers have not been shaped by a need to fend off fierce predators. Rather, these impressive forms are driven by sex.”

    In addition to the deep-seated need for the male mastery and domination of everything in sight, we should also consider progress as meme-driven, rather than gene-driven, evolution through sexual selection. In place of the peacock’s tail feathers, we get cars, space travel, computers and flat-screen TVs. All the mighty accomplishments males like to point to as examples of progress, could thus be seen as nothing more than the bird of paradise’s extravagant tail plumage; a way for males to impress females through the strength and all-encompassing superiority of their mastery, whether of immediate rivals, matter, systems, other groups, the natural world, knowledge, technology, militarism, or discursive formations.

    It is show-offish prancing and preening, plain and simple! And of course, popular culture falls endlessly over itself to depict the highly “successful” male with scantily clad beauty queens clinging like leeches to his heroic torso – necessary accessories that render his macho-king, top-dog, fashion statement complete. These then are the males who have made it, the males who deserve the best and most desirable females. This is meme driven selection for extravagance, wealth and mastery; motivating vast segments of human behavior – behavior pushing the species ever more rapidly towards extinction. This is only to be expected. If the male peacocks’ tail feathers become too long, the birds will lose the ability to fly, and the species will vanish. Of course, meme-driven evolution for sexual selection proceeds at an exponentially faster pace, not at all in harmony with the pace of the natural world, so its destructive tendencies cannot be similarly winnowed with the same slow deliberation as gene driven sexual selection. Thus, our certain doom is indelibly inscribed in the technological tail feathers of the hairless male ape!

    – Gary Cox

  2. While population and activity drivers of energy use are indeed important, Cafaro and O’Sullivan might usefully have noted that their citation for “inflating the benefit of [the energy] transition” is a 2012 paper looking backward a further 50 years—all before the modern energy revolution. A little update: the world reached Peak Coal in 2013, Peak Auto Sales in 2017, Peak Fossil-Fueled Electricity in 2018, and arguably Peak Oil and Peak Fossil Fuels in 2019. For the past three years, renewable electricity generators provided about two-thirds of all net additions in global capacity without, or three-fourths with, big hydro; that is, they’ve pretty much swept the market, and are now, unsubsidized, the cheapest source for 85% of the world’s bulk electricity, soon ~100%. This year, probably 30% of the world’s electricity will be renewable. Such fast-growing challengers are rapidly tipping global capital markets to flee fossil-fuel incumbents and shift investment to renewable and efficiency insurgents.

    The criticism that renewable energy tended to layer onto rather than displace fossil fuels was long true, but no longer is. Slowly but with gathering momentum, the market and technical transformation that the film decries are starting to work. As many have said, those who say it can’t be done should get out of the way of those who are doing it.

  3. Thanks Amory for your comment. You are right, that reference is too old and we are replacing it with a 2020 paper: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2019.106520 . It is indeed gratifying to see renewable energy uptake accelerating. But so far, the evidence is renewables are still “layering onto rather than displace fossil fuels” – by your own statistics, as well as those in the above ref. For renewables to provide anything less than 100% of net additions to global capacity means that fossil fuel use is also increasing. Given the pandemic lockdown, 2019 is very likely to be a peak fossil fuel year, but only time will tell if it is THE peak. Fingers crossed it is!

  4. If anything, I thought that the movie was too lenient on renewable energy! For example, it didn’t even mention hydro.
    The Alpine valley where I live and its neighbors have for decades been sucked dry by hydroelectric projects that are now so small that the damage they inflict to the ecosystem and community is much greater than the contribution in terms of electricity. Local businessmen build them to take the subsidies and make even more money – without the subsidies they would never be profitable. We have no more water, no more fish, no more actual clean power such as watermills.
    Hydro is so devastating for its concrete use and wrecking of the ecosystem and local communities, and yet counted as “clean”. Ask the Native Canadians, the Chinese, the Amazonians, the Sudanese and Egyptians who are about to lose the Nile…

    I know that beautiful areas of Italy, further south, are being devastated by huge windmills that, let’s remember, are build with concrete and (as far as I know) non-recyclable plastic… and when you go look it’s always the greediest and most corrupt behind these projects. Gibbs is right. There’s so much dirty money to be made.

    I’ve read that they’re planning to mine the bottom of the ocean (the most unknown and bizarre, to us, ecosystem there is) for metals to be used in batteries and for electricity.

    No matter the energy source, electric cars will still pollute where they are used thanks to road and tire abrasion, and do nothing to solve the problems of traffic, endless construction of parking lots, destruction of the beauty and vibrant life of our old cities and accidents, not to mention the consumption of raw materials because they will still need to be made from something.
    While the film might have made some errors, there’s so much more it could have said to bolster its case.

    We’re going to have to resort to “renewable” energy sooner or later, because there’ll be no alternative, but we need to use so much less energy than now, it’s not even funny.

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