Proper Gander: At The Movies
‘Desperate Measures Not To Save The Planet, But To Save Our Way Of Life’
The makers of documentary film Planet Of The Humans said they wanted it to ignite discussion, but they probably weren’t expecting the backlash it received. Online articles and vlogs debunking and rebutting the movie outnumber those supporting it, while it generated some lively discussion, generally wary of accepting it at face value, on the SPGB’s Discord server after a viewing.
While being freely available to watch (at tinyurl.com/ybvzrx7v), Planet Of The Humans wouldn’t have been nearly as well-known if its publicity hadn’t emphasised Michael Moore being an executive producer. But its main driving force is writer, presenter, producer, director and musician Jeff Gibbs, previously a co-producer of some of Moore’s documentaries. Gibbs is concerned that ‘we humans are poised for a fall from an unimaginable height’ due to our impact on the environment, especially the amount of climate-changing carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere. His view is that our preoccupation with ‘green energy’ as an antidote to this is misguided.
Much of the documentary focuses on arguing that renewable energy sources such as biomass, sunlight and the wind aren’t as environmentally friendly as we’re led to believe. The heavy industry and use of dwindling resources involved in manufacturing sails, turbines and photovoltaic cells, along with their limited lifespan are criticised as being more trouble than they’re worth. Gibbs discusses how solar energy, in particular, has been hyped up as better than it really is. Festivals such as the Earth Day event and Solar Festival in Vermont bragged about being solar powered while quietly using biodiesel generators and the main grid as backup. Exaggerating the use of solar power to disguise reliance on fossil fuels also happens on a wider scale. Coal plants in places such as Las Vegas and Kalona, Iowa were replaced by solar farms, but news reports ignored the natural gas plants built alongside them. Gibbs argues that our reassuring assumption that renewables are replacing fossil fuels is misplaced, as in reality, fossil fuel use in America is still rising.
‘Biomass’ usually means chopping down trees and burning them to generate electricity, but despite this not sounding particularly eco-friendly it still counts as renewable energy. In fact, it’s the main renewable source of electricity, producing much more than solar and wind power. Gibbs finds plenty of protesters at a climate change rally who aren’t in favour of biomass, but attitudes to it differ among environmental campaigning groups. This leads on to the film’s other main point: the links between the environmental movement and big business. The Sierra Club, which calls itself ‘the most enduring and influential grassroots environmental organisation in the United States’, ran the ‘Beyond Coal’ campaign. This supported the use of biomass, and in turn got support from timber companies and partnered with the likes of Exxon Mobil and Chevron. Environmental news website Treehugger.com was founded and funded by loggers Georgia Pacific, which is owned by the Koch brothers, likely the biggest recipients of biomass subsidies in America. There are lots of greenbacks to be made backing green energy.
According to Gibbs, ‘the takeover of the environmental movement by capitalism is now complete. Environmentalists are no longer resisting those with the profit motive but are now collaborating with them’. Latching on to and hyping up so-called green, renewable energy are ‘desperate measures not to save the planet, but to save our way of life’.
Gibbs talks with social psychologist Sheldon Solomon to explore the attitudes which led to our misuse of the environment and are stopping us from addressing it. Gibbs says that both the left and the right assume we can carry on with our culture of consumption, but while the right believes in unlimited resources and religion, the left believes in green energy and hasn’t accepted humans’ own mortality. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t go into how both left and right are misguided in that the system they both support is itself the problem. We cut away from their interesting chat too soon, and as was pointed out during the party’s discussion of the movie, its quick edits of interviews are annoying. Some quotes sound suspiciously like they’ve been taken out of context as we don’t hear what was said before and after.
The film ends with a solemn voiceover: ‘we humans must accept that infinite growth on a finite planet is suicide. We must accept that our human presence is already far beyond sustainability and all that that implies. We must take control of our environmental movement and our future from billionaires and their permanent war on planet Earth. They are not our friends. Less must be the new more and instead of climate change we must at long last accept that it’s not the carbon dioxide molecule destroying the planet, it’s us. It’s not one thing but everything we humans are doing. A human-caused apocalypse. If we get ourselves under control, all things are possible’.
But the film doesn’t suggest solutions to the problems it raises. The nearest it gets to this is when it discusses population levels, an issue which Gibbs’ interviewees feel is ‘the herd of elephants in the room’. Compared with 200 years ago, the global population is ten times larger, and our use of resources is 100 times greater. The film argues that production and consumption should be reined in, but doesn’t dwell on its implied connection between this and population control, nor dare to propose any ways of reducing numbers. By skirting the whole issue, the film ignores how population growth is slowing down overall, and countries with increasing populations tend to be poorer and have a much lower carbon footprint than America and Europe.
Planet Of The Humans’ science fictiony title hints at its fictional science, another problem with its arguments. For instance, critics have pointed out that many of the claims and footage about the efficiency of solar panels are at least ten years out of date. In that time, photovoltaic cells have generally gone from being less than 10 percent efficient to around 20 percent (tinyurl.com/yazlaam5). When later challenged about this, executive producer and interviewee Ozzy Zehner says that it doesn’t matter, as solar energy still doesn’t have enough impact overall (tinyurl.com/ycl55u2l).
The dubious accuracy of some of Planet Of The Humans’ claims unfortunately detracts from the important points it makes about money-grabbing connections between environmentalists and businesses. Wanting our industries and lifestyles to be in harmony with nature is a laudable aim, but if you think this can be managed in capitalism, as environmentalists do, you’re bound to get sucked into capitalism’s structures and priorities, which put profit before planet. Moore said that the environmental movement’s mistake was to associate themselves with ‘corporate America’, but their greater mistake is to associate themselves with capitalism itself.