The backlash may be more revealing than the film itself, but both inform us where we are at in the fight against climate change and ecological collapse. The environmental establishment’s frenzied attacks against Planet of the Humans says a lot about their commitment to big-money and technological solutions.
A number of prominent individuals tried to ban the film by Jeff Gibbs and Michael Moore. Others berated the filmmakers for being white, male and overweight. Many thought leaders have declared they won’t watch it.
Despite the hullabaloo, the central points in the film aren’t particularly controversial. Corporate-industrial society is driving human civilization/humanity towards the ecological abyss and environmental groups have largely made peace with capitalism. As such, they tout (profitable) techno fixes that are sometimes more ecologically damaging than fossil fuels (such as biomass or ethanol) or require incredible amounts of resources/space if pursued on a mass scale (such as solar and wind). It also notes the number of human beings on the planet has grown more than sevenfold over the past 200 years.
It should not be controversial to note that the corporate consumption juggernaut is destroying our ability to survive on this planet. From agroindustry razing animal habitat to plastic manufacturers’ waste killing sea life to the auto industrial complex’s greenhouse gases, the examples of corporations wreaking ecological havoc are manifold. Every year since 1969 humanity’s resource consumption has exceeded earth’s capacity to regenerate those resources by an ever-greater volume.
It is a statement of fact that environmental groups have deep ties to the corporate set. Almost all the major environmental groups receive significant cash from the mega-rich or their foundations. Many of them partner directly with large corporations. Additionally, their outreach strategies often rely on corporate media and other business mediated spheres. It beggar’s belief that these dependencies don’t shape their policy positions.
A number of the film’s points on ‘renewable’ energy are also entirely uncontroversial. It’s insane to label ripping down forests for energy as “green”. Or turning cropland into fuel for private automobiles. The film’s depiction of the minerals/resource/space required for solar and wind power deserves a far better response than “the data is out of date”.
The green establishment’s hyperventilating over the film suggests an unhealthy fixation/link to specific ‘renewable’ industries. But there are downsides to almost everything.
Extremely low GHG emitting electricity is not particularly complicated. In Québec, where I live, electricity is largely carbon free (and run by a publicly owned enterprise with an overwhelmingly unionized workforce, to boot). But, Hydro-Québec’s dams destroy ecosystems and require taking vast land from politically marginalized (indigenous) people. Likewise, nuclear power (also publicly owned and unionized) provides most of France’s electricity. But, that form of energy also has significant downsides.
In the US in 2019 63% of electricity came from fossil fuels, 20% from nuclear and 17% from ‘renewables’. But, even if one could flip the proportion of fossil fuels to ‘renewables’ around overnight there’s another statistic that is equally important. Since 1950 US electricity consumption has grown 13-fold and it continues to increase. That’s before putting barely any of the country’s 285 million registered private automobiles onto the grid. Electricity consumption is growing at a fast clip in China, India and elsewhere.
Oil is another source of energy that is growing rapidly. Up from 60 million barrels a day in 1980 and 86 million in 2010, 100 million barrels of oil were consumed daily in 2019. That number is projected to reach 140 million by 2040.
On one point I agree entirely with critics of the film. It’s unfair to (even indirectly) equate Bill McKibben with Al Gore. Representing the progressive end of the environmental establishment, McKibben has engaged in and stoked climate activism. Gore was Vice President when the US led the destruction of the former Yugoslavia, bombed Sudan and sanctioned Iraq.
Still, it’s ridiculous for McKibben and others to dismiss the film’s criticism of his decade-long promotion of biomass and refusal to come clean on 350.org’s donors as divisive. “I truly hope that Michael Moore does not succeed at dividing the climate movement. Too many have fought too long to build it”, he tweeted with a link to his response in Rolling Stone titled “‘A Bomb in the Center of the Climate Movement’: Michael Moore Damages Our Most Important Goal.” Echoing this theme, Naomi Klein came to her 350.org comrade’s defence tweeting, “it is truly demoralising how much damage this film has done at a moment when many are ready for deep change.” Democracy Now, Common Dreams, the Guardian and other media picked up her remark.
If it is divisive to criticize McKibben’s positions, then the same must be said of his own criticisms aimed at those demanding the Pentagon be highlighted in decarbonization efforts. In a June New York Review of Books column titled “The Pentagon’s Outsized Part in the Climate Fight” McKibben pours cold water on those who have asked him about the importance of “shrinking the size of the US military” (the world’s largest single institutional emitter of fossil fuels) in the fight for a sustainable planet. In fact, his piece suggests the Pentagon is well-positioned to combat the climate crisis since right wingers are more likely to listen to their climate warnings and the institution has massive research capacities to develop green technologies. McKibben seems to be saying the green movement should (could) co-opt the greatest purveyor of violence and destruction in the history of humanity! (In the Wrong Kind of Green blog Luke Orsborne offers a cogent breakdown of McKibben’s militarism.)
McKibben’s repeated advocacy of the private electric car could also be considered divisive. In Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? McKibben calls for “millions and millions of electric cars and buses” (alongside “building a hell of lot of factories to turn out thousands of acres of solar panels, and wind turbines the length of football fields.”) Does anyone believe the planet can sustain a transportation/urban planning system with most of the world’s 7.8 billion people owning 3,000-pound vehicles?
When an electric car is powered from a grid that is 63% fossil fuels the GHG it contributes per kilometer of travel is generally slightly less than an internal combustion engine. But the production and destruction phases for electric vehicles tend to be more energy intensive and they still require the extraction and development of significant amounts of resources. Additionally, the private car underpins a land, energy and resource intensive big box retail/suburban economy. (For details see my co-authored Stop Signs: Cars and Capitalism on the Road to Economic, Social and Ecological Decay.)
Moreover, as Death by Car recently pointed out, “electric vehicles are haloware — a product that exists to distract attention from continuing SUV and pickup sales. If this thesis is correct, then it is a huge mistake for progressive forces to express enthusiasm” for electric vehicles. Of the 86 million new passenger and light commercial vehicles sold globally in 2018 about 1.2 million of them were powered by battery-only electric engines while 37 million were pickups and SUVs. In other words, for every new battery-electric car there were 30 new SUVs/pickups sold. Alongside growing buzz about electric vehicles, the number of SUVs increased from 35 million to 200 million between 2010 and 2018.
McKibben and associates’ ability to frame the film as divisive rests on the stark power imbalance between the ‘green’ capitalist and degrowth outlooks. While there are few profits in the consume-less worldview, McKibben is situated at the progressive end of a network of organizations, commentators and media outlets empowered by hundreds of billions of dollars of ‘green’ capitalism. This milieu has counterposed solar, wind and biomass to the hyper fossil fuel emitting coal, natural gas and oil industries. But, they aren’t keen on discussing the limitations of their preferred energies and the fundamentally unsustainable nature of limitless energy (or other) consumption. And they certainly don’t want any spotlight placed on environmental groups ties to the mega-rich and an unsustainable model.
But, in reality it’s not the criticism that bothers. Death by Car, Wrong Kind of Green, Counterpunch and various other small leftist websites and initiatives have long documented McKibben and associates’ concessions to the dominant order. Often more harshly than in the film. What is unique about Planet of the Humans is that these criticisms have been put forward by leftists with some power (Michael Moore’s name and the funds for a full-length documentary, most obviously.) In other words, the backlash is not a response to the facts or argument per se but the ‘mainstreaming’ of the critique.
The environmental establishment’s ability to generate hundreds of hit pieces against Planet of the Humans suggests the movement/outlook has amassed substantial power. But, it’s not always clear to what ends. Most indicators of sustainability are trending in the wrong direction at the same time as top environmental figures have risen to the summits of power. Québec’s most prominent environmentalist, Steven Guilbeault, recently became a cabinet minister in the Liberal government while the former head of World Wildlife Fund Canada, Gerald Butts, was Justin Trudeau’s chief of staff. These individuals happily participate in a government that oversaw a 15 million tonne increase in Canada’s GHG emissions in 2018 and then decided to purchase a massive tar sands pipeline.
The incredible popularity of Planet of the Humans — seven million views on YouTube — suggests many are worried about the ecological calamity humanity is facing. Many also sense that the solutions environmental groups are putting forward don’t add up.
The lesson to be learned from the film and the frenzied attacks against it is that questioning the system — be that capitalism or the mainstream environmental movement — won’t make you friends in high places.