How Planet of the Humans is a bad thing for the environment movement
Why Michael Moore's new contrarian eco-doco misses the mark.
Dolphins have returned to the Venice canals. Air pollution is so low you can see the sky again in cities all over the world. Birds can be heard once more in suburbia. The earth is healing. We are the virus.
These stories have become an easy target for light-hearted ridicule on social media. But they represent a misanthropism which actually has a fair bit of currency in the modern environmental movement. Mainstream commentators, including household names like David Attenborough, often explain environmental crises as a simple matter of too many greedy people. If we love nature, we are supposed to hate ourselves or loathe those uneducated people in the Global South who keep having too many children.
The documentary film Planet of the Humans fits right into this narrative. Released in April to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Earth Day (and freely available on YouTube to maximise its reach), the film sets out to expose the inadequacies of ‘green energy’ as a solution to climate change. With over 8 million views in the month since its release, the Michael Moore-produced film has obviously struck a chord. Director and narrator Jeff Gibbs explains that he was driven to an environmental consciousness as a child by seeing places he loved bulldozed, making way for developments that nobody seemed to really want or need. This passion became an obsession, and he quickly found himself locking on to machinery and ultimately devoting his life to environmental journalism. He came to understand that humanity was destroying our common home. He was hopeful that renewable energy could point us towards a better future.
But pulling the thread revealed some disturbing truths. Many projects claiming to be renewable energy actually turned out to be incredibly destructive, like the practice of logging forests in order to burn them to generate power. When energy corporations say “clean power”, they often mean gas-fired plants which release more potent greenhouse gases than coal, and fill rivers and groundwater with toxic chemicals. Solar arrays and wind farms are manufactured using significant amounts of fossil fuels, and include components made from minerals that are mined in hugely environmentally and socially damaging ways by exploited Third-World workforces (often including child labour).
While this is not the space for me to fact check, many of the film’s assertions are certainly outdated and incorrect. Solar panels have become cheaper and more efficient and battery storage technology has come in leaps and bounds since the documentary was filmed. But Gibbs dismisses this out of hand, shining a spotlight instead on renewable industry insiders who furtively admit that some level of coal power is necessary as a ‘baseload’ to keep the system working. People who know better have thoroughly debunked this idea. There is actually no longer any necessity for coal or gas fired power anywhere in the world.
Like all tall tales, there is a reasonable dose of truth in Planet of The Humans. The environmental impacts of the renewable energy projects shown in the film are real; they are big projects, built by big corporations, and unsurprisingly the results sometimes do indeed look like something out of a dystopian sci-fi movie. The documentary also somewhat interestingly traces the seldom-explored links between the fossil fuel industry, Wall Street, big international environmental organisations, renewable power projects and the climate movement. Gibbs essentially paints a picture of the environment movement as unwitting pawns for big fossil fuel corporations, who have realised that climate change is bad PR and investing in renewable energy technology will save face and market share, thereby maintaining their commanding position in the global economy.
This story is simplistic and inaccurate . Certainly, the left have often criticised big NGOs for focusing too much on technological fixes and neglecting the need for social and economic transformation. And certainly, fossil fuel capital is keen to position itself as a key player in the transition to new forms of energy. Environmentalists can sometimes be so eager to see renewable energy rolled out that we do not want to see how our sustainable sausages are being made.
However, the real danger of the film is its overarching narrative. The movie is an incredibly depressing affair, with Gibbs and his scientist collaborator Ozzie Zehner showing us one devastated landscape after another, resolutely bursting our bubble and insisting over and over again that renewable technology is no solution to climate change. They explain that big fossil fuel capital, the finance world, politicians and (bizarrely) the climate movement itself have duped the public into seeing these new green projects as the answer. But in reality ‘industrial civilisation’ is not compatible with a healthy planet because, according to Gibbs, there are just too many people on planet Earth demanding too much. No solutions are forthcoming from the director, but it is implied by interviewees that civilisational collapse and massive depopulation are the only things which can save humanity from itself.
Gibbs is very concerned with proving that green technology is an ‘illusion’ in the fight against environmental destruction. But he has nothing to say about the most powerful illusion out there in big business’ fight to destroy the climate movement – the illusion of green consumerism. Fossil fuel companies, global finance, advertising and the media have spent half a century systematically delegitimising calls for collective action by promoting the idea that we can make a difference to the environment by being more careful about what goes in our shopping trolley. These ideas are a deliberate ploy to divert energy away from the movement-building work that is actually needed to challenge powerful interests and to build a sustainable and fair society. His lazy calls for us to reduce our population and our consumption have nothing to say about this reality.
Curiously for somebody who claims to have been a grassroots environmentalist, Gibbs has nothing good to say about his comrades. He spends a great deal of time trashing the green credentials of mainstream movement figures like Al Gore – a board director on companies that take big money from the oil industry – even as he preaches the Inconvenient Truth about climate change. He also takes aim at Bill McKibben, whose climate NGO 350.org has apparently taken money from the Rockefellers (who also finance huge fossil fuel projects). The film shows McKibben nervously dodging questions about 350.org’s stance on gas fired power and biomass. This behaviour is what it is, but any fair dinkum environmental campaigner would know that these suits do not in any way represent the people who give up their weekends to campaign on climate change. Meanwhile, the fossil fuel industry and the climate-denying right are lapping the film up, seeing it as a welcome attack on renewable energy and therefore as useful ammunition against the climate left.
The average person watching this film will finish it feeling profoundly hopeless and disempowered, with nowhere to channel their awareness of the crisis. If real action on this existential mess is as urgent as the film says it is, such a careless attitude to educating the public cannot be excused.
Even in the relative comfort of suburban Sydney, climate change has long since ceased to be an abstract threat, looming, out of sight, in a distant future. Compounding crises – biodiversity loss, the depletion of global freshwater and the collapse of ocean life – are real and terrifying. It would be easy, like Gibbs, to retreat into defeatism.
But all around the world, people are not giving up. Climate change has become a generational issue. In Australia, high school kids already understand the links between climate change, capitalism and colonialism, seeking out representatives from Aboriginal communities who are engaged in fights against extractive industries. They are also seeking out relationships with the workers whose livelihoods are on the line in a transition away from fossil fuels. This movement shows not only a determination to fight against the fossil fuel industry, but an ability to articulate an alternative blueprint for a truly sustainable and egalitarian society.
Planet of the Idiots be damned. I care about the environment exactly because I care about people, and I have enormous faith in our capacity to overcome adversity and fight against injustice. People power gave women the vote; people power overturned racial segregation laws in Australia and the USA and South Africa; people power ended the war in Vietnam. People power underpins our wages and conditions at work. It created and defends our public services. It has even at times managed to save our beloved urban parklands from the developers’ bulldozer. We don’t need a blind faith in people power – we can find proof that it works all around us in the real history of our communities. If we harness that power to drive forward an ambitious vision for change, we can absolutely save the planet. It’s time to get to work.
Andy is a bush regenerator, member of the Australian Workers Union (AWU) and an activist with Workers for Climate Action.