‘Planet of the Humans’ and the Inconvenient Truths of Eco-Capitalism

by Keaton Weiss

About halfway through Planet of the Humansfilmmaker Jeff Gibbs narrates the following:

“We humans are poised for a fall from an unimaginable height. Not because of one thing. Not climate change alone, but all the human-caused changes the planet is suffering from. So why are bankers, industrialists, and environmental leaders only focused on the narrow solution of green technology…And why, for most of my life, have I fallen for the illusion that green energy would save us?”

This question leads him to Skidmore College, where he elicits a social psychological perspective from Professor Sheldon Solomon, who explains:

“Every culture offers its denizens hope of immortality, either literally or symbolically. Then the question is, what happens when you bump into people who don’t share those beliefs?…If we’re to make progress…or even to persist as a form of life, we’re going to need to radically overhaul our basic conception of who and what we are and what it is that we value. Because the people…both on the left and the right that think we’re going to be able to discover more oil, or solar panel ourselves into the future, where life will look pretty much like it does now, only cleaner or better…I think that’s just frankly delusional.”

The new environmental documentary, presented by executive producer Michael Moore and directed by Gibbs, is causing quite the stir in the Green movement. Numerous journalists and activists have pilloried the film as a divisive, deceitful, and nihilistic diatribe that serves the adversarial interests of the right wing media and the fossil fuel industry.

The two highest-profile examples of such backlash have come from Bill McKibben, himself targeted by the film for his promotion of biomass energy and partnership with corporate opportunists, and Josh Fox, activist and acclaimed filmmaker behind the Oscar nominated anti-fracking documentary, Gasland. McKibben’s piece in Rolling Stone is a rather straightforward defense of his life’s work as a leading organizer who helped build and sustain a robust environmental movement. Fox’s article in The Nation, while more substantive and convincing, nonetheless fails to effectively debunk the central theses of the movie.

Planet of the Humans, like all of Moore’s best work, is a film that transcends what we think it’s going to be about when we decide to watch it. Sure, it’s a film about the environment, and how humans are harming the planet, but it’s about much more than that. It’s psychological, spiritual, and, of course, political. At its core, the film tells two basic truths that are – yes – inconvenient to many in the environmental movement, including, of course, their wealthy financial backers.

The first: less is more. The film supposes that the recent hundred-fold spike in human energy consumption over the past two centuries is simply too heavy a burden for the planet to bear, and that in order for it to heal, we’re going to have to, in terms we’ve come all too familiar with in recent weeks, “flatten the curve” of human consumption. Green energy, Gibbs argues, doesn’t accomplish this, for a number of reasons. One, the development of such innovations itself requires a massive amount of energy, most of which is obtained from fossil fuels. Two, the finished product itself would not sufficiently meet the current energy needs of the global population, and would therefore require non-green energy to be stored as a back-up to prevent massive disruptions and outages. And three, in the case of biomass, it’s not always necessarily as “green” as we think it is to begin with.

But the coronavirus pandemic has offered us simpler and more persuasive evidence for the “less is more” revelation: now that the world is essentially on pause, the environment is recuperating. Air pollution is down in China and the United States. Venice’s respite from tourism and motorboat traffic is revitalizing the ecosystems in its canals. Over Antarctica, the O-Zone is actually closing back up! So after fifty years of “activism” and “innovation” and green this and hybrid that and electric this and solar that and biodegradable this and wind that, a mere two months of human beings simply staying in their homes and leaving the world the fuck alone, has yielded the kind of environmental progress many of us never thought we’d see in our lifetimes.

Is this to say that renewable energy is a non-starter or is unnecessary? Of course not, and, contrary to the critiques of Planet‘s detractors, the film doesn’t really make that case either (nor does it call for population control). Rather, it suggests that green energy will not, as many Green capitalists claim, be a silver bullet that will allow us to maintain our current lifestyles without harming the planet in ways that endanger both the ecosystem itself and our place within it. In other words, even if we do implement this Green revolution we’ve been promised for five decades, we’re still going to have to do less – eat less, drive less, make less, buy less – if we’re serious about leaving our children with a livable planet.

“Less” isn’t a very popular word. Not anywhere, but especially not here in America. Jimmy Carter was the last president who told us to curb our consumption, and he left office after one term with a dismal 34% approval rating. “Less is more” as a concept also doesn’t play particularly well with the capitalist class, many of whom Gibbs argues have co-opted the Green movement for their own financial and/or political interests. Entrepreneurs and titans of industry like Richard Branson, Elon Musk, Michael Bloomberg, and David Blood, all of whom are featured in the film, are exemplars of a society which lauds “achievement” and “success,” mythologizes “hard work,” and fetishizes “risk taking” and “innovation.” Once they start bankrolling renewable energy projects and ingratiating themselves with environmental leaders and organizations, it’s no wonder that the Green movement adopts the philosophy that we can save the world by “doing more” researching, developing, innovating, and producing. These 21st century tycoons who have lived their whole lives as wheelers, dealers, and game changers, aren’t going to lend their celebrity clout, or their money, to a movement that defies the very go-getter culture out of which they arose.

The likes of Elon Musk and Richard Branson will never endorse a cultural shift towards less hustle, less drive, or less effort. These are more, more, more kinds of people who have achieved godlike statuses in a more, more, more kind of society. Their support for renewable energy innovation is an opportunity for them not just to make a buck, which may or may not be their primary motivation, but more importantly, to show the rest of us how necessary they are. In a time when widespread crises of inequality are leading millions of Americans to question whether or not billionaires should exist, elites are keen to seize upon opportunities to demonstrate their good will.

This brings us to the second inconvenient truth of Planet of the Humans, which is the zero-sum paradigm. Gibbs alludes to this idea rather directly, stating at the film’s conclusion that “infinite growth on a finite planet is suicide.” Consumerism and conservationism are, definitionally, at odds with each other. To champion one is to decry the other; there’s no getting around it. Therefore, the social, cultural, and political drivers of such ideas are also, inevitably, in conflict. Bill McKibben is portrayed in the film not necessarily as a bad faith actor, but as a misguided leader who has bought into the idea, through decades of experience and practice, that we can partner with the capitalist class to create desirable outcomes for everyone on Earth. Anand Giridharadas’ book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World is a thorough and brilliant dismantling of this proposition. The notion that power is somehow in infinite supply, and the supposition that it’s possible to empower the ordinary people of the world without disempowering the already powerful, is another tenet of neoliberal hegemony that collapses under questioning, and therefore must be insulated from such scrutiny, in this case, by the “good deeds” of the eco-conscious capitalists.

At one point in the film, climate activist Vandana Shiva says:

“Our minds have been manipulated to give power to illusions. We shifted to measuring growth not in terms of how life is enriched, but in terms of how life is destroyed.”

Again, the zero-sum conflict of “infinite growth on a finite planet” rears its head, which is anathema to the ethos being foisted upon us by our political and business elites, many of whom have infiltrated the environmental movement. Instead, they perpetuate the increasingly obvious myth of the “win-win” dynamic that says a rising tide lifts all boats, and that regular people have a vested interest in the success of the wealthy.

For example, Al Gore, just two years before his documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, was released, co-founded a firm called Generation Investment Management with former Goldman Sachs executive David Blood. The company would specialize in equity analysis (essentially, financial consulting) for sustainable energy companies. Two years after the film came out, Gore met with then President-elect Obama, who told reporters the following:

“The purpose of this meeting here today was to listen and learn from vice-president Al Gore on the extraordinary work that he has done around the issue of climate change…

“I think what’s exciting about that conversation is that it is not only a problem but it’s also an opportunity…

“We have the opportunity now to create jobs all across this country, in all 50 states, to re-power America, to redesign how we use energy, to think about how we are increasing efficiency, to make our economy stronger, make us more safe, reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and make us competitive for decades to come, even as we’re saving the planet.”

Once again, everybody wins. Blood and Gore (haha) get rich, Obama gets a political win, we create “jobs” and “opportunity,” we become more “competitive” abroad, and we “save the planet.” Polly, meet Anna.

This big lie, that a mutually beneficial arrangement can be negotiated between entrenched oligarchs and ordinary people, may have been easier to sell in easier times. But in 2020, when the working class is either forced to risk their lives in a pandemic to protect their slice of this supposedly ever-growing “pie”that is the U.S. economy, or cut through miles of red tape to qualify for paltry unemployment benefits, while the rich either work from home off their laptops or coast by on their seven-figure savings accounts, this trickery simply won’t pass muster. As well-meaning as many in the Green movement are, the ones trashing this film either miss this point entirely, or they’re so bogged down in their narrow rebuttals of the film’s finer points that they, at the risk of torturing the biomass metaphor, miss the forest for the trees.

Josh Fox lamented the exclusion of many of today’s most prominent players on both sides of various environmental issues. He felt that Gibbs missed an enormous election-year opportunity to expose Donald Trump’s dismal environmental record and prop up the positive forces like Greta Thunberg, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Bernie Sanders campaign (for which Fox and Moore were both surrogates), the Sunrise Movement, and the “codification of the Green New Deal.”

Gibbs’ decision to ignore all of this was a bold and admirable choice that actually makes the film all the more urgent and challenging. To attack the Trump administration would have been to offer his audience the chance to simply set aside their differences and unite behind a common and obvious enemy. To celebrate the Greta’s and the AOC’s would have had the same effect. Instead, Planet of the Humans never affords its viewers any such relief. It demands that its audience wrestle with themselves as uncomfortably as the filmmakers must have throughout the process of making it. It’s a fight well worth having with yourself if you’re up for it.

*Photo: Chris Pizzello, AP

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