Planet of the Humans

Dear Friends,

If you watch one movie this week, let it be Planet of the Humans, presented by Michael Moore and produced by Jeff Gibbs. You may come away loving it or hating it, but I doubt you’ll leave feeling ambivalent.

Planet is a tough watch, especially the last scene where two orangutans struggle to survive as their jungle home is clear-cut for “progress.”

The basic contention of the film is that we can’t innovate our way out of the climate crisis. Instead, we must confront the reality that infinite economic and population growth on a finite planet is impossible.

On the population front, humans now number 7.8 billion on planet Earth. The UN projects there’ll be 10 billion of us by 2057. As Paul Ehrlich, professor of population studies at Stanford University, pointed out in the 1960s, Earth’s optimal human population is between 1.5 and 2 billion. My gut says he’s right.

On the economic front … the GNP model is predicated on more and more people consuming more and more stuff — mostly stuff we don’t need, but that Wall Street desperately wants us to buy. GNP demands more and more industrialization accompanied by an escalating pillage of the natural world. Logically, it’s hard to argue such behavior is anything short of insane.

In its critique of industrialization, Planet skewers the notion that we can simply substitute renewables for fossil fuels. In doing so, however, the film’s analysis of wind and solar energy is sloppy, dated, and perhaps even intentionally misleading. That’s troubling, and as I’ve hunted the cyber world for commentary critical of Planet, this thoughtful piece by Cathy Cowan Becker is the best I’ve come across. It’s long, but well-researched and worth reading.

Planet takes aim at not just the structural sacred cows of the climate movement — solar panels, wind generators, biomass — but at the movement’s high priests as well, including Bill McKibben, Al Gore, Robert F. Kennedy Jr, and several big environmental organizations.

“The takeover of the environmental movement by capitalism is now complete,” says Gibbs, pointing out that groups like Sierra Club, Nature Conservancy, and Union of Concerned Scientists are heavily dependent on corporate funders motivated not by altruism, but by profit.

Predictably, some climate voices are striking back — fiercely, in fact. Josh Fox (film maker) and Michael Mann (scientist) circulated a petition calling on one of the film’s distributors to take down Planet of the Humans. I like Fox and Mann, but censorship bugs me — a lot! Becker’s hard-hitting but thoughtful response is much more helpful than censorship.

On the favorable side, there’s this review from Real Clear Politics: “Planet of the Humans dares to say what no one else will this Earth Day — that we are losing the battle to stop climate change because we are following leaders who have taken us down the wrong road — selling out the green movement to wealthy interests and corporate America.”

Gibbs’ criticism of Gore and Kennedy may have some merit. But his bashing of McKibben is way out of line. I’ve had many interactions with Bill, all favorable. Among national climate leaders, McKibben has been a rare and consistent voice of support for our work at the grassroots level. In a guest editorial last summer about biomass, McKibben wrote, “For all intents and purposes, in the short term, wood is just another fossil fuel, and in climate terms the short term is mostly what matters.”

So yeah, it was unfair for Planet to take a shot at McKibben and He’d come around on biomass and didn’t deserve to be lumped in with other national figures who continue to stand on the wrong side of that struggle.

I have absolutely no trouble with the film calling out the National Non-profit Industrial Complex, as I call it. Most of the important climate action happens at the local level, where thousands of small groups do the hard work even as a few national organizations get much of the credit — and suck up most of the funding.

My conclusion: If the viewer can get beyond the film’s trashing of renewable energy, Planet‘s call to decentralize the environmental movement and embrace the reality that our economic model is an abject failure is an urgent message that needs to be heard and heeded.

Gibbs sums up the film’s message with this: “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 long last accept that it’s not the carbon dioxide molecule destroying the planet, it’s us.”

Ed Fallon