Michael Moore is a dude known for provocation. Every documentary he drops is designed to paint a world of sharp contrasts with clear bad guys. They’re designed to get a reaction and get people talking, so in some ways, him dropping a documentary he executive produced trashing renewable energy on Earth Day makes total sense.
Planet of the Humans is directed and narrated by Jeff Gibbs, a self-proclaimed “photographer, campaigner, adventurer, and storyteller” who has co-produced some of Moore’s films. The documentary came out on Earth Day, positioning itself up as some tough, real talk not just about renewable energy but environmental groups. And by real talk, I mean it cast renewables as no better than fossil fuels and environmental groups as sleek corporate outfits in bed with billionaires helping kill the planet. As Emily Atkin put it in her HEATED newsletter on Thursday, “[e]ntertaining good-faith arguments about how to stop climate change is my job, and I have no reason at present to believe Moore and director Jeff Gibbs argued in bad faith.” Indeed. So I decided to listen to what they had to say.
I’ll leave the film criticism to those wiser than me (though I will say I feel like I didn’t watch three acts but three separate movies), but I will say this: The movie—which is available for free on YouTube and is currently on the service’s trending list with 1 million views in 24 hours—is deeply flawed in both its premise, proposed solutions, and who gets to voice them.
The movie’s central thesis is that we are on the brink of extinction and have been sold a damaged bill of goods about all forms of renewable energy by environmental groups motivated by profit. Essentially, the argument is we’re all dirty and the stain will never come out no matter how hard we try.
There are a few issues at play. One is that much of the issues the film takes with solar and wind are based on anachronistic viewpoints. PV Magazine, a solar trade publication, notes that it’s “difficult to take the film seriously on any topic when it botches the solar portion so thoroughly. Although the film was released in 2020, the solar industry it examines, whether through incompetence or venality, is from somewhere back in 2009.”
The film also goes through great lengths to throw solar and wind in the same boat as burning biomass for power. The latter relies on serious carbon accounting bullshittery to be carbon neutral. A critique of biomass is fair and something I would honestly have watched a whole film about. And ditto for the film’s critique of large environmental organizations, which rely on large funders that may provide money with strings attached (though Bill McKibben, one of the film’s targets and founder of 350.org, came out strongly critiquing how he and the organization were portrayed).
The film, for example, highlights the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, which has helped shutter more than 300 coal plants around the U.S. The program’s biggest donor is Mike Bloomberg, who sees natural gas—which has replaced much of that coal capacity—as a bridge fuel (which it is decidedly not).
And this is where the narrative Gibbs tells and the one we need to be telling diverges. Gibbs is happy to trash the unholy alliance between big green groups and big dollar funders who have, in some cases, made their fortunes on extractive industries and the system that relies on their existence. That can lead to conflicts—real or perceived—about how green groups spend their time. And frankly, I’m there with him.
Gibbs uses this situation to take the leap to population control as the only solution. Yes, renewables are bad and so are billionaires and the corporate-philanthropic industrial complex so, Gibbs concludes, we should probably get rid of some humans ASAP. Over the course of the movie, he interviews a cast of mostly white experts who are mostly men to make that case. It’s got a bit more than a whiff of eugenics and ecofascism, which is a completely bonkers takeaway from everything presented. If renewables are so bad, then what does a few million less people on the planet going to do? Oh, and who are we going to knock off or control for? Who decides? How does population control even solve the problem of corporate influence on nonprofits and politics?
Those questions lead to a dark place. We’ve already had a glimpse of what that ideology looks like in the hands of individuals. The alleged manifesto penned by last year’s El Paso shooting suspect sounds an awful lot like Gibbs’ movie, arguing that extractive companies “are heading the destruction of our environment by shamelessly overharvesting resources” and that we to “get rid of enough people” to get things back in balance. Which is a whole lot of nope.
I don’t mean to say Gibbs is therefor an ecofascist. But to see an ostensibly serious environmental movie backed by an influential filmmaker peddle these ideas is genuinely disturbing, especially at a time when we’re seeing it pop up elsewhere in response to the coronavirus. Also side note that it’s also incredibly myopic that Gibbs goes after environmental nonprofits for taking corporate money while ignoring the Sierra Club’s and other early conservation group’s history of support for racist ideas about population control he nods to as a solution (it should be noted some groups are trying to make up for past misdeeds today).
What’s most frustrating about Gibbs’ film is he walks right up to some serious issues and ignores clear solutions. The critique of the compromised corporate philanthropy model is legit. We should absolutely hold nonprofits to account when they don’t live up to their missions. But the solution isn’t to take the leap to population control. It’s to tax the rich so they can’t use philanthropic funding as cover for their misdeeds while simultaneously filling government coffers to implement democratic solutions.
There’s a reason that Breitbart and other conservative voices aligned with climate denial and fossil fuel companies have taken a shine to the film. It’s because it ignores the solution of holding power to account and sounds like a racist dog whistle.
We also should absolutely interrogate the systems and supply chains of renewable energy. The lithium industry’s violent toll on land and people in Latin American countries with vast reserves is real. Letting corporations run the show promises to lead to future violence, regardless of how many people live on Earth. The film doesn’t interview any of the new wave of environmental leaders who see the fight against these injustices and the climate crisis as intrinsically linked. It’s too bad since that’s a message Gibbs—and the rest of the world—need to hear now more than ever.