‘Planet of the Humans’ is a mess

The new documentary on the future of our planet, executive produced by Michael Moore, fails on a number of fronts. But believers in green growth could still learn from it.

Still from Planet of the Humans.

We’re doomed. That’s the first thing director Jeff Gibbs wants you to know in his film, Planet of the Humans. Released for free on YouTube on the eve of Earth Day, the documentary, which by May 3 had five million viewers, is executive produced by Michael Moore (Roger and Me, Fahrenheit 9/11). It begins with Gibbs asking a grim question: “How long do you think we humans have?” The responses he gets in man-on-the-street interviews vary from a few years to a few millennia. Gibbs’ own answer is unspoken, but the implication is clear: Not long.

What follows is a condemnation of the characters who, in Gibbs’ view, have brought the planet—and the human species—to the brink of catastrophe. But precious little of Gibbs’ ire is reserved for the fossil fuel companies who lied about climate change for decades, their stooges in government, or the rapacious industries intent on commoditizing every last inch of the natural world. Instead, Gibbs, an environmentalist and anti-capitalist, aims his arrows squarely at the renewable energy industry and some of its most vocal boosters—including Al Gore, Bill McKibben of the climate-focused NGO 350.org, and Michael Brune of the Sierra Club, a 127-year-old conservation organization. Gibbs also has a few in his quiver, too, for so-called “green capitalists” such as Michael Bloomberg and Richard Branson. Moneyed interests, he claims, have co-opted the environmental movement and, in turn, led us all down a road to ruin.

It’s a provocative perspective for a film arriving amid a surge in global environmental activism, and Gibbs knows it. He approaches his topic with a mischievousness that will seem familiar to anyone who’s seen a Michael Moore film. Like his producer, Gibbs delights in uncovering perceived hypocrisies—noting, for instance, the diesel generators powering an Earth Day concert touting its solar panels. He’s also fond of trespassing and catching interviewees on the fly. These tactics help paint him as a renegade truth-teller, a stubborn thorn in the side of powerful entities.

That posture, unfortunately, doesn’t always square with reality. In fact, the film elevates quite a few misrepresentations about the renewable energy industry by leaning on old footage, antiquated statistics, and blatantly false technological claims. It then extrapolates from those distortions to make some of the same flawed arguments popular among ecofascists, climate deniers, and fossil fuel industry apologists. These errors are so egregious, in fact, that climate experts have called for the film to be retracted, and one distributor briefly heeded the call. All in all, Planet of the Humans can be generously described as a mess. It’s sloppily reported, shoddily produced, and politically confused. By Moore’s own account, it was released on something of a whim, after years lingering in production—and it shows.

That’s a shame, for Gibbs does tell a few important truths, the kind you’re unlikely to find in another environmentalist manifesto with such a large audience. His critique of green growth, for one, is welcome at a time when profit-hungry corporations like Blackrock are earning praise even among some environmentalists for making voluntary and wholly insufficient environmental pledges. And he’s right to criticize the sometimes nauseating coziness between Big Green nonprofits and some of the financial institutions and corporations driving the environmental crisis. (Footage of McKibben speaking on a panel about “sustainable profitability” alongside a former Goldman Sachs executive is memorably gross). Even Naomi Klein, who trashed the film on Twitter, makes similar points in her book, This Changes Everything.

Still from Planet of the Humans.

Gibbs, like eco-centric environmentalists such as Paul Kingsnorth, is keen to point out that renewable energy sources come with a steep environmental cost of their own. His harshest criticism is reserved for the biomass industry, which looks an awful lot like the logging industry. But solar and wind energy don’t come out looking so pretty either. As critics like the writer and data scientist, Ketan Joshi, have pointed out, however, some of Gibbs’ information on those industries is wildly outdated, and some of his assertions—including the notion that renewables are actually worse than fossil fuels—are simply untrue and dangerous.

And yet, there’s something refreshing about seeing “clean” energy described in less than messianic terms for a change. In one of the film’s most brutal scenes, Gibbs presents a montage of the industrial processes involved in the production of wind turbines and solar cells. It’s hard to watch—especially the images of African children mining cobalt—and yet it doesn’t even fully cover the extent of the Faustian bargain that a global green energy transition represents without a simultaneous reduction in global consumption and production. Case in point: Scientists now advocate mining the deep ocean floor for metals needed in order for “civilization to become more sustainable.”

Such alarming realities could have inspired Gibbs to speak with some leftist activists who oppose growth, including many members of the Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion, and the Democratic Socialists of America. But with the exception of a brief interview with the scholar Vandana Shiva, Gibbs lets those voices go unheard. Instead, he chooses to blithely advocate for population control, an argument that, devoid of any sort of nuance, becomes red meat for ecofascists. By the end of the film, however, Gibbs seems to have forgotten his stance on population altogether, instead naming both “billionaires” and “everything we humans are doing” as the cause for planetary destruction within the space of just a few sentences.

He’s even more vague about the solution. “If we can get ourselves under control, all things are possible,” he concludes. But what does that mean, exactly? Some viewers might take it as a call to abandon capitalism and adopt a healthy skepticism of extractive industries and individuals waving the banner of environmentalism. Others, who’ve heard that “we humans” are broadly to blame for planetary devastation and that renewable energy is worse than fossil fuels, might see the future as a lost cause. If the majority believe the latter, then perhaps we really are doomed.

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