Betrayed: Michael Moore’s “Planet of the Humans”

At last the left-wing environmentalists have come to their senses. Even the most extreme of them like Michael Moore has admitted that climate change is a hoax. So-called energy alternatives do more harm than good. And nothing can or should be done to address the Chicken Little faux problem of global warming – unless it’s reducing the number of people who have irresponsibly overpopulated the planet.

That’s the position adopted by more than one right-wing commentator gloating over Moore’s newly released documentary, “Planet of the Humans.” And for those who haven’t paid attention to the environmental movement, the evaluation might well ring true.

The film Itself

In making its case, “Planet of the Humans” for instance presents formidable rows of solar panels as perhaps only enough to energize a kitchen toaster. The film demonstrates that the elements required to manufacture wind turbines and electric cars require environmental devastation that destroys tribal lands and exactly parallels the coal industry’s mountaintop removal. And biomass is just crazy. The same holds true for ethanol and elephant manure. Too often, the purveyors of solar and wind technologies turn out to be fly-by-night con artists.

As for the heroes of the environmental movement, there just aren’t any (except, perhaps, for India’s Vandana Shiva who in a brief cameo dissents from biomass madness). Forget about the Sierra Club and Al Gore. Gore’s in bed with Virgin Airlines’ Richard Branson, Mike Bloomberg, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Barack Obama, and the Koch brothers. They’re all compromised, interested only in corporate profit, and speak uniformly with forked tongues.

The same holds true for Bill McKibben and his organization 350.org. He’s fumbling, inarticulate, and evasive – just the opposite of how many of us have seen him repeatedly over the years in venues like Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now.”

No wonder climate change denialists loved the film. Observing their gleeful victory dances will disappoint progressives who likely find themselves upset with Michael Moore, whom so many have come to admire for his other films and his general political leadership. Even a sense of betrayal might not be out of place as the film undercuts an environmental movement at a particularly crucial juncture where time to save the planet is rapidly running out.

Josh Fox’s Counterpoint      

In response to such understandable disappointment, Josh Fox the producer-director of “Gas Land,” – a documentary critique of the fracking industry – appeared recently on Krystal Ball’s and Sagaar Enjeti’s “Rising” news program. There, Fox criticized “Planet of the Humans” as fundamentally misleading. He pointed out the film’s puzzling misdirection in support of its thesis that renewable energy is not the panacea for climate change that environmentalists claim. However, according to Fox, “Planet of the Humans” errs when it:

  • Attacks and dismisses the basic premise of the alternative energy movement that relies on solar and wind sources, but not exclusively as the film suggests. Alternative energy must be complemented by reductions in consumption, by conservation of public lands, and by recycling and reusing.
  • Holds instead that reduction of consumption and population control represent the only viable ways forward. (The Malthusian overtones of such argument are especially reprehensible, Fox said, during a time of pandemic.)
  • Focuses on 10-year old technology as if huge strides have not been made in the past decade with both solar and wind power
  • Similarly advances the arguments that are not merely 10-years but 40-years old. They mirror perfectly what the fossil fuel industry has been saying during that near half century despite the fact that its leaders have known the links between their product and climate change the whole time. Even with that knowledge, they’ve argued (as the film itself implies) that the need for and viability of alternative energies is a matter of debate. In reality however, virtually the entire scientific community is in contrary agreement on the issue.
  • Spends an extraordinary amount of time addressing the pitfalls of biomass as though it were a major part of the alternative energy proposals. (In reality it accounts for 1.4% of non-fossil fuel alternatives.)
  • Ignores the environmental movement of the past 10 years, while arguing at the same time that a new more radical environmental movement is required
  • Specifically, avoids mentioning the extremely important Green New Deal, the Sunrise Movement, and the work of activist heroes like Naomi Klein, Greta Thunberg, and Bill McKibben around divestment from the fossil fuel industry. Instead, McKibben is specifically singled out as though he were a shill for the industry he’s been working against for decades. He’s criticized for support of biomass despite the fact that he informed the filmmakers beforehand that this is no longer the case.
  • Ignores the fact that most within the alternative energy movement stand in agreement with the filmmakers’ position that capitalism and renewable energy do not mix. At this moment of crisis with its need for an F.D.R.-like mobilization of productive resources, socialism is much more compatible with the movement’s goals.

Additional Points of Criticism

One could add to Fox’s criticism the facts that:

  • As John Gilkison has indicated, criticizing today’s electric cars for their continued dependence on coal, oil and gas is like disqualifying Model Ts in 1908 as viable transportation alternatives because they still relied on horse drawn wagons for delivery of materials to the Ford factory.
  • Obviously, wind power is not dependent on mountaintop removal procedures. In fact, mountaintops in Vermont do not at all represent the ideal spot for wind generators. Those would be found in the wind corridor stretching from North Dakota and Montana in the north to western Texas in the south.
  • Biomass does, of course, have a valuable place among today’s energy alternatives. It takes the form of fuel for wood stoves used by individual homeowners to supplement the energy generated by their rooftop panels.  
  • The film misleads on the subject of population. At one point, it says that in a period of just 200 years, the globe’s population increased by a factor of 10. During the same period, energy consumption “on average” rose by the same measure. Clearly however, figures for average energy consumption make it appear that everyone on the planet is equally responsible for energy depletion. They are not. The United States with less than 5% of the world’s population, consumes around 25% of its energy. Meanwhile people on the African continent and elsewhere in the Global South consume far less. So, rather than giving the impression that there are too many people in the world, it would be more accurate to say there are too many Americans. The film avoids making that specific, but hugely important point.

Conclusion

“Planet of the Humans,” of course, is correct in positing that energy corporations like BP and Exxon are trying mightily to co-opt the concept of green technology. Moreover, the corporate version of energy alternatives continues to centralize and control solar and wind sources in massive plants. So, they build expensive energy-intensive installations that depend on solar panel arrays the extent of football fields or on thousands of easily destructible mirrors located in the desert to reflect and somehow gather the sun’s energy. The business model of these concerns has them retaining control of “smart grids” just as they did with the dumb ones formerly powered by oil and coal.

Moore’s film is correct: such “solutions” are top-down and hugely problematic.

However, there are more democratic bottom-up models of energy production. These have homeowners installing solar panels and water heaters on their own rooftops. Bottom-up models similarly turn every office building into its own energy production unit. In this way, solar energy democratizes production and takes it away from the giant corporations. Even today it has those concerns actually paying consumers for the energy homeowners’ solar panels feed back into the larger system. Jeremy Rifkin, for example, has written a great deal on this.

So, we’re left wondering why Michael Moore chose to ignore such patent truisms. Instead, he leaves his audience without constructive scientifically founded hope or alternative. He releases this disturbing film at this particular point in history when the Green New Deal is on the table. He gifts its opponents with the argument that even the “extreme left” now admits that anthropogenic climate change, if it exists at all, represents an insoluble problem.

Why in the face of contrary evidence, did Moore choose to support the right’s position like that? Why ignore the advances in the opposite direction that have emerged over the last 10 years? Why vilify climate heroes like Bill McKibben?

There are no apparent answers to these questions. Michael Moore’s credentials as filmmaker and progressive activist are impeccable. Progressives are still scratching their heads. . .

Published by

Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

2 thoughts on “Betrayed: Michael Moore’s “Planet of the Humans””

  1. Since the last movie I saw was the Lord of the Rings in the ‘90’s it’s unlikely that I’ll see this one.
    But I have a few thoughts.
    Re: the Big Environmentalist lobby:
    When I was involved in the Sustainable Ag movement (late 80’s through early aughts) we often found ourselves allied with several of the larger BE groups. We also found that once they had achieved whatever goal they were focused on they were then out the door and our objectives in the interest of farmers were suddenly forgotten.
    On renewables:
    Kentucky Utilities and LG&E have erected a 50 acre solar “farm” about 10 miles from where I live on the site of the coal-fired J. W. Brown power plant on the Dix River near its confluence with the Ky. River, aka Lake Herrington.
    East KY. Power, the RECC, has built a 75 acre facility along I-64 near Winchester, Ky.
    Both these companies have long relied on fossil fuels (primarily coal) so it’s apparent they have a long term vision in terms of renewables, after generations of downplaying their viability.
    The price of solar in particular has dropped significantly.
    I have two 50 watt panels in my backyard that 20 years ago cost about $500. You can now purchase that amount of wattage for under $100. When I first installed them they were used only to power portable fence energizers, because even a 50 watt incandescent bulb draws 4+ amps of current and will drain a large battery quickly. With the advent of LED bulbs I now power all the lighting in my house and charge our phones with that same 100 watt capacity.
    The point about the toaster illustrates the limits of solar: you really can’t use it to generate heat except in the passive sense, like rooftop water heaters. You can’t power a clothes dryer (5500 watts) or a kitchen range (12000 watts for the oven).
    So your point about mixed systems is well taken. Some creativity and ingenuity are required. In our case, our off the grid system consists of the following: solar panels for lighting, propane for cooking, water heating, and refrigeration, a wood stove for heating, and a generator (used about 3 hours a week) for those times (laundry, etc.) that the rest of the system does not cover. Granted, we live on 100 acres, 25 of which is wooded, and we have been willing to endure some self imposed limits. This would not work in the typical subdivision and would be out of the question in even a small town, let alone the city.
    Finally, I am no more optimistic that we will solve our environmental problems (absent a crisis like the current one) than I am regarding the many crises of our politics.
    As Wendell Berry says, we are all part of the Machine, willingly or not, and even our best individual efforts are ultimately inadequate. Our footprint here is a fraction of the typical household but is still large enough that we are responsible for a degree of degradation. It’s an intractable problem outside a large reduction in population and even the thought of that is fraught with racist and ableist overtones.
    In short, we’re screwed, as the kids say. 😎

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    1. Such a good comment, Larry. You certainly have practical experience with alternative energy far beyond my own. At the beginning of our marriage (45 years ago), Peggy and I aspired to the kind of relationship to energy you describe here. Sincere congratulations for your long-standing commitment. You have much to teach the rest of us at this time demanding far more urgent solutions than it seemed back then. Thanks again.

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