From gods and radicals
Transitioning to renewable energy will not save us.
That is the underlying message of Michael Moore’s new film, Planet of the Humans, which was just released on Earth Day. (You can watch it for free on YouTube.) At it’s most basic, our problem is that we have an infinite growth economy on a finite material planet. That problem will not be solved by transitioning to solar and wind without a drastic reduction in human consumption.
This message has received a mixed response from environmentalists, ranging from relief—that this message is finally reaching a wider audience—to outrage—that anyone would question what has become an article of faith for the mainstream environmental movement, i.e., that renewable energy will save us. I have to say, Planet of the Humans is not a perfect movie, either as a film or as an environmentalist text. But the movie goes to the heart of the problem—industrial capitalist civilization—and it correctly calls out the complicity of the mainstream environmental movement in that problem.
Over the course of the movie, the film’s producer and narrator, Jeff Gibbs, makes three main points:
1. Not Really Renewable
Renewable energy sources—solar, wind, and biomass—are actually highly dependent on fossil fuels, which means they’re not really renewable. Standing in front of a massive solar farm in the Mojave Desert, co-producer Ozzie Zener explains, “This absolutely cannot extend civilization’s life. This relies upon the most toxic and industrial processes we’ve ever created.”
In addition, large “renewable” energy projects are highly destructive of the environments where they are located. Examples shown in the film include the destruction of 500 year-old Joshua trees and Yucca plants to make way for the solar farm mentioned above. In another scene, local environmentalists in Vermont mourn what is effectively “mountaintop removal” for a wind farm (owned by Enbridge).
2. Renewables Don’t Really Replace Fossil Fuels
So-called renewable energy sources are limited in a number of ways, including intermittency (they only work when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing, for example) and low energy-return-on-investment (the net amount of energy you get out of a source after subtracting the energy you put into extracting, processing, and transporting it) compared to fossil fuels.
This means they can’t really “replace” fossil fuels. Where they are currently being used, they are supplementing, not replacing fossil fuel use. In other words, they are contributing to the growth of consumption. (More on this below.)
3. Coopted by Capitalists
Many of the biggest names in the mainstream environmental movement—including such saints as Al Gore and Bill McKibben and such sainted organizations as the Sierra Club and 350.org—are in compromising relationships with the Big Banks, Big Oil, and big industry.
There’s a scene in the movie where billionaire Richard Branson is being interviewed alongside Al Gore, and he is asked, “Is Al Gore a prophet?” Branson thinks about it for a moment, and responds, “How do you spell [prophet/profit]?” They all laugh.
“Environmentalists are no longer resisting those with a profit motive,” explains Gibbs, “but collaborating with them.”
“The only reason we’ve been force fed the story ‘climate change plus renewables equals we’re saved’ is because billionaires, bankers, and corporations profit from it. And the reason we’re not talking about overpopulation, consumption, and the suicide of economic growth is that would be bad for business, especially the cancerous form of capitalism that rules the world, now hiding under a cover of green.”
When critics of the movie take issue with some of the finer points of the film, they overlook the film’s real point: “What we are calling green renewable energy and industrial civilization are one and the same.”
Gibbs opens the film with a question, “Is it possible for machines made by industrial civilization to save us from industrial civilization?” The answer implied throughout the film is “No.”
Renewable energy will not save us without a drastic reduction in human consumption and population. As Richard Heinberg says in the film, “There are too many human beings using too much too fast.” Making such a drastic transition would require a radical change in how we think about who we are—finite human animals—and our relationship with the web of life—something we are a part of instead of something which exists as a background to human activity.
In spite of the seeming obviousness of this message (at least to deep ecologists), the film has come under attack … not from the political right, as you might expect, but from many progressives. LaUra Schmidt, co-founder of the Good Grief Network, has observed that “Planet of the Humans has triggered a vast polarization amongst those of us working towards a livable future.” I think it has not so much triggered the polarization as highlighted it. Just as the political left has long been divided between progressives/liberals and leftists/radicals on the other, the environmental movement is also divided between what Charles Mann calls the “wizards” (who also tend to be progressives) and the “prophets” (who also tend to be radicals).
“Prophets look at the world as finite, and people as constrained by their environment. Wizards see possibilities as inexhaustible, and humans as wily managers of the planet. One views growth and development as the lot and blessing of our species; others regard stability and preservation as our future and our goal. Wizards regard Earth as a toolbox, its contents freely available for use; Prophets think of the natural world as embodying an overarching order that should not casually be disturbed.”
— Charles Mann, The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World (2018)
This divide can be demonstrated by how the two groups use the word “sustainability”. When the “wizards” talk about “sustainability,” what they mean is sustaining our current economic system. On the other hand, when “prophets” talk about “sustainability”, what they mean is sustaining the web of life. This is a critical distinction precisely because, from the perspective of the prophet, the two forms of “sustainability” are incompatible: the perpetuation of our current economic system is incompatible with the perpetuation of the web of life.
This difference is wonderfully illustrated in one of the first scenes of Planet of the Humans, less than 10 minutes into the film. Gibbs visits a solar festival in Vermont. Musicians play electric guitars on a stage while solar panel vendors hawk their wares. The festival, we are told, is supposedly powered 100% by renewable energy. But when the rain begins to fall, the technicians behind the stage scramble. Gibbs good-naturedly asks one technician to explain:
Gibbs: “What are you guys setting up here?”
Engineer: “Some biodiesel generators in case we lose power due to the rain.”
Gibbs: “So the festival is run off solar primarily?”
Engineer: “Primarily. We do need to bring some of this stuff in, just cause we want to make sure we have enough power not to kill our fancy toys that are lighting the stage.”
But the bio-generator turns out not to be enough, and they end up plugging into the electrical grid … which is powered by fossil fuels.
The whole movie could be summed up in that one interaction. Solar power is not replacing fossil fuels in that scenario; it is simply adding to the total amount of energy consumed. And when the solar power fails, the environmentalists default to fossil fuels. No one appears to even consider letting the power die to their “fancy toys”. Continued consumption is the unquestioned assumption … even among environmentalists.
As a result of this, says Gibbs, “humans are poised for a fall from an unimaginable height. Not because of one thing. Not climate change alone. But all of the human caused changes the planet is suffering from.”
When I praised Planet of the Humans online, I was surprised by the intensity of the response, bordering on the vitriolic. But I was even more surprised that the criticism was not from conservative adversaries, but from progressive allies. One friend even called me a “nihilistic humanity-crusher”. And what I experienced was just a tiny fraction of vitriol that is being directed at Jeff Gibbs and Michael Moore.
What is driving this outrage? I think the answer is the same thing that drives climate change denial among conservatives: fear. Fear of limits. Fear that we can’t keep on “progressing” forever. Fear, ultimately, of death.
Sheldon Solomon, a social psychologist interviewed in the film, and the author of The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life, explains this reaction well:
“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?’ Whether you know it or not, whether you like it or not, that’s undermining the confidence with which you subscribe to your own views, and exposing you to the very anxiety that those beliefs were constructed to eradicate in the first place.”
And that, I think, explains a lot of the reaction to the film from progressives and wizardly environmentalists. As LaUra Schmidt has noted, “The responses [to the film] I’m witnessing in the public spheres seem to stem from a place of emotional reactivity and the unprocessed grief is bubbling over.” Many of us, including many of those on the political left, have yet to really come to terms with the problem of human finitude. While we may have accepted that their own lives are finite, we have yet to accept that humanity is also finite, as is this human project we call “civilization”.
History is replete with the rise and fall of civilizations. The causes are familiar: climate change, population growth, soil degradation, and widening social inequality. Our civilization is no more immortal than those that came before us. The only thing that is unique about ours is that, while civilizations before us exceeded the carrying capacity of their regional land bases, ours is a global economy, so we are facing collapse, not just on a regional level, but on a planetary scale.
Our civilization, including all of our technologies, is sustained by a glut of cheap oil, oil which was created over millennia and which we have used up in two centuries. When the fossil fuels run out (or, more accurately, become too expensive to extract)—something that’s already begun—then we will experience a return to pre-industrial levels of technology. We have no choice about that. What we do have a choice about is to “collapse consciously” (Carolyn Baker’s phrase) or to let nature force it upon us while we “rage against the dying of the light”.
Gibbs acknowledges that this is a hard message to hear: “All this might seem overwhelming. It’s the kind of thing we normally don’t try to think about. But by not thinking about it, it stands good chance of doing us in.” The first step of the way out, he says, is awareness:
“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 at long last accept that it’s not the carbon dioxide molecule destroying the planet; it’s us. It’s not one thing, but everything we humans are doing, a human-caused apocalypse.”
Planet of the Humans has left many viewers with impression that it is anti-renewable energy (or even pro-fossil fuels). But that’s not the case. Rather, the film simply recognizes the limitations of renewable energy, especially a certain kind of renewable energy project: massive, centralized, ecologically destructive facilities, which are owned and controlled by massive corporations driven by the profit motive—essentially industrial capitalism in a green guise. Unfortunately, the film does not do a good job of distinguishing small-scale, local/decentralized, community-controlled uses of renewable energy.
And this is where the film fails: it doesn’t point a clear way forward. Richard Heinberg (who is interviewed in the film) speculates that this was a deliberate choice of the part of Gibbs: “Too often, ‘hopium’ is simply a drug we use to numb ourselves to the horrific reality of our situation and its causes—in which we are all complicit.” And yet, says Heinberg, “however awful the circumstance, we need a sense of human agency.” We need to see a way forward, even if that way must pass through the collapse of industrial civilization.
In response to a retraction campaign, the digital library Films For Action refused to remove the film from its site, even while acknowledging its problems. The well-balanced statement which Films For Action published would have made an excellent conclusion to the film:
“We still need to transition to 100% renewable energy. There is no other option. But the delusion that we need to dispel is the idea that renewables can power our industrial civilization as is, and that these technologies are entirely ‘green’ when they are themselves still harmful. …
“We need to power-down our civilization. Renewables + dramatically reduced consumption of energy and resources is the solution—not simply renewables alone, and our capitalist/consumer society has not grasped that reality. …
“… the film is asking us to come to terms with some difficult realities which we have yet to face: namely, that sustaining our infinite growth, industrial civilization on renewables is neither desirable nor possible, yet that is exactly what green capitalists are intent on pursuing. …
“Instead of ‘growing the economy’ forever —which amounts to ecological devastation of the planet year after year for the sake of ‘profit’—we should focus on growing everything that actually matters in reality: biodiversity, wilderness restoration, healthy soils, air and water, human happiness and wellbeing, social trust, meaning in our lives …”
1 Some of the people who have been writing and talking about this for some time are William Catton (grandfather of the environmental movement), Michael Dowd (see his Post-Doom project), Paul Kingsnorth & Dougald Hine (co-founders of the Dark Mountain Project), Jem Bendell (author of the “Deep Adaptation” paper), Derrick Jensen (founder of Deep Green Resistance), John Michael Greer (who fellow Pagans should be familiar with), Roy Scranton, and Richard Heinberg (featured in the movie).
2 Those interested in watching the movie should know beforehand that the movie is actually narrated by Jeff Gibbs, not Michael Moore. Moore is an executive producer.
3 The relationship between population and carrying capacity is complex. While population is an issue, the more immediate concern is consumption. The wealthiest 10% of the world’s population accounts for 59% of all human consumption. Americans constitute only 5% of the world’s population, but consume 24% of the world’s energy. (Source)
4 “The leftist sees capitalism as a horror, and believes that so long as money and profit rule the earth, human beings will be made miserable and will destroy themselves. The liberal does not actually believe this. Rather, the liberal believes that while there are problems with capitalism, it can be salvaged if given a few tweaks here and there. … Liberals believe that the economic and political system is a machine that has broken down and needs fixing. Leftists believe that the machine is not ‘broken.’ Rather, it is working perfectly well; the problem is that it is a death machine designed to chew up human lives. You don’t fix the death machine, you smash it to bits.” — Nathan Robinson, “The Difference Between Liberalism and Leftism”, Current Affairs (June 7, 2017)
5 LaUra Schmidt writes: “Our culture, including the dominant environmental movement, has promoted the idea that we shouldn’t explore these painful feelings, they take too much time and energy from the momentum needed to get off fossil fuels as quickly as possible. The larger environmental movement is terrified that if we allow ourselves to plummet into the depths of hopelessness and despair there will not be enough optimism to propel us forward. Many of us feel that if we invite in our excruciating feelings, we will be stuck with them forever. This notion is not just wrong, it’s harmful. … any solutions, if they are to be meaningful, will come from those of us who have been courageous enough to take the time and energy to feel these scary and discomforting feelings. Through processing our griefs and facing reality, we open to new solutions that were previously unavailable to us.” — “Triggered: ‘Planet of the Humans’ & A Call For Emotional Intelligence”
6 The film also doesn’t even mention nuclear power, which simply can’t exist on a small-scale, local/decentralized, community-controlled basis.