Hope, Despair and Environmentalism’s Failures: A Response to “Planet of the Humans”

Ted Grimsrud—April 30, 2020

Planet of the Humans, a just-released documentary by Jeff Gibbs with backing by Michael Moore, is a fascinating, challenging, messy, deeply flawed film. It is also free to watch on You Tube for several more weeks. Since it’s free on You Tube, I encourage people to watch it. Some of the questions it raises are real and too often ignored. That said, I do not have the expertise to evaluate many of the explicit and implicit claims in the movie. But even if the film misrepresents many things, the issues it raises are urgent and badly in need of our attention.

I would describe the film as one person’s account of his struggle to understand the lack of success of the American environmental movement in turning the tide against the destruction of the planet. I think Gibbs is taking the evil of the fossil fuel industry as a given. His focus is on the other side of the equation—the movement to resist the fossil fuel industry and the other forces leading to destruction. Why hasn’t it been more successful? That seems like a valid and important question.

Because it addresses such an important question, the film had my sympathetic attention from the beginning. I found it to be engaging, interesting, and deeply unsettling. Unfortunately, and surprisingly given its association with Michael Moore, the film is utterly lacking in humor (this factor seems to indicate that Moore had little to do with the content of the film). However, sadly, Planet is also pretty superficial, unclear, and slanted. It allows itself to be too vulnerable to the inevitable defensive and hostile criticism from the mainstream environmental movement that it is critical of. So, I will not defend the film. However, I still will encourage people to watch it. I’m glad I did.

Key concerns from the film

There were two main themes that especially captured my attention. The first is the question of how effective “big green energy” (my term) is at actually making a difference. The second is the question of whether the “big green energy” movement is too closely tied with big corporations and the neo-liberal wing of the Democratic Party. The film is not nearly as clear and helpful as it could be in addressing these two issues. It seems altogether possible, perhaps easily, to cast doubt on the arguments that are made in the film, especially in relation to the first theme. That seems almost beside the point to me. What I am interested in is how the mainstream environmental movement responds to the questions themselves—not simply a flat rejection of the possibly deeply flawed ways the film brings them up.

I would like to know (and I’ll admit I haven’t yet tried to find out on my own) how sustainable big green energy actually is. Does solar actually produce way more genuinely clean energy in relation to the dirty materials that are required to create solar panels, storage facilities, and distribution systems? Likewise with big wind. I’ve seen some large wind farms and noted how many of the windmills are not operative and how invasive those monstrosities are. Is burning biomass genuinely a renewable way of creating energy? The film contains some shocking footage of the destruction of forests to feed biomass burners.

Even more troubling for me is the question of the role of corporate capitalism in the big green energy picture. Planet is getting (perhaps appropriately?) some strong pushback for its negative portrayal of the saintly Bill McKibben. I’ve always appreciated McKibben, but I am troubled with the picture of his coziness with big corporations. How possible is it that such corporations would fund approaches that would actually undermine their profiteering and control? It seems like a fundamental truth that for-profit corporations exist and act in order to increase the wealth of their shareholders. How is this reality compatible with the genuinely transformative approach to energy and the environment that we must have in order to avert what is increasingly seeming to be an inevitable end to human life as we know it on planet earth?

Environmentalists’ response

I have not sought out responses by American environmentalists to Planet. But the few I have noticed (here is one written response and one podcast) undermine their credibility in my eyes with their unremittingly hostile and defensive response, even to the point of active efforts to prevent distribution of the film. Rather than acknowledging the crucial questions that the film raises or providing clear evidence of the big misperceptions the might film push, the critiques I have seen simply dismissed the film out of hand.

Behind the two core themes I mentioned above looms perhaps the most fundamental issue of all—and one that seems to be ignored by big green energy advocates. A central operating assumption in America’s capitalist society is the necessity for economic growth. Big green energy advocates seem to accept as a given that the US can’t convert fully to a sustainable energy path unless we can provide for our American society to continue to consume at its current level. The film does not do a good job of making this issue the central theme it needs to be, but it does hint at the problem.

I was schooled by writers such as E. F. Schumacher and Barry Commoner back in the 1970s. I learned from them that we can’t have growth and sustainability at the same time. That was nearly half a century ago! Growth has continued apace until, more quickly than even the more pessimistic of the thinkers imagined back then, we have direct evidence that we have reached the edge of abyss. The big green energy environmentalists seem happy to crow about all the political progress they have made. However, is it possible that their political gains have occurred mainly because they have been in denial about the essential need to overturn the growth paradigm? Is it possible that part of that denial has been due to the success of corporate America in subverting the environmental movement?

Issues that need addressing

So, I am grateful for the stimulus Planet gave me to think—and to face the deep discouragement (even despair) that follows from sensing that even the profound efforts to turn American society from the self-destructive path of its domination of nature are likely to fail. However, the film I would have liked to see would have gone much further.

(1) Growth. I would have wanted to encounter an argument that was much more upfront, direct, and thorough in addressing the growth issue. The creation of corporations and nation states in the past several hundred years corresponds directly with the rapid exhaustion of natural resources, the deadly spread of poisons in the environment, and (as we only now realize) the irreversible horrific impact on the planet’s climate. This has all been fueled by an ideology that growth matters the most. And, tragically, this growth is not mainly for sake of human wellbeing but rather for the enrichment beyond imagining of only a tiny portion of humanity.

Whether it’s thinkable that American society can turn from this devastating ideology or not, it seems simply to be a fact that we must. The big green energy movement seems to accept the ideology, perhaps out of a sense that there is no hope to persuade the system to adapt to renewable energy otherwise. As it turns out it seems, such an approach guarantees failure. Still, perhaps we could say, it’s better to fail by taking the only approach that offers only a remote chance of success (rejecting the growth paradigm, rejecting capitalism, rejecting the profit system) than to fail by hitching our cart to a corrupt and corrupting ideology and system.

(2) Greed. It seems to me that one of the elephants in the room of public discussions about environmental issues (and many other related issues) is the reality of greed. I would love to see a film such as this one take a deep dive into trying to understand where greed comes from and how it works. It is overly facile simply to say we are all greedy. On some level that is true, but something changed with how greed operates when the West turned its soul over to the market. Certainly, it is true that these past few hundred years have seen an unimaginable growth in wealth and productivity that have resulted in many good things for many people. But part of the fruit of that development has been the expansion of a class of the super wealthy who have devoted their lives to getting richer and richer—and in doing so have contributed to the deadly path where civilization marches off into the abyss of death.

I suspect that until we can overtly address the realities of greed and how the greed of only a few is likely to destroy all of us, we won’t make much of a dent in creating the resistance we need. Again, by accepting the ideology of growth, the big green energy movement may well be simply accepting the notion that such greed is unchangeable and that we must work within its purview to make things better.

A big part of our problem is that the capitalist system is itself extraordinarily greedy—more so than the individuals it co-opts. This is how we can have the phenomenon where well-meaning individuals and even groups end up serving the desires of the system for more and more growth that funnels more and more wealth into only a few hands. A dynamic that seems to deepen the spiral of death here is how too many advocates of change get caught up in the American style of social change that links with “winning” political struggles. This is how environmentalists hitch their wagon to the Democratic Party and its corporate sponsors—an approach that has led to only a few (partial and tenuous) accomplishments alongside the continued rush down the path toward the abyss.

(3) The military. Another systemic factor that the film ignores, like virtually all discussions about these issues in this country, is the role of the American military in our environmental crises. It seems simply to be a fact that we cannot possibly hope to turn toward a different kind of future without breaking the death grip of America’s warism on our public policies.

The list of ways American warism leads to environmental destruction is seemingly endless. Just to mention a few factors: Obviously implementing policies that would bring genuine change (such as the “Green New Deal”) will be expensive and require funding that would only be available if the black hole of military spending. War itself may be the most environmentally destructive activity that humanity has created were closed. The US has fought only corrupt and unjust wars in the past 75 years. Any war America is currently involved in and could imaginably be involved in in the near future is a war that destroys nature for corrupt purposes. And the preparation for war is also incredibly environmentally destructive. I haven’t checked the numbers lately, but the US military in its training practices, building of weapons of war, construction of its worldwide network of countless hundreds of bases, and constant projection of American force abroad uses an extraordinary amount of fossil fuel and leaves a devastating wake of pollution.

(4) Alternatives. I wish the film had put more effort into working at discerning an alternate path. My sense is that the filmmakers utterly reject the fossil fuel path and their concern with big green energy follows from the sense that we do need a genuine alternative to the fossil fuel path. But if that is actually the case, they would have been well served to do the work I mention. It’s a lost opportunity that they didn’t (given that in about a week and a half they have over 4.5 million views of the film on You Tube).

The film does not mention nuclear power. That was actually a relief, because I think the nuclear option is a dead end for numerous reason. For one thing, in this country it is totally linked with the growth ideology and the profit and big corporation paradigm. And the film does not mention the hydroelectric option. That was a little more confusing, since hydro is, as I understand it, the largest renewable source of power. I recognize problems with big dams, et al, but I don’t know if the silence about hydro was because the filmmakers are less negative about it or something else.

The biggest silence to me, though, was the failure to discuss the place of conservation. From years ago when I last paid much attention to these issues, I remember that conservation (e.g., insulation, increased efficiency, use of geo-thermal options) was a major source of reducing the use of nonrenewable energy. I’m curious why this was not mentioned.

The big question is simply how humanity can find ways to provide for the needs of everyone on earth without destroying earth’s ability to support human life. It seems that the only way this could possibly happen is for human beings to consume way less and to find local, small-scale ways to generate the power that is needed. How can this happen? That’s where the film should have ended up. Give us something to work toward.

(5) Hope. The final theme I would have liked the film to address, admittedly a difficult point to get a handle on, is how to live hopefully and creatively in the face of the apparent almost certainty of our doom. If big green energy is not a basis for hope, then it seems we need to find a way to hope against hope.

What this theme actually points toward is a sense of how to live without the power to control the outcome of our history. We need to look for wisdom from various groups of people who have had to find their way forward in contexts where they had little power, sometimes in contexts where their current life was pretty intolerable.

An example I have been interested in for a while is the efforts to resist the domination of Communist governments in Central Europe in the decades following World War II. By the 1970s it was pretty clear that overt violent resistance had little likelihood of success. So, for some of the dissidents, the best approach was to think on a smaller scale, to seek simply to create space to be human.

Perhaps that is something we might learn from in face of our current approach to the edge of the abyss of environmental destruction. We can seek to live at harmony with nature as best we can on whatever level we might be able to influence. And we can embrace the still abundant creativity and love around us however we can. Perhaps the best we can do anymore is accept that creating this kind of space to be human is the best we can do.

One thought on “Hope, Despair and Environmentalism’s Failures: A Response to “Planet of the Humans”

  1. I consider the “growth ideology” more than an ideology. I consider it a cult. It is followed with religious fanaticism. Furthermore, it is almost never justified but rather it is an assumption on which almost everything in our political-economic system is based. Ideologies usually have a rationale, maybe not good ones, but there is usually much more thought behind them then there is with the growth cult.

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