Co-opted by Capitalism
Michael Moore's Planet of the Humans
Earth Day’s fiftieth anniversary, which fell on April 22, marked a strange celebration for climate-change deniers. Breitbart News, the notorious mouthpiece of the alt-right, published an article that day under the headline “Michael Moore–backed ‘Planet of the Humans’ Takes Apart the Left’s Green Energy Scams.” The following day James Delingpole, who once wrote in The Telegraph that “it would be nice to think one day that there would be a Climate Nuremberg” for any and all “who talked up the global warming scare,” tweeted that Moore was his “new hero.” Marc Morano, who runs the denialist website ClimateDepot.org, deemed the film a “tour de force” in an interview with the Canadian far-right outfit Rebel News. Anti-environment alist think-tanks such as the Center for the American Experiment (“You Must Watch Michael Moore’s Planet of the Humans”) and the Heartland Institute (“an entertaining and educational primer on the hype, phoniness, and lies behind green energy projects”) duly issued their endorsements.
Little more than a week after the film’s Earth Day–eve premier on YouTube, Yale Climate Connections warned that Planet of the Humans “peddles dangerous climate denial.” Bill McKibben, one of the film’s principal targets, wrote a tearful defence of his career for Rolling Stone wherein he lamented Moore’s abetting “cynicism, indeed a kind of nihilism,” as well as confirming that “progressives eat their own.” Naomi Klein tweeted that it “is truly demoralizing how much damage this film has done at a moment when many are ready for deep change.” Renewable energy “communicator” Ketan Joshi dubbed the documentary a “reheated mess of lazy, old myths.” Josh Fox, director of Gasland, called it “a blatant affront to science, renewable energy, environmental activism and truth itself,” demanding “an apology and retraction” of the film on the part of its creators. It was removed from YouTube on May 25, although for purported copyright infringement, only to be restored twelve days later.
In short, Moore’s latest provocation has rankled the environmental movement’s establishment and delighted its detractors. Though it would be an error to take the film at face value, it would be a mistake either to dismiss it out of hand or to denounce Moore as guilty by association. The film warrants consideration both for the reaction that it has elicited and on its own merits, whatever they may be. However, it should first be noted that Michael Moore served solely as the film’s executive producer, not as its director, writer, or star. Credit for those roles rightfully belongs to Jeff Gibbs, a producer of four of Moore’s documentaries including Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11.
Attributions aside, what has got both sides of the divide so worked up about Planet of the Humans? In the film, Gibbs attempts to expose the pernicious lie which, he alleges, underpins a half-century’s efforts to wean civilization off fossil fuels — that lie being the promise of renewable energy. “I’m in a strange position,” Gibbs grumbles. “I’m against our addiction to fossil fuels and have long been a fan of green energy. But everywhere I encountered green energy, it wasn’t what it seemed.” The viewer is led on a disillusioning journey in which such once-propitious sources of energy as wind, solar, and biomass are shown not only to be disappointing failures but, environmentally speaking, worse even than the filthy combustibles which they were supposed to replace. “You would have been better off just burning fossil fuels …
instead of playing pretend,” asserts Ozzie Zehner, a co-producer of the film as well as its token green-energy “expert.” A wooded peak is razed to make way for wind turbines, apparently much in the fashion of mountaintop-removal coalmining. Hybrid cars are charged on an electrical grid supplied almost entirely by coal. Coal-fired power plants are shut down in the name of all things green, only for even larger natural-gas plants to take their place. Forests are cleared, their trees burnt up as “biomass.” Centuries-old Joshua trees are ground down to the earth to provide level terrain for an array of resource-intensive solar panels. Throughout, politicians and businessmen laud this duplicity as “progress,” while the undeceived but-powerless weep. Even more despairing, stalwarts of the environmental movement are themselves revealed to be these plunderers’ greedy, two-timing bedfellows — Faustian villains who have betrayed not only the hopes of their disciples but the planet itself.
Such a straightforward morality-tale might do well for Sunday school. Thinking adults, however, should know better than to believe it without scrutiny. Little wonder, then, that the dozens of “debunkings” of the film are preoccupied with correcting its catalogue of inaccuracies, exaggerations, misrepresentations, and falsehoods. “It’s true that the carbon footprint of renewable energy is not zero,” writes Yale Climate Connections’ Dana Nuccitelli. “But the film somehow fails to mention that it’s far lower than the fossil fuel alternatives, instead falsely suggesting (with zero supporting evidence) that renewables are just as bad.” Grist’s Shannon Osaka avers that Gibbs “overlooks substantive research, preferring to cherry-pick facts, make sweeping generalizations, and engineer ‘gotcha’ moments on camera.” Mark Diesendorf of the University of New South Wales judges the film’s take on renewables to be “out-of-date, superficial, simplistic and misleading.” On review of the evidence, these faultfinders appear justified in calling Gibbs out for arguing in bad faith. Each of the main charges against his argument — that it is outdated, misleading, and ignorant — are levelled on reasonable grounds.
For one, Gibbs attends the launch of the hybrid Chevrolet Volt. The year is 2010 (though not acknowledged in the film) and the place is Lansing, Michigan. An official representing the municipal utility discloses that the displayed Volts are charging on Lansing’s electrical grid, “which is about ninety-five percent coal,” and suggests that Gibbs check out the town’s “football field–size” solar array. There, another official explains that the efficiency of the panels that make up the array is a damning “eight percent … enough to meet the energy requirements of ten homes.” What he doesn’t mention is that the array dates from 2008. It may be true that, for a variety of reasons (not least of which is cost), old equipment often lurches on despite ongoing technical advances. But Lansing’s aged array is clearly not, as is implied in the movie, representative of the present state of solar technology. Nevertheless, “in every corner of the United States, driving an [electric vehicle] produces significantly fewer greenhouse gas emissions than cars powered only by gasoline,” writes Forbes’ Silvio Marcacci, “regardless of the local power mix.” Marcacci’s reporting draws on data, current as of 2018, provided by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Electric cars are evidently far from cure-all solutions to climate change. Yet Gibbs offers no stronger criticism to dispel such an illusion.
Or take Gibbs’ probing of Daggett, California. Since 1984, several generations of solar arrays have skirted the dusty, nearly derelict town. But on their visit, “Ozzie and I discovered that the giant solar arrays” — that is, Solar Energy Generating System (SEGS) sites I and II — “had been razed to the ground,” leaving nothing but metal stumps in the sand. “It suddenly dawned on me what we were looking at,” Gibbs groans: “a solar dead zone.” Which may have been true sometime between 2014 and 2017, unveiling when the footage was shot. But afterwards, SEGS I and II were replaced respectively by Sunray 2 and 3, far more efficient photovoltaic arrays. (Together, they generated a combined “97,631 megawatt hours in 2018” — enough to “run a toaster for 9,288 years” — with “no site emissions” and “no water usage,” according to Joshi.) The audience is led to believe, falsely, that the sites have been abandoned to Ozymandian ruin.
As a final example — though I could go on — the viewer is taken to the mist-shrouded summit of Lowell Mountain, Vermont. There, a righteous band of citizen-activists have gathered to survey a site cleared for the instillation of twenty-one wind turbines. The peak’s defoliation is equated with “mountaintop removal,” which EarthShare describes as “a surface mining practice that blows up mountaintops to expose coal seams.” On looking at photographs of the latter side-by-side with Lowell’s Kingdom Community Wind Farm (completed as of 2012), however, I am not convinced. The wholesale decimation inherent in mountaintop removal — that is, blowing up mountains — bears absolutely no comparison with Lowell’s still largely green hills. The suggestion that the two are in fact comparable is risible. But don’t take my word for it. Undertake the same investigation for yourself, if you care to.
While Gibbs’ attempt to impugn wind and solar miscarries, what about his claims regarding environmental darlings Bill McKibben and the Sierra Club? Gibbs insists that both are beholden to corporate money. “The takeover of the environmental movement by capitalism is now complete,” he declares. “Environmentalists are no longer resisting those with the profit motive, but collaborating with them.” McKibben, for his part, admits on camera that 350.org received funding from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. The source of the Rockefeller family’s copious wealth was Standard Oil, broken up in 1911 into thirty-four companies including Exxon and Mobil (later ExxonMobil). But the repent ant Brothers Fund, founded in 1940 by third-generation heirs to “advance social change that contributes to a more just, sustainable, and peaceful world,” is one of Big Oil’s most well-endowed foes. ExxonMobil sued the Rockefellers in 2016 for “conspiring” against the company by funding reportage that revealed its decades-long cover-up of oil’s environmental dangers. The Sierra Club, for its part, is shown to have accepted millions from billionaire (and foredoomed presidential candidate) Michael Bloomberg to pay for its “Beyond Coal” campaign, which aims “to close all coal plants in the U.S. and replace them entirely with sources of clean energy.” Despite Bloomberg’s supporting natural-gas fracking, the organization claims to have “shifted the narrative on fracked gas from a clean ‘bridge fuel’ to the truth that it’s a polluting fossil fuel like oil and coal” since it began its “Beyond Dirty Fuels” campaign in 2018. It would seem that the Sierra Club is not obligated, at least rhetorically, to serve Bloomberg’s business interests.
The point is not that Gibbs is unjustified in calling out renewables for their pitfalls, especially the truly irredeemable practice of clear-cutting for biomass. Nor is Gibbs wrong to hold to account those who, with palms greased, promote renewable energy as a miracle solution. But he undermines his own case by making it with so little integrity. An argument even in favour of something robustly true is nonetheless tainted, and made invalid, by its being argued dishonestly. If he cares enough to make his case on film, why would Gibbs not make use of more current and compelling evidence, rather than stoop to deceit? And after enduring the insult of being deceived, who stands to listen?
The answer to the first question is that Gibbs must both be intellectually lazy and hold an equally low estimation of his audience. The answer to the second, is the denialist cynics seeking to make an example of his apostasy. The latter are clearly no more wedded to the truth than is Gibbs, or else they are exactly the sort of dupes he hoped to fool. Yet whether he is averse to their backing, his film has proved opportune grist for their mill. It is precisely Gibbs’ and Moore’s “left-wing, activist background … which makes the movie’s message so much more compelling,” writes Delingpole for Breitbart. “It might even help Trump clinch the next presidential election, for it undermines the entire basis of the Green New Deal being pushed in one form or another by his opponents.” That is doubtful, though the message is plain. Moore, for his part, seems an outright hypocrite after having enthusiastically endorsed Bernie Sanders, one of the Green New Deal’s most prominent spokesmen.
What can redeem Planet of the Humans? Gibbs is right to question the extent to which environmentalist rhetoric, environmentalist causes, and the fallacy of a technological cure-all have been co-opted by moneyed interests. Everywhere money lurks, and especially where there are anxieties to exploit, there ought to be vigilance. If environmentalists are too busy with making a profit to properly attend to climate change then they deserve to be admonished, and support for them should be directed elsewhere. But to the detriment of his argument, Gibbs distracts himself with shooing off yesteryear’s ghosts, meanwhile scarcely taking stock of today’s crop of environmentalists and refusing to suggest a way forward.
Actually, that’s not quite right. He does indicate what, he believes, lies at the heart of the problem. And he hints at what might be done to address it. The problem, articulated by a handful of interviewees, is overconsumption abetted by overpopulation. “Right now,” says anthropologist Steven Churchill, too large a percent age of the population “is supported by industrial agriculture, which is heavily subsidized by oil. And it’s not sustainable … Without seeing some sort of major die-off in population, there’s no turning back.” The solution is — well, you fill in the blank. Do Gibbs or Churchill or any other interviewee indicate what might be done to remedy the ills of oil-subsidized industrial agriculture, in order to avoid such a die-off? No. So, who is to go first? Wealthy, white Westerners consume and pollute the most per-capita. But, as Gibbs stops short of saying, the brown and poor people of the Earth (many soon to become “climate refugees”) are far more numerous — and they multiply much more rapidly. Take the insinuation to its logical conclusion and determine for yourself how you would feel living in Gibbs’ vision of the future.
The past, where Gibbs situates himself in this film, offers many useful lessons but little in the way of predictive power. That was then, this is now, and a lot has changed in the meantime. Attitudes towards climate change — which many now tellingly call the climate crisis — are on one hand more obstinate, and on the other more impatient. The Trump administration has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement and abrogated numerous environmental-protection laws. Extinction Rebellion (XR) has been at it for two years, Greta Thunberg roughly as long. September of last year saw the largest climate-related protests in history, with millions striking worldwide in solidarity with Thunberg’s “Fridays for Future.” In many places, McKibben’s 350.org carried out much of the strikes’ organizing. It is not yet obvious what they achieved, though they did reveal who is most urgently concerned with the shape of things to come. Schoolchildren, galvanized by the threat of a disaster-riddled future, showed up in unprecedented droves. What does Gibbs have to offer them? Little more than a shrug. In his eyes, they missed the point. They should never have been born to begin with.
The environmental movement now finds itself a half-century beyond the first Earth Day, and nearly 60 years past the publication of Silent Spring. Has it lost its way? Are its long-cherished institutions bound too closely to the incentives of capitalism? It may have. It may be. But neither conclusion can be drawn from Planet of the Humans without the taint of untruth. In any case, a new generation of climate activists has already emerged. And its members — supporters of the likes of XR, Thunberg, and the Sunrise Movement — don’t buy the illusion that renewables alone, without a broad reconsideration of the political-economic status quo, can save humanity from the worst effects of climate change. “Decades of institutional failure ensures that only ‘unrealistic’ proposals … now have a realistic chance of stopping the planetary death spiral,” writes journalist George Monbiot. “And only those who stand outside the failed institutions,” like XR’s self-styled rebels, “can lead this effort.” At the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit, Thunberg inveighed against world leaders: “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!” The Sunrise Movement, in its own words, is “building an army of young people to break the hold of oil and gas CEOs on our politics and elect leaders who will protect the health and wellbeing of all people, not just a wealthy few.” Irrespective of Planet of the Humans, a new wave of environmentalists has already arrived, and its young proponents have no hang-ups about getting political. Why should they? After all, they were born into a world in flames. And unlike some of their benumbed elders, they can feel the heat.