by Gert Van Hecken and Vijay Kolinjivadi
A new documentary entitled “Planet of the Humans” directed by Jeff Gibbs, and produced by Oscar-winning filmmaker Michael Moore, was recently released to coincide with Earth Day. The documentary was highly anticipated, given Moore’s previously engrossing anti-establishment and award-winning documentaries on crucial political issues. The documentary, narrated by self-proclaimed environmentalist Jeff Gibbs, was released online and received over 4 million views in less than a week. The filmmakers unpack some of the myths surrounding large-scale renewable energy production like solar, wind, and biomass, arguing that such technologies are themselves materially-intensive and dependent on fossil-fuel derived energy, including coal, oil, and natural gas.
The film rightly questions capitalism’s “addiction to growth,” as well as corporate quests for profitable opportunities made available through greenwashing, and exposes the “renewable energy scam” as an unsettling co-optation of environmentalism by fossil-fuel driven interests. This line of questioning is refreshing and highly welcome at a time when faith in green growth is proposed as the main solution by the private sector, and their government supporters, to address environmental issues. These messages from the film are extremely important, given that it has been scientifically shown that there is no such evidence that environmental degradation can be reversed through increasing economic growth.
Since its release, the film has already received considerable critique from renewable energy experts, climate scientists, and climate activists, who have decried the film as dangerously misleading and behind the latest developments in the renewable energy sector. While we are sympathetic to this critique on how the film throws the “baby out with the bathwater” on renewables, we believe these critiques gloss over the important point the film makes about corporate greenwashing around renewable energy. We also believe that the critique of the film’s position being climate-denialist is clearly inaccurate given the film’s central focus on the ecological crisis associated with economic expansion. Ultimately, “Planet of the Humans” demonstrates why massive-scale renewable energy is a false solution to meet the insatiable needs of industrial society – this is a valid point! Even if renewables were fully substitutable alternatives to fossil-fuels, an industrialized civilization predicated on endless economic growth is not sustainable.
Our concern lies with how the film superficially points to environmental problems being caused by an abstract capitalism without centering the analysis on the historical and structural inequalities of capital accumulation. “Planet of the Humans” powerfully and convincingly bursts the “eco-friendly” lifestyle bubble into which so many well-intentioned progressives pour their hearts, souls, and wallets. However, the film bypasses historically ingrained privileges and structural inequalities along class, gender, and racial lines that lie at the heart of environmental crises.
A film produced by white people for other well-meaning white people, which does not include voices from the most vulnerable, who bear the major brunt of climate change and ecological collapse, entirely misses the mark around why ecological concerns are a matter of humiliating injustice for many people rather than merely a lifestyle choice. If what counts as being a “lifelong environmentalist,” as Gibbs claims at the start of the film, means making the individual choice to move into an “eco-house” and become more sustainable, then we are left with a very narrow and privileged understanding of what environmentalism actually means. The absence of more than stock-photo imagery of the structural inequalities of ecological destruction is precisely what makes this film highly simplistic and therefore dangerous at this current conjuncture.
There are four key reasons why the film misses the mark on the intertwined social and ecological crises of capitalism.
- The film’s narrative groups humanity as a whole as the culprit for ecological degradation, as evoked in the film’s title, and as signaled by the Anthropocene trope as a universalizing explanation for our current predicament. This perspective neutralizes the powerful influence of historically transforming the world into standardized, calculable, and controllable landscapes to replicate Western imaginaries of the world. Not all humans are responsible for the current state of affairs. Some of us are forced to deal with the fallout of a particularly deadening vision of the world more than others. The consequence of activating the idea of the Anthropocene is that it allows big industries to convince us that “we”, the anthropos, are all equally responsible for climate change.
- The film caters to Western views on environmentalism by those who do not have to deal with structural injustices of living in cities’ most polluted areas, dying from air pollution, having their land dispossessed, or whose life choices are determined by precarious migrant labour and remittance to families abroad. While the film artfully exposes the fallacy around so-called “green economy” illusions, it does so by focusing entirely on lifestyle choices like deciding whether to attend a solar-powered concert or to adopt a plant-based diet. This focus simplifies what environmentalism is meant to imply, even if the filmmakers may have had no intention of doing so. One consequence of the filmmaker’s one-sided Western environmentalist lens is its singular focus on renewable-energy supporters and activists. Environmentalism has less to do with having epiphanies of being inspired in the great outdoors, and more to do with supporting the autonomous decision-making of vulnerable communities in the face of egregious environmental pollution that no human being should ever be subjected to. Racialized environmental justice has a long history in the US. It is unfathomable that a film of this nature would blatantly side-step this, especially given Moore’s previous work on the racialized nature of environmental problems like the Flint water crisis. Only one female voice who defends the struggles of racialized people from so-called “developing” countries demanding environmental justice was offered space in the film, and even that for less than 1 minute.
- The film blames overpopulation as another problem alongside relentless economic growth as where “we” went wrong as humans. This perspective unduly places the blame on populations in so-called developing countries and aligns with Malthusian and ethno-nationalist perspectives of eco-fascists by “greening” hatred among people. These are blatantly dangerous and could even be considered racist viewpoints especially considering that some environmental movements are deeply rooted in anti-immigration sentiment and white supremacy. This is particularly problematic when the film’s audience is seemingly well-meaning middle-class progressives whose dreams of a renewable-energy fueled capitalism are dashed without offering any alternatives. The consequence is that white-supremacist media sources like Breitbart can easily hijack a film like “Planet of the Humans,” as they already seem to be doing.
- While perhaps not the intention of the filmmakers, the film paradoxically creates a narrative that is easy to co-opt by ecomodernists advocating for technological fixes to environmental problems. It essentially gives them a green light to irresponsibly advocate nuclear energy by laying claim to the failure of renewable technologies to power an industrial society. Indeed, given the lack of alternatives offered in the film, its silence on the matter essentially condones nuclear energy. Such a decontextualized view on the potential of energy alternatives like wind and solar shuts the door on renewable energy technologies without recognizing the crucial role they play as decentralized energy solutions, particularly those focused on ensuring energy democracy for communities around the world. In short, energy systems cannot be decontextualized from the kind of society that is democratically desired. Like fossil fuels, nuclear energy depends on powerful and hegemonic actors to drive and direct both energy demand and supply, but a sustainable future will require decentralized, autonomous communities that have control over their energy use and where their energy comes from.
Overall, the implications of the film and its responses extend beyond its specific strengths and weaknesses. Debates constructed around environmentalism more generally, especially in industrialized countries, have tended to fall into particular narratives that do not adequately share an ethical and political commitment towards social and environmental justice, reparations for historical acts of colonial violence, and alternative knowledges and ways of being. These narratives often advocate for a renewable-powered and industrialized green economy, support centralized techno-fixes like nuclear energy with potentially catastrophic social and ecological consequences, or advocate for population control in veering dangerously close to the side of eco-fascists.
Moreover, given that the film takes a North American focus, these positions amount to colonial settlers on stolen land debating what counts as a sustainable future. The striking absence of Indigenous land defenders, their history of struggle, and lessons to be learned from them is another missed opportunity to truly engage with what “sustainability” could mean. While these concerns extend beyond the film’s intentions and perhaps intended audience, it is impossible to ignore them given the totalizing characterisation of environmental problems, as clearly evident in the film’s title.
An intersectional understanding of ecological crises, as they weave through race, gender, and class, would have offered a more powerful portrait of the state of the planet’s ecological situation. Global social movements around the world such as La Via Campesina, as well as the degrowth movement in Western industrialized countries explicitly connect social and ecological struggles as one and the same struggle, and offer hope and inspiration into flourishing alternatives already existing to reimagine the world. “Planet of the Humans” does not reflect non-Western conceptions of justice nor non-mechanistic understandings of human-nature relations. Attempts being made to confuse the film’s message with degrowth are therefore inaccurate. The film’s impacts could not have come at a worse time, when people are seeking alternatives to capitalist crisis in the midst of a global pandemic.
Gert Van Hecken is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Development Policy, University of Antwerp. For over fifteen years he has lived and worked in Nicaragua, both as a researcher on social-environmental conflicts in rural communities and as a representative for a development NGO.
Vijay Kolinjivadi is a Post-doctoral Researcher at the Institute of Development Policy, University of Antwerp. His research has focused on the socio-cultural and political outcomes around “payments for ecosystem service” policies with land-users in South and Central Asia as well as in Eastern Canada. His interests lie at the intersections of political ecology and ecological economics.