Saturday, 30 May 2020

Does Planet of the Humans Ape the Environmental Movement


A Perspective on the Controversial film, by an Extinction Rebellion (XR) Supporter



Taking Liberties

The new Michael Moore film, Planet of the Humans puts the Climate Cat upon the environmentalist pigeons. Indeed, to many Green supporters it is about as welcome as the sight of the Statue of Liberty was at the end of the movie its title is a play upon: Planet of the Apes. It is arguably Moore’s riskiest release to date. 

Previously, everyone knew what Michael Moore was about; or at least they thought they knew. The bane of arch conservatives, and a continuous thorn in the side of the American ideology that is often disparagingly referred to as the “Guns and Bible” faction by its critics. The vast majority of this faction are very strongly aligned with the Republican party and their view of the world.

Moore has gained a reputation as a darling of the “left and Liberal wing” in America with movies like Fahrenheit 9/11, Which Country Shall We Invade Next and Bowling for Columbine. And people have come to expect Moore’s works to poke holes in the rigid worldview of the right leaning targets of his polemic creations.

Whose Side Are You On?

Planet of the Humans takes aim at what producer Moore and director Jeff Gibbs refer to as “our side”.

Who do they mean by “Our Side”? According to Moore, “our side” are the Liberals, the environmentalists, the “Progressives”. 

How does this relate to Extinction Rebellion? Well, like it or not (and some members of XR might not like it; such as the ones that consider themselves, in the words of one of XR’s slogans, “Beyond Politics”) there is a certain perception of environmentalism. This perception is held in America, where every major issue is now strongly partisan. And the perception is that environmentalism is to the Left of the political divide (even though achievements like the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in the US are credited to the Republican Party).

And how does Planet of the Humans take aim?

Publicity for the film claims that it will show us the “dark side” of the “sacred cows” of environmentalism. In practice that means an attack on renewable energy and notable groups and figures in the environmental movement itself.


Some Inconvenient Claims

Here are a few of the contentious claims made by the film. They are relayed without further comment for now:
·       Renewables cannot go all the time, and need fossil fuel power plants idling in the background to power in reserve. Having to turn a fossil fuel plant up and down constantly makes it extremely inefficient and even more hostile to the environment. 

·       Renewables themselves can be very destructive for the environment because of the vegetation that needs to be cleared to construct a solar or wind farm, and also because they can be made of concrete and steel (wind turbine) or mined material (solar panel). At one point Gibbs looks at a huge wind turbine and muses “can we use big industry to save us from big industry?”

·       The shelf life of a solar panel or wind turbine is relatively short (20 years approx) before they need to be replaced. This means more mining, more concrete and more steel as the replacements are constructed.

·       Often when coal plants are shut down they are not replaced with renewable energy but with natural gas, another fossil fuel. Sometimes the natural gas plant that replaces the coal plant is even bigger that the power plant it supersedes.

·       To overcome the problems of intermittence in Sun and wind, you need to store power in batteries, but this greatly increases the carbon footprint of the power source you are using. At the moment (according to the film) we are only at a fraction of 1% of the battery power that we need to make solar and wind a viable replacement for fossil fuel and nuclear power sources.

·       The search for funds can lead environmental groups to “get into bed” with big banks, polluting companies and fossil fuel corporations – in other words they rely on the people that got us into this crisis to get us out of it. Two major targets for the ire of the film makers are Bill Mckibben of 350.org and ex vice president Al Gore of An Inconvenient Truth fame.

What to Make of it All?

So what is an Extinction Rebellion supporter to make of all of this? Should we endorse this work, condemn it, or something in between?
In the opinion of the writer is is useful to separate intent from execution when we assess this piece.

Intention wise, I believe there is much in Planet of the Humans that supporters of Extinction Rebellion can relate to.

However when we examine the execution of the project problems arise.

So let’s look at each in turn.

The Failure of Environmentalism

Gibbs and Moore believe that the environmental movement, even though it has achieved good things since it began in the 1960s, has failed. In his recent podcast Moore read out a damning set of statistics:

Since the first Earth Day:
·       90% of large fish (cod, tuna etc) have disappeared from our oceans. We are eating them out of existence.
·       95% of (non human) mammals on Earth that now exist are our pets or our dinner.
·       Between 2,000 and 10,000 animal species are going extinct every year.
·       We have lost over half of our topsoil, and some scientists and agriculturalists predict it may all be gone in the next 60 years (it takes 1,000 years to generate 3 cm of topsoil).
·       Of the 34 main aquifer systems (underground water supplies) on the planet, 21 of them are approaching total collapse.
·       We lost 1.2 billion acres of rainforest in 2018 ALONE.

And, of course, we are, at 415 parts per million CO2 in our atmosphere, way past the 350 ppm “safe limit” for life on Planet Earth.


Hitting Earth’s Limits

One of the most haunting moments in the movie is when Steve Running, an ecologist from the University of Montana, discusses how humanity is transgressing multiple planetary limits: multiple instances of the boundaries of what we can exploit from the Earth. And yet we continue to hope that a miracle of technology will save, not us a species, but the way of life that we have become addicted to.

Humanity (and particularly the “Western World”) are addicted to consumption; we are addicted to endless expansion on a planet with finite resources.

And so far there is nothing in this that Extinction Rebellion would argue with. We also want to end humanity’s addiction to growth and consumption. One of Extinction Rebellion’s main themes right now is Degrowth, and the need to end Gross Domestic Product as a measure of a nation’s success. XR’s Clare Farrell mentioned this specifically during her discussion with the makers of Planet of the Humans.

We also have been trying to warn our species that humanity is overstepping planetary boundaries, one of which is in the state of our climate. And, terrifyingly, that is only one of boundaries we have transgressed. As with Planet of the Humans, XR is sending out warnings that we cannot pin all of our hopes on technological solutions that will come and save us in “10 years or more”. By then it could well be too late.

Like the makers of Planet of the Humans , XR set out to shake up the environmental movement. Like the makers of Planet of the Humans, XR believes that, despite some breakthroughs, the story of the environmental movement is the story of failure, and that different approaches are needed. And why are Moore, Gibbs et al sending out this message?


Because the makers of Planet of the Humans want humanity and the governments of the world to ACT NOW!

So, so far so good then.
So what are the problems?

The Problems

When Jeff and Ozzie from the Planet of the Humans crew visit the Solar power generating system in Daggett California they are shocked to find that it has been “raised to the ground”.

It suddenly dawned on me what we were looking at,” Gibbs narrates mournfully as he surveys the desolation, “a solar dead zone.” 

But was all that it seems?

It transpires that what Gibbs was looking at was the sight of SEGS 1*, a solar generation plant that was closed in 2015. It will not have been long before this plant was replaced by Sunray 2, a far more powerful Solar plant.

So, not a solar dead zone any more then.

The new Sunray system is better in every way: more efficient, takes up less land, and does not need water to cool it.

This is far from the only time in the film that Gibbs and co mislead the viewer when it comes to their criticisms of renewable energy.


Accusations







Another target of the documentary is Biomass, a form of energy that entails turning trees into woodchip, which is then burned to provide electricity. The movie portrays a “pro-environmental movement” that seems to consider Biomass as a renewable source.



It does not take much research to realise that biomass is anything but renewable.

During the course of the film it is implied that Bill Mckibben, founder of the 350.org climate change movement, looked favourably upon biomass as a replacement for fossil fuels. And while it is possible that may have been the case in the period between 2010 and 2012 (the time period in which much of this film is shot), it is no longer the case now, as Mckibben is keen to point out in his response to Planet of the Humans posted on 350.org’s website.


Is this slander?

Population

While the phenomenon of an exponentially growing human population and its effect on the planet is an issue we should not hide from, we should always treat this issue with the greatest care, and make sure that it is placed in its proper context.

There is no doubt that population growth on Earth has exploded since the Industrial Revolution, which is incidentally the also time when greenhouse gases begin to be pumped into the atmosphere on, well, on an industrial scale.

But that doesn’t mean that the environmental footprint of all human beings is the same. 

The documentary makers would have done well to cross reference population with the other huge issue they seek to bring to our attention: that of consumption. If they did this they would find that in several key measures, including co2 emissions per head and land use per head, the consumption of human beings in the Global North outstrips the consumption of those in the rest of the world by a very wide margin.

The Girls of the World



As well as this, it should be said that a very effective way to deal with population growth is to educate and empower women and girls. That is because by educating and empowering women and girls across the world, you will inevitably get more birth control as a result. And more birth control means more population control.

Gibbs and co could mention either one of these qualifications as they warn us of the spectre of unrestrained population growth. The fact that they don’t, and instead present us with a parade of white faces from the Global North to commentate upon “the heard of the elephants in the room” leaves them vulnerable to accusations like a colonialist mentality and eco fascism.

When challenged, Gibbs and Moore strenuously deny a “Malthusian”** approach to the issue of population. I give them the benefit of the doubt, but I have to admit their approach is clumsy at best.

Making a Judgement, Overall

So, a film that is noble in intent but deeply flawed in execution. Important questions are asked in the film: about consumption, about placing our trust in “miracles of technology” to fix problems, and about the multiple planetary boundaries that we are crossing. 

Unfortunately to make this point, they use information that in many places is painfully out of date, make criticisms that are arguably slanderous, and approach issues in a way that leaves them vulnerable to the charge of Eco fascism.

Perhaps the most pertinent question to ask in summary is, “do the ends justify the means?"

This is a question that Extinction Rebellion has often asked itself during and after our more controversial actions. Can we as supporters put our hands on our hearts and say the answer has always been yes?

One of the pre-emptive criticisms of this film was “I guess they’ll say they were trying to start a discussion”. But is the aim of starting a discussion so wrong? A discussion has started. Even the most ardent critics of this movie admit it made some valid points.

Moreover, if putting the climate and ecological emergency into the common discourse was the aim of the film, then with nearly 7.5 million views at the time of writing, you have to say it has been a success.

Whether the ultimate influence of Planet of the Humans will be seen as positive or negative can only be judged at some future point.

Conclusion

Like Extinction Rebellion, Planet of the Humans seeks to build awareness. Like Extinction Rebellion, the film is telling us that infinite growth on a planet with finite resources is not possible. Like Extinction Rebellion, the film concedes that is not any particular chemical, or particulate, or atmospheric condition that is destroying the natural world.

The thing that is destroying the natural world is the greed we have unleashed, and the system we have allowed to dominate both nature and ourselves.

“Humankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and mastery, not of nature, but of itself”.

Rachel Carson



* SEGS = Solar Energy Generating Systems
** Malthusianism has attracted criticism from diverse schools of thought, including Marxists and socialistslibertarians and free market enthusiasts, social conservatives, feminists and human rights advocates, characterising it as excessively pessimistic, misanthropic or inhuman. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malthusianism

Bibliography

Michael Moore Presents: Planet of the Humans | Full Documentary | Directed by Jeff Gibbs - https://youtu.be/MrOcBdnC3kw

Michael Moore in a live discussion with Extinction Rebellion co-founder Clare Farrell - https://youtu.be/674qCYOcMXo

Filmmaker Josh Fox responds to Michael Moore on bombshell climate film - https://youtu.be/iTYJCAxlOgs 

Michael Moore, filmmakers respond to criticism of new bombshell environmental film - https://youtu.be/Bop8x24G_o0 

Planet of the humans: A reheated mess of lazy, old myths - https://ketanjoshi.co/2020/04/24/planet-of-the-humans-a-reheated-mess-of-lazy-old-myths/ 


We are in a Planetary Emergency Podcast by Michael Moore: https://youtu.be/joxstIt1Jh4 

Planet of the Humans… Let’s just have a Think: https://youtu.be/ZmNjLHRAP2U

Response: Planet of the Humans Documentary by Bill Mckibben: https://350.org/response-planet-of-the-humans-documentary/


3 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. The problem is that even though 100 Indians may consume less than, say, one Amerikastani, 1300 million Indians, of whom 500 million are North Indians who still breed five to six spawn every mated pair, will still create more waste than all Amerikastanis put together. This is my problem with people like OffGuardian who pretend that there is no such thing as overpopulation. As for Moore, he is a despicable hypocrite. He's one of the Russiagaters and like Gore doesn't apply what he preaches to his personal life.

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