Planet of the Humans

 

Just before Earth Day on April 22, Michael Moore, who has produced and starred in numerous documentaries, mostly critical of actions of governments, corporations and advocates of right wing causes,  released a new film,  Planet of the Humans,  produced by him and a colleague, Jeff Gibbs. It is free for watching on YouTube or its own website and has already gotten 8 million views.

The film is provocative and disturbing, often needlessly so.  One of the main points, about the self-destructiveness of our current economic system, is correct and needs the robust dialogue and action that the film calls for, especially in its last 20 minutes. It is not alone in calling for a greater awareness of the fatal deficiencies of the economy, but its wide circulation makes it a possible entry point for many people to engage. 

While the film raises some necessary questions about the adverse impacts of present world and regional economies on humans and nature, its arguments are weakened by focusing on the deficiencies of the environmental and climate change movements’ leadership and their occasional partnerships and financial entanglements with the corporate and financial  worlds. It also fails to place the responsibility for our current headlong drive toward a diminished and eventually ruinous future squarely on those growth obsessed interests and on the governments that fail to check them.  

 

Among its faults are that it:

–pans many environmentalists’ favorite solutions, especially renewable energy like wind and solar, as being insufficient to correct the world’s downward spiral.  It even blames them for past advocacy for solutions most no longer favor, like burning wood from forests for renewable energy.  It takes up about half an hour of the film to beat that particular dead horse.

–It skewers particular heroes like Bill McKibben (350.org), Michael Brune (Sierra Club) and Bobby Kennedy (NRDC) for taking money from or partnering with fossil fuel and other polluting companies, which they have sometimes done, but often resulting in significant pollution reductions or disinvestment  in harmful fuels and polluting or destructive systems.  Some of the criticism of their close ties with the financial world ring true but the film fails to show how their advocacy has been compromised.

–It relies on outdated and erroneous data to make some of its points, e.g., it uses decade old experiences with early versions of solar panels which didn’t last long to claim that they only are good for ten years, despite current installations having a 20 year warranty and expected to last much longer than that.

–It ignores or distorts the science of life cycle analysis when criticizing alternative energy and electric vehicle initiatives, implying that renewable energy sources, like solar and wind, have life-cycle emissions comparable to natural gas and coal, when in reality, emissions are a fraction of those for fossil fuels

–It uses an old argument to debunk the movement’s love of electric vehicles, claiming that the use of fossil fuels-based electricity to charge the batteries means that electric vehicles have about the same emissions as gasoline vehicles. Actually, there is a clear emissions benefit of using EVs. The Union of Concerned Scientists reports that EVs have lower emissions—including emissions from generating electricity to charge the batteries—than typical gasoline models, even in the parts of the United States that still rely the most heavily on fossil fuels for electric power. One calculation shows positive benefits from driving EVs even if all charging power comes from coal.  How much more benefit there is if all the charging power comes from renewable energy as in Seattle!

–It unfairly skewers environmental organizations, like the Sierra Club and 350.org, and their leaders,  accusing them with promoting the interests of some of their corporate partners, even of the Koch brothers, while ignoring their vigorous and largely successful campaigns against coal and other fossil fuels, deforestation, marine pollution and many others.  Bill McKibben has replied to the films accusations in  a long letter in Rolling Stone pointing out many of the inaccuracies in the film and taking much deserved credit for his role in helping found the climate change movement, launching the divestment initiative and solidifying the fight against the banks, asset managers and insurance companies that fund fossil fuel expansion, such as Stop the Money Pipeline

 

So what are the solutions that the film offers to counter the climate and other environmental crises and the accompanying human suffering?

It advocates replacing the current economic system and reducing population as the main driver of unrestrained growth. It is short of specifics, relying on the dialogue the film hopes to accelerate to come up with the answers. Here’s where the film may have a positive effect if its many deficiencies can be put aside. 

 It is true that the source of almost all environmental problems, including climate change, is the basic structure of the world and regional economies, based on unrestrained greed and fed by the economic myths of exponential growth and discounting the impacts of our current exploitation of nature and people on the future.  Failure to properly account for and price these impacts causes most economic activity to devalue things like our future health, access to clean water, air, food and energy, a balanced climate, food and other services nature has provided humanity for free up until now.

It is also true that technology fixes, including some of our favorites, like solar and wind energy, will be insufficient on their own to deliver a future our grandchildren will thrive in. In particular, they have some hard to mitigate side effects, like the current dependence on rare earth metals whose mining and disposal are problematical. Some “renewables” like many of the biofuel options, are more harmful than not, especially in the crucial short term. But so many of our current problems come from the mining, processing, transporting, burning and disposal of  fossil fuels that very high priority must be given to replacing all fossil fuel infrastructure with clean, radically efficient solutions, of which renewables will be an important but by no means the only part.

The population discussion distorts the real issue: that the richer countries use a disproportionate share of the world’s resources, usually taken from the poorer ones at the expense of their people and environment. Reducing and eventually eliminating the waste embedded in the current growth at any cost system can do far more than population reduction to restore our relationship with the earth.  Any humane populations policy can only happen over several generations, not nearly in time to deal with our current over consumption of resources. Nor does the film discuss the best near-term solution for many regions:  the education and empowerment of women.

The film is short on solutions.  It seems clear that the producers either don’t know about or chose to ignore the multifaceted, integrated set described in the book Drawdown or other thoughtful approaches. While it does raise important issues about our future as a species, it’s unfortunate Moore and his colleagues used so many error laden tropes and outdated facts to make the case that we ought to have a serious dialogue. It is also unclear why they chose to target the people who are doing the most and trying the hardest to get us on track. 

There is a need to have productive dialogue about what to do to transform the economy so it produces the things we really want to see grow, like knowledge, culture, ecosystem productivity, human health and equality in access to basic needs. These are not just progressive ideas but the key to get us to focus on the most important things that need to change. If the film brings some more people to that dialogue, it will partly redeem itself for its many flaws. But there are many others who have made a better case for transformation of the economy to serve humanity and nature together.  

If you want to see the film but don’t want to wade through all the iffy material, look at the last 15 minutes or so where it focuses more on the real dilemma.