You may have heard about the documentary Planet of the Humans, that has created some controversy. The documentary, which can be seen for free here makes some strong claims about wrong directions the environmental movement has taken, and has been subject to backlash from mainstream environmental groups. The premise of the film about the overemphasis on green technology is solid.
But it could have done a much better job going into details about alternative directions for the environmental movement—and completely omitted information about some positive directions already happening. Nevertheless, the mainstream environmental movement needs to take seriously what Planet of the Humans says, instead of firing back with empty and self-serving rhetoric. You should definitely see the movie, but read this post first.
Premise of the film
What Planet of the Humans says is that Americans and people around the world have been essentially sold a bill goods when it comes to environmental technology saving the planet. The solar, wind, and biomass technology touted as solutions to the environmental crisis are incomplete solutions, and in some cases represent outright greenwashing. The documentary says that alternative energy is an incomplete solution because a core part of the problem is the degree to which human beings consume an incredible amount of energy and resources–combined with rapid world population growth.
The documentary touches on ways that solar, wind, and (especially) biomass have been oversold as viable alternatives to fossil fuels, either because they fail to produce the generating capacity needed, create a lot of pollution in their development, or both. The film also offers examples of the way that green groups have partnered with the corporate sector on project of dubious environmental value.
Planet of the Humans has a point. The veteran broadcaster Sir David Attenborough famously said, “Anyone who thinks that you can have infinite growth in a finite environment is either a madman or an economist.” Earth Overshoot Day, a date publicized the Global Footprint Network, and supported by many other organizations, marks the date on which human resource consumption exceeds the Earth’s capacity to regenerate those resources for the year. In 1987, that date was October 23, in 1990 (when I was on the Global Walk) that date was October 11. In 2000, that date was September 23. By 2010, that date had leaped back to August 8, and in 2019, the date crossed into July (on the 29th) for the first time. (It will be interesting to see what impact the COVID-19 pandemic will have on consumption and Earth Overshoot Day in 2020).
My experiences with the environmental movement
I worked for environmental organizations in 1989-90 and again in 1998-2003. The first job was a grassroots project known as the Global Walk for a Livable World. Roughly one hundred of us walked from Los Angeles to New York over a period of nine months, promoting a simpler, less consumption-oriented lifestyle. Walking across the country arguably forced a simpler lifestyle—we lived out of tents, and shared meals and many other resources. While we had a number of support vehicles (whose presence on the walk was at one point the subject of considerable debate), we probably walked much lighter on the Earth than we ever would again in our lives. We also had solar panels on one of the buses and a wind generator that helped power our refrigerator truck. The lifestyle we led, while not easily transferable to life in the mainstream, nevertheless provided a helpful example of a more sustainable lifestyle.
The organization I worked for from 1998-2003 raised money for a number of national and local environmental organizations. These organizations often differed widely in the environmental issues they tackled. These organizations included large national organizations such as the Sierra Club, Trout Unlimited, and the Izaak Walton League, as well as organizations more focused on local issues such as the Lake Michigan Federation, Environmental Law and Policy Center of the Midwest, and Friends of the Chicago River.
Some of these non-profit groups had budgets in the millions of dollars, some had budgets that were tiny fractions of that, and one organization I raised money for had an annual budget of $4,000 per year. The cultures of each of these environmental groups were often different from each other, and very different from what we had on the Global Walk.
It would be horribly unjust for me to paint the environmental organizations whom I raised money for with the same paintbrush. The environmental movement is just way too diverse. But after being in fundraising for twelve years, I know very well the pressures that non-profits face in order to keep operating. Furthermore, it takes money for an organization to have a lot of impact, and money often has strings attached. The book The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex is a fairly accurate reflection of my experiences in that sector. But some organizations were, in fact, doing excellent work. Sometimes the needs of the environment do intersect with business interests in genuine ways—the Environmental Law and Policy Center’s efforts to promote high-speed rail in the Midwest was one example.
However, the documentary’s criticism that a growth economy and our continued dependence on it co-opts much of the environmental movement is, unfortunately, accurate. I never saw the Global Walk’s focus on environmental change reflected among the organizations I raised funds for. This was perhaps because getting people to consume less is a more direct challenge to our buy-consume-and-buy-again lifestyle. Arguably, the “Consume Less” theme is a direct challenge to companies that make a lot of money off our consumerist lifestyle.
Where the documentary falls short
But the documentary didn’t communicate clearly about alternatives to the current environmental paradigm. Essentially, the documentary spent all its time deconstructing the alternative energy movement. In doing so, the video came across as very negative, and honestly, quite depressing. In the opening minutes of the video, and towards the end, Gibbs touches on the possible end of humankind, almost as if it were inevitable. What I consider to be the strongest and most inspirational part of the movie–the explanation that we need to focus more on resources overconsumption by an exponentially growing population–is essentially stuffed into a five minute speech at the end of the documentary, with nothing for the viewer to see except a blurry view of a golden sunset.
The fact is that a number of organizations are focusing on resource overconsumption and changing our lifestyles. Some of this movement comes from, or is influenced by the Peak Oil Movement, which understands that the “150 year party) of cheap fossil fuels is about to come to an end. It used to be that one unit of energy invested in extracting and refining coal, oil, or natural gas would produce one hundred units of energy—that is, an energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) ratio of 100-1. Now we have consumed most of the “low hanging fruit” of our energy resourcees, and now this ratio is as low as 10-1 and 5-1. And the EROEI of solar and wind energy is even lower, meaning that these resources can’t replicate what we used to do with fossil fuels. The Peak Oil Movement recognizes that we have no choice but to cut our energy production to fractions of what it used to be, and that with the threat of climate change, we need to do this anyway. The question is whether the world is willing to make those cuts in energy and resource consumption before we make our Planet Earth uninhabitable. Are we ready to transition to a world consuming energy about the same amount of energy as what was being consumed before 1800? With eight times as many people as what existed back then?
A number of organizations are doing some very good work looking at the question of resource consumption. The Post-Carbon Institute is quite realistic about the need to radically change the energy consumption paradigm. The Transition Network is a grassroots group that has done a lot to visualize what a post-carbon future can look like, taking into realistic account the sharply reduced energy resources available to us. Resilience.org is an excellent website that features articles about communities maintaining resilience in a post-carbon world that is likely to be quite bumpy as we transition to it.
What is noteworthy about these organizations is that they strongly recognize the need to reduce consumption, and recognize that we will be forced to reduce consumption anyway due to sharply reduced energy resources. They all are also clear about the fact that we can’t wait for supplies to simply run out—a considerable amount of irreversible damage could be done to the Earth before that happens.
Richard Heinberg, author of many books inclluding The Party’s Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies and portrayed as one of the more realistic thinkers in the documentary, has both praise and criticism of the documentary. Craig Collins published an article called “The Bizzare Blindspot in Planet of the Humans” in Resilience.org and his criticisms are on target.
I’ve seen a few Michael Moore documentaries, and there’s little doubt that he likes provoke people. In Bowling For Columbine, he stood at allegedly the most crime-infested intersection in Los Angeles (of course during daylight) to try to prove that the area wasn’t as dangerous as people made it out to be, and opened unlocked doors in a neighborhood of Windsor, Ontario to make the assertion that Canadians feel safer than Americans. But stunts like these didn’t undermine the central premise of his argument in either Bowling for Columbine or Planet of the Humans (and he makes no personal appearance in the latter documentary at all).
The overblown criticism from the mainstream environmental movement
But if Planet of the Humans doesn’t do the best job of getting its point across, it’s also worth noting that the responses of many environmental groups to the documentary border on hysterical. Michael Moore and Jeff Gibbs have been accused of carrying water for the oil industry, which is absolutely not true—indeed, the documentary criticizes the involvement of the Koch Brothers in different greenwashing schemes. Critics from the environmental movement jump on mention of population as an issue to make false accusations that they want to employ draconian measures to cut the world population. But population in this documentary is mentioned only in the context of resource consumption, and by no means advocates zero population growth or population reduction.
In the interview with The Hill’s Rising show below, Josh Fox, the person behind the Gaslands documentary, fired empty platitude after empty platitude without going into specifics. Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti did a good job of trying to pin Josh Fox down and occasionally playing the devil’s advocate. Krystal Ball had to ask Fox three times whether he thought that concerns about resource consumption were legitimate. He said that yes, the concern was legitimate, but didn’t address the issue specifically.
I don’t think that trench warfare and accusing Moore and Gibbs of treason are good tactics for alternative energy promoters and mainstream environmental organizations. That they felt the need to do this is disappointing and it’s not going to win them any points. Frankly, it’s not much of a better tactic than the Democrats blaming Russia for their failings.
Moore and Gibbs may not have done the best job getting a valid point across, but there frankly needs to be a dialogue about the future direction of the environmental movement. The environmental movement has only been grassroots movement at the local level, if even then—or in the environmental justice movement.
I would recommend seeing Planet of the Humans, as well as Josh Fox’s rebuttal above. And after watching the documentary, avoid getting depressed and instead checking out the websites of Resilience.org, The Post-Carbon Institute, and The Transition Network. This is not a time to count humans out—this is a time to seize the moment and start making real strides in creating change.