The film Planet of the Humans has been taken down from Youtube, after stirring a major controversy over the usefulness of the renewable energy industry. David Jamieson says its arguments should be taken seriously.
‘Planet of the Humans’ (PotH), a film exploring what creator Jeff Gibbs calls the “eco-industrial complex”, had been viewed well over 8 million times on YouTube before it was finally removed on 25 May for alleged copyright infringement. The filmmakers cited “censorship” as the real reason. The film, co-produced by leftwing filmmaker Michael Moore, caused massive controversy throughout the environmental movement when it was launched on ‘Earth Day’ 21 April. (The film was re-uploaded in full by Moore on 5 June).
PotH’s wide audience and its controversial stance caused horror in the expanding ecological movement. Anger mounted on two fronts. One was the call by some of the film’s ‘experts’ for an acceptance that population growth was a primary driver of ecological decline (we will come to this later).
The more interesting controversy revolved around Gibbs’ attack on the renewable energy industry, which was the film’s major target. This reviewer cannot help the feeling that some of the heat generated for opposition to population control was really a diversion from the central challenge of the film: the mirage of ‘green capitalism’ and the horrifying reality of the scale of the challenge that now faces human civilisation.
The film’s major claims can be summarised thus: renewable energies are heavily carbon dependent, are themselves deeply destructive of the natural environment in ways which go beyond climate change (requiring vast clearing of natural environments and the intensive mining of rare elements), and are funded, subsidised and closely tied-into the global nexus of fossil-capital that dominates so much of the world economy.
The renewables industry is therefore just another head of the capitalist Hydra – that seemingly inexhaustible force of adaptation, which turns every human desire, including those for self-preservation or a more benign existence, into a destructive cycle of profitable production.
There are legitimate criticisms to be made of some of the claims the film makes for this argument. The idea advanced by one talking head, that renewable energy systems are not preferable in any way to fossil-fuel sources, is obviously wrong. But many rebuttals simply emphasise the potency of the critique.
The filmmakers visit one site where solar panels are functioning at 8% efficiency, using a huge area to little effect. A feverishly critical review of the film by the pro-US establishment think tank Niskanen Centre (named after a neoliberal economic adviser to that great progressive Ronald Reagan) was one of many to make self-defeating criticisms of this segment. After telling us the film “has its sights set on blowing up the clean energy industry” we are told “the majority of solar panels today have an efficiency rating of between 15% and 20%” making almost no difference at all to their ability to actually replace fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas (this also appears to be for panels rolling off current production lines, many in service are still far less efficient).
The creation of panels themselves is enormously carbon and fossil fuel-intensive, as well as depending on the most destructive forms of mining for rare metals (mining accounts for a massive 10 per cent of global carbon emissions). Further, as a general rule, the more efficient the panel technology, the more expensive it is, and the more carbon is used in its creation.
As on this question, so for wind, electric cars, biomass and the efficiency of modern energy grids, the answers of both corporate entities and NGOs on the one hand and ecological activists on the other have an underlying unity. They both assume that advances in technology are making good the fundamentally inefficient and polluting qualities of renewable energies.
The tone of some of the attacks on the film’s claims is itself telling. George Monbiot (who has cogently undermined the film’s Malthusian argument) spoke for many critics on the left when he said: “Michael, you spent most of your career exposing power, and exposing the harm that rich and powerful people do to others. You are now a rich and powerful person, and I believe you have abused that power in making a highly misleading film about attempts to make the world a better place.”
‘You’ve let the team down, Michael’ is what we are hearing here. But who is this team? Has the ecologist left deluded itself into thinking it has an entire wing of planet-friendly capital on its side?
It would seem so, from by far the most damning portion of PotH, and the least ‘debunked’. But it was another segment which focused the rage of detractors.
Gibbs’ investigations into green investment funds exposed the rotten joke behind corporate greening. In one of these, the Green Century Fund, sponsored by the highly respected Bill McKibben of 350.org, found that 0.6% of its investments were in solar and wind projects (including with Tesla, whose environmental credentials are dubious). The other 99% plus of investments were in mining, oil and gas infrastructure, McDonalds, Coca-Cola – thought to be the world’s largest plastics polluter – and every big bank you can name.
With some ferocity, the environmental movement closed ranks around McKibben. But in his official rebuttal to the film, he denied none of these revelations. He only insisted he had never personally taken the devil’s dime.
Every investment fund was found to be the same, from the Sierra Club (perhaps the most well-known and active conservation NGO in the Unites States) to those backed by the great charlatan Al Gore, who popularised the issue of global warming with his film ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ before he established his own fund. The green lobby is directly destroying the environment, and the film’s critics have no answer to this devastating reality.
This is not to say that the wider political mood of PotH is correct. Its general suspicion of human civilisation, and its lowered expectations, do not present much room for mass, democratic initiative. One can, and should, assert a general principle: that human beings can improve their conditions and the sustainability of their civilisation by progress and innovation. But this is a social process, involving social change, not just a tech-fix.
The idea that human population growth is driving ecological decline in a straightforward and arithmetic fashion is obviously false. The nature of class society, and of massive global differentiation in living standards, means that relatively small groups of people are responsible for the majority of environmental impacts. It is not the industrial age, but a later stage of capitalist development which has brought most environmental damage – the post-war years and the growth of a mass-consuming western middle class.
The less explored matter is the sheer impossibility of population reduction. Anthropologist Steven Churchill declares in the film that a Malthusian event will take place: a population crash due to an agrarian crisis, which he describes as the “natural order of things”. Such a total crisis of the agricultural system had been predicted many times and failed to materialise. If we are indeed to suffer ‘Mother Earth’s revenge’ (most deep-green ecologists either deify or anthropomorphise the natural world) then no further discussion, nor action, is required.
Population control is not, in any case, a viable political programme. It would certainly involve massive state authoritarianism and violence, and could only conceivably produce deeply unpopular and unstable regimes. In short, it should not and will not happen.
But critics of the film in the environmental movement and in the ‘eco-industrial complex’ are hiding behind outrage at these wrong ideas. The deeper criticisms of the film badly exposes their model of political change: an ultra-gradualist, intra-hegemonic conception of progress.
It is a conception that argues we meet the dangers evidently posed by climate change and environmental destruction over a long evolutionary arc and using many of the instruments and structures provided to us by the existing social order. This is possible without a confrontation with capital, because ‘good’ parts of the ruling class are in a meaningful conflict with the ‘bad’ parts, and the front line of that struggle is drawn from the corporate laboratory to the NGO lobbying operation.
The frightening reality we should take from PotH is not that we are hopelessly cornered by the ecological crisis. It is rather that a certain, very comforting idea of political action is as bankrupt as the corporate green-washers who are desperate to defend it.