As a climate voter and reporter, no matter who gets criticized, I applaud anyone with a bona fide analysis of why and how we are losing the war on climate. But I’m not a fan of superficial analysis, manipulation of people’s beliefs, scapegoating, or hidden agendas. That’s why I think that Planet of the Humans misses the mark and shoots at the wrong target, which vulnerable Americans, sheltering at home, can’t so easily see. What’s even more problematic is that we don’t know Michael Moore’s actual agenda.
Many who hoped to elect a climate-friendly administration this fall are now stuck at home, digesting a political loss and avoiding a contagious virus. In place of concerted climate action, the political stage is set for a contest between a climate destroyer and a fossil fuel enabler. If "Humans" were a better and more righteous film, it would help people in that task.
The Green New Deal, launched by the Sunrise Movement, introduced as legislation by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey, and a top offering of the Bernie Sanders campaign remains the most well-researched, tested, and articulated energy plan for stabilizing the climate.
But apparently, seven weeks of confinement is all it takes for Americans to develop amnesia about the 2019 vision of a crucially needed energy transition from fossil fuels to clean renewable energy. One of the most popular policy proposals on the table, though largely banned as a topic at the Democratic Party debates, the Green New Deal, launched by the Sunrise Movement, introduced as legislation by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey, and a top offering of the Bernie Sanders campaign remains the most well-researched, tested, and articulated energy plan for stabilizing the climate. It also promised to reinvigorate the economy, to provide well-paid new jobs, and to redress environmental justice.
But ho-hum— on to the next thing, which happens to be the re-release of Planet of the Humans, produced by Michael Moore and directed by Jeff Gibbs. In place of highlighting the Green New Deal as the Mother Lode option, the film offers no options to the climate deadlock. Instead, it substitutes a backward look into the early evolution of renewable energy technology— without a solid update on what is technically possible today. As it takes viewers traipsing through bygone trade shows, the film casts doubt on renewables, on environmental leaders, and by its erasure— on the most evolved approach for a definitive transition away from fossil fuels—The Green New Deal. By failing to examine the GND core offerings, while exhuming its predecessors, it’s anyone’s guess whether Moore and Gibbs simply felt defeated by climate action’s long trajectory; or might possibly be engaged in revising both the film and the Moore brand, thanks to new backing.
"Literally half that movie is just not relevant to the Green New Deal," says Mark Z Jacobson, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford University, and an architect of its original energy transition plan told me in a podcast interview. Although the film delves extensively into biomass and biofuels, and the use of gas as a backstop for solar and wind sources, the GND doesn’t include these dirty sources, according to Jacobson. “No biofuel, no biomass, no coal with carbon capture, no gas with carbon capture, no natural gas, no nuclear power, no coal.” Nevertheless, while ignoring that current technology answers many of the filmmaker’s prior objections, in vignettes shot a decade ago, the film zeroes in on its designated targets but omits mention of the socio-political context for the earlier green ventures which were less successful.
While many climate activists are frustrated by the slow evolution of climate solutions, it’s important to recall that environmentalist organizations, (like 350.org and its founder, Bill McKibben), on whom the film focuses, made the attempt to open up the potential for a post-fossil fuel world, and build out alternatives, within the context of the dominant capitalist economy and its national energy policy: The compromised “All of the Above Energy Policy,” got a pass due to President Barack Obama’s personal popularity. The Obama energy policy included “biomass, biofuel, carbon capture, nuclear energy—things that don’t actually work,” says Jacobson. This was the context for early alternative energy tech, which as "Humans" and others have pointed out, forced renewables into a marriage with natural gas.
With a few minor tweaks, Obama’s fossil-fuel friendly policy was rebranded as Hillary Clinton’s Clean Energy Plan. Thanks to Obama’s backstage "help" in the current election, some new version of that recipe will become Biden’s energy policy, or possibly Cuomo’s energy policy, or the policy of whoever IS designated as the Democratic contender. Unfortunately, whoever that is won’t be the candidate who will champion and fight to enact the Green New Deal. It’s more likely to be the one who told a climate activist, "Go vote for someone else."
Why are we in these dire straits? Because during the primary, despite numerous reminders, many people forgot the preeminence of climate. Instead, they voted for their gender, their pocketbook, or their economic status, allowing their friends and circles to do likewise. This is called "poverty of political will." That’s why we’re stuck with capitalism and its big foot on climate course correction.
Even though "Humans" derides capitalism, Moore and Gibbs fail to mention the long-standing capitalist capture of our government and economy, as though the climate temporizing and insufficient technological reach of early renewable energy and environmentalists—occurred in a vacuum.
Even though "Humans" derides capitalism, Moore and Gibbs fail to mention the long-standing capitalist capture of our government and economy, as though the climate temporizing and insufficient technological reach of early renewable energy and environmentalists—occurred in a vacuum. As the filmmakers cannily free themselves from the task of offering solutions, their film leaves viewers overlooking the source of climate inaction and projecting solutions that don’t yet exist, such as just ways to address overpopulation, (a concern that has been known to verge into eco-fascism) but which the film trumpets as the definitive problem. Or erasing ones that do exist, like the Green New Deal.
Instead, the filmmakers zero in on a few specifics.
“Half of the film is about those dirty technologies, but they’re not part of the Green New Deal plan,” says Jacobson, who has developed state plans for all 50 states transitioning to green energy sources that would reduce 80% by 2030 and 100% by 2045-50. Over that time, the plan would transition all sectors, both personal and commercial, to totally remove all fossil fuel dependency. On- and offshore wind, photovoltaics on rooftops and power plants, concentrated solar power, geothermal electricity and heat, small amounts of tidal energy, hydro-electric power, and solar thermal are among the many sources for generation, transport, and storage.
When "Humans" was shot, there were also concerns over "intermittency," Jacobson explains, "Wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine, so you need some other source of energy. The film says that 'the backup source of energy is gas.' There are other options besides gas to back up renewables.” To hear more about those, please listen to my interview with Jacobson.
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The film also raises concern that electric cars require an outside source of electricity. Again, under a GND, the source for the electric will not depend on fossil fuel. But even now, "an electric car only uses 1/4th of the energy used to go the same mileage by a gasoline-powered car. You can charge the car any time day or night, giving people the incentive to charge the car when there’s excess energy supply," Jacobson points out.
In studies done in 143 different countries, Jacobson and his team have found that they can match renewable power supply to demand for three years everywhere in the world. "One poll of 26K people in 13 different countries found that 80% of people want to transition to renewable energy. We need strong policies in place to plan out the transition and put deadlines on it."
As a reporter, I’m on the record critiquing the large environmental groups, which compromised in addressing climate. I critiqued the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) for promoting gas development through years of research (funded by Michael Bloomberg) into unsuccessful attempts to patch pipeline methane leaks so that gas could be declared "clean." I was also critical of 350.org’s priorities when it nominally supported (but was far less active than Public Citizen, Popular Resistance, and Friends of the Earth) in opposing the Transpacific Partnership and other global trade deals that would have expanded gas and oil pipelines and export globally. 350’s reluctance to pivot to the drawdown model, articulated by Paul Hawken, which engages agriculture as a crucial carbon solution, has slowed unity among the sectors promoting environmental solutions.
On the other hand, McKibben launched and framed the climate conversation. He worked with Bernie Sanders; and fought for climate language in the 2016 Democratic Party platform. Yes, it’s fair to take a few shots at him. And, no, I don’t support censorship. But I thank Josh Fox for taking a stand. I must admit that as I surveyed Facebook to see who applauded the film, and who spoke up for McKibben or renewables, I was surprised to see many one-time environmental proponents dodging the topic, or failing to defend a man they formerly idolized. At the end of the day, thus far, McKibben has done more to promote climate action than anyone else.
The failure to engage with “Humans” shortfalls is yet another example of the poverty of political will for the climate. "Planet of the Humans" was a timely warning back when it was shot ten years ago. But serving it up as a fresh analysis today presumes— and preys upon— audience ignorance. Its attack on renewables, energy-efficient transport, and environmental organizing, based on their past evolution under capitalism, excises the most crucial approaches for limiting climate chaos.
The film instead offers up "consumerism" as the proposed sacrifice. This seems like a good start— except for one thing. Counseling austerity accords with what the government and its billionaire benefactors already WANT to inflict upon the population. A gutted health care system, withholding of protective gear, sacrificing front line health workers, dumping food rather than transporting it to the hungry— are not all of these systemic austerity measures?
Are they implying that voluntarily limiting our consumer choices is all we need to do to address the climate problem? If Moore plans to lead the public in boycotts, count me in. But let’s remember that for affluent white people, focusing on consumerism allows us to assuage our guilt by not buying more stuff. But for others, self-or societally imposed austerity means not eating, not getting health care, and not having a dwelling.
Film is an emotionally persuasive format with great power to shape or limit our sense of possibility. Both in the film and in a recent interview on Rising, Moore enlists viewers by recounting a fairy tale, "Mother Nature has sent us to our rooms," he says in a soft hypnotic voice. Then he proposes that each of us self-reflect on what we’ve done wrong. Crafted to speak to the inner child within each of us via the punitive social values we’ve internalized from this paternalistic society, Moore conflates both the natural world we have violated and the for-profit systems we’ve failed to check into a finger-wagging Mommy.
I’m not providing the link here. As a long time media critic, when all around me gets inducted by such manipulations, I point them out and counsel people to avoid them. What I object to is coopting the feminine to build a franchise for—not exactly sure what—agenda?
No. Please speak to me like an adult and tell me your agenda, don’t invade my subconscious mind. We already have too much of that, thanks to television. My own consumer advice? Turn off the TV and be careful what moving images you watch. In the wrong hands, TV and YouTube videos can be neurologically invasive.
In erasing both the Green New Deal, and the Sunrise Movement and its diverse group of energized young people across American, Moore and company vilify climate leaders and remedies, boosting population control, and chooses consumerism over systemic change. This focus not only arms the right-wing, who have thoroughly embraced "Humans" for their Koch-funded denialism, but he also positions and rebrands himself as a political populist, Trump-style. His real goal may be public office and his real target donors. But what are the values he actually espouses? They’re not evident from the film and he is not being transparent about them. Based on "Humans," and the "Mommy isn’t happy!" story, it begins with enlisting white suburban Mom’s, and further marginalizing others.
Perhaps I am mistaken. I hope I am. All I know is that before I sign up and donate my emotional body to your cause, I want to see transparency and integrity. That’s what Bernie Sanders was all about. American hucksters are a mixed bag.