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Population Media Center Reviews Planet of The Humans

April 30, 2020 • Population, Environment, climate action, sustainability

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As you may know, the Michael Moore produced film, Planet of The Humans (director Jeff Gibbs), has set off a maelstrom of internecine criticism – meaning the most vociferous critics of the film emanate from within the environmental ranks itself. Although a lengthy book would be in order to fully map and understand the tribal politics involved, my space is much more limited. One thing is for sure, I have watched the film in its entirety.

If you have yet to do so, I would suggest the best way to view this movie is actually backwards. Skip to minute 1:30:40 and watch the next three minutes. These scenes, which depict unspeakable horror and trauma, are not for the faint of heart. In that, however, they are a great equalizer — no one with a shred of decency wants such things to happen. Not to individual animals (be they human or non-human). Nor to the larger ecosphere. Yet, these heartbreaking moments exemplify the seething truth of what is at stake as one oversized and ravenous species, homo sapiens, systematically decimates Earth. To my mind, those three minutes are the beating heart of the environmental movement – it is not just about “us,” it is about inter-species justice. It is about compassion and respect for Earth and all her denizens.

If we start at this clarifying moment in the film, it is much easier to accept the assertion made just moments before at minute 1:29:24 – “We humans must accept that infinite growth on a finite planet is suicide. We must accept that our human presence is already far beyond sustainability — and all that that implies.” Of course, as the film unforgettably reminds us, not only is infinite growth on a finite planet suicide, it is also murderous.

As Richard Heinberg points out, “Mainstream enviros will hate this movie because it exposes some of their real failings. By focusing on techno-fixes, they have sidelined nearly all discussion of overpopulation and overconsumption. Maybe that’s understandable as a marketing strategy, but it’s a mistake to let marketing consultants sort truth from fiction for us.”

As it appears to me, the effort by Gibbs and Moore was indeed an intentional punch in the face to so-called “mainstream enviros.” In as much as any so-called environmentalist fails to grasp that growth-based economics is ecologically homicidal, the editorial violence perpetrated by Gibbs and Moore seems fully justified. Likewise, if any self-proclaimed environmentalist attempts to argue humanity is not already deep into dangerous overshoot they also deserve withering criticism.

In my experience, massive environmental organizations have indeed adopted a “have your cake and eat it too” marketing strategy — rarely articulating the severity of our ecological overshoot, nor describing the radical civilizational evolution that would be necessary for humans to adapt to Earth’s sustainable limits. Specifically, unsolicited glossy envelopes stuffed full of tawdry marketing materials make no reference to the fact that the life-style known as the “American Dream” is fundamentally lethal to the living planet. Rather, conspicuous consumption is often openly encouraged, with donor bling and other quid pro quos used to generate marginal revenue.

On the other hand, in defense of the mainstream environmental organizations, there is such a thing as realpolitik. All environmentalists, at least the ones who have accepted that infinite growth on a finite planet is a malignant idea, are also operating from within a growth obsessed economic order. In fact, it is not an overstatement to say that growth-fueled economics and its many minions are a hegemonic force. Trying to end growth-economics while subsumed in that very system is going to be extremely hard — which 50 years of demonstrable failure confirms. Good for Gibbs and Moore for clearly pointing this dynamic out. But this doesn’t mean the mainstream enviros have done nothing good or are incapable of doing so. In their zeal to expose the fundamental contradiction of trying to achieve an ecologically sustainable civilization via growth capitalism, Gibbs and Moore demean several good people who deserve far better treatment.

As Heinberg also points out, the film obviously makes other “silly mistakes.” In fact, as we move from finish to start, these mistakes seem to become more glaring. I am not a renewable energy expert, but the infuriated outcry and scathing condemnation of the treatment of solar energy, which largely occurs in the film's first 40+ minutes, suggests the mistakes were not just silly — but really bad. Perhaps, some suggest, even bordering on quackery.

Borrowing again from Heinberg:

“Gibbs claims that a solar panel will generate less energy than it took to build the panel. That’s a misleading claim… The film is low on nuance, but our global climate and energy dilemma is all shades of gray. Gibbs seems to say that renewables are a complete waste of time. I would say, they are best seen as a marginal transitional strategy for industrial societies… what is very much in question, however, is the kind of society renewable energy can support… I don’t think we can maintain global grids at current scale without fossil fuels, but I can envision the possibility of a process of triage whereby, as population and resource consumption shrink, the digital world does as well, until it’s small enough to be powered by renewable electricity that can be generated with minimal and acceptable environmental damage…”

What seems to have happened is that the weakness of the treatment of renewable energy, specifically the film’s questionable “exposé” on solar power, has diverted the attention of too many away from the fundamental principle the film was trying to advance. We are catastrophically deep into global ecological overshoot, yet growth-based economics does not care (and, by-definition, can never care) about this calamity. Our self-created overshoot is profoundly unjust to our fellow species and the living Earth. This overshoot is of such immense danger to humanity and our fellow species that it often defies the power of language. After all, Heinberg takes pains to note, “…renewables are realistically incapable of maintaining our current levels of energy usage, especially in rich countries like the US.” [emphasis added]

Unfortunately, because of the film’s weaknesses, public discourse around it is largely not seeing the forest for the trees. The legitimate gripes with the first 40+ minutes of the movie are causing the whole effort to be waved off as irredeemable. As usual, the baby is thrown out with the bathwater. Instead of uniting to oppose the unspeakable horror that growth at all costs economics imposes on both humans and other creatures, volumes of ink are being spilled to defend the integrity of the renewable energy sector.

Which brings us, perhaps, to the most provocative statement of the film.

At minute 44:07, Gibbs states that “…what we have been calling green, renewable energy and industrial civilization are one and the same. Desperate measure not to save the planet, but to save our way of life. Desperate measures rather than face the reality: humans are experiencing the planet’s limits. All at once.”

Equating “industrial civilization” with “green renewable energy” was bound to offend many who have given blood, sweat, and tears to mitigate fossil fuel emissions as much as possible. Moreover, many renewable energy advocates are well aware of the limits to growth and to suggest otherwise is presumptuous and polarizing. Still, Gibbs is correct that humans are now facing those limits to growth, and if any hope and progress are to be gained, the way humanity has organized itself socially and economically can only belong to the trash bin of history.

These questions are of great and ongoing interest to Population Media Center. We work to contribute towards a sustainable planet with equal rights for all (including non-human species) by working on the interconnected issues of the full rights of women and girls, population, and the environment. Our goals are to empower people to live healthier and more prosperous lives and to stabilize global population at a level at which people can live sustainably with the world’s renewable resources.


Picture of Joe Bish

Written by Joe Bish

Joe is the Director of Issue Advocacy at Population Media Center. He holds a Master of Science in Environmental Advocacy and Organizing from Antioch University New England.