“PLANET OF THE HUMANS” –IMPERFECT, BUT VITALLY IMPORTANT

13 05 2020

Depending on who you’re reading and your own viewpoint, “Planet of the Humans,” the new movie from Michael Moore and Jeff Gibbs, is either a bomb or a bombshell.  Numerous prominent, well-respected climate activists have characterized the film as “BS” and called for it to be removed from circulation, saying  the film contains

“various distortions, half-truths and lies” and that the filmmakers “have done a grave disservice to us and the planet by promoting climate change inactivist tropes and talking points.”

Others, such as Richard Heinberg, offer a more nuanced view of the film, writing that it doesn’t always do justice to its subject, a critique of our response to the climate change we have provoked, but that, while

Planet of the Humans is not the last word on our human predicament. Still, it starts a conversation we need to have, and it’s a film that deserves to be seen.

So far, over seven and a half million people have seen it since it debuted on YouTube on the day before Earth Day, and it is, indeed, starting some conversations. I had an overall positive response to it, and have been surprised at how many, and who, among my friends have not shared my appreciation. This post/broadcast will be devoted to why I think it is a valuable contribution to the ongoing discussion about how, or perhaps whether, we are going to keep the planet’s climate within bounds that will allow human beings to be part of its ecosystem, along with my criticisms of it, and my response to others’ criticisms of it.

The film takes us on Jeff Gibbs’ personal journey from being an enthusiastic “all of the above” environmentalist who trusted the movement’s prominent leaders–Al Gore, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and Bill McKibben, for example–and believed their implicit promise that we could run a society much like the one we are living in, but from renewable energy sources, to someone who doubts the wisdom of these leaders and the technologies they advocate, even as–or especially as–Gibbs sees the dangers of climate change becoming more and more immediate, and more and more severe. Despite all our efforts, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased from about 315ppm in 1960 to 350ppm in 1990 when concern first became widespread, to nearly 420ppm now. Yep, that’s an increase of about 10ppm for the three decades from 1960 to 1990, and more than double that for the last three decades–when people, and governments, were increasingly aware of the problem. That’s not the kind of “progress” we need. There’s been rising awareness, but that has yet to translate into lower carbon dioxide emissions.

co2_data_mlo

when a rising line on a graph does not indicate desireable progress….

 

As a relevant aside, as I was writing this in Nashville, Tennessee, in early May of 2020, I was one of the few citizens of the city who was lucky enough to have electric power and an internet connection, since the strongest wind and lightning storm in fifteen years, followed the next day by another major thunderstorm, took out power for most of the city. The effort to repair the damage was slowed by the need to keep workers from possibly giving each other coronavirus infections. We have been under “stay at home orders” since early April–which happened to be shortly after a massive tornado tore through neighborhoods on the northern and eastern sides of town, destroying hundreds of homes and businesses. Recovery from each of these disasters has been complicated by the disasters that followed them. So, we are three steps down a cascade of crises here in Nashville. Is this it? Are we going to put our lives, and our city, back together now, or are we about to fall further? We have no way of knowing.

….and, since writing that, I found out that the radio station I usually broadcast on was badly damaged in the secondary lightning storm, which has delayed my scheduled second-Sunday live show. If you’d like to help WRFN-LP,  you can donate here.

OK, back to the movie….

One of the two most important questions Gibbs and Moore ask are whether the amount of corporate capitalist support the US environmental movement enjoys is a help or a handicap. The other important question is whether the implicit promise that we can transition to renewable fuels and maintain the lifestyle to which we have become accustomed is a promise that can be kept. Moore and Gibbs think that capitalism, even environmentally conscious capitalism, is not a path, but a barrier, to the kind of changes our society needs to make in order to survive, and that maintaining what both Bush Sr. and Obama have declared “the non-negotiable American lifestyle” is a sure way to drive the human race to extinction, along with most of the other complex life forms on the planet. Capitalism, after all, demands continual “economic growth” for its health, and, as numerous environmentalists have observed, there is no way to have what amounts to infinite growth on a finite planet.

While they use the film’s narration to pretty much say what I just wrote/said, and the power of the film’s imagery drives the message home in a very physical/emotional way, I think they missed a couple of opportunities to make their point clearer.

One missed opportunity came in their portrayal of Bill McKibben. I have tremendous respect for McKibben, and Moore and Gibbs declare their admiration for him, too, but I think their criticism of him was very poorly aimed. Yes, McKibben once advocated the widespread use of biomass fuels, but he has retreated from that stance–although the biofuels movement has taken off, in spite of it being a spectacularly inefficient way to create not more, but less, energy than the inputs it requires. This old news was one prong of their attack on McKibben.

The other was an interview in which McKibben appears to not know who his primary funding sources are. McKibben and many of his supporters have characterized this as a claim that 350.org is funded by big corporate backers like so many other large environmental groups, and issued a denial, but Gibbs and Moore don’t say that about him. This instance of the film’s detractors claiming it says things it doesn’t say is not an isolated example, and I will go into that subject in more detail a little later.

What I think Gibbs and Moore should have criticized McKibben more directly for is his implicit acceptance of capitalism, and his downplaying the necessity of adopting a much less energy-intensive culture for human survival.  I spent some time poking around the 350 website, and could not find an article in which the word “capitalism” appeared, nor could I find any references to voluntary simplicity. McKibben has put his ass on the line to the point of being arrested numerous times for protesting the destructive actions of corporate capitalism, but he seems to be committed to the notion that capitalism can be made to behave responsibly. I think that’s a delusion on his part, and Moore and Gibbs obviously do, too, but they don’t really focus on it with him, although they certainly have plenty to say about the failings of capitalism.

Moore and Gibbs’ hostile treatment of McKibben, Gore, John Kennedy Jr., Richard Branson, and other corporate environmentalists who are seen in some quarters as heroes and in other quarters as sociopathic greenwashers who are more interested in lining their own pockets than actually saving the planet raises some very interesting questions. How do we determine who is genuinely concerned about the planet and who is only in it for the money? Who is the “we” that gets to makes such decisions? And what is the proper response when it seems as if somebody’s efforts are misguided, or made in bad faith?

First of all, let’s define “sociopath.” The dictionary definition says that sociopaths “engage in behaviors that typically harm others for the benefit of themselves.” There’s been a lot written about the degree to which sociopaths tend to rise to the top of our society, and I think it’s largely true, but human behavior generally falls along a spectrum rather than into sharply defined categories, and I think that’s the case for “wealthy sociopaths.” (Just to be clear, the film does not use the words “sociopath” or sociopathic.”)

Here’s some “anecdotal evidence.” I have friends who had a fairly close relationship with Al Gore from the time he was a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean up through his election as Vice President. (They may still be in touch with him, but I don’t see them often these days and haven’t had a chance to ask.) From their accounts, Gore’s concern about the threat of global warming is undoubtedly sincere.  His  radical and deeply moving early 90’s book, “Earth In the Balance,” and his willingness to drop out of politics and go on the road to spread “An Inconvenient Truth” are major milestones in the climate change movement, if not its conception and birth. Like McKibben, he is all in on stopping/reversing climate change.

The  Gore family is “old money” here in Tennessee, and Al was brought up with assumptions about his standard of living, and how to make a living, that were not going to lead to him buying a tract house in a Nashville suburb and hiring out as a carpenter. Where he comes from, you make money by working with money, and I am reasonably certain that he is doing that as ethically as he thinks he can. Could he do better? Almost certainly. But is a full frontal attack going to be what prompts him to question the way he is going about his life’s purpose?

Another story: I also know people who know another of the big money environmentalists called out in the film. My friend says the guy was just going along, making money buying and selling forests, when he had a deep personal realization that what he was doing was killing the planet. Since then, he has been working on the conundrum of using the power and influence he gained plundering the planet to, instead, preserve it. It ain’t easy, but he’s apparently doing the best he can, and making efforts to be more effective.

Are Gore and this other guy “sociopaths”? How about the breezy Richard Branson, with his hippie style, financing the destruction of rain forests and our cousins the orangutans to turn carbon sinks into palm oil plantations? How about the Koch family, also who apparently combine a taste for reactionary, elitist politics with an interest in making sure there’s a planet they can practice  them on?

To what extent are all these people intentional villains, corrupting the climate movement so they can continue to amass wealth and survive the coming changes inside solar-powered, air-conditioned domes or far underground while the rest of us smother in the heat? Or are they, like the most hapless ghetto kid, victims of the psycho-social environment they were raised in, people who, like everybody else, just want to be happy, but don’t know how? As I said, they–no, we–are all somewhere on a spectrum between those two extremes.

I think it’s important to have compassion for ghetto kids and poor little rich kids alike, but it should not be sentimental, idiot compassion that overlooks or excuses their failings. Gibbs and Moore have done valuable, if unpopular, work by reminding us that our heroes are very fallible human beings who, just like the rest of us, need to be compassionately, if sternly, called out on their failings from time to time. As with all of us, that criticism ought to be done skillfully enough so that it opens the person who is being criticized, rather than causing them to shut down defensively. In a culture like ours, where we are brought up to believe what we think, and where criticizing somebody to their face seems to be a social taboo, that’s a fine line–that sometimes disappears. There’s never any telling where the line is until after you’ve crossed it. Sometimes, for the sake of your own integrity, you’ve got to yell at somebody, take them by the shoulders, and look them in the eye. Sometimes that will get through to them and sometimes it won’t.  As Heinberg and others have remarked, “Planet of the Humans” is the beginning of a conversation, and not necessarily a guide to what everybody should believe and how we should act. The Buddhists have a saying, “Without omniscience, error is inevitable.” We have all acted inappropriately at times, and will continue to do so, though hopefully we will learn how to be more appropriate in the process, and maybe we’ll work this out well enough to get through it with a coherent culture. Maybe we won’t. No guarantees.

OK, back to a more material criticism….

The energy inefficiency and unreliability of “alternative” energy sources also comes in for a great deal of examination in the film, but I don’t think I heard the phrase “energy returned on energy invested” in it. The film does an excellent job of conveying the emotional state of foreboding that many of us share, but EROEI is a kind of batting average, not an emotion, and reminds us that we built the culture we are used to on cheap oil, with an EROEI somewhere between forty and seventy, and that renewables just can’t deliver that much surplus energy, which means that a society powered only by renewable sources will not provide the surplus that has allowed “The American Way of Life” to flourish.

2010 12 dec-jan how-much-energy-02-bar-chart jpg

diminishing returns

 

Writing on the subject at Resilience, Ugo Bardi says

… we find that, for instance, photovoltaics has an EROEI around 10. Wind energy does better than that, with an average EROEI around 20. Not bad, but not as large as crude oil in the good old days.

Now, for the mother of all questions: on the basis of these data, can renewables replace the increasing energy expensive oil and sustain civilization? Here, we venture into a difficult field: what do we mean exactly as a “civilization”? What kind of civilization? Could it build cathedrals? Would it include driving SUVs? How about plane trips to Hawaii?…..

….As long as the EROEI is higher than about 5-10, the energy return is reasonably good, at most you have to re-invest 10% of the production to keep the system going. It is only when the EROEI becomes smaller than ca. 2 that things become awkward. So, it doesn’t seem to be so difficult to support a complex civilization with the technologies we have. Maybe trips to Hawaii and SUVs wouldn’t be included in a PV-based society (note the low EROEI of biofuels) but about art, science, health care, and the like, well, what’s the problem?

Actually, there is a problem. It has to do with growth……

Bardi then goes through some math to demonstrate that a renewable-powered society could generate enough energy to allow for some growth, but not at the level to which we have become accustomed, concluding

Our society is fixated on growth and people seem to be unable to conceive that it could be otherwise. But renewables, with the present values of the EROEI, can’t support a fast growing society. But is that a bad thing? I wouldn’t say so. We have grown enough with crude oil, actually way too much. Slowing down, and even going back a little, can only improve the situation.

Bardi’s point about the limited level of growth–of both alternative energy and of society in general–hints at some very important considerations about the future of alternative energy. Critics of “Planet of the Humans” have complained loud and long about Moore and Gibbs getting the numbers wrong on the cost and efficiency of alternative energy. I would respond to that criticism by pointing to some other numbers: the percentage of our power currently generated by wind and solar, future projections of their potential, and what it might take to realize those projections. Solar electric power currently generates less than two percent of US electricity. Current projections are that that number will go up to ten percent by 2050. The percentage of US energy generated by wind power is currently at just under 8%. It is expected to rise to 30% by 2050. That has solar and wind together meeting 40% of our energy needs.

Meanwhile, we have been informed that we have about ten years to all but end our use of fossil fuels. As far as I can tell, the 10% solar/30% wind by 2050 is based on the presumption that we will be able to continue building solar and wind capacity at our current, fossil-fuel assisted rate.  According to Bardi’s figures, we will not be able to ramp up alternative energy sources rapidly without fossil fuel assistance, but, according to the IPCC’s figures, if we keep using any significant quantity of fossil fuels until 2050 we will roast. In other words, we have got to transition to much less energy-intensive lifestyles sooner, rather than later. You can complain about Moore and Gibbs getting some of the numbers wrong, and they may have, but the numbers I just cited, which, again, I don’t think they used, confirm their conclusion: “big climate change” is doing us an enormous disservice by even passively perpetrating the myth that we will be able to live much as we do today without fossil fuels. And then there’s the whole issue of non-fuel uses of petrochemicals, from fertilizer to lubricants to plastic. That’s all going to have to go.

Another issue is scalability. Generating electricity from the sun and the wind takes a host of mineral inputs, from crystal quartz to copper, that are already in short supply, and limiting alternative energy expansion. Once woven into solar panels and wind turbines, these materials are difficult to recycle. The solar panels we are manufacturing now will last 40 years. Wind turbines last twenty-five years. Where will the raw materials for the next generation of these devices come from?

I think there’s something else important that Bardi missed, and I think Moore and Gibbs missed it, too, although including it would have made the film’s message even bleaker.

What got missed, I think, is the enormous effect that the Earth changes we have already set in motion are going to have, specifically the way rising sea levels are going to render the world’s port cities inoperable. Sea levels will continue to rise for centuries, making large-scale ocean-borne commerce increasingly difficult, if not impossible. There’s the additional question of just what kind of vessels will ply the rising seas. Most ships these days burn what is called “bunker fuel,” an extremely crude form of oil that is also very polluting. Will this be allowed to continue? Will we have the resources and ingenuity to come up with large sailing vessels to replace them? And….where will they dock?  One of the facts the film emphasizes is that the materials that go into “alternative energy”  generation, from the minerals to the finished products, are inextricably part of a global supply chain. As the cost of maintaining those global supply chains goes up, the energy return on energy invested in solar panels and wind turbines will go down. It may simply become impossible to manufacture them.

And then there’s what’s likely to happen to food production in a hotter, higher sea level world–but that’s a whole other subject, and I don’t have time to get into that tonight.

miamibeach

Miami Beach a few decades hence, on a calm day, before the first hurricane arrives…..

Another opportunity Gibbs and Moore missed lies in the issue of electric cars, which they criticize on supply chain and capitalist grounds, and also on the grounds that, under our current conditions, they are largely dependent on grid electricity for recharging, and grid electricity is rarely “clean” electricity.

A deeper issue with electric cars, I think, is the socio-economic assumptions involved in focusing on them as a way to convert to a “green” economy. First of all, there’s the assumption that many people will continue to have fairly large sums of money available to invest in a personal transportation device. Behind that, there’s the presumption that we will continue to live in a way that requires individuals and nuclear families to travel distances that are too far to walk and to and from places that are not conveniently accessed by public transportation. Alongside that is the presumption that we will continue to live in isolated nuclear families, and then there is the presumption that we will continue to maintain the widespread network of hard-surfaced roads that the typical automobile requires.

All of these layered presumptions add layers and layers of carbon emissions to the human footprint. It is not the fossil-fuel-powered vehicle that is the problem, it is the sprawling, atomized, chaotic culture that widespread access to private cars has engendered.  It seems to me that a more efficient way to reduce our carbon emissions involves recasting society in such a way that nuclear families do not live in isolation, but grouped together in multi-generational extended families, with a balance of private and shared spaces, including the sharing of meal preparation and home maintenance tasks. These group households should be within easy walking distance of the other nodes of their local communities, such as workplaces, stores, schools, houses of worship, and entertainment and recreational venues, and they should be linked by public transportation. You want an electric car? How about an electric trolley car? A society organized along such lines would have little or no need for interstate highways that cost tens of millions of dollars per mile. While the cost of “light rail” has become considerably higher than that, our country’s original network of interurban railways was created to lower, but safe, standards, and could rise again at a reasonable cost. Is that too much to ask? Maybe.

A number of  reviewers, and friends of mine who have seen the film, have come away from it asking, “what do Gibbs and Moore think we should do? To me, this goes hand-in-hand with the claim that they “trash the idea of a “Green New Deal.” They do trash the Democratic Party’s “strictly technological” version of the Green New Deal, but “the real-deal Green New Deal” put forward by The Green party isn’t just about technology, it’s about organizing communities and using the power of government to promulgate economic democracy, two ideas inherent in what I was saying earlier about reorganizing our communities to consume less carbon rather than simply trying to keep on doing what we’ve been doing by substituting more efficient technologies. The “real-deal Green New Deal” is not trashed by the film. Unfortunately, it’s not even mentioned. Making peoples’ homes more energy-efficient shouldn’t be an opportunity for established contractors to make a bundle– it should be a way to teach community residents new skills and start cooperatively-owned businesses. Honestly, I am not sanguine about this happening, either, except at a grass-roots level.

My takeaway about “what to do” from the film was that we all need to reach out to our neighbors–organizing community mutual aid groups, establishing co-operative enterprises that meet local needs, and bracing for impact. At a more personal level, we need to transition to simpler and more self-sufficient lifestyles while it is still only an option, rather than waiting until it becomes a necessity. Our society has put off doing what needs to be done long enough that we are now in for a fall and a rough landing. That’s an optimistic assessment.

On that cheerful note let’s take a music break, after which I’ll look at criticism of the film and the context from which that criticism springs.

Grateful Dead “We Can Run (But We Can’t Hide)

In the spirit of “we can run, but we can’t hide,” I want to address a great deal of the criticism that has been aimed at Moore and Gibbs. They have been accused of feeding climate denialism, “sacrificing progress in pursuit of unachievable perfection,” of “giving ammunition to the Heartland Institute and Fox News crowd who are always happy to find new ways to bash environmentalists,” and called “ecofascists” for suggesting that we would be better off if there were fewer humans on the planet. Many negative reviews pummel them for “misinformation,” even as the reviews express what this viewer considered inaccurate claims about what is in the film and the message it conveys.

Something else I notice about the controversy stirred up by “Planet of the Humans” is that nobody who dislikes it seems to be inviting Moore or Gibbs to debate its merits and the story it tells. This seems to be another example of a very disturbing response to criticism that we have seen repeatedly in recent years. When Thomas Frank wrote “Listen, Liberal!,” calling out the Democratic party for hubris in advance of the 2016 election and rightly predicting that they were riding for a fall, his reward was to be banished from the punditocracy, of which he had previously been a well-respected, and frequently hired, member. Similarly, when the Democrats, in an attempt to distract attention from the seven million Obama voters who had switched to Trump when Obama’s “Hope and Change” turned out to be “Hype” and “Chump Change” as he bailed out Wall Street and let the middle class sink,  decided to blame the Russians for their loss, and any commentator who attempted to point out the many obvious logical and factual errors in the “Russiagate” narrative was labelled a “useful idiot” and discredited in the eyes of corporate media and those who put their trust in Rachel Maddow.

In much the same way that criticism of the Democratic Party’s inept “resistance” is brushed off as “helping re-elect Trump,” Moore and Gibbs’ criticism of our inept environmental movement (the CO2 level keeps rising!) is being brushed off as “feeding climate denialism.” This is as unhealthy as climate denialism itself.

You would think that Michael Moore’s illustrious film output–Roger And Me, Bowling For Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11, Sicko, Where Do We Invade Next?, Capitalism: A Love Story, and Fahrenheit 11/9,among others, along with his campaigning for John Kerry in 2004, his work for both Obama campaigns, willingness to, after stumping for Bernie Sanders, endorse Hillary Clinton in 2016, and his toeing of the Russiagate line and willingness to criticize Julian Assange would make it difficult to refute his bona fides in releasing a film that is critical of a great many of those who praised his clear vision when it was aimed at others. We’re supposed to believe that he’s been accurate up until now, but this time, he blew it?

Well, it was Moore who said

“… a country dumb enough to elect Trump is stupid enough to believe Jeffrey Epstein committed suicide.”[135][136]

to which I might add that a country dumb enough to swallow the Russiagate hoax is probably dumb enough to throw Moore under the bus for criticizing the environmental establishment.

If Moore’s attempt to start a discussion about whether we’re on the right track to save our culture gets derailed, the consequences will be grave, because we are clearly not on the right track to make a smooth transition to a low-carbon culture. In order to keep us on the wrong track, government and the corporate sector have lied so many times, about so many things, that there is essentially no longer any such thing in our society as universally credible authority. This is not a partisan issue. Republicans call foul on the Democrats’ lies, but their partisans believe Republican lies. Democrats call foul on Republican lies, but believe their own, and both parties support the lies told by the corporate sector, leaving a great many people in this country with a gut sense that they are being lied to, but without a clear sense of what is actually true.

We see this not only in Republican climate change denialism, but in climate change denial’s Democratic form: denial of the severity of the problem, as well as the by now well-known fact that the oil companies, like the tobacco companies, knew the harm they were causing, and concealed it, for decades before it became common knowledge. While the government was happy to penalize big tobacco for its sins (albeit without putting them out of business entirely), neither party seems interested in taking big oil to task for harming not just consumers of a certain product and those in their immediate vicinity, but every living being on the planet, irrespective of whether that being can even conceive of what oil is, let alone use it.

We see it in the widespread disbelief in the reality of the covid epidemic, a disbelief fed by the way governments are, in fact, taking advantage of the situation and its attendant economic crisis to further erode civil liberties and transfer more wealth to the corporate sector.

In the last few weeks, we have seen armed right-wing demonstrators muscle their way into the public galleries of the Michigan legislature, and armed second-generation Black Panthers parading in the streets of the Georgia town where an African-American jogger was shot down in the street on the mere suspicion of being a burglar. Nobody is doing anything to ease these tensions. I fear that things are going to get a lot worse, and may not get better for a good long time.

The Green Party has been in existence for about as long as climate change activists have been trying to spread the awareness that it is an existential threat to our ability to continue inhabiting this planet. In this country, at least, neither cause has gotten much traction, and even in the countries where electoral conditions have been more favorable for Green Party growth, we have not had the depth and breadth of impact that we aspire to, nor has the climate change awareness produced the needed cultural transformation.

“Planet of the Humans” is the inconvenient truth about our response to the catastrophic climate change Al Gore warned us of in “An Inconvenient Truth.”  In the Biblical sense, it is “the handwriting on the wall” for petroleum-based consumer culture. The gig us up. That is a very unpopular message, especially among the wealthy and privileged who are profiting from the current arrangement, which includes those who are profiting from ineffective, but well publicized, efforts to avert the looming disaster. To dismiss “the handwriting on the wall” for its poor penmanship and seek to ignore its message are only going to make things worse for all of us, including the wealthy and privileged.

Voluntary simplicity advocates, Greens, and climate activists have long warned the world of what was likely to happen if we did not heal the divisions in society that have been wrought by wealth and privilege, and by heedlessness of our impact on the future and on the natural world. What we foretold has come to pass, and we may or may not survive the initiation ordeal we are about to undergo. For what we are about to receive, may we be truly grateful.

e522bf98afa6c39e68654a3698158e30--rilke-quotes-rainer-maria-rilke

music: Beatles, “Fool on the Hill

Eliza Gilkyson, “The Party’s Over

Jackson Browne “Before the Deluge

 

 

 


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