Deconstructing the Planet of the Humans

There is a potentially good movie waiting to break out of Planet of the Humans by Jeff Gibbs. Unfortunately, it suffers from a lack of fact checking and a strong editor (something Michael Moore presumably could have helped with).

The movie raises a number of important points. Unfortunately, its extensive use of outdated data, particularly on renewable energy, undermines its credibility and casts a shadow over other points it is trying to raise. Its personal attacks on the motivations of some prominent climate activists also does not help.

It is certainly correct that the world has made meager progress in moving to renewable energy and cutting greenhouse carbon emissions. A major factor in the lack of progress – which the film fails to highlight – is the political power of the fossil fuel industry, driven by campaign contributions in the US and its blatant corruption / subversion of democracy worldwide.

A key point the film makes is that capitalism and its relentless and exploitative drive for profits is a root cause of the climate crisis. We will not survive climate change unless we replace capitalism, a point that few climate groups publicly make. Capitalism is also at the core of many of the world’s other problems from militarism, racism, income inequality, etc. The film apparently does not outline the political / economic system (e.g., democratic eco-socialism) that needs to replace it.

The renewable energy industry at the moment is part of that capitalist system – their prime goal remains profits, not saving life on the planet. (For instance the renewable energy industry successfully blocked the proposal by Governor Cuomo to publicly own new renewable.)

The film is hardly the first to point out the major problems with the “non-profit industrial complex”. Foundations are tax shelters for the rich who have driven climate change; almost all prefer the promotion of incremental changes that they can laud as a success rather than more fundamental challenges both on issues and on the power / economic structure. The hunt for funding and foundation dollars, and the need to provide the type of (small) successes that attract such funding, heavily influences what positions groups promote. Funding is provided to the groups that are less threatening to the interests of the power elite and is used to undercut the more progressive voices.

Funding was certainly a contributing factor in the major mistake by many of promoting gas as a bridge fuel, ignoring the negative impact of methane emissions.

The issue of funding is why grassroots groups, whose prime focus in not funding but to save their families and communities, are the ones that initiate the most important and cutting edge campaigns; if successful, the large groups then join (and often try to weaken the demands).  We saw this with the fracking effort in NY. There is also the larger philosophical debate around social change between promoting incremental reforms and revolutionary change.

Closely related is the interlocking ties between many liberal groups, the democratic party and government funding – something the movie avoids. This is what led environmental visionary David Brower (who revamped Sierra Club, got kicked out, then started Friends of Earth) to point out in 1996 that Clinton and Gore in their first term did more damage to the environment than Reagan and Bush 1 managed in their 3 terms. Many will defend such relationship as a pragmatic response to how power is wielded in the U.S. but it has failed to produce the needed changes. It has too often silenced groups when the Democrats are in charge. The Democrats, particularly starting with Clinton, mortgaged their party to corporate interests and has become one of the most conservative, pro-corporate political parties among the world’s industrial “democracies”.

Nor is it news that progress on halting climate change and moving to renewable energy has largely been a failure to date. We are rapidly headed to climate collapse. The Paris climate deal is a lot of hot air, not a real mobilization to halt carbon emissions. In NYS, the recently enacted CLCPA climate deal is inadequate to the task at hand. It is applauded by many as a historic breakthrough though it largely mirrors an Executive Order first issued in 2009. Supporters of the deal argue that we need to reinforce politicians when they finally take a small step in the right direction in order to encourage them to do more. Others however argue that applause for baby steps reinforces their desire for such small actions. With time rapidly running out to save life on the planet, more critical analysis is required.

Most climate activists are aware of the barriers involved in moving to 100% renewable energy, from grid transmission issues, reliability, battery storage, etc. Progress however is being made on all these fronts, something the movie failed to acknowledge. More will be made as increased research resource are devoted to it.

Virtually all actions have some negative environmental impact. Each action needs carefully review of the costs and benefits over its lifecycle, and care must be taken to minimize negative impacts. And more important than renewables is to invest first in energy reduction, conservation and efficiency.

The film also makes the point that our present lifestyle, especially in the United States, is not sustainable. We will not survive climate change, the collapse of the ecosystem and the sixth great extinction of species by merely plugging our society into renewable energy rather than fossil fuels. We don’t need billions of electric cars, far-flung suburbs and a chemical-driven food system. Decentralize and localize. (Others have pointed out that we have built our buildings, manufacturing, and agriculture infrastructure around fossil fuels, so replacing it with solar and wind requires a redesign of that infrastructure.)

Many climate activists understand this but worry that highlighting the need for fundamental lifestyle change will generate a backlash among the public and undercut support for climate action. We already hear charges of nanny gate and wanting to stop people from buying hamburgers at McDonalds. COVID-19 however has resulted in a dramatic change in lifestyles, providing an opportunity for re-examination of how we organize our lives and work.

A significant part of the movie is taking up with correctly criticizing support for biomass, especially the utility-scale burning of wood for electricity, which is particularly prevalent in Vermont. However, many if not most climate activists now realize the fallacy of biomass. Positions change as more information become available. In 1985, I wrote one of the first reports pointing out the environmental and financial dangers from garbage incineration at a time when almost all of the environmental movement was promoting it (as I had done in prior years). In a few years most groups switched to opposing incineration.

A followup I wrote:

The Planet of the Humans has generated a lot of discussion, though much is divided into the camps of opposing or supporting it.

My initial article is at

Sandy posted a response to this list by Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute, I include a link to and several paragraphs from his review of the film below.

There are many points in the film about renewables that are not accurate of present reality. Bill McKibben comes in for an unfair amount of criticism.

Yet there are points made by the movie that should not be casually dismissed. There have been a number of reviews by people with strong credentials as climate fighters that have supported several of the key points made in the move while pointing out its inaccuracies.

We are losing badly the fight to transition to a sustainable future that mitigates climate change. We often applaud too strongly for timid half steps since they are headed in the right direction. Our analysis needs to be sharper. We must be clearer that much more is required than just replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy. We need to expand our efforts to halt a wider range of uses of fossil fuels and reduce emissions.

As an advocate of democratic ecosocialism, I understand that we need to promote the end of capitalism. The “market”, which drove the climate crisis, can not possibly solve it. Perhaps even more controversially, at least among progressives, is that we need to acknowledge the failed strategy of supporting the Democratic Party as the solution when they are a core part of the problem. We need to be cognizant of the conflict of interests that arise from funding sources, which is, and has long been, a major problem within the environmental movement.

The COVID-19 crisis provides a critical opportunity to demand a different world moving forward. It is a moment that the climate movement must aggressively mobilize to seize, yet our voices have been far too muted since the lockdown. The idea that the transition to renewable energy, to a Green New Deal (with its twin goal for economic equality), is too expensive has proven to be false as Congress has thrown trillions at the COVID-19 crisis, much of it to the benefit of the 1% and corporate elites.

This review by Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute, who is admittedly portrayed as a good guy in the movie, makes some important points.

“We found that the transition to renewables is going far too slowly to make much of a difference during the crucial next couple of decades, and would be gobsmackingly expensive if we were to try replacing all fossil fuel use with solar and wind the ways we use energy today are mostly adapted to the unique characteristics of fossil fuels, so a full transition to renewables will require the replacement of an extraordinary amount of infrastructure in our food system, manufacturing, building heating, the construction industry, and on and on. Altogether, the only realistic way to make the transition in industrial countries like the US is to begin reducing overall energy usage substantially, eventually running the economy on a quarter, a fifth, or maybe even a tenth of current energy.

Is it true that mainstream enviros have oversold renewables? Yes. They have portrayed the transition away from fossil fuels as mostly a political problem; the implication in many of their communications is that, if we somehow come up with the money and the political will, we can replace oil with solar and continue living much as we do today, though with a clear climate conscience. That’s an illusion that deserves shattering.

See blogs by Paul Fenn (CCAs). Brian Tokar at the Institute for Social Ecology