Against the Current, No. 207, July/August 2020
"Normal" No More
— The Editors
U.S. Erupts with Mass Protests
— Malik Miah
Producing Knowledge for Justice, Part II
— ATC interviews Rabab Abdulhadi
Lessons from World War II: The Green New Deal & the State
— Martin Hart-Landsberg
White Supremacy Symbols Falling
— Malik Miah
The Brotherhood of Railway Clerks
— Jessica Jopp
- The Pandemic
Authoritarianism & Lockdown Time in Occupied Kashmir and India
— Mona Bhan & Purnima Bose
Ending the Lockdown?
— Mona Bhan and Purnima Bose
The Virus in Latin America
— Marc Becker
Science, Politics and the Pandemic
— Suzi Weissman interviews Dr. Irv Weissman
What We Need to Combat Pandemics
— Clifford D. Conner
Clarence Thomas's America
— Angela D. Dillard
Homeownership and Racial Inequality
— Dianne Feeley
— Lydia Pelot-Hobbs
Half-Life of a Nuclear Disaster
— Ansar Fayyazuddin and M. V. Ramana
Can the Damage Be Repaired?
— Bill Resnick
A Lifetime for Liberation
— Naomi Allen
GIVEN HIS OTHER films, the left and climate action forces anticipated Michael Moore’s latest work, Planet of the Humans, to be a vivid exposition of the great threat of climate change and an equally vivid and inspiring demonstration of what can and must be done.
We expected a film that would demonstrate that humanity already possesses the knowledge and technologies — of renewable energy, of regenerative agriculture, of alternative transport, of all the Green New Deal’s goals including democratizing communities and achieving a measure of climate justice — to end the threat of human extinction and in the process bring to birth a new world.
Instead, what we got is was way beyond disappointing, indeed shockingly arrogant, immoral and reactionary. The film contends that:
• Renewable energy is a hoax, that it can’t replace fossil fuels, that it is in fact the spawn of the fossil fuel industry and a piece of its portfolio.
• “The takeover of the environmental movement by capitalism is now complete.” That’s from the director and film narrator Joey Gibbs; Moore was listed as Executive Producer.
• The era of industrialization must and will end. By plundering earth it has generated an unsustainable human population explosion, such that humanity inevitably faces mass death, and that we must unflinchingly recognize that this death is not only part of life but a necessary solution to ecological catastrophe.
Gibbs’ nihilism and misanthropy, only leavened by a love of nature, inform the entire film. Every critical reviewer has raised the question: How did Michael Moore, of all people, come to have a role in a film “that purports to care about the environment and the future of humanity and yet seeks to undermine support for the very things we?must?do?to save this planet, and ourselves…”
All also asked what could be done to repair the damage. Moore did win some supporters. The film got rave reviews from Breitbart and Fox News, especially from the ecofascists among them, welcoming Michael Moore to the club.
Reactionary, Ignorant, Deceptive
Planet of the Humans trashes renewable energy deploying so many prevarications, distortions and duplicitous claims that reviewers had to limit their examples. Here are mine:
Contending that renewables cannot and will not replace fossil fuels, the film features an interview with Richard York, who in 2008 wrote that up to then renewable energy production was a small fraction of electricity supply and was not replacing coal and nuclear power. But the film ignores York’s articles written in 2018 and 2019, demonstrating that renewables have become far cheaper and some replacement is apparent in the U.S. and even more so in other countries.
More important, these articles point out that the barriers to transforming renewable energy are political and economic, not technological. Once policies are enacted to reduce energy consumption and end subsidizing fossil fuels, renewables will easily replace fossil fuels.
Ozzie Zehner, the Svengali and energy “expert” who guides Gibbs throughout the film, contends “You use more fossil fuels manufacturing solar panels than you get benefit from them. You would have been better off burning the fossil fuels in the first place than playing pretend.”
This is absurd. Over the life span of a solar panel today, the benefit in replacing fossil fuel energy is at least 15 times the cost in terms of greenhouse gas pollution, even if the solar panel was built with fossil fuels.
On visiting a Tesla plant Gibbs notes thick wires connecting the plant to the grid, which he thinks shows the lie to Tesla’s claim that it’s 100% renewable powered. Gibbs gloats — for him it’s another Gotcha moment exposing renewable energy advocate propaganda — while in fact, nearly all solar and wind arrays are connected to the grid because they get paid for the excess they pump into the grid.
Zehner guides Gibbs to a desolate abandoned solar energy facility, to demonstrate how solar power just doesn’t work and destroys the land. But right down the road a replacement solar facility using next generation technology pumps out cheap reliable electrons and stores the output not needed.
One could go on exposing the deceptions. For example, the film savages renewable energy forces as having sold out to corporate America and is silent on their accomplishments and promise. It “proves” the argument using old footage of climate change leaders and old errors of climate forces.
Thus Bill McKibben and 350.org once supported biomass burning. The film fails to point out that when the disastrous effects of biomass became clear, 350.org and McKibben quickly joined the campaign to stop biomass as an alternative energy source.
More important, “Planet of the Humans” is silent on the fact that the wholesale prices of sun and wind have fallen below the price of coal and now natural gas sourced electrons, partially explaining why renewable energy is so fast growing as a percent of total energy production. And it is silent on profoundly important and astonishing developments in California.
In that state, over 50% of electricity customers are now served by public programs, either by the long established public utilities (in Los Angeles and 45 others across the state) or by Community Energy projects that over the last ten years have overcome Investor-Owned Utilities’ resistance to take over four million customers from the IOUS.
All these public agencies are being pushed by the movements and the people they serve to build out community sun and wind energy, to democratize decision making, and to work with and support the whole range of community groups battling for alternative transport, clean water, regenerative and urban agriculture, zero carbon habitation design, energy conservation and use reduction, and climate justice.
The film is also silent on the Green New Deal; silent on the radicalization of 350.org and the Sierra Club now supporting the GND and local public power systems in the battle with the IOUs; silent on the revolt of the young; silent on the Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion, Rising Tide, the Climate Mobilization, System Change Not Climate Change, and high school and college organizing, among others.
“Solutions:” Deindustrialization and Mass Die-off?
Although “Planet of the Humans” is wrong in its blanket critique of climate action forces, the film rightly points out that the IOUs have pivoted in the face of the climate movement’s growing political strength. Like most of corporate America they are greenwashing, including with fossil fuel company adverts proclaiming their research into alternative fuels. And they have successfully coopted some environmental NGOs to support their efforts.
The utilities have also tried to get in front of the movement, by organizing to take charge of the shift away from fossil fuels and toward renewables. In addition to slowing down the pace of change, in order not to strand their huge coal burning and nuclear assets, the IOUs are doing everything they can to undermine the growing struggle, especially now in California, for community control and the build out of renewable energy.
Unfortunately, in their zeal to defend renewable energy most of the film’s critics neglected this front of the struggle.
Gibbs offers many many minutes of heartbreaking footage — smoldering rainforests, fouled rivers, desolate collapsing factories, roads clogged with cars, smokestacks spewing filth, deadly smog, dying animals.
After one long sequence near the end, he intones “Is it possible for machines made by industrial production to save us from industrial civilization?” Sure we can, it’s an essential part of our only hope. But after those horrifying clips, how many of his audience would have the background to challenge this condemnation of industrial technology?
The film does not discuss what follows after we humans reject industrial production and embark on a mass die-off. The film’s apparent solution, a return to the land, is simplistically utopian. Do we really want to leave behind modern medicine, communication systems, and urban life? Or do we want to choose among technologies, and reconfigure the uses to which technology is put and the social/political relations of their management?
Gibbs conflates population growth with over-consumption, failing to identify which parts of humanity over-consume. Worse, he offers a succession of talking heads who urge us to accept that a human die-off is not only inevitable but necessary to address the ravages of climate change.
Thus a fellow in an academic looking office but only identified as a “scientist” offers: “Species hit the wall and then they crash. That’s a common story in biology. If it happens to us, in a way that’s the natural order. … There’s no going back. Without seeing some die off in population, there’s no turning back.”
This is not some mistake picked up from the cutting room floor. For Gibbs closes his case urging another talking head in an academic setting to present his pet theory, that fear of death drives human overconsumption, to ward off the fear. This talking head then quotes Albert Camus, “There’s only one liberty, to come to terms with death, thereafter anything is possible.” The talking head concludes, “I find that downright inspiring.”
Maybe the Camus quote contributes to the examination of alienation and existential angst? But as a solution to the climate crisis?
This then raises questions that should be directed to Moore and Company. How do we decide who should die, and who should live? What does justice require? Maybe accept the advice of the lieutenant governor Dan Patrick of Texas who early in the pandemic volunteered to die in order to save the economy for his grandchildren?
“Planet of the Humans” and Beyond
Perhaps after pondering these problems, Moore and Company might more deeply examine the strategies for stopping climate change offered by climate scientists and engineering labs and being demonstrated around the world?
The film is doing and will do great damage, especially when promoted by Michael Moore whose celebrity has already gotten the film respectful media attention.
Every critical reviewer has asked the same question: How could Michael Moore do this atrocity of a film? Immediately after it appeared free on U-Tube, getting millions of hits, a group including Naomi Klein and many climate scientists, climate action and environmental movement leaders, did a letter asking Moore to take another look and withdraw the film.
Moore blew them off and made a number of appearances defending the film, though with little conviction and deflecting the hard questions. In one appearance Moore and Company denied they were for “population control.” But whatever Moore thinks or does, nature will not stop.
Climate disasters will increase in frequency, intensity, and damage, with conditions made even worse by a pandemic or two. At some point, hopefully in time, the people will awake to the danger and demand dramatic action.
As the left and environmental and climate action forces continue to grow and build out the elements of the Green New Deal, especially successful models of local renewable energy, those prefiguring a sustainable and democratic future, perhaps the radical left can decisively influence the direction of this mobilization to come. And perhaps, Michael Moore, who has won such a huge audience for his film achievements, will come to recognize the great promise of renewable energy and be there to film it.
July-August 2020, ATC 207