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Planet of the Humans (2019)

Published by marco on

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This is a pretty sloppily made and slipshod documentary about a very important topic. It relies too much on hot takes, visual clickbait, and gotcha editing. The first 12 minutes are boring as hell, completely light on information, and don’t really advance anything of note. You can read into this film what you want, which means it doesn’t serve very well as a documentary.

Some will see it as a wake-up call telling us to beware of green hucksters shilling for large corporate interests and subsuming activist vigor into ecologically useless directions. They will see it as a call to focus on real green policies instead—without really mentioning what those might be, because every alternate-energy avenue available was painted as an utter fraud.

The topic is greenwashing, a process whereby energy put into fighting for the environment and against climate change is subsumed and rerouted to climatologically damaging solutions promulgated by the same companies that have been inflicting fossil fuels on us for over a century (e.g. BP).

It’s the same old story: we need to do something vastly different than what we’re doing now, but capitalism has ensured that only those who benefit massively from the current system continuing unchanged have the wherewithal to do so, and they are only willing to change at all if there is enough political pressure and they can reroute the initiatives to pour even more money into their coffers.

They really don’t care how it’s done: fossil fuels have given them a money-making machine that is unparalleled in history, but they will happily trade it for another such machine as long as it’s just as lucrative for them and if they get some annoying bad publicity off of their backs. They are not willing to do anything that involves their money spigot being turned ever-so-slightly in the direction of “not overwhelmingly torrential” and they couldn’t care less about the future of humanity.

That these companies throw around a lot of clout and cash and also talk a good game—by hiring the best PR people with said scads of cash—has gone a long way to drawing the less-serious—and even very serious, but gullible—green activists and groups into their sphere of influence.

The system almost doesn’t allow for anything else to happen, to be honest. Activists who don’t kowtow, at least in part, are left with meager/starvation budgets and nearly zero effectiveness outside of the small sphere of people who are already true believers and would be convinced by data and for free.

Activists who try to ride the edge of support from the enemy are massively outgunned and often don’t even know when they’ve been turned until it’s too late. They can try to steer a better course afterward, but the stain remains on their history, to be sniffed out and used against them to obviate anything else they’ve ever done. Which is only fitting, considering the time frame we have left to do anything about an event that, if not quite extinction-level, will be deadly for a large part of humanity and very uncomfortable for anyone unfortunate enough to have survived.

Large groups, like the Sierra Club, have long since grown to a size that they benefit from the status quo in a way that makes it impossible for them to effect meaningful change, as such change would saw off the branch that they’re sitting on. Some of these groups have long since adopted such a corporate structure that the battle between members who want to actually effect change and top-level members who want to turn a profit have long since been settled in favor of the latter, which leads to the larger groups essentially managing the giant pile of membership dues like a hedge fund.

The actual members themselves are happy to give up a minuscule part of their fortunes/incomes in exchange for a clean conscience. Others contribute money or time because they genuinely feel that they’re making a difference in the right direction. Sometimes they kind of are, but a lot of times, they’re also kind of being duped by the marketing and PR arms of these large organizations, which prey on its members’ gullibility and lack of introspection into what’s really going on.

These members really aren’t educated or informed enough to determine that what they’re supporting is neither very “green” nor very sustainable or scalable. There is a ton of misinformation in both directions—some of it in this documentary, which plays even-more fast-and-loose with the facts than Michael Moore himself typically would.

One of the main points in this film is that solar panels are made of stuff that comes from the ground. This isn’t shocking for people with a science background—or any sense in their heads—but it is definitely very much at-odds with the message these so-called green titans of industry are sending and that their members are eating up because, quite frankly, it makes them feel good and they’re absolutely not informed enough to even suspect that it might not be true.

It’s a good idea to show people how solar panels are manufactured and that we’re not nearly where we want to be yet, despite assurances from companies who want your money in exchange for a clean conscience. But the implication seems to be that, were we not to use solar panels, we would stop using all of the materials that go into them. They go on to teach us that solar panels and wind turbines can be managed poorly and go to seed. Also, deserts have sand in them. Scandal.

The scandal is, rather, that they have our attention on this movie and fail to get the message across that it’s our lifestyles in the first world and particularly in America that rely on so many exotic materials and multi-layered industrial processes and enormously long and complex supply chains filled with fossil-fuel-driven transportation and manufacturing methods.

Instead of using our remaining oil for important things—building the next generation of fossil-fuel-free energy sources and (maybe, though doubtfully) grids—we’re still reliant and happily duped that nothing really has to change. That’s the message the film should have hammered home—and that, according to the interviews I’ve seen with Jeff Gibbs, it thinks it hammered home—but that got lost in “eating their own”.

Most people believe so many laughably false things before breakfast that believing that solar panels and Teslas magically create themselves doesn’t even register a blip on their radar. I hope no-one ever tells them how their smartphones are made—hint: rare-earth metals and shocking amounts of electricity, distilled water, and what amounts to slave labor.

The fossil-fuel-based economy is a prerequisite in order to produce these relatively sophisticated bits of technology. The fossil-fuel economy produces 90% of our energy and fossil fuels are currently the only way of bootstrapping a non-fossil-fuel economy in any realistic scenario. It’s true that companies are deliberately papering over these facts in order not to ruffle the feathers of their sensitive donors—because those donors are paying good money for a clean conscience and there’s no room for nuance or the messy complexity of a realistic plan.

All of that is exceedingly interesting, I think, but it’s not obviously in the movie. That is, I don’t believe that the director did a good job of getting this message across because he included so much distracting gotcha bullshit, interviews with weirdos with weird ideas, and footage of animals dying and earth being torn up.

Instead, they allude to this all the time and generally pinpoint Bill McKibben as a major purveyor of greenwashing propaganda, which is, frankly, gobsmacking, if you’ve read absolutely anything by him at all.[1] He’s done more for awareness of climate change than anyone, but they mercilessly eat their own in this “documentary” with no context or nuance given to spare McKibben the opprobrium he ended up getting afterward.

That’s when the Twitter-history–scouring hordes of virtue-signalers and purity-testers and know-it-alls show up to torpedo anyone who was ever useful for ever having been slightly less than perfect in careers that have often spanned decades of struggle and hardship. What has this horde ever done? Why, nothing, but that’s neither here nor there. Their justice is swift and merciless, their appetite for feeding on the only ever-so slightly misaligned ally boundless. They don’t even notice when their ostensible enemies (the climate-trashing internationals) manipulate their insatiable sense of outrage, wrath, and dopamine addiction into burning one potential ally after another in their service.

The documentary mixes clips from over 15 years willy-nilly—some of the clips are grainy and look like they were made with camcorders—and doesn’t even do the basics of including names or positions for everyone interviewed. It’s a shoddy hack job with a sensationalist angle, bent on stirring up controversy at all costs. It could have been a much better movie, but it’s not. If it were a blog post, it would have only ended up on crackpot sites because of its slapdash and lackadaisical approach to facts, verifiable data, and references.

So: the idea is good; the problem is real; it’s getting in the way of real solutions. The targets are poorly chosen and the documentary is poorly made and meandering, letting everyone get from it what they want. I feel like most people supporting it or panning it haven’t really watched it carefully. I’ve seen interviews with Jeff Gibbs and with Michael Moore where they provided all of the context that was missing from the movie. This isn’t very helpful as the movie doesn’t stand on its own without two extra hours of director/producer commentary. It’s a documentary, not an art film: it should be clearer.

The interesting problem raised is that, instead of attacking the film for being terrible, its detractors tried to get the movie canceled from YouTube. It was temporarily taken down for a bullshit copyright violation—4 seconds of video lays well within fair-use law—but it is back online now. So the film missed its opportunity to focus people on the very real problems it attempted to illuminate. Then, there was an opportunity to illuminate the very real problems of the modern-day book-burning that is cancel culture—and how that feature of social networks is being weaponized by the very corporate interests that those doing the canceling should themselves be fighting against.

Unfortunately, it has mostly sparked yet another stupid online war where people walk in with their opinions chiseled in stone, don’t watch or read the content, and then just lay waste to as much of their enemy as they can with mean tweets. By now, everyone’s forgotten about the film—which, to be fair, they really should, because it’s not good—but they’re also not thinking about the message it was trying to send.

This would have been important regardless of how poorly communicated it was, because it’s an important message. I assign equal blame to the filmmakers and what the filmmaker saw as his target audience. Gibbs should have realized he couldn’t try to send a message so at-odds with what people already knew in such a lazy and half-assed way. Maybe he doesn’t know how to make any other kind of film, I’m not judging that.[2] But the audience is also to blame for being attention-seeking, brigading idiots without a rational bone in their bodies.

The film can’t really be cited or taken seriously because of its flaws. You can take away a positive message that you should focus on real, useful policies and stop being hoodwinked by fake, corporate environmentalism—but only if you took that attitude in with you in the first place.

Its heart might be in the right place but it failed in its main duty as a documentary: to reliably and truthfully deliver information pertaining to its message.


Appendix: Awful Interviewing Style

At one point, someone says “We made an electric car!” Gibbs asks: “Where does the power come from? The grid … so, coal? Natural gas? HA! Fuck you for building an electric car, you assholes. If you can’t fix everything at once, you should have stayed on the fucking porch. Asshole.”

Those aren’t actual quotes, but I think I got the vibe right. It just seemed unnecessarily hostile. Maybe there’s context that justifies the level of anger and hostility, but it was missing in the film.

In several other cases, the people he interviews seem to be passive-aggressively hating what they do. That is, Gibbs seems to have sought out and found the obviously socially deficient guy to describe the power output of a solar array and boy did he make a meal of it. Most of the people he interviews in the first twenty minutes don’t seem actually quite knowledgeable: they’re not officials. They’re people they met on a windy mountaintop in the dead of a Vermont winter (to make it look more bleak).

Another guy looks like Bill Murray in Caddyshack, ready to declare that a field of solar panels couldn’t power a single toaster. And everyone just buys that guy’s evaluation of generated wattage. I’ve heard that bit cited in several podcasts and interviews. Why doesn’t anyone question the data in this “documentary”? Gibbs just lets his interview subjects babble out figures and doesn’t question any of them. The guy wasn’t identified either by name or even role—who says he wasn’t just somebody who happened to be walking by? This feels much more like the kind of “reporting” in James O’Keefe’s “documentaries”.

At another point, Gibbs asks himself: “Why, for most of my life, have I thought that green energy would save us?” Who knows why he believes things? I suppose he’s trying to play the role of the average viewer? He’s trying to convince neoliberal faux-liberals that they have to change? It doesn’t come off this way, though. It seems like he’s just taking down the idea of alternative energy. I’m not sure what the alternative solution is to that, though. Reduced consumption? He doesn’t get around to really mentioning that, either. Or maybe he did and I was too distracted by his other theatrics.

But, I don’t understand why they interview people in the middle of a demonstration where there are so many people shouting in the background. Then he asks of the other environmentalists who haven’t yet denounced biomass: “Are they ignorant or is it something else? Are they misguided? Or corrupt?” Yeah, I’m stunned nobody wanted to talk to you.

He does the equivalent of asking people, “Excuse me, my friend and I have a bet going: I just wanted to ask whether you’re stupid or evil?” and then gleefully points an accusatory finger at them when they refuse to answer.

Are-you-still-beating-your-wife questioning is tedious if you’re not ready to brigade whichever target the director has chosen for you. Luckily for him, he’s got a whole Internet full of assholes who ask no questions if he helps them on their way to their next dopamine kick.

Appendix: Biomass and Bill McKibben

The section on bio-mass being bad is pretty detailed and it’s a valid point to make. Pretty much anyone should have seen that “burning trees” was kind of stupid idea for solving energy troubles, no matter how pretty the marketing department dresses up the charts. But hindsight is 20/20 and it wasn’t obviously criminal to support it.

This section is about a supposedly green co-gen plant that actually burns wood chips and tire chips. But they got a multi-million-dollar grant for being green. This is obviously a story about regulatory capture. That Bill McKibben ended up supporting the idea temporarily has literally nothing to do with how they raked in millions. They got those millions despite Bill’s support. Still Gibbs has to show a clip of McKibben pushing wood chips like it’s his life’s passion. The video looks like it was taken on VHS. Gibbs doesn’t bother to give a year or location. It’s a complete hack-job.

And then the hack job on Bill McKibben goes on with more ancient, blurry, undated clips.[3] I’ve read Bill McKibben’s book; he’s not evil. This is pretty ridiculous. Bill McKibben is not the problem you have to solve in the energy and consumption problem. If you succeed in taking him down, then you’ll set back climate-change activism in the U.S. even more than it already is. But Gibbs takes every opportunity to solve climate change by showing everyone what a hypocrite McKibben really is using techniques like, instead of asking McKibben what he thinks, Gibbs asks a lady what she heard from a guy she knows about what he says McKibben thinks. Journalism at its finest.

Appendix: The Population-Growth Angle

The film was also, not unfairly, attacked for leaning too heavily on the “too many people” solution to climate change. Again, it did this in a way that led groups with widely diverging opinions draw support from the film. While perhaps inclusive in its own way, it opened the film to criticism that it was advocating the view that the Global South and its promiscuous proclivity for procreation just has to go. They didn’t go into the nuance that its the high-consuming parts of the human population who are the real problem. Yes, lots of people live in places that were always pretty untenable, but most of those have little impact on climate change. It’s the folks in Phoenix, LA, and Las Vegas who we should be aiming at.

The article Michael and Me by George Monbiot does a good job of summing up the deficiencies in this movie. In particular, Monbiot addresses the only “solution” that the filmmakers offer: reducing population, rather than consumption.

“Yes, population growth does contribute to the pressures on the natural world. But while the global population is rising by 1% a year, consumption, until the pandemic, was rising at a steady 3%. High consumption is concentrated in countries where population growth is low. Where population growth is highest, consumption tends to be extremely low. Almost all the growth in numbers is in poor countries largely inhabited by black and brown people. When very rich people, such as Michael Moore and Jeff Gibbs, point to this issue without the necessary caveats, they are saying, in effect, “it’s not us consuming, it’s Them breeding.” It’s not hard to see why the alt-right loves this film.

“Population is where you go when you haven’t thought it through. Population is where you go when you don’t have the guts to face the structural, systemic causes of our predicament: inequality, oligarchic power, capitalism. Population is where you go when you want to kick down.”

Almost no-one they interview mentions that it’s a question of consumption and resources (one guy in Vermont did, offhand), they are all in agreement that Malthus was right. Instead, the problem isn’t the absolute number of people—although it is really high—it’s the degree to which certain poisonous cultures consume what they consider to be endless resources.

At the end of the movie, there’s a bit more Malthusian observation that we have far exceeded the carrying capacity of the Earth. I would add at this level of consumption. We’ve done a lot of things wrong. Trying to figure out how to retain some of the luxuries our oil-based society has wrought in a post-oil world isn’t evil, per se. The narrator seems to imply it is. He also offers no other alternative: should we all just kill ourselves? Should be will kill others? Kill the weak? Who should we wipe out first to save the planet? Should we return to an agrarian, electricity-free, loose affiliation of fiefdoms?

Appendix: Censorship and Canceling

The article Planet of the Censoring Humans by Matt Taibbi focuses hard on the censorship angle, with Taibbi ignoring the film’s many overt flaws as a documentary. Taibbi is using the takedown attempts for the movie to make a larger point about censorship. Leading with this movie, though, makes it seem as if Taibbi thought that it was had a quality enough beyond reproach that censorship was entirely out of the question. Maybe he chose it on purpose: it’s the indefensible that needs defending when the book-burners are afoot. He didn’t put it that way, though.

“In Planet of the Humans, Moore and Gibbs make a complex argument. In essence, they charge that people have become dependent upon the high-consumption lifestyles made possible by fossil fuels, and that it’s our addiction to that way of life, as much as to fossil fuels themselves, that is driving humanity off a “cliff.””

As I mentioned in the main review above, the movie in no way made any of these arguments. It was a hodge-podge of odd interviews and slander. I get that it could have been about this and that it should have been about this, but that the editing and content were so distracting as to muddle the point entirely.

The film was arguably criminally libelous against McKibben—and probably would have been in merry old England. This isn’t the movie you want to pin your anti-censorship argument on. You could further argue that it’s exactly because it’s so flawed that it should be the cause célèbre for anti-censorship, but that’s not the point that Taibbi made. I don’t think it should be censored, just to be clear—100% on Taibbi’s side on that. I’m just arguing that we’re a long way from Gasland or Roger and Me here.

Taibbi writes that “most of the “criticism” of McKibben comes in the form of footage of him talking”, but Taibbi should know better about the tactics: as pointed out above, many of the clips look like they were made on VHS and couldn’t possibly have come from anytime before the last 15 years. Prove me wrong—it’s not like the filmmakers bothered to include any dates to “help” me understand; instead, they left them off so that I would better understand the point they were trying to make, which was, oddly, that McKibben is evil.

Unfortunately, others will get that message too: that green policies are a fraud, per se. This documentary will mostly likely drive people into the arms of the fossil-fuel companies. The film made no attempt to point people in a more useful direction by mentioning anyone who’s done anything right. Not even for a minute. Instead, they slam people who have had a largely positive impact on the environmental movement.

Appendix: Orangutan Coda & Non Sequitur

The footage at the end of the poor orangutan being driven out of his forest—then saved, is played without context, without dates, without even saying where it was. I have no idea if it’s the same orangutan being rescued at the end as was being hounded at the beginning. It’s obviously stock footage, but from where? No comment. Just play that as the coda to show “people bad”.

This whole thing was very manipulative and nearly fact-free. A lot of allegations—some valid and worthwhile—but not a single word about possible solutions or ideas for the future.

I guess they think we should start killing people instead of apes?

[1] Bill McKibben has published an eloquent and measured response denying the allegations in the film and pleading with people to focus on things other than defending his reputations for him (though he appreciates it).

Director Jeff Gibbs has previously produced many of Moore’s movies. This is his first and only directing job. His old friend and main producer Michael Moore is not affiliated with this film other than to put his name on it. Moore’s not otherwise involved with the film in any way like he has been in “real” Michael Moore movies. He neither narrates nor does he figure in it even as an interview subject.

[3] Another target is Al Gore, someone nobody’s talked about since 2000. Again, it’s unclear when these clips are from. At this point, I don’t trust that even the stock footage is of what they say it is. They keep going at McKibben and Gore. They include a clip of Jon Stewart interviewing Al Gore. Again, the clip looks really old—Stewart hasn’t been on TV in five years.