“I think the big crisis of our times is our minds have been manipulated to give power to illusions.” –Vandana Shiva, scholar, environmental activist, author.
Executive-produced by Micheal Moore, and free for all online, Planet Of The Humans (2019) sees its director, environmentalist Jeff Gibbs, somewhat questionably ponder the effects of pollution, climate change, and the philosophy of perpetual growth, while fiercely taking on a few big guns of the eco-movement, green high-society A-listers (like Al Gore), sainted in the media, and investigating their links with multinational companies, biomass (deforestation), devastating effects on communities, and corporate funding. Even eco super star, journalist and scholar Bill McKibben, comes off as somewhat evasive, momentarily forgetting in an interview who the biggest sponsors of his grassroots climate campaign 350.org are. Yes, among others, it’s the Rockefeller Foundation. He responded to this doc as factually inaccurate.
A difficult predicament for anyone set out to do good when, for pragmatic reasons, tactical allegiances with questionable actors become seemingly inevitable. Not least because philanthropy is often merely a way to launder one’s reputation, thus offers are galore.
The doc does miss out on the glitches of the newest eco-celebrities, like Greta Thunberg, but that’s somehow understandable, given that she is (still) a well-meaning influential teenager, not a budding venture capitalist.
Que in Bloomberg and Branson, who both get an eco-friendly swipe. Gibbs also takes a good look at the extent renewable energy giants, like Tesla, and Apple, seem to also depend on the electricity grid, provided by fossil fuels, and so many other decidedly non-green materials for their gadgets & essential elements. Your car can run on electricity, but its shell is still made of aluminium. It also investigates the downplayed aspects of sustainability downsides of renewable energy. Sun and wind apparently are not relied upon by some in the movement to properly power-up an Earth Day concert amplifier. Gibbs goes backstage at green events, to see how they are run, and where the juice comes from.
The shelf life and capacities of solar panels and wind turbines are discussed in a large chunk of the film. Due to their intermittency, as in, not being consistent sources, the energy they harvest has to be somehow stored, and the batteries required for this are made of non-green materials. Wind turbines often hurt environments they are situated in, Gibbs shows a few devastating examples, while solar panels are made of elements which require unethical mining in Africa. They too have a relatively short shelf life, and can pollute the environment when damaged.
Interestingly, what the critics of the film point out, a lot of this renewable energy info is now dated. This makes sense – the doc must have been years in the making. Technology moves on.
A much more problematic bit of the film, I’d say, is the one that dives into philosophical musings on the nature of our biology and being, with every scientist and environmentalist interviewed in the doc apparently uniformly worried about population growth. Anthropologist and palaeobiologist Nina Jablonski refers to it as “the herd of elephants in the room”, and advocates restraining human consumption, journalist Richard Heinberg goes on, “there are too many human beings, using too much, too fast”. All that, in separate files, might be reasonably discussed, however, piled together, it becomes worrying. To soften this increasingly alarming discourse, psychologist Sheldon Solomon riffs thoughtfully on relationship to our own mortality – but it’s too late for saving this particular strand of the narrative. The actual issue now losing itself in a meandering discourse that could be further expanded in dangerous ways. Population control is not a topic you lightly touch upon, unless you are completely unaware of its historical implications.
All the while the imminent problem that the doc actually discloses is infinitely less debatable. Surely tackling the effects of capitalism on consumption, before pondering population growth in the same breath, is a reasonable course of action?
Perhaps, also changing how we perceive the ones driving human consumption and delusions to the highest limits for their own personal profits could be a good starting point in dealing with our present and pending ecological disaster?
Rather than conceptually discussing the human population of Earth, an issue over which we have (thankfully) very little control, maybe redirect the precious time and energy we have to inhibiting profiteers pushing us to consume more. It seems pretty doable. A reliable start to rebalancing consumption to suit our actual needs. Especially as some parts of the planet, namely the more developed ones, consume far more than others (which, in effect, actually need an increase).
Capitalism is not an eternal. Make that a green bumper sticker. Life on Earth will be fine without it.
Still, Planet Of The Humans does end up touching on this, my favourite subject: manufacturing bullshit. As Vandana Shiva, the one environmental leader to openly reject biomass aka trees as the new fuel, says it straight – we’ve been mass hypnotised.
The infiltration of the most dangerous forms of capitalism into the bulk of the environmental movement seems now to be complete, and with companies constantly re-branding, it is almost impossible to distinguish friend from foe. Unless one digs deep down, and who really has the time and resources to do that.
“Well-meaning people were being misguided,” Gibbs says. And, in a way, it’s our own fault for being such fools for optics.
But, it’s never too late to reorganise.
In the meantime, we can google Goldman Sachs, Blood and Gore.
This is by no means a beautiful, smoothly produced, agenda-less documentary. It has a mission, a solid gripe, but too frequently carelessly loses itself in eco fatalism, without really offering an onscreen answer at where it stands regarding the practical steps to be taken. Other than being fully skeptical towards a corporate-led green brand. Which is recommendable.
All of the above will inevitably make the doc vulnerable to serious critical probing. A lot of powerful people have been called out. Branded by some on social media to be dangerous propaganda (bizarrely, right-wing, with the filmmakers being leftists attacking the left), distributors were urged to deplatform it for spreading inaccurate info. There are reviewers reading it as Malthusian and anti-human, disturbed with what they view as eco-fascist undertones. Not a surprise, although my feeling while watching the doc was that this was done in misjudgment, not actual belief.
On the other hand, the doc might become a hero cause for genuine grass-roots environmentalists, as well as all people on the edge of poverty due to corporate greed. Although, in itself, it is open ended, with a truly devastating crescendo, there is an excellent Q&A online, with Gibbs, Moore, and producer Ozzie Zehner, that might answer some of the questions left to speculation in the narrative.
Wrapping up – although some of the material requires clarification, namely the part dealing with issues of population growth, a highly sensitive matter which needed more careful handling in the editing process (ideally, ending on the cutting room floor), in taking on the shadow aspects of the environmental movement, the filmmakers have their hearts in the right place. Not sure about the corporate environmentalists, profiting off the movement, eager to discredit the filmmakers on grounds that are certainly disingenuous, if not entirely without merit.
Planet Of The Humans has serious faults, not least that it’s not made that well, but it hits a nerve the way few docs do, and even the backlash, although vicious, is proving interesting to analyse. In all the feverish political positioning in the wake of a mediocre political documentary that kicked the hornets’ nest, it’s important to remember that the integrity of the green movement, and its current leadership and proponents, must be openly discussed. And, finally, it somehow is. Likewise, how we are going to fix green energy. Stay tuned.
Author: © Milana Vujkov
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