‘Planet of the Humans’ – an uneven critique of capitalist eco-insanity
On the 50th anniversary of the first “Earth Day,” 22 April 2020, Jeff Gibbs and Ozzie Zehner released their new film “Planet of the Humans” on YouTube. The film, produced by maverick liberal filmmaker Michael Moore, has sparked considerable controversy within the environmental movement. Critics have made much of the fact that the film, which took almost a decade to make, includes outdated information and fails to specify the timeline for various facts cited. For example, the assertion by the filmmakers that solar panels have only an 8 percent efficiency rating, while true a decade ago, is no longer the case—currently they are rated at something over 20 percent (with higher outputs achieved under laboratory conditions).
A more serious flaw is the suggestion that global “overpopulation” is primarily responsible for the increase in pollution from excessive fossil fuel consumption. Repeated references to overpopulation imply that a reactionary Malthusian approach to population control might be key to addressing the escalating risk of ecological collapse. In fact, most of the world’s population consumes relatively little energy per capita—the “Western” imperialist world is responsible for most of the damage. The film mentions this once, but the point is lost due to the repeated suggestion of a correlation between population growth and rising pollution. As the film offers no solutions, many viewers are likely to get the impression that there is not much hope of humanity averting the impending catastrophe.
Despite these substantial shortcomings the film provides a powerful exposé of “green” capitalism and bogus claims about “renewable energy”. Most of the film’s harshest critics have tended to avoid commenting on this, even though it is the central theme of “Planet of the Humans.” The depiction of the fraud perpetrated by commercial interests pitching biomass as a renewable form of energy, and the revelations about the centrality of fossil fuels to the production of other forms of supposedly renewable energy is important, as is the documentation of just how many of the largest and best-known NGOs pushing Green New Deal “solutions” are financed by the very capitalist interests that are responsible for most of the problem in the first place. As Gibbs rightly declares at the conclusion:
“We must take control of our environmental movement and our future from billionaires and their permanent war on planet Earth. They are not our friends.”
While little of this is entirely new, the You Tube release of “Planet of the Humans” has brought this message to a much larger audience with over 7.8 million viewings in the first 24 days after its release – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zk11vI-7czE.
The truth about renewable energy
A glance at the constantly increasing level of CO2 emissions makes it clear that the current patchwork solutions are not working. During the past 50 years there have been over 30 international climate change conferences, and repeated announcements of supposed breakthroughs—most recently the 2015 Paris Agreement—but little has changed. The use of renewables has increased over the last couple of decades, but the consumption of fossil fuels has risen even faster. As we outlined in The Impending Climate Catastrophe & How to Combat It, there is no reason to expect that the globe’s capitalist rulers are capable of making a serious course correction in the foreseeable future:
“Between 2016 and 2018 thirty-three of the world’s largest banks boosted financing for fossil fuel production to US$1.9 trillion (https://www.ran.org/bankingonclimatechange2019/). While publicising relatively trivial investments in the development of ‘green energy,’ the major energy corporations are planning to increase fossil fuel extraction over the next few decades.”
Critics of “Planet of the Humans” have particularly objected to the portrayal of Germany’s record on renewable energy, pointing out that a graphic depiction of the percentage of renewables in Germany’s energy mix is out of date. The film’s narrator also confuses the share of renewables used in producing electricity with the percentage in the country’s overall energy consumption. Yet these and other similar inaccuracies, do not change the fact that during the past decade the expansion of renewables has barely exceeded the reduction of power generated by closing nuclear plants. The film’s core contention is essentially correct: Germany remains overwhelmingly dependent on fossil fuels.
Michael Moore: Refusing to draw the obvious conclusion
In an interview defending the film (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bop8x24G_o0) Moore criticised the big environmental NGOs “who decided to hook up with corporate America” to “try to get them to go green” and asserted: “There’s no working with the Devil here and we the people hold the power and we need to exercise that power”. But he proceeded to lamely conclude: “We need to demand that this issue is on the agenda in this election year and we need to have candidates acknowledging this and ringing that warning bell loud and clear.” Yet the documentary’s obvious conclusion is that it is no accident that capitalism, which operates on the basis of maximising private profit, has brought humanity to the brink of ecological collapse. It is a social system that cannot be turned into its opposite—it must be replaced.
Capitalist electoralism is not a solution—it is a dead-end; all the major contenders are constrained to act within a framework that excludes the possibility of posing a serious challenge to the mechanisms that have ravaged the natural world. In the upcoming U.S. presidential election, Joe Biden and Donald Trump are united in their commitment to preserving the right of Wall Street’s corporations and banks—the embodiment of the “Devil” that Moore rails against—to continue down a path which is destroying the environment and with it the material preconditions for human civilisation.
Marxists may choose to participate in the electoral process to promote the programme of revolutionary socialism and to advance the struggle for immediate reforms. But if an election somehow produced a result that was perceived as posing a threat to the interests of the ruling elites that could not be neutralised through legal or other constitutional manoeuvres, the option of termination through extra-legal intervention would be pursued. Nothing fundamental can be achieved without transgressing property rights and capitalist legality.
For a rationally planned response to the environmental crisis
The film’s focus on the technical limits of solar panels, electric vehicles and wind farms provides a useful corrective to illusions promoted by advocates of a “Green New Deal” that the global climate crisis can somehow be solved by simply expanding the use of “eco-friendly” technology. But what really needs to change are the fundamental social relationships that characterise capitalist society. The ability to make decisions regarding the production and distribution of the means of life must be removed from the billionaires, bankers and owners of major corporations and placed in the hands of the world’s working population.
Given the short timeframe available for implementing the urgently necessary changes in energy production, renewables must be part of the solution. They would include solar and wind power, but also energy sources not mentioned in the film: tidal/wave energy, 4th generation “clean[ish]” nuclear energy, and, perhaps most importantly, the introduction of thorium reactors which are not capable of melting down and have several other advantages:
“Thorium nuclear power reactors produce less amounts of waste compared to other nuclear fuels. The advantage is one of the key properties of thorium reactors, as the vast amount of nuclear waste created by power plants can lead to high radiation and raise temperature levels. It also avoids a need to have a huge storage facility. Besides, the radioactivity levels of thorium waste are found to fall in a much shorter period than in [sic] case of nuclear waste produced by other fuels.”
A rationally planned socio-economic system, freed from considerations of profitability, would prioritise the production of energy with the lowest environmental overheads. It would also reduce unnecessary energy consumption, primarily in the former imperialist heartlands, through phasing out commodities most likely to damage the environment and eliminating planned obsolescence.
In a socialist world the historical impoverishment and looting of the neo-colonial countries by imperialist powers would be ended, and value flows would be reversed. The destructive processes of resource extraction, like the longstanding practice of using less developed countries as dumping grounds for poisonous trash and industrial detritus, would be ended. The imperialist model of mono-culture plantations would be phased out in favour of gearing agricultural processes to the sustainable production of food primarily for the consumption of the people of the region.
In the Chinese deformed workers’ state the substitution of bureaucratic police-state rule for the structures of proletarian democracy that existed in the early years of the Russian workers’ state, combined with the pressure exerted by a hostile imperialist encirclement, has created conditions in which capitalist elements have been regenerated and rational responses to the ecological crisis impeded.
The construction of a truly socialist economy would require massive investments in reorganising industry and transport and the creation of a system of equitable work-sharing. Under capitalism, where short-term profitability and maximum capital accumulation determine economic priorities, fossil fuels dominate every aspect of production and distribution. An economic order designed to promote social equality and avert catastrophic ecological collapse would pursue a very different agenda.
Revolutionary class struggle—the only way out
For all its weaknesses, “Planet of the Humans” highlights the perfidious role of the pro-capitalist advocates of Green New Deal reformism, and at least implicitly points to capitalist rule as the key obstacle to successfully averting catastrophic ecological collapse.
The capitalist rulers will never be persuaded to renounce their privileges and obscene wealth by moral appeals. They will employ every means in their power to preserve the existing inequitable system from which they derive their position. Moore’s film illustrates how big capital is already deeply engaged in a sophisticated campaign to subvert the environmental movement through a combination of ideological pressure and material incentives. When and if such methods are no longer effective in blunting threats to the status quo, the beneficiaries of the existing social order will inevitably resort to more direct forms of pressure, up to, and including, if necessary, direct military repression. Anyone who is serious about challenging the capitalist culture of death in the struggle to secure a liveable planet for future generations must anticipate the necessity of actively countering reaction. The precondition for a successful social revolution is the formation of a programmatically coherent leadership with the capacity to act decisively while also organising an effective defence against the threat posed by the armed bodies of the capitalist state and their fascist auxiliaries.
The mass of humanity can only exercise direct political control of society through workers’ democracy, centred on councils of representatives of producers and other popular sectors that are organised on local, regional, national and, ultimately, international levels. This form of plebeian self organisation, which was pioneered by the insurgent Russian workers’ movement in the early decades of the 20th century, can provide a political framework within which a new, socialist economic order can be democratically organised.
The political perspective of infusing the workers’ movement with the recognition of the urgency of the struggle to reverse the enormous damage capitalist profiteering has already inflicted on the biosphere upon which all life depends must be a central priority for Marxists. Only by adopting a revolutionary, anti-capitalist programme can activists in the environmental movement act effectively to avert impending ecological catastrophe.
[⇑] 1.See for instance the two part blog https://thetyee.ca/Analysis/2019/11/11/Climate-Change-Realist-Face-Facts/ and https://thetyee.ca/Analysis/2019/11/12/Climate-Crisis-Realist-Memo/ or the research of Cory Morningstar https://www.counterpunch.org/author/nu8ab/)