October 5, 2020
Planet of the Humans and Climate Change: Muddled, Misinformed or Malevolent?
A Roundtable with Climate Activists
By Søren Hough
Planet of the Humans is a 2020 documentary directed by Jeff Gibbs, executive produced by Michael Moore and distributed by Films for Action. The movie purports to reveal the failures of environmentalists for investing time and activism in green technologies which, according to Gibbs, have not fulfilled their promise for a more sustainable future. You can read more about the film here.
Science for the People assembled a diverse roundtable of activists from the United States and United Kingdom to discuss the film:
- Shulamit Morris-Evans of Extinction Rebellion Jews (UK) and PivotProjects.org;
- Alex Morrison of Sunrise Movement Bay Area;
- Sarah Kuo of Sunrise Movement Bay Area and East Bay Democratic Socialists of America; and
- Alex Morrice, a UK-based researcher and campaigner particularly interested in how to make the conservation of nature work for everyone.
SftP’s Søren Hough moderates.
This interview has been edited for clarity throughout.
Søren Hough: Thank you all for being here. I’d like to start by getting everyone’s general takes on Planet of the Humans — broad strokes. Anyone’s welcome to go first!
Shulamit Morris-Evans: It saddened me on multiple levels. I actually think there’s a lot to be said for the title of this Green Left review: “Planet of the Humans: a muddy cocktail of valid criticisms, disinformation and defeatism.”1
Søren Hough: I particularly like the use of “utter bollocks” in that one!
Alex Morrison: Yeah, same here. Very disappointing in many regards. I would characterize it as white dude doom porn riddled with misinformation. That’s a bit of a hot take, though.
Sarah Kuo: It says a lot that the film was taken down by its distributor, Films for Action, for misinformation. [Editor’s Note: The film was subsequently put back on the Films for Action website for fear that censorship would only promote the film’s reputation and reach.]2
Shulamit Morris-Evans: What’s frustrating is that one has to assume the documentary comes from a well-meaning place, and it does raise some important issues. Yet there are so many inaccuracies, obsolescences, obfuscations, personal attacks, and bad cases of painfully limited scope that I fear it’s already doing more harm than good.
Søren Hough: Yes, one thing that’s been raised in a few reviews is that it hurts more getting an ostensibly leftwing film that propagates so many rightwing ideas. One expects this from, for example, right-wing wannabe provocateur Dinesh D’Souza,3 but not so much from a self-proclaimed environmentalist.
Alex Morrice: It’s certainly valid to ask difficult questions about the left’s consensus climate solutions, and there are criticisms I support in the film (questioning biomass as a solution, for example).4 But it has bad faith running through it like a stick of rock. It’s a hatchet job, not a sincere inquiry. Why focus only on a handful of Western individuals? Why does it not look at fossil fuel companies at all? Why are criticisms of the overpopulation myth5 not considered? And so on.
Sarah Kuo: It’s offensive to have an entire film on climate change and green energy without one interview from frontline communities and communities of color who suffer most from fossil fuel impacts, and then to land on the ecofascist overpopulation take!6 Shocking.
The film also presents an oversimplified and confused reading of the climate movement. In the first third of the film, Gibbs ties anti-coal activists from the Sierra Club to rich donors with questionable intentions like Mike Bloomberg. In the same montage, we also see images of Native protests against pipelines on their lands. This conflates a number of different actors who are not one and the same.
Shulamit Morris-Evans: Totally. A similar thing happens in that scene with the social psychologist [Sheldon Solomon]. Gibbs compares the right’s religious beliefs and its “belief in infinite fossil fuels” to the left’s “religion” of green energy, and then leaves off with the question, “Could it be that we can’t face our own mortality?”
As a practicing Jew on the left, I find the implication that religion is the preserve of the right-wing fossil fuel lobby very irritating, for one. I also feel this scene has more to do with Gibbs’s own emotional experiences coming to terms with mortality and climate catastrophe. There is a lack of logical progression from the false dichotomy of “religion” on the left versus on the right, to Gibbs’s ontological musings.
Maybe there’s something of deep value there, but it feels buried under oversimplifications, misapplications, and personal fixations. And that sort of characterizes the whole film. I’m sure Jeff Gibbs means well, and I’m sympathetic to his existential self-examination up to a point (it’s a bittersweet part of being human) but when it spills over into these rather blinkered tirades relying on outdated/false information, it does become infuriatingly detrimental to the cause he supposedly supports.
Søren Hough: Perhaps it would be good to start with the misinformation as you perceived it throughout the film. Planet of the Humans makes ample use of the Kuleshov effect and imposing musical cues (frequently composed by Gibbs himself) to evoke emotion, often in the service of scientifically questionable arguments.
Focusing on the science, what would you say were the most egregious examples of these kinds of inaccuracies, and why are those inaccuracies harmful?
Alex Morrison: I think the inaccuracies are pretty glaring: mischaracterization of efficiency in solar panel technology, ignoring the fact that Sierra Club and 350 have stopped advocating for biomass as a source of renewable energy, conflating the renewable energy industry and the movement to stop climate change. There’s just too much for one message, honestly.
Søren Hough: Gibbs’ criticisms are aimed at activist Bill McKibben, who stopped advocating for biomass going back to 2016,7 and for the Sierra Club, which did the same at least as far back as 2017.89 Yet the title cards at the end imply this film’s release in 2019 somehow precipitated the change.
Shulamit Morris-Evans: The implication that renewables require so much fossil fuel input in the first place that one might as well burn fossil fuels was particularly irritating. See George Monbiot’s rebuttal article: “On average, a solar panel generates 26 units of solar energy for every unit of fossil energy required to build and install it. For wind turbines the ratio is 44 to one.”10
Alex Morrice: The film is so disingenuous about renewables that it feels fairly insulting. Nobody thinks that wind turbines just grow out of the ground, do they? So the argument that some fossil fuels are involved in their creation — well, okay. Renewables make up for that very quickly and then are in the black, as it were.11
Alex Morrison: To not consider the resources used and waste produced (a life cycle assessment) when comparing fossil fuel versus renewable power is pretty pointedly missing how all of this works. You can’t understand these systems without that lens.
Shulamit Morris-Evans: I also found it laughable that there was no discussion of how much fossil fuel goes into constructing a fossil fuel plant. Those surely don’t grow out of the ground either.
Sarah Kuo: Yes! The complete neglect in talking about fossil fuel impacts seemed very intentional.
Alex Morrice: It’s also worth noting the extent to which solar efficiency and other renewables have improved since the long-ago period from which Gibbs gets his data. The Chevy Volt plant Gibbs castigates was merely a 2008 pilot study, for example.12 The Cedar Street solar array, one of Gibbs’s other targets, was also built in 2008. What Gibbs neglects to mention is that in 2015, it was expanded and improved with new technology so that it can support even more power generation more efficiently and offset 250 tons of CO2 per year.13
Another glaring omission is the lack of any mention of the unequal playing field for renewables. The International Monetary Fund (not exactly environmental activists) estimates that $4.7 trillion was spent on fossil fuel subsidies in 2015.14 This is $640 for every single person alive on the planet that year.
Shulamit Morris-Evans: Right, there’s no room left in the film for further technological development in renewable energy generation — it’s just dismissed as a failed enterprise. The film compares a mode of energy generation that is reaching the end of its arc to another that’s just beginning, and does not take those different trajectories into account whatsoever.
Sarah Kuo: For anyone looking for more detail, Leah Stokes from Vox has a good debunk article of the film.15
Søren Hough: I think there there are two narratives in the film:
First, Gibbs suggests all environmental leaders and their organizations are obsessed with technology. This is stated without much evidence and is hyperfocused on 350, McKibben and a small cadre of environmentalists, ignoring Indigenous leaders and the rest of the climate justice movement.
Two, the film asserts that the technologies that environmental organizations invested their hopes and cash into failed, a hallmark of their devious misdirection of the environmental movement.
What’s the effect of spinning these narratives in a film like Planet of the Humans? Alex Morrison, you alluded to this to some degree earlier regarding “doom porn.”
Alex Morrison: The message it conveys is that these issues are hopeless and the real problems are “overpopulation” and overconsumption. The film fails to interrogate the fact that overconsumption of resources can be traced to a small slice of the world’s population — effectively all white16 and affluent.17 This small portion of the population are the source of almost all of our emissions thus far.18 19
Not considering the way that race and class are interwoven into this, while pushing an argument traditionally made by ecofascists20 is morally abhorrent, quite frankly.
Sarah Kuo: Yes, it’s easy for Jeff Gibbs and Michael Moore, and all the white academics interviewed to claim hopelessness because climate change doesn’t affect them the same way it does others who live through its effects each day. And who also have been spearheading most of the means we have for hope in this situation.
Alex Morrice: Agreed. People working on environmental issues are not just Al Gore and his mates, as desperately as Gibbs and Moore seem to want that to be the case.
Shulamit Morris-Evans: That speaks to a fear that I have about the impact of the film: that it will cause people who watch it to give up hope.
Alex Morrison: Totally, that’s a real concern. That’s why I have a less-charitable take on the intentions of the filmmakers, personally.
Shulamit Morris-Evans: I just have to hope that they are misguided rather than malicious. It’s too depressing otherwise!
Sarah Kuo: Speaking of the people giving us reasons for hope: the film makes no mention of Energy Democracy by Denise Fairchild when talking about the jobs transition.21 No mention of community choice aggregations (CCAs), either.22
Shulamit Morris-Evans: Yes, the jobs conversation is, like so much else in the film, touched on only to make a case against renewables, when it is much too complex an issue to warrant that kind of treatment.
Alex Morrison: Exactly. In the part of the film that covers jobs and the energy transition, the filmmakers treat the clean energy industry and the environmental movement as the same — which they are not. The renewable energy sector can be just as exploitative as the fossil fuel industry if we don’t have strong labor protections and collective bargaining. The climate movement understands that good jobs in those sectors are essential to the transition, whether or not that’s in the interest of renewable energy companies.
Shulamit Morris-Evans: Right! And what’s dangerous is the reckless lack of clarity in the film on that point.
Alex Morrice: Similarly, we absolutely should take a critical approach about climate colonialism, about the actions of some Western non-governmental organizations, about the climate plans of affluent governments which just send the problem elsewhere, while not writing off the entire environmental movement as such.
Sarah Kuo: Yeah, we (the movement) are not saying just make more electric vehicles and suck greenhouse gasses out of the sky. We’ve been saying we need systemic change to tackle climate change.
Shulamit Morris Evans: Yes, yes — a thousand times yes! Also, did it feel to anyone else like we were in Vermont and Michigan a lot and nowhere else?
Alex Morrison: Ha.
Søren Hough: He shot where he had access and didn’t bother to do much more, which from a filmmaking perspective is emblematic of the film’s general aesthetic. There was a bit in California, I think?
Shulamit Morris Evans: Which is fine for some things, but doesn’t support the broad brushstroke message of this film.
Population Control & Antisemitism
Søren Hough: The hot-button centerpiece of this film is its messaging in support of population control. The film also alleges big corporate influence on the environmental movement through behind-the-scenes puppetry, even going so far as to drop an antisemitic trope about “tentacles on the levers of power” mid-film.23 It conflates faux-concerned capitalists like Michael Bloomberg and Elon Musk with environmentalism in general.
Shulamit Morris-Evans: Thank you, Søren, for bringing the antisemitism piece up.
Søren Hough: I think it’s worth highlighting that Gibbs felt it necessary to focus on Goldman Sachs (who, to be clear, I have no love for), using lazy insinuations and classic anti-Jewish rhetoric. [Editor’s note: When he discusses “tentacles on the levers of power,” Gibbs employs classic anti-Jewish scapegoating and puppeteer rhetoric. Read more about how antisemitism moves through Leftist movements: https://www.aprilrosenblum.com/thepast]
Sarah Kuo: Speaking of capitalist greenwashing: look at Bezos’s Climate Pledge Arena.24
Alex Morrice: It always has to be an “Arena,” doesn’t it?
Søren Hough: It is notable what the film doesn’t raise while exploring these topics: there’s little discussion of the well-established counter-argument that capitalism, not population,25 26 is the root cause of resource depletion and environmental pollution, or of the evidence that a handful of major companies are responsible for the vast majority of carbon emissions.27 There’s no examination of the fact that folks like Bloomberg and Musk are not part of the movement by any means. The film doesn’t bother engaging with economic degrowth initiatives from people like Jason Hickel.28 It’s weird framing.
So the film ignores capitalism and the Global North’s wildly outsized role in creating problems which the Global South is already paying for,29 and instead talks about “overpopulation.” That is definitely a choice. What do you make of all this?
Shulamit Morris-Evans: Ok, so this feels really important!
Alex Morrison: To be Jeff Gibbs and Michael Moore, in the context of the United States with rising ultra-right extremism, with fascist/white nationalist policy coming from the White House, and to just hand a football to these groups to run with? That is something that I struggle with.
Shulamit Morris-Evans: To be fair, the film does say “we must accept that infinite growth on a finite planet is suicide,” and overpopulation is coupled with the “suicide of economic growth.” It feels like there’s a cogent line of thought that’s got tangled around tired and nasty tropes.
Alex Morrison: But I think the overpopulation line is generally not accepted in the mainstream environmental movement. So it’s hard for me to see why they would focus on that, as Søren said.
Alex Morrice: I think this also ties into an unstated belief of the filmmakers that “nature” and “civilization” should be saved for the benefit of a specific white group of people.
Sarah Kuo: Yeah, Jeff basically admitted that he was cottagecore30 before cottagecore was a thing.
Søren Hough: I did want to ask about Gibbs’s idea of a tension between civilization and nature. What do you think of his framing question: “Is it possible for machines made by industrial civilization to save us from industrial civilization?”
Sarah Kuo: I wrote down that line! I feel like he can’t say that without presenting alternatives. So frustrating.
Shulamit Morris-Evans: Yes, it feels like a sentence constructed for aesthetic rather than logical value. Like so much of the film, there’s the kernel of an important debate buried deep down there about the ways industrial capitalist systems inhibit development of green alternatives. But that’s not clearly expressed by that question.
Alex Morrison: Yeah, there could have been something in the film breaking down the ways that capitalism stymies the progress we need.33 Especially because in my experience, much of the modern climate justice movement is either implicitly or explicitly postcapitalist and thinking about what system changes we need to move at the scale of the crisis. There has been a shift in demands towards large-scale public ownership of things like our utility, transportation, and banking/finance systems, and towards figuring out ways that these can be truly democratically planned and controlled. There is a growing emphasis on solving climate change in a way that builds the power of the working class and breaks the hold of the economic elite. The fact that none of these legitimate solutions are addressed in the film is a real disservice.
Shulamit Morris-Evans: Yes. The emerging environmental movement rejects many of the core assumptions of industrial civilization — principally, the tenet that an ever-accelerating rate of production and consumption of material goods is both possible and desirable. Neither is the case.
And I do think — I hope — we’re finally starting to see some much needed re-evaluations of related ideas: that pursuit of monetary wealth is what civilization should be structured around; that such wealth is produced by making things and therefore waste and obsolescence enable more wealth creation; that wealth is a proxy for health and happiness; that wealth, health, and happiness are all based around material, industrially produced goods.
Alex Morrice: There’s also a point that the film raises about the loopholes in commonly used carbon emissions accounting protocols, and how you get to net zero. For example, “imported deforestation” (the deforestation associated with my consumption of soy from Brazil, or palm oil from Indonesia, etc.) makes up 29–39% of emissions in tropical agriculture,34 and accounting protocols have typically assigned those emissions to Brazil or Indonesia, even though the consumption is happening elsewhere.
So wealthy nations are pushing a problem away for someone less privileged to deal with. The film presents those failures by national governments as a reason to throw out the entire climate movement, and misses the point that those within the movement are usually the ones pushing for these issues to be solved. That ties back into the point that a broader shift is needed. The film acts as if that has never been raised by climate activists before.
Sarah Kuo: And why not talk about postcapitalism, socialism, and alternatives to systems that clearly are not working? Why not name alternative models where capitalists aren’t able to withhold the right to live for the sake of maintaining a high exchange value for commodities they control — be it heating in a home, food, shelter, or medicine? Perhaps systems where workers or the people co-op to “own” the means of production and distribute commodities based on their use value, not exchange value. Because even without climate change, the way things are set up has not been working for everyone (though climate change is exacerbating these inequalities).
These same lies of scarcity and individualism fuel many of the systems of oppression that keep the few rich and the masses poor, specifically the cruel systems of imperialism, colonialism, and their legacies in the military and prison industrial complexes — which are all also climate issues. We are then taught to criminalize poverty, criminalize Black people, queer and trans people, immigrants, etc. and justify this oppression with a facade of scarcity that divides and exhausts us.
We have to start thinking of alternatives to the whole thing. The alternative to not finding an alternative is the damnation of this planet and much of the precious life that dwells here. I’m admittedly a new student to talking about these issues succinctly, so forgive me for going on. I recommend reading Marx’s Das Kapital for Beginners by Michael Wayne that has equipped me with a lot of systems-level understanding and vocabulary to name the connectivity of these things.
Shulamit Morris-Evans: Right, the film doesn’t offer any sense of solutions that are already being ideated and discussed. It’s so depressing that the filmmakers would choose to make a film that comes off as lambasting the entire green project as one of scammers or weak-willed leaders who have caved to dirty big business.
The structure of industrial and postindustrial societies make it almost impossible for an average person to live a life that doesn’t contribute in some way to ecological overshoot.35 That’s not acknowledged by Gibbs. Meanwhile, that overconsumption (mostly in white, affluent areas) is based on cheap labor in parts of the world with a lower per capita carbon footprint, but much more poverty. Rather than implying that the environmental movement equals Big Green Energy and is thus a failed and valueless project (none of which is true), I wish the film had acknowledged the challenges and explored the ways in which, given the finite amount of resources we can safely use, all humans on the planet can live together in dignity.
Defeatism Versus Optimism
Søren Hough: One of the most harmful aspects of the film, as several of you have pointed out, is the hopelessness and defeatism of the project, which isn’t at all helped by Gibbs’s drab, perfunctory camerawork, or his droning Michael Moore impression voiceover. You’re all involved in environmental work and activism in different ways. Let’s get a bit of optimism and energy back into the mix: what do you see happening now that has you optimistic? What are your diagnoses for how to start turning the tide on climate change? And what should folks out there be advocating for to really make a difference?
Shulamit Morris-Evans: I’m hopeful that governments and people won’t forget the lesson of COVID-19: our global systems are incredibly fragile and vulnerable to forces beyond our control. I’m hopeful that this moment in time will be a turning point away from the self-destructive path we’re driving down, towards something that acknowledges the need for each human to live a dignified life, the need to regenerate our ravaged ecosystems, and the planet’s natural boundaries (see Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics)36. Also, Extinction Rebellion are becoming active again. We have stuff planned for the end of summer.
And I would hope that the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has woken some people up to the fact that the authorities don’t always have the best interests at heart of those they are supposed to protect. And that people are coming to understand how important it is that they come together at this juncture to save themselves, each other, future generations, and life on the planet.
Sarah Kuo: It’s hopeful that most of our generation (51% of young people in the US) reject capitalism,37 and probably more of the population will as our government blatantly puts “the economy” over our lives during COVID-19.
Alex Morrison: The uprising for Black lives has given me some hope recently. It’s been great seeing the climate movement showing up in support and making those connections between a Green New Deal and defunding the police, as well as articulating the fact that we won’t act on climate change until Black lives matter, because people of color are hit first and worst on climate, too.38
Sarah Kuo: COVID-19 and the Movement for Black Lives have also allowed folks to make a lot of necessary throughlines to connect all of our struggles, from poverty, to patriarchy, to environmental racism, to military state, capitalism, etc. It’s made very clear who the enemy is.
Alex Morrison: There’s been lots of movement talk about Erica Chenoweth’s number: 3.5% of the population is needed in sustained protest to secure changes and win their demands.39 For the first time in my life we have hit that number, at the height of the BLM protests in June. There are a lot of lessons to be learned on what it took to get there, and how can we be better at sustaining that level of mobilization over the course of months at a time. [Editor’s Note: The Chenoweth/Stephan study also has its critics on the left.]
Alex Morrice: The lineage of environmental movements which have succeeded in the past gives me hope that the current ones can too. I learned recently about the Chipko movement of the seventies in India,40 and I found that very inspiring. I agree that there does seem to be a change in how people younger than me see these crises, and a growing agreement that they are interconnected — which is a good sign for the future as well.
Søren Hough: This is more of a philosophical question, I suppose, but do you foresee the change necessary to avert the worst effects of climate happening through governments, through revolution, or through some mix of both?
Sarah Kuo: I think Sunrise Movement is a great example of trying to leverage both political power and people power, because both are necessary.
Alex Morrison: Definitely both in my opinion, but I am not bold enough to think I have the right answer on such a large question. That’s what feels right to me. Basically what Sarah said.
Shulamit Morris-Evans: Probably both. The politics won’t change without people power, I suspect. But the latter, as Sarah has indicated, needs to have the political class in its sights to secure lasting change.
Alex Morrice: I think there are some positives coming from big institutions. The UN is slowly working its way towards legal protections for people driven from their homes by climate change,41 which is a good thing. That said, ultimately big ships take a long time to turn around, and so pressure and action from the bottom up is essential. So, a long winded way of saying that I agree — both.
Sarah Kuo: I forget what movement space taught me this, but there’s this concept from the Buddhist Peace Fellowship of “block, build, and be”: we have to actively build the world we want to see, the next systems we need to sustain ourselves so when it all comes down, there is something to replace it.42 We also have to block the harms as they come to our people, whether it be malicious policy, bad politicians, another oil rig, etc. And we have to also find joy and love in being, because that is radical too, and an emergent strategy saying our relationships do scale up to the world we want to see.
Shulamit Morris-Evans: That is lovely and profound.
Alex Morrice: Oh, I really like that!
Alex Morrison: That’s so great!
Søren Hough: That is a phenomenal place to leave it. You all had such a robust and powerful conversation. Thank you so much for expressing yourselves so eloquently and on such crucial topics.
Alex Morrice: Has anyone noticed 75% of the panelists have a last name starting ‘Morri’?
Søren Hough: Oh my god, yes!
Sarah Kuo: Haha.
Søren Hough: Morrice, Morris, and Morrison. New law firm.
Sarah Kuo: LLC
Alex Morrison: Ha, totally.
Shulamit Morris-Evans: Ha!
Alex Morrison: Let’s do it. I’d get a JD for that.
This article is co-published with Movie Fail.
About the Panelists
Shulamit Morris-Evans studied Classics and then worked as a teacher for three years. She joined Extinction Rebellion in October 2018, was arrested at an action in December and was involved in setting up Extinction Rebellion Jews in the spring the following year. She remains involved in Extinction Rebellion Jews and is now also working with PivotProjects.org, which examines how we might pivot from the current crisis into a more just and regenerative future.
Alex Morrison is a Climate Resilience Analyst by day and a volunteer organizer with Sunrise Bay Area by night. He holds a BS in Sustainability and the Built Environment and an MS in Urban Planning. He has been organizing with Sunrise Bay Area since January 2019.
Sarah Kuo works in environmental public health by day and is a volunteer organizer with Sunrise Bay Area and East Bay DSA by night. She holds a BA in Geological and Environmental Science with minors in Sustainability and Jazz Studies.
Alex Morrice is a researcher and campaigner particularly interested in how to make the conservation of nature work for everyone. His career has spanned field ecology, policy writing, and activism. He holds an MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management.
Søren Hough (Moderator) is a DNA repair researcher and freelance film and science journalist. As an undergraduate, he studied Microbiology and Film at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and is now working on a PhD in Biochemistry at the University of Cambridge.
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