Who Stands With the Bears? A defence of 'Planet of the Humans'


Originally Published 25th May, 2020 at Dark Mountain

Capitalism has absorbed the greens, as it absorbs so many challenges to its ascendancy. A radical challenge to the human machine has been transformed into yet another opportunity for shopping.

- Dark Mountain Manifesto, 2009

Once again, a rift at the heart of environmentalism has been revealed. These moments come along periodically, lifting up the bandages of a global 'movement' to reveal a festering wound underneath.

Planet of the Humans - the new documentary co-produced by Michael Moore - was released on Earth Day, questioning received wisdom about the plausibility of a 100% renewably powered future. Indeed, given the industrial extractivism and ecosystem destruction which would underpin any large-scale roll out of solar and wind - with their needs for vast amounts of concrete, steel, plastic and rare earth metals - the film dares to question the adequacy of using the term 'renewable' at all. Amidst fervour to sell the story of smooth transition to a bright green future, major environmental NGOs such as the Sierra Club are shown to have become ensnared in a web of big business, dodgy investment funds and greenwashing. This is heretical stuff, and the film was unsurprisingly greeted by a cacophony of enraged opinion, dismissals and not-so-polite requests for writer-director, Jeff Gibbs, to toe the party line.

Ten years ago, the Dark Mountain Project was accused of basically all the same things as the film: of giving up, of dividing the cause at an all-too-crucial time, of not providing solutions and, perhaps most grievously, of not providing hope. By leaving the viewer with no clear set of actions or 'hopeful' message, critics of Gibbs' film say, it risks encouraging disengagement from the cause.

In classic internet censoriousness, pitchfork-wielding critics would have it wiped from the record. This perhaps says more about the weakness of their own position than it does about the film. Then came the guilt-by-association: Right wing commentators such as Breitbart News and the Heartland Institute were unsurprisingly receptive to criticisms of the green movement, and this was seen as evidence enough of shady motives on Gibbs' part. He must be a climate quisling, critics implied, ignoring the time spent in the film examining the role of the Koch brothers, Goldman Sachs and other nefarious corporate actors.

I will admit, of course, that there are flaws. In its quest to argue that something rotten lies at the heart of mainstream environmentalism, Planet of the Humans is laden with gotcha moments, old data and a distracting (yes, even potentially dangerous) fixation on 'overpopulation'. Amidst the flow of spilled ink, however, in the rush to denounce, important messages were lost. Now that the attacks have slowed, it may be time to reflect on those.

It is clear, for example, that the question of where environmentalism goes from here is still being framed as an argument that needs to be won, not a paradox we must now live through. While any portrayal of uncertainty or hesitation is evidently unacceptable to its critics, the film at least has the bravery to hold this sense of paradox at its core. On a planet straining under occupation by humans and their handful of domesticated species, what matters now are humble and place-based practices of salvaging, resistance, and regeneration, not the millenarian visions of some high-tech civilisational reboot.

What matters now are humble and place-based practices of salvaging, resistance, and regeneration, not the millenarian visions of some high-tech civilisational reboot.

It is appropriate, then, that the film does not end with upbeat solutions, but with utter horror. As orangutan habitat gets destroyed, the closing scenes of ecosystem annihilation are not just uncomfortable, they are pregnant with grief and incomprehensible violence. The film looks devastation in the eye, and does not try to respond with easy solutionism. No list of simple individualistic changes was proposed, and no magical technology was presented as lying just around the corner, waiting to save us. It avoids, then, exactly what got us into this mess in the first place.

Absurdly, some critics filled this void of certainty themselves, taking the mournful silence as a sign that the film must implicitly advocate for nuclear power. This, they presume, is the one technology which could provide the vast energy required by the rapacious, Promethean systems which have been created.

Others focused on saving the myth of wind and solar, outraged that the film used outdated or misleading figures regarding the efficacy of these so-called renewable energies. The price and efficiency of solar and wind, we are assured, are coming down rapidly. With salvation nigh, we can once again sleep well at night. Our key civilisational problem, however - the rift between the demands made of the natural world and what it can cope with - has not been overcome in the slightest in recent decades. A fanatical focus on the efficiency of renewable sources of electricity merely obscures this.

Electricity demand, simply put, is not the same thing as energy demand. While it may be uncomfortable reading for advocates of the Green New Deal, there is no positive spin to be put on the fact that renewable energy use has basically flat-lined for the last 60 years, while dependence on oil, coal and natural gas have skyrocketed. Focusing on electricity from renewables is something akin to looking out the window, seeing a tsunami thundering towards your house, pulling down the blinds, and going about your day as if nothing were happening.

As the discussion in the film's aftermath narrowed to the viability of electricity sources, it became clear that this is a poisonous sleight of hand. Firstly, it makes little difference whether you use an electric or petrol saw to fell a tree, the result is the same. An insatiable system based on renewable energy is no improvement over an insatiable system based on fossil fuels. Secondly, and related, the film lays bare the environmental movement's continued obsession with reducing ecological problems to easily calculable metrics like CO2, a tendency described as 'carbon fundamentalism' by Charles Eisenstein. The ecocidal systems which have been built up, the accumulation of expansive stories and structures which thread through our lives, will continue to decimate the living world, whatever low-carbon source it is plugged into. If there is to be an end to this madness, we need to end the death cult of capitalism.

Bill McKibben - who, due to his former advocacy of burning trees for electricity, becomes one of the film's bĂȘte noires - wrote about the documentary as a 'bomb in the centre of the climate movement'. He appears to imply that it is unacceptable to step back to consider what precisely your 'movement' hopes to sustain. The film may be slightly unfair to McKibben, but his campaign group, 350.org, continues to prominently reassure us that the goal of 100% renewables is possible in the short-term, and that 'Renewable energy is getting cheaper and more popular every day. As renewables grow and provide more clean, free energy to replace fossil fuels, we've seen emissions decrease in many countries'. The only problem for McKibben, as Gibbs and others are keen to communicate, is that none of this is true.

Herein lies the rift laid bare before our eyes: when environmentalism became 'sustainability' or the 'climate' movement, it became more concerned with making sure that the mode of life of a minority of humanity was kept on track, than dealing with the tangled roots of a truly nihilistic way of life. As Paul Kingsnorth put it, in this very publication, a decade ago:

The 'sustainability' narrative we are presented with at present as our path to a better future, though it is intended to give us hope and something to work towards, seems quite hopeless: impossible and deeply disempowering and in some cases ugly and destructive. At least partly, I think this is because...it is so inhuman in its scale and ambition. It is like handing over the keys to the future to a low-carbon Henry Ford.

And ugly it is. Responses to Gibbs' film have either ignored or played down the scenes which show a dead zone left behind after a solar array is removed. They ignore the simple acknowledgement that deserts are full of life, that they deserve to flourish on their own terms and cannot simply be designated as the barren energy playgrounds of a civilisation gone mad. When push comes to shove, it is not 'nihilism' to point out that green boosterism cares nothing for those wild and precious pockets of existence which lie outside the bubble of civilisation.

It is not 'nihilism' to point out that green boosterism cares nothing for those wild and precious pockets of existence which lie outside the bubble of civilisation.

So where can we go from here? Beyond recognising that the problems of industrial civilisation cannot be solved by ever-more industrial civilisation, does Gibbs really leave us at an utter loss? From the very beginning, Dark Mountain has nourished a vision of 'hope beyond hope', lying beyond quasi-religious beliefs in smart grids, enormous batteries, nuclear plants and other gods of techno-salvation. Within the ever-multiplying cracks in the narrative of Progress, I would suggest that there is a more grounded courage found in the film.

Although written out of the narrative by critics, there is an unexpectant hope threaded throughout. This rests in those humble, unbowed and passionate figures Gibbs speaks to who want to protect the places they love: those in Vermont who resist the destruction of mountain habitat for large-scale wind turbines, for example, or the woman brought to the brink of tears when discussing the sacredness of Lake Superior, under threat from a nearby incinerator. These individuals show more connection and solidarity with the Earth than any sustainability consultant spouting drivel about 'circular economies' and 'green growth'.

It is apt to question why the critics decided to write these courageous people out of the narrative. After all, they demonstrate the reason the environmental movement came into existence in the first place - not to coat the planet in windmills so that Google and Facebook's data centres can continue to hum, but to protect the nonhuman world which can't stand alone against the onslaught.

Perhaps the ensuing debate can be reduced to a foundational and urgent question: ecocentrism or sustainability? The Scottish naturalist John Muir is often quoted as saying that 'When it comes to a war between the races, I'm with the bears'.

The system is unravelling. The prophets of mainstream environmentalism are shown to be false.

There has never been a better time to pick a side.

Tom Smith - Ecological Writing
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