David G. Hughes on Jeff Gibbs’ ‘Planet of the Humans’ (2020)
This is an eco-documentary produced by left-wing firebrand Michael Moore. But it’s not what you think. The enemy isn’t Big Oil, the military-industrial complex, or even the Koch Brothers. Not them alone, anyway. The enemy is our collective voluntary delusion about what gets called “Renewable” or “Green” energy, and its promise of salvation.
Planet of the Humans is a depressing experience, for it seeks to systematically demolish all the carefully calibrated PR that tells you solar, wind, and biomass is the future of energy. Turns out, according to the documentary, it’s not only wildly incapable of replacing fossil fuels but it’s actually exacerbating the condition of the planet.
There’s a lot you’ll learn watching this film by brave contrarian environmentalist Jeff Gibbs. You’ll learn about the stonking inefficiency of solar and wind power, the widespread destruction of natural habitat, the scandal of biomass (burning trees for energy) which makes up the majority of “renewables”, and the hypocrisy of the celebrity campaigners. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Al Gore, and Elon Musk are just some of those who come across as pretenders, opportunists, or downright hypocrites. At best, they’re woefully ignorant.
Indeed, the thesis of Gibbs’ film is that the union of environmentalism and capitalism is “complete”. That is to say, capitalism has absorbed whatever promise of change the Green Movement posits as its raison d’être and repackaged it as a fallacious, profit-making, chic identity badge. This is the classic Jameson-Žižek hypothesis of the Left that: “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is the end of capitalism”, but the target is bolder than we’re used to seeing.
The essentially bourgeois function of the modern environmental movement has been a creeping suspicion to the independently minded for some time now, but for Gibbs the proof is in the pudding. He shows us large scale solar farms that destroy ancient desert wildlife in the name of progress but are left barren and defunct in less than thirty years. He shows us how environmentally unfriendly the construction of wind turbines is (it requires quartz and coal), and the false promises of new green economies in devastated towns. Proud declarations of “100% renewable” run companies and events, it turns out, are nothing of the kind. Apple Park is hooked up to the electric grid, as is Tesla HQ. Even green festivals, proudly cheering their renewable-run fun, are jacking into the electrical grid too.
Gibbs seems inspired by Moore when he finds humour in easily-revealed hypocrisy, simply going behind the tent (and, therefore, the bullshit) to ask the blue-collar guys how, exactly, the Earth Day concert is sourcing its power. It doesn’t take long before they’re corpsing at the suggestion the show could run on a collection of prominently displayed solar panels as claimed (“that would power a toaster”, says one engineer) and is, in fact, running on diesel generators. Gibbs’ editing, working with Angela Vargos, effectively employs the classic Moore-isms of contrapuntal music and Eisensteinian montage, designed to highlight rampant hypocrisy. It shows up the Green Movement as The Wizard of Oz.
These devices are useful, for what is hypocrisy if not the expression of the unaccountable? Gibb’s is lenient enough to assume that there’s no deliberate corruption involved from well-meaning activists (leniency he likely wouldn’t give to the right), just a willful ignorance in the name of hope. He’s wise enough to seek answers in psychology, briefly talking to a social psychologist whose dishevelled university office is charmingly plastered with prints torn out of art books. He’s got some explanations, discussing the human need to avoid confrontation with death, quoting Camus, and comparing the environmentalist zeal to the religious impulse. That seems about right, but Gibb’s doesn’t delve beyond just as it feels as if we are beginning to reach some answers, which surely lies past the narrow patina of politics and the rhetoric of activism.
This is exemplified in Gibb’s refusal to tackle the religious figurehead of the movement — Greta Thunberg. Her total absence from the doc is salient. Gibbs is clearly prepared to kill some darlings, and that’s to be commended, but he dared not go for the Queen. And, like Thunberg, he’s not prepared to talk about nuclear power, which doesn’t get a mention despite the fact that it’s an energy source of infinite decarbonised abundance and, as the work of Michael Shellenberger shows, is perhaps the only solution to the climate crisis. Pandora’s Promise (2013) is a documentary that does make such a claim, and also showed that a left-wing still infatuated with the 1960s is unlikely to condone nuclear anytime soon.
Perhaps that’s why Gibbs would rather end his film on a depressive note than present solutions. Sure, he ruffles some feathers but doing so within the orthodox lines permitted by a leftist framework. He is, therefore, bound by ideological loyalty; the valuable myth-busting complications introduced is eventually reduced to deliberate conspiracy and “profit motive”, a Gramscian re-wiring of the collective imagination by the powers at be. That’s the easy, go-to answer for any progressive documentary, and this laziness is disappointing.
Gibbs is also on questionable ground when suggesting the need for population control, tacitly promoting technological regression as the solution. The Malthusianism impulse comes to the fore, and one feels Gibbs is not beyond his own brand of moralism. But Planet of the Humans makes some valuable steps towards an actual reckoning of specious dogma and, therefore, the saving of the planet. For this, it should be welcomed, praised, and seen.
Planet of the Humans was released April 21 on YouTube and is available to watch below.