The Moralistic Mauvaise Foi of Planet of the Humans

The final message of Jeff Gibbs’ new documentary Planet of the Humans can hardly be faulted: rejection of the centuries-old anthropocentrism which has justified dominion over, and exploitation of, all other life-forms. Without mentioning Deep Ecology or the anti-industrial critiques of radical environmentalists, the movie does implicitly follow the lead of earlier thinkers such as Arne Naess.  For decades, such a radical critique of the Industrial Revolution, presented by maverick theorists (Mumford, Ellul) and developed in obscure ‘zines (e.g., Fifth Estate), was on the intellectual-fringe.  Now it’s become almost mainstream.  And for several decades, almost all major eco-groups have campaigned for drastically reduced consumption and a rapid shift to alternate, “clean” energy-sources.

Without evidencing any knowledge of the history of radical environmentalism, writer-director Gibbs nonetheless feels obliged to adopt a skeptical, even dismissive tone toward the efforts of enviro-orgs. Yes, terribly shortsighted compromises — most conspicuously the Sierra Club’s acceptance of massive sums from natural-gas and timber interests! — are important to know about. But to implicitly smear all enviro-orgs as morally tainted by Big Money is little better than a cynical, “everyone-can-be-bought” assumption.  What is Gibbs’ motive here?  Sure, fossil-fuel companies — using Mephistophelian bargaining — have dangled huge sums in front of such groups, promising in return “to green” some of their destructive activities (in reality, to “green-wash” them).  But the vast majority of enviro-orgs have rejected these lures. One can examine their annual reports and 990 tax statements (all accessible).  Credible philanthropy watchdogs such as Charity Watch and Charity Navigator also provide financial evaluations of effectiveness and transparency.

Like his executive producer Michael Moore, Gibbs likes to seeks out — video-camera in hand — abrupt encounters with his “prey.” Taken somewhat by surprise, such enviro-personages as Bill McKibben and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., do indeed come across as awkwardly defensive, even evasive. I consider this dubious tactic an example of their mauvaise foi. How many of us, when caught up under the watchful Eye of the public Panopticon (cellphone cameras, etc.), will invariably present ourselves as well-informed and convincingly honest? We see clips of venture-capitalist Al Gore, the same person who previously authored Earth in the Balance (1992). Gibbs insinuates that Gore’s main purpose in making the documentary film An Inconvenient Truth (2006) was to promote capital-investment in the “renewable” energy initiatives he planned to financially profit from.  But, surely, the book and film did significantly raise public-awareness about the escalating threat of global warming?

To claim, as Gibbs does, that all major enviro-groups have been “taken over by capitalism” is simply untrue.  If the question is whether such groups receive funding from the very industries they claim to be fighting against, the answer (with very few exceptions) is: No. For that matter, his producer Michael Moore is himself a 1% “capitalist.” Last I read, his net worth was around $50 million! Is he donating most of it to Doctors Without Borders or Oxfam (refugees, famine, cholera in Yemen) — and/or to Greenpeace et al??  Brazen hypocrisy should not be exhibited by outspoken critics of hypocrisy.

Yes, Bill McKibben does not “present well” on camera. In the clips presented, McKibben appears awkward, even evasive.  But, despite the film’s insinuation of secret corporate backers, the 350.org website does list the names of its foundation donors. (One may indeed question, as I do, the organization’s single-minded focus on CO2 — which ignores methane, 85X more potent as a greenhouse gas.) As shown in the movie, McKibben does appear incredibly foolish a dozen years ago, when he is enthusiastically advocating “bio-mass” burning (“renewable!”).  But he soon repudiated this whole notion as “a bad idea.”  Following his role-model Moore, Gibbs likes to rummage through outdated video-clips — to find those conspicuously embarrassing (and even “suspect”) moments. Gibbs, of course, doesn’t bother to set up serious interviews, in which Gore, McKibben, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and the others would be allowed to respond (possibly disingenuously, of course).

How does the major claim of the movie — that solar/wind power is a pipe dream as a replacement for fossil-fuels — stand up to serious analysis?  At outdoor concerts, we are shown emcees falsely claiming that the events were “100% solar-powered”!  So what?  Merely foolish hyperbole.  But throughout the movie, Gibbs the (Manichean?) purist remains fixated on “either/or.”  Either an energy-source is entirely alternative — or, it’s still dependent on fossil fuels (and therefore tainted, no good). Many critics of the film are flabbergasted that Gibbs didn’t bother to investigate the current efficiency of alternate energy technologies, which have improved far beyond the rusted relics he presents us with. Gibbs visits General Motors and finds to his chagrin that their electric small-car, the Chevy Volt, must be charged up from the mainstream (fossil-fuel-based) power-grid!  But isn’t the vehicle still preferable to a gas-guzzling SUV (or maybe even to a Prius)?

His points about the fallacies of “bio-fuels” are certainly valid — but this has been common knowledge for at least 10 years. This merely typifies the major shortcoming of the movie: sketchy and often-outdated information, with a conspicuous absence of current scientific explanations. On the other hand, the film does a good job in revealing the fraud of “bio-mass” as somehow qualitatively much better than other carbon-based fuels. Timber companies, responding to the reduced demand for paper, have in recent years quickly re-marketed wood as a “natural, renewable” substitute for coal. Vast, rapid-growth “tree plantations” are now becoming scattered through much of the U.S. South.

William Manson is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press). Read other articles by William.