Attacking the messenger: Planet of the Humans spears sacred beliefs

When it comes to global warming, there continues to be plenty of magical thinking going on. And such magical thinking is not exclusive to the conservative side of the political spectrum.

It is easy to take apart conservative denial of global warming, based as it is on ideology and a total lack of scientific grounding. In their own way, however, right-wing climate deniers are consistent on one point — they know that effectively tackling global warming means economic disruption, so their solution is to deny there is any global warming. Liberals, however, have their heads in the sand as well — too honest to deny the obvious, they instead deny there will be any cost. We’ll switch to renewable energy and continue business as usual.

The latter is not realistic. And that brings us to the new environmental film Planet of the Humans, which has certainly touched many a liberal nerve. Believing we can continue capitalist business as usual, merrily consuming far beyond the Earth’s capacity to replenish resources and enjoy infinite growth on a finite planet, leads to a disinclination to be realistic about the cost of dealing with global warming. The liberal idea that we can make a seamless switch to renewable energy and continue to use Earth’s resources and consume at the same rate humanity has been doing is fantasy.

And that is what underlies the fierce reaction to Planet of the Humans.  A generally unreasonable reaction that grossly misrepresents the film.

So there is no mistaking where my perspective lies, I do believe the fastest possible switch to renewable energy should be made and we should abandon the use of fossil fuels in the shortest reasonable time. But we should be realistic about the limitations. Renewables, although part of the solution to global warming, can’t save us on their own. Humanity, at least those in the Global North, has no choice but to consume much less, including less energy. Unfortunately, there is no getting around that. The limitations of renewables will be discussed below, but first let’s dismantle the disingenuous attacks on the film, produced and directed by Jeff Gibbs, with Michael Moore as executive producer. For the record, I have watched Planet of the Humans in its entirety twice.

Should dissenting voices be silenced?

The first thing to be pointed out is that the attacks on the film are led by those whose hypocrisy was exposed. Let us acknowledge that those exposed can’t be expected to take kindly to that. But the attacks are hardly limited to the leaders of the large organizations who come under criticism, such as 350.org and the Sierra Club. Josh Fox isn’t among those mentioned, but he nonetheless was so infuriated that he circulated a letter demanding the film be banned, sadly signed by several prominent environmentalists, including Naomi Klein (who really should know better) and Michael Mann (a promoter of nuclear energy, an industry that would not exist without massive subsidies).

Mr. Fox states, “The film touts blatantly untrue fossil fuel industry talking points deceitfully misleading its audience on renewable energy, disparages and attacks important climate leaders, ignores science and policy advances in energy, downplays or denounces climate and anti-fossil fuel campaigns and employs specious techniques of misinformation to deliver a deeply cynical and erroneous message.” That’s a whole lot of accusation. Let’s unpack it.

The film frontally attacks the fossil fuel industry throughout. To imply that it is somehow aligned with the fossil fuel industry is beyond laughable. The heart of the critique was that certain prominent environmentalists are too cozy with fossil fuel interests. Further, Mr. Gibbs doesn’t “disparage” or “attack” “important climate leaders,” he allows them to speak for themselves and thus reveal themselves.

I see absolutely no evidence that Mr. Gibbs forced Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, to repeatedly declare his enthusiastic support for biomass, which generates energy through massive burning of trees. It doesn’t seem a stretch to see that chopping down forests isn’t environmentally friendly or sustainable, given the immense scale of biomass plants. In the final credits, the film insinuates that Mr. McKibben changed his mind on biomass after the film was first shown. That is inaccurate as Mr. McKibben published an article titled “Burning trees for electricity is a bad idea” in 2016. It should be acknowledged he did change his mind and the film should have reported that change. Nonetheless, there was plenty of data demonstrating how dangerous biomass is before his conversion — data that should have been known to him.

Were the dangers of biomass hidden from our eyes?

Increased logging is surely not a route to reducing global warming. A paper by the British watchdog group Biofuelwatch reports:

“Increased demand for bioenergy is already resulting in the more intensive logging including very destructive whole tree harvesting or brash removal and replacement of forest and other ecosystems with monocultures. Expansion of industrial tree plantations for bioenergy is expected to lead to further land grabbing and land conflicts. At the same time, communities affected by biomass power stations are exposed to increased air pollution (particulates, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, dioxins etc.) and thus public health risks. Meanwhile, a growing number of scientific studies show that burning wood for energy commonly results in a carbon debt of decades or even centuries compared with fossil fuels that might otherwise have been burnt.”

A Partnership for Policy Integrity study found that biomass electricity generation, which relies primarily on the burning of wood, is “more polluting and worse for the climate than coal, according to a new analysis of 88 pollution permits for biomass power plants in 25 [U.S.] states.” The partnership’s director, Mary Booth, wrote:

“The biomass power industry portrays their facilities as ‘clean.’ But we found that even the newest biomass plants are allowed to pollute more than modern coal- and gas-fired plants, and that pollution from bioenergy is increasingly unregulated.”

The Biofuelwatch report was published in 2012 and the Policy Integrity report was published in 2014, so claims of not knowing are disingenuous.

It is of course possible to aim at the wrong target. The pro-vegan film Cowspiracy, for example, consistently attacked environmental groups for not seeing animal agriculture as the solution to all problems, relentlessly mocked environmentalists for not agreeing 100 percent with its thesis and took industrial capitalism off the hook. That would be an example of an unfair hatchet job. Planet of the Humans, by contrast, aims its target at industrial capitalism and the fossil fuel industry.

Don’t grassroots activists count as environmentalists?

Like it or not, there are liberal environmental groups that promote bad environmental practices and even partner with investment funds that heavily invest in fossil fuels. Incidentally, it isn’t until the one-hour mark in a film that lasts one hour and 40 minutes before it begins to criticize mainstream liberal organizations including the Sierra Club. And it is careful to show the large gap between rank-and-file members and those group’s leaderships. Anybody who has experience in the environmental movement can tell you about how grassroots members and local leaders are often well ahead of their national leaders. That is particularly true of the Sierra Club, in my own experience.

Perhaps the most over-the-top attack on the film was conjured by Eoin Higgins and published in Common Dreams and AlterNet. Mr. Higgins goes to the extreme of accusing Mr. Gibbs of “arguing for ecofascist solutions.” I suppose it is better not to dignify such nonsense. The “review,” alas, gets no better as it drones on. We can only hope Mr. Higgins did not hyperventilate while writing his screed. It does not appear he took the trouble to actually see the film nor to grasp the immense differences between socialism and fascism.

Mr. Higgins quotes an assortment of critics peddling similarly over-the-top attacks. One, Emily Atkin, is quoted as saying, “This movie repeatedly claims that humans are better off burning fossil fuels than using renewable energy.” Once again, the film’s critique is of organizations being too closely tied to the fossil fuel industry. A basic premise of the film is that large amounts of fossil fuels are used in the manufacturing of solar panels and especially wind-power towers and turbines, and they have to be replaced in short periods of times. The film also notes that because wind and solar are intermittent, and current battery-storage technology far from adequate, existing fossil fuel plants have to be kept online as backup sources. Power plants thus need to run continuously because you can’t switch them on and off at will. Basic science here.

Further, because most “renewable” energy is in the form of biomass, not only do you have greenhouse-gas emissions, you also lose the carbon sink of the destroyed forests, thereby constituting a double whammy. Note the effects of biomass discussed a few paragraphs earlier — if it is true that biomass is more polluting than fossil fuels, then why use it?

Mr. Higgins goes on to allege, “In a more disturbing move, Gibbs promotes population control as the best answer to the warming of the planet,” and then quotes another critic aligning Planet of the Humans with the odious far-right website Breitbart. Thanks to watching the film on YouTube, I could stop and start at will. I added up the entire total of time in which population was discussed. It is about one minute and 30 seconds. Three professors mentioning population are given space in this brief minute and a half, and none came anywhere near advocating any eugenic ideas. The first noted there are “too many human beings using too much too fast”; one said “we have to have our abilities to consume reined in”; and all three put their remarks in the context that humanity is consuming at an unsustainable rate.

That last point ought to be obvious, but evidently isn’t, at least to Mr. Higgins. So for his benefit, Global Footprint Network (which certainly appears to me to be an environmental organization) calculates that the world is consuming the equivalent of 1.75 Earths — in other words, humanity is using natural resources 75 percent faster than they can be replenished. A figure that steadily increases. The advanced capitalist countries obviously consume at a more furious rate than the global average. That is, ahem, unsustainable. Basic mathematics informs us that either humanity learns to consume less or nature will force it on us.

Yet another “authority” is quoted by Mr. Higgins declaring, “The truth is, pinning our problems on population lets industrial capitalism off the hook.” But, once again, there was not one sentence asserting that, and the entire film was a massive indictment of capitalism. Particularly effective was a long sequence in which the film speeds up to dramatically demonstrate the massive industrial processes and heavy metals that are used to manufacture wind towers. There is an indictment of people like Mr. McKibben and organizations like the Sierra Club being far too cozy with capitalism. You really have to ask if any of these critics actually saw the film. Or perhaps they did, and seeing their magical belief that we can have business as usual exposed so throughly decided that attacking the film for things it never says would be their best response.

Is wanting a cleaner environment really “anti-working class”?

A similar line of specious attack has been launched by Leigh Phillips in Jacobin. Mr. Phillips, consistent with his belief that we can “take over the machine and run it rationally,” absurdly declares that Planet of the Humans is “anti-humanist” and “anti-working class.” I would think that desiring a clean environment would be good for working people, but perhaps Mr. Phillips has a different understanding than I. He writes, “Progress is a dangerous myth, the film argues; there are too many humans consuming too much stuff, so everyone in developed countries — including the working class — needs to consume less, while the planet as a whole must be depopulated down to a more sustainable number,” declaring such ideas “literally anti-progressive and anti-human.”

I suppose if the film actually argued what Mr. Phillips claims it does, he’d have a point. Unfortunately, as already demonstrated, the film at no point advocates forcibly reducing the population. It is necessary again to point out that you can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet, and that capitalism can’t function without constant growth. There is no way to make the irrational rational.

Because he is a target of the film, it is only fair to note Mr. McKibben’s reaction. “A Youtube video emerged on Earth Day eve making charges about me and about 350.org — namely that I was a supporter of biomass energy, and that 350 and I were beholden to corporate funding,” he writes. “I am used to ceaseless harassment and attack from the fossil fuel industry. … It does hurt more to be attacked by others who think of themselves as environmentalists.”

The Minneapolis climate march of April 29, 2017 (photo by Fibonacci Blue)

The film shows repeated public appearance where the 350.org leader extravagantly praises biomass. It also shows him acknowledging funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, among other corporate sources, while mostly dodging a question on the source of 350.org’s funding. Are we supposed to ignore his own words? Among his appearances were sharing a stage with a Goldman Sachs executive who talked of organizing $40 trillion to $50 trillion in “green investments.” I trust the readers of this publication are quite familiar with the vampire squid and its touching interest in the betterment of humanity.

There are many other attacks on Planet of the Humans on the Internet, each claiming that the film is full of “errors” and “misinformation.” I decided to put that to the test by selecting at random two factual statements made by the film.

One was that solar (1.5%) and wind (3.1%) combined for only 4.6% of Germany’s energy consumption. In reviewing the latest figures, for 2018 as reported by the International Energy Agency, I found that the combined figure for solar and wind is slightly less than 5%. So this checks out. (Oil, natural gas and coal are by far the biggest energy sources in Germany despite its reputation as a renewable trendsetter.) The second was that solar and wind accounted for roughly one-quarter of global renewable energy; biomass accounted for nearly two-thirds. As of 2017, again the latest I could find, solar, wind and hydro accounted for 31% of world renewable energy — close to what the film reported. (The remaining 69% was biofuels and waste.) Mr. Gibbs seems to have done his homework.

The other consistent line of attack is that groups like the Sierra Club and advocates like Al Gore would never do anything questionable. The film both quotes from materials that the groups in question have published and from U.S. Securities and Exchange filings. Mr. McKibben personally and his 350.org organization recommended investing in the Green Century Funds. At the time of examination, the funds had 0.6 percent of its capital invested in renewable energy and energy efficiency, and far more in mining, oil and gas, McDonald’s, logging companies and BlackRock, a major investor in deforestation projects. The Sierra Club partnered with Aspiration, a so-called “green fund” that in fact invests in oil and gas companies, Monsanto and Halliburton.

Is it sacrilege to point out issues with renewables?

Toward the end of the film, Mr. Gibbs says, “The takeover of the environmental movement by capitalism is now complete,” and concludes “We must take control of our environmental movement.” Once again, the filmmaker repeatedly gave space to rank-and-file members of the Sierra Club and 350.org who disagreed with their leaders’ approval of biomass and gave a platform to a series of grassroots activists fighting biomass and other destructive practices in their communities. So the over-the-top claims that the film was a broad attack on the environmental movement, and on behalf of the fossil fuel industry no less, is laughable. The target is the leadership of large organizations who are too cozy with corporate interests — that’s the critique that clearly hit home, as the intensity of the attacks demonstrate.

Or perhaps grassroots activists who don’t lead national organizations that prefer to “get along” with political insiders and corporate elites are not considered proper environmentalists?

To conclude, let’s briefly examine some of the issues surrounding renewable energy sources. (Readers wishing more detail can click on the links that will be supplied.) Even wind energy has environmental issues. The turbines used to produce electricity from wind increasingly are built with the “rare earth” element neodymium, which requires a highly toxic process to produce. Turbine magnets using neodymium are more expensive than those using ceramic, but are also more efficient. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that an additional 380 metric tons of neodymium would be necessary if the United States is to generate 20 percent of its electricity from wind by 2030. That’s just one country. Increasing rare earth mining means more pollution and toxic waste.

How about sequestering carbon dioxide? The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) rests its belief that techno-fixes will save the day through “bioenergy with carbon dioxide capture and storage” (BECCS), the capture and sequestration of the carbon produced by bioenergy processes. The carbon dioxide would be “captured” before it escapes into the atmosphere and “permanently” stored underground or underwater, thereby removing it from the air and negating its greenhouse effects. A Biofuelwatch study reports that the IPCC, among others, counts flooding oil reservoirs with carbon dioxide, to extract otherwise inaccessible oil out of the ground, as BECCS. Hardly “carbon neutral”!

And electric vehicles are only as green as the electricity that powers them. If fossil fuels produce the electricity, then how green is it really? An electric automobile still has the metal, plastic, rubber, glass and other raw materials a gas-guzzling one has. By one estimate, 56 percent of all the pollution a vehicle will ever produce comes before it hits the road.

Critics of Planet of the Humans do make one valid point — the film is too pessimistic about the likely improvements still to come in solar panels and other renewable sources. The film implies such technologies are hopeless. As a counter-argument, it is possible to get long-term energy from hydropower, a renewable not mentioned in the film. New York State gets 17 percent of its power from two hydroplants that have operated for 60 years and are maintained well enough by a state agency that they will supply energy for decades to come. So although these giant plants obviously used much energy to build, they are large ongoing net positives in terms of greenhouse gases.

Development of renewable energy sources is necessary to bring an end to fossil fuels. But only one part. Building solar panels and other renewable equipment to last much longer is another part. But there is no achieving sustainability without consuming less — or at least those of us in the advanced capitalist countries consuming less. That is the hard truth that must be faced. The liberal belief that we can have our cake and not only eat it but make more cakes and eat them, too, is a fantasy. There are no free lunches nor limitless cakes.

What happens when mass murderers are the victors who write history?

Watching the documentary movie The Act of Killing left me with with strong but sometimes contradictory emotions, because it confronts the audience with a genocide unpunished but also, intentionally or not, with Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil.” What are those who commit unspeakable acts, motivated by raging, irrational hatreds yet capable of acting like somewhat clownish grandfathers who like to dance — who seem incapable of articulating any political idea beyond boilerplate slogans?

Clownish grandfathers, perhaps, but unquestionably pitiless killers. The Act of Killing asks a simple-sounding question that is not at all simple: What does a country look like that not only allows mass murderers to live free but actually celebrates them? The country is Indonesia, where more than one million people were murdered following the overthrow of Sukarno in 1965 as Mohamed Suharto consolidated a dictatorship that would last three decades. Suharto’s dictatorship is now in the past, but the society his régime wrought remains.

Still from 'The Act of Killing'

Still from ‘The Act of Killing’

Hannah Arendt could ponder what she would come to conceptualize as the banality of evil from the standpoint of a victor — her banality, in the human form of Adolf Eichmann, was on trial for crimes against humanity. In Indonesia, the winners who write history are the perpetrators of genocide. A sickening version of history, as it must be. Victors don’t face justice. The two men who form the core around which The Act of Killing centers don’t appear to face their consciences, either.

Whether or not those who perpetrate crimes against humanity can ever be “banal,” the distance from there to here is less than we ordinarily wish to contemplate; we exist on a continuum and not the opposing shore of a chasm. The Act of Killing opens with a quote from Voltaire: “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.” And we then meet two men, Anwar and Herman. The two are gangsters. They proudly refer to themselves as gangsters, among those who commanded right-wing death squads under the direction of the Indonesian military.

A bit of the background, from the web site set up to promote the film:

“After the 1965 military coup, anybody opposed to the new military dictatorship could be accused of being a communist. This included union members, landless farmers, intellectuals, and the ethnic Chinese, as well as anybody who struggled for a redistribution of wealth in the aftermath of colonialism.

In less than a year, and with the direct aid of western governments, over one million of these ‘communists’ were murdered. In America, the massacre was regarded as a major ‘victory over communism,’ and generally celebrated as good news. Time magazine reported ‘the West’s best news for years in Asia,’ while The New York Times ran the headline, ‘A Gleam of Light in Asia,’ and praised Washington for keeping its hand in the killings well hidden.”

Making an offer ‘communists’ can’t refuse

One of the gangsters remembers receiving a “thick book” full of the names of “Chinese communists” — the military provided names of people marked for death; the gangster used it to shake down those named. He put it simply: “Pay or die.” Seeing no moral issues with that, he has warm memories of what he calls the “Crush the Chinese campaign” — and he is depraved enough to reminisce about walking down a shopping street killing all the Chinese he saw, and when he came upon the Chinese father of his girlfriend, he killed him, too, chuckling at the memory.

The other gangster is shown shaking down merchants in the present day, demanding large sums of money for “protection.” Later he is shown demanding bribes from building owners, threatening to have their buildings torn down if they don’t pay. These and other gangsters are connected to a paramilitary youth organization, Pancasila Youth, that boasts three million members and is so connected with the government that a minister speaks at its rallies. A leader of the paramilitary explains in an on-camera interview how things work: “When a businessman wants land that someone is living on, it’d be too expensive to buy. Everybody is afraid of the paramilitaries — when we show up, they just say, ‘Take it. Pay what you want.’ ”

This gangster state was created, and is sustained, by anti-communist ideology. Again and again, the gangsters and the paramilitary leaders claim they are defending Indonesia against “communists.” Such people are bogeys to them as they seem incapable of explaining just what a communist is. They know communists are bad, and that is all they need to know.

Indonesian peasants and its nascent working class had a long history of anti-colonial struggle and of labor movements. Only once does one of the gangsters attempt to describe what communists did, and this in the context of a reenactment of a post-coup interrogation, sessions of which ended with strangulation by wire after beatings. The gangster-interrogator accuses the “communist” of giving land to the farmers and asking if the motivation was to make the communist party look good in the eyes of peasants.

That’s it. That’s the “crime.” And such a crime is not an Indonesian curiosity. The Suharto-led military coup was fully supported by the United States government, including U.S. intelligence agencies supplying the Indonesian military with large numbers of names, knowing full well the deadly use to which the lists would be put. The pop culture of the U.S. plays a role as well — the two gangsters, and not only them, style themselves after favored movie stars and modeled their execution methods on what they saw in Hollywood movies. One of them says in the film:

“Why do people watch James Bond films? To see action. Why do people watch films about Nazis? To see violence and sadism. We can do that! We can do worse!”

Force comes in many packages

The vice president of Indonesia, in another scene, is shown speaking at a Pancasila Youth rally, where he proclaims, “We need gangsters to get things done.” We need only substitute the more general word “force” for “gangsters” and we have arrived uncomfortably close to the power relations of capitalism. But the advanced capitalist countries of North America, Europe and Asia-Pacific don’t have gangsters running governments or ministers speaking at paramilitary rallies, you might say. That is true. But economics in those countries runs on similar lines albeit using far more sophisticated methodologies and with the fist well hidden inside velvet gloves, and resting on a well-oiled acculturation machine rather than on direct fear.

It is easier to remain in power by convincing people their subordinate status is a natural state rather than having to continually apply unsheathed force to maintain inequality. Economics in advanced capitalist countries is based on the wealthy and powerful taking from everyone else. Corporate profits, distributed in the form of wildly excessive executive pay and financial industry gambling revenue, are maintained by diminishing the power of working people through moving production to places with lower wages, layoffs that leave remaining employees doing multiple jobs, anti-union laws and a political system that effectively excludes all but the wealthiest and those who will do their bidding. Abuse of eminent domain laws, bank foreclosures, the taking of commons, privatization of public services, corporate domination of the mass media — what are these if not force?

And let us not forget that the standard of living of working people in leading countries has been based on exploitation of countries like Indonesia, even if imperialism is now dialectically turning into a net negative for Northern working people because corporate globalization is speeding the pace of sending jobs overseas. The U.S. did not support the Suharto coup — or dozens of other coups around the world — because it had a fondness for this or that dictator. These were done to keep the developing world open for exploitation for favored corporations back home, and local elites in the targeted countries were allowed a cut of the action.

Suharto did particularly well in this regard. He and his family embezzled between US$15 billion and $35 billion during his reign. Control of state-run monopolies were handed to family members and friends, kickbacks and payments to the family were standard, and new ventures were expected to give financial stakes to family members or cronies.

The gangsters shown in The Act of Killing have done well, too, quite visibly at the expense of almost everyone around them. They repeatedly exalt in their belief that “gangster” means “free man.” Financiers and industrialists also consistently speak of their acting in the name of “freedom.” The gangsters’ methods are but a funhouse-mirror distortion of the gloved fist that underlies relations in the more comfortable parts of the world.