Listen, Malthusian! A critique of “Planet of the Humans”

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The documentary “Planet of the Humans” makes wildly inaccurate claims about science, technology, green energy, and where ecological problems come from. The most significant premises and conclusions in the film are false. “Planet of the Humans” engages in both a denial of scientific facts as well as a misdiagnosis of problems and solutions to developing ecological crises. The film dangerously packages false premises and an at best ignorant ideological framework through documentary style persuasion. If people in environmental justice movements agree with “Planet of the Humans”, then such movements will literally be off course in a time where they are more needed than ever.

“Planet of the Humans” documentary correctly claims

  1. That there are “green” capitalist business schemes
  2. That there are real problems of corporate alliances with the environmental movement
  3. That biofuels, especially that involving deforestation, are not good forms of alternative energy

However, the documentary incorrectly claims that

  1. Renewable energy is not possible, and to the degree it is, it is itself anti-ecological and not a real solution (Gibbs 2019, 44:00). Not only does the film claim that green energy is non-productive in terms of generating energy, the film claims that development of green energy is counterproductive. It does not merely claim that there are issues with green energy within a specific kind of economy, it more broadly claims that green energy is unproductive generally. 
  2. The root problem of ecological problems are human overpopulation and consumption, and “industry” and “civilization” (Gibbs 2019, 17:00,  46:10, 1:29:00. 1:30:00). 

In contrast to the anti scientific claims made by “Planet of the Humans”, Mark Z. Jacobson’s research on alternative energy provides us with a fairly good analysis of the potential for alternative energy: Wind, Solar, Geothermal, wave, tidal, mass transit, energy efficiency, and more in conjunction can make it so there is clean renewable energy for all–which can TECHNICALLY be DONE as soon as 2030 (Jacobson 2017). Decentralized Planning on a city wide scale, and intercity scale when needed, can help make it so a holistic approach to renewable energy is applied–through a plurality of different energy sources in combination to make it so there is more than enough energy in a given area through both green energy based grids and off grid green energy devices. Jacobson’s model gives what is in my opinion a conservative analysis, as it does not look at eco-technological potential outside of profit based systems and simultaneously under-utilizes geothermal energy potential (INL 2006). Despite Jacobson not having a libertarian socialist critique of the state and capitalist processes and the limits they pose for the actuation of potentially liberatory technology such as solar and wind energy, Jaconbson’s analysis that the current technical potential of alternative energy could provide everyone with their energy needs is correct. However, as long as hierarchical systems exist that put accumulating power over others before meeting humans needs and ecological concerns, actuating green energy potential will be inhibited.

“Planet of the Humans” also claims solar panels and wind turbines are anti-ecological because they rely on mining and rare earth minerals. Such a claim assumes production for profit and cost efficiency. Producing for long term needs, there is “enough copper and other useful metals can be recovered as scrap from the debris of our present society to provide future generations with all they need.” (Bookchin 2018). Citing Steve Ongerth, “the vast majority of these minerals are used for *non* green purposes” and over 81% of minerals used in production of alternative energy and batteries can be recycled (Dominish et al., 2019). Compared to fossil fuels, even the most hyperbolic claims about downsides of real green energy are minuscule– outside of claims that outright deny green energy entirely such as claims made in “Planet of the Humans”. Furthermore additional durable metal replacements and conductive metal replacements–on top of recyclable materials– can be developed through plant based regenerative technology.

“Planet of the Humans” lacks a social analysis of social and ecological problems, and it fills that void with a conception of “humans without adjectives” as the cause of ecological problems. The Movie says “it is us” who are the problem, and not just some things humans are doing but everything humans are doing! (Gibbs 2019, 1:30:00). I did not know that going on a walk, planting community gardens, taking the bus, and mutual aid projects were “destroying the planet”! Positing everything humans do against the environment is part of a reactionary anti-human theory. Throughout the movie, various references to mass population decrease as a solution are mentioned. At one point a so called expert that Gibbs interviewed in the documentary claimed “without seeing a major human die off there is no going back,” (Gibbs 2019, 47:00). There was no correction to that statement anywhere in the documentary, and the rest of the documentary  generally affirmed a Malthusian worldview. Such Malthusian talking points have unsurprisingly been crucial parts of various movements for eugenics, colonialism, and fascism. By being against both fossil fuels and green energy, and anti-scientifically claiming green energy can not really exist, “Planet of the Humans” makes the case that there is no alternative to either Malthusianism or ecocide. The wrong premises in “Planet of the Humans” make what very well might be a well meaning film into eco-fascistic propaganda.

Not all humans rule this planet. Some people rule over and above other humans, and through ruling over other humans instrumentalize people to instrumentalize the environment to the ends of ruling over others– in competition to maximize power over others compared both to those ruled over and other rulers. We do not live on a planet ruled by some vague “humans without adjectives”; we live on a planet ruled by rulers and humans and the rest of natural world are both sacrificed to the altar of hierarchy.

The major prescription given in the film for changing the world is a call to merely reduce the quantity of persons, consumption rates, and overall stuff while peddling neo-Malthusian talking points about population and people reducing consumption– ignoring ecological problems being caused through hierarchical productive processes, framing consumption itself as the primary thing to minimize, while ignoring that the majority of consumption is done by the richest people in the population. The poorest 50% of the world’s population consume 10% of lifestyle consumption emissions, and the richest 10% consume 49% of lifestyle consumption emissions (Oxfam 2015). Additionally, ecological technology– including but not limited to green energy– in conjunction with a radical change in social relations can make it so we can produce utilities people need and use in such a way that everyone on the planet could have luxurious standards of living without ecological destruction. If production can be made ecological–which it can but not under capitalism–then consumption can be made ecological. Surely conspicuous consumption, and consuming at the expense of others and the environment are real problems. However, the root problems of ecological crises, including the above problems mentioned, are hierarchical institutions and relations– most significantly capitalism. The imperative of hierarchical systems to maximize power over others leads towards instrumentalizing humans and the natural world towards such ends (Bookchin 2007). By seeing ecological problems as caused by humans without adjectives, “Planet of the Humans” gives more of a pseudo-zoological analysis than a social one– blaming humans rather than specific political economic relations. By framing the core problem so inaccurately, the movie serves as a distraction from both our technological potential as well as root solutions of abolishing hierarchy and creating mutualistic social relations that use ecological technology wisely and collaboratively without concern for profit motives or accumulating power over others.

One area where “Planet of the Humans” is correct is in regards to the insufficiency of green energy to save us– I would agree that green energy is INSUFFICIENT to solve ecological problems, but the film fails to mention the NECESSITY of green energy. In fact, the whole film is spent fallaciously attacking green energy in general. Green energy and eco-technology can only solve root causes of ecological problems in conjunction with a radical shift in social relations– not only a shift in culture and ideas but also shift in institutions. It is essential for us to have an ethical process for development and use of technology rooted in an ethics of freedom and participation within egalitarian bounds, solidarity, virtues, development of happiness, and ecological flourishing. On a political economic level this means we should at least have co-federated, horizontalist, directly democratic governance in regards to politics, economics, and energy systems– as well a radical greening and decommodification of energy. Such a process merges self interest and social interest, is rooted in cooperative conflict and deliberation for decision making, has maximal transparency, is based on pooling together of needs, abilities, technology, resources etc. to solve common problems, allows for coordination on a plurality of different scales, allows for function redundancy, etc. and is not internally limited by the profit motive or positions that give people power over others (and what is entailed by the maintenance of such power over others).

“Planet of the Humans” tries to make the point that green energy is not only insufficient and unnecessary to solving ecological problems; it tries to make the point but that green energy does not work, is counterproductive, a misleading path, and one gigantic scam. At times “Planet of the Humans” conflates specific instances of capitalist businesses trying to use green technology ten years ago with technical potential more generally (Tokar 2020). Ketan Joshi astutely points out that “Planet of the Humans” makes many of the same claims made by climate change deniers around ten years ago (Joshi 2020). If you want to see some additional scientific debunking of “Planet of the Humans”, then you can access the Ketan Joshi link that critiques “Planet of the Humans” through the cited sources below.

Technology does not develop in a vacuum– it is produced and utilized through a social web that steers its development (Bookchin 2005). Technology can surely cause effects in the world, but it never does so by itself, as all technology has a social history. Capitalist and state powers concerned with profit and power over others sacrifice ecological concerns through the imperatives needed to be competitive with others. Anything “green” capitalism and the state ever does is limited by that underlying anti-ecological logic. Eco-technology is necessary but insufficient for solving ecological crises– part of what makes technology liberatory are the social relations that develop and use technology. Green capitalism will not save us, and contemporary states enforce capitalism and have their own anti-ecological components such as their own hierarchical power accumulation incentives as well as anti-ecological and anti-human dimensions such as the military. However, states can be pressured by grassroots people powered movements to give into demands from below. Grassroots movements have the potential to overthrow hierarchical systems that cause social and ecological problems, have the potential to institute egalitarian alternatives where power is shared between people, and have the potential to develop new relations where technology is ethically developed and used.

 

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  1. Bookchin, Murray. Post-Scarcity Anarchism. Chico, Ca.: AK Press, 2018.
  2. Bookchin, Murray. The Ecology of Freedom: the Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy. Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2005.
  3. Bookchin, Murray. Social Ecology and Communalism. Edinburgh: AK Press, 2007.
  4. Dominish, Elsa, Sven Teske, and Nick Florin. “Responsible Minerals Sourcing for Renewable Energy.” earthworks.org. The Institute for Sustainable Futures, 2019. https://earthworks.org/cms/assets/uploads/2019/04/MCEC_UTS_Report_lowres-1.pdf.
  5. Gibbs. Planet of the Humans. Planet of the Humans. Michael Moore, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zk11vI-7czE.
  6. Jacobson, Mark Z., Mark A. Delucchi, Zack A.f. Bauer, Savannah C. Goodman, William E. Chapman, Mary A. Cameron, Cedric Bozonnat, et al. “100% Clean and Renewable Wind, Water, and Sunlight All-Sector Energy Roadmaps for 139 Countries of the World.” Joule 1, no. 1 (2017): 108–21. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.joule.2017.07.005.
  7. Joshi, Ketan. “Planet of the Humans: A Reheated Mess of Lazy, Old Myths.” Ketan Joshi, May 1, 2020. https://ketanjoshi.co/2020/04/24/planet-of-the-humans-a-reheated-mess-of-lazy-old-myths/?fbclid=IwAR3yXYqceuR-vucO1mR87sziH0h5wlkxb-Po5xB_FpRwW2vbpEWg5mdbTQ0.
  8. Oxfam. “World’s Richest 10% Produce Half of Carbon Emissions While Poorest 3.5 Billion Account for Just a Tenth.” Oxfam International, December 2, 2015.
  9. Tokar, Brian. “‘Humans’ Are Not the Problem: Reflections on a ‘Useless’ Documentary.” Institute for Social Ecology, April 30, 2020. http://social-ecology.org/wp/2020/04/humans-are-not-the-problem-reflections-on-a-useless-documentary/.

 

 

3 thoughts on “Listen, Malthusian! A critique of “Planet of the Humans”

  1. Pingback: “Humans” are not the problem: Reflections on a “useless” documentary | Institute for Social Ecology

  2. Pingback: Escuta, Malthusiano! Uma crítica ao “Planeta dos Humanos” – El Coyote

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