Ever since Mother Jones owner Adam Hochschild fired Michael Moore for refusing to publish Paul Berman’s attack on the Sandinistas in 1986, I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for him. But when he got down on his knees on the Bill Maher Show in 2008 to beg Ralph Nader not to run for President, a lot of that affection disappeared. For the past dozen years, I had grown weary of his conventional Hollywood liberalism that smacked of Rob Reiner and all the other millionaires who always ended up pleading for a vote for the lesser evil.
You could have knocked me over with a feather after I discovered that Moore had executive produced a film titled “Planet of the Humans” that broke with the liberal establishment. Like poking a stick in a hornet’s nest, all the voices of establishment liberalism, from The Nation to Rolling Stone, swarmed around his head. The editors of the pink-tinted Jacobin must have suffered whiplash when news of the film broke. Only last November, Meagan Day’s adulatory piece titled “Michael Moore Was Right” appeared. Like Trotsky losing favor in the mid-20s, Michael Moore became an unperson after “Planet of the Humans”.
Jacobin unleashed their ecomodernist hitman Leigh Phillips, who penned a piece titled “Planet of the Anti-Humanists” that predictably condemned the film as “Malthusian.” He even raised the possibility that Moore and director Jeff Gibbs were “anti-civilization,” as if they were plotting to recreate the world of Alley Oop and The Flintstones.
In addition to his occasional Jacobin ecomodernist musings, Phillips has also written for The Breakthrough Institute, a think-tank founded by Stewart Brand, the editor of the 1960s Whole Earth Catalog. In recent years, Brand evolved into a self-described “ecopragmatist” who came to believe that nuclear power, GMO and geoengineering all incorporated Green values. In other words, Brand and Phillips are exactly the kind of people that the film takes issue with. The only mystery is why the pink-tinted Jacobin would have such an individual speaking for it, unless they too are smitten with ecomodernist fantasies.
Jeff Gibbs and Michael Moore go way back. He has helped produce “Bowling for Columbine” and “Fahrenheit 9/11”, as well as written the musical score for these two films and “Capitalism, a Love Story”. Like Moore in his documentaries, he is present throughout the film asking pointed questions of Bill McKibben and many other people involved with alternative energy. Also, like Moore, he has a personal background that led him to focus on the environment, just as growing up in Flint made Moore want to investigate GM. Early on in the film, Gibbs tells a story about becoming angry over developers leveling the woods in which he loved to play. He was so angry that he decided to put sand in the tank of their bulldozer. Like Edward Abbey’s characters, he became a juvenile version of the “Monkey Wrench Gang”.
“Planet of the Humans” is not exactly telling a new story. Its message that the capitalist class has carried out a leveraged buyout of the environmentalist movement has been with us for decades. For CounterPunch readers who are familiar with the writings of current editor Jeffrey St. Clair and those of the saintly Alexander Cockburn who preceded him, this is nothing new. Jeffrey wrote “Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green To Me” in 2006, a book that showed how the Sierra Club provided the cover for a federal program that shoveled federal lands into the hands of private investors. As you will see in the film, the Sierra Club is a symbol of how corporate Greens have sold nature out. As for Alexander, his collaboration with Jeffrey on “Al Gore: A User’s Manual” made clear that the “Green” politician broke pledge after pledge he made to protect the environment. In 1996, Alexander wrote an article for the LA Times decrying how “the big green groups have become nothing more than a PR operation of the Democratic National Committee.” The Clinton-Gore team had engineered the resumption of logging in ancient forests, sold out the Everglades, and generally caved in to corporate lobbyists. I sometimes wondered if his contrarian take on climate change was just an over-reaction to how Gore had exploited his reputation from “An Inconvenient Truth” to help corporate America take over the Green movement.
Gore, Michael Bloomberg and Sierra Club president Michael Brune all get a good spanking in “Planet of the Humans”. The film’s co-producer Ozzie Zehner was a young visiting scholar at U. Cal Berkeley and other universities and appears throughout as an expert witness. Unlike most environmentalists, Zehner believes that alternative energy is not capable of resolving the climate change threat to humanity. In a 2012 book titled “Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism,” he ruffled feathers for questioning whether solar and wind power could replace fossil fuels.
The film’s detractors fault it for failing to point out that the price of solar energy has come way down since 2012, thus making it a much more viable alternative to fossil fuels. However, the question facing the Green movement is not so much whether it is cheap enough but rather whether it is truly consistent with our values. Gibbs makes clear that Goldman-Sachs, Michael Bloomberg and the entire Democratic Party leadership are gung-ho on “alternative energy” and even pay lip-service to the Green New Deal. The problem is their indifference to how adopting them involves a whole new set of environmental threats.
One of the most poignant moments in the film takes up the creation of a massive solar power plant in a southwest desert. To create the platform for the photovoltaic cells, everything that had been growing there was trashed, including 500-year-old Joshua trees. In 2015, Recurrent Energy chopped down such trees near Rosamond, California to make way for solar panels. A local resident opposed to Recurrent said that he’d lived there for 45 years and only saw a mountain lion for the first time. The cat only became visible after “they tore out his Joshuas, where he lived,” the local resident said. It’s funny how some on the left can get so agitated about how Trump’s wall might impact a mountain lion in this fashion, but somehow tolerate a solar power farm producing the same lethal results to wildlife.
“Planet of the Humans” ends on a similar note. We see film footage from Borneo where deforestation to produce palm oil, a renewable energy source, has left an Orangutan in the upper branches of a tall and barren tree. As far as the eye can see, every other tree and plant has been chopped or burned down. The ape climbs from limb to limb in a state of pure confusion, with an early death assured.
Turning now to Moore and Gibbs’s critics, they harp on what they claim is outdated material. In addition to the price coming down on solar panels, the film spent thirty minutes attacking biomass, an energy source based on burning wood chips. Writing for the New Republic, Kate Aranoff accused them of creating straw men:
Gibbs spends most of his film crafting a series of straw men out of long-spoiled bales. He spends a great deal of time on biomass energy, for example, to argue that renewables are wasteful and counterproductive. But biomass today supplies less than 2 percent of power in the United States and hasn’t been a favored solution of the environmental groups Gibbs skewers for years; both McKibben and the Sierra Club (another one of the film’s targets) have criticized it—a fact McKibben raised with Gibbs months before the film’s release to no avail.
That is true, as far as it goes. Biomass might supply less than 2 percent of power in the USA but in Europe, it is dominant. As Saul Elbein pointed out in a March 4, 2019 Vox article titled “Europe’s renewable energy policy is built on burning American trees, the USA is helping to resolve an environmental crisis in Europe just as it did in the 18th century when English deforestation made timber exports to the mother country critical.
In 2009, the EU committed itself to 20 percent renewable energy by 2020, and put biomass on the renewables list. By 2014, biomass accounted for 40 percent of the EU’s renewable energy, by far the largest source. By 2020, it’s projected to make up 60 percent and only possible by chopping down American trees:
In the lowland forests of the American southeast, loblolly pines and cypress trees are grabbing carbon dioxide from the air right now. Using power from the sun, they release the oxygen and bind the carbon, building trunks, barks, and leaves.
But much of that carbon won’t stay there. As it turns out, millions of tons of wood from these forests each year are being shipped across the Atlantic, and burned in power plants in countries like the UK and the Netherlands, in the name of slowing climate change.
Their critics have accused Moore and Gibbs of being tools of the oil and coal industries. By questioning the possibilities of alternative energy, they end up defending Donald Trump. That logic seem impeccable given Breitbart’s take on the controversy. It has posted articles titled “Michael Moore-backed ‘Planet of the Humans’ Takes Apart the Left’s Green Energy Scams” and “Delingpole : Michael Moore Is Now the Green New Deal’s Worst Enemy”.
Now, it is true that the film does challenge the underlying assumptions of the Green New Deal but not in the same way as the Koch brothers and Fox News. While not being crystal-clear in their analysis, Moore and Gibbs are advancing an agenda that overlaps with the de-growth movement. This supposed “Malthusianism” is something that Leigh Phillips hones in on:
So, ironically, in focusing on industrial civilization and “overpopulation” as the cause of environmental problems, Moore and Gibbs distract us from the real problem: the untrammeled market.
You might even go so far as to say that by distracting us from problems of markets and targeting growth instead, Michael Moore and Jeff Gibbs inadvertently just made the most neoliberal film of their career.
Like all other ecomodernists, including the crew that puts out Jacobin, Phillips assumes that economic growth is necessary to satisfy the needs of the working-class. To even suggest that there are ecological limits, you risk being labeled a Malthusian. Is the Green New Deal supposed to be some sort of inextinguishable guarantee of a bounteous life no matter the size of the global population? Only if you ignore the economic/ecological data. You end up being swamped and perhaps drowned by the “wealth” that is produced, just as Mickey Mouse discovered in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”
Prominent de-growth advocate Jason Hickel happens to believe that the Green New Deal is on the right track. There must be public investment in solar panels, wind turbines and batteries at “a historically unprecedented rate, reminiscent of the industrial retooling that enabled the allies to win the second world war.”
However, that is not enough. Yes, technological advances have helped produce 8bn more megawatt hours of clean energy each year than in 2000, which is enough to power all of Russia. But economic growth has caused energy demand to increase by a 48bn megawatt hours, which can only be met by burning fossil fuels. In Germany, for example, 34.3% of all energy use in 2018 came from oil, and 23.7% from gas.
While nobody, including Moore and Gibbs, is for population control like China’s one-child policy in the 1980s, there is clearly a need to consume less and more wisely—even at the risk of earning the contempt of Spiked Online that has published Leigh Phillips. Hickel describes what this might entail:
How can we do this? One way is to legislate extended warranties on products, so washing machines and refrigerators last for 30 years instead of 10. Another is to ban planned obsolescence, so manufacturers can’t create products that are designed to fail. And we could introduce a “right to repair” so we can get our smartphones and blenders fixed cheaply when they break down rather than having to buy new ones.
We could also cut down on waste by banning food from landfill (as South Korea and France are doing). We could tax red meat to promote a shift to less resource-intensive foods, and ban single-use plastics and disposable coffee cups. We could liberate public spaces from advertising (like São Paulo has done) to free us from the psychological pressures of having to buy stuff just to feel good about ourselves. And we can expand access to public goods and develop platforms for sharing things like cars and lawnmowers.
I would go one step further. I advocate the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system in every country in the world, the sooner the better. This planned obsolescence is at the heart of the capitalist system that needs to create products with a limited shelf-life. To supply the raw materials that go into commodities, the capitalist class penetrates the forests, the seas and the soil without regard for the environmental consequences. It has been exactly this dynamic that produced the pandemic. COVID-19 led to a vicious cycle that is now undermining the ability of the working-class to buy the commodities its rulers need to sell. If this is not an irrational system, it will do until something crazier comes along.
Walt Disney was not the only person who found the story of the sorcerer’s power compelling. Karl Marx also referred to it in “The Communist Manifesto”:
Modern bourgeois society with its relations of production, of exchange, and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.
That quote and seven others from Karl Marx crop up in “System Error”, a 2018 documentary by German director Florian Opitz now available from Icarus Films. You can also rent it from Ovid, the great new radical alternative to Netflix that costs $6.99 per month for subscribers—a bargain at twice the price.
Opitz is concerned with the siren song of economic growth like Moore and Gibbs but through a much more focused Marxist prism. For those in the know, it is no secret that Icarus is the most important distributor of Marxist films in the world. While “System Error” will never get the exposure that a Michael Moore film will, it is probably more useful to my average reader who is bent on understanding the inner dynamics of the capitalist system.
Opitz’s goal is to reveal the dependency that capitalism has on growth, which is like the vampire’s need for blood. The film allows a range of rah-rah capitalists to hang themselves on their own petard, with the director asking seemingly innocent questions about how they view their economic function. We hear from a much younger and far less addled Donald Trump. He is excited over his ability to make a lot of money in the real estate industry in New York that is becoming a “city for the rich.” We also hear from his former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci, who lectures Opitz on why there is no alternative to capitalism. Without it, how could come up with the camera and sound equipment he is using to make the film. Opitz, always circumspect, did not tell the jack-ass that labor is the source of all value.
While the film is focused on the financial industry and manufacturing, there is an important segment on Mato Grosso in Brazil where farming and ranching has virtually destroyed the native habitat that supported indigenous peoples, the forests, and the animals who dwelt there. The industrial farms and slaughterhouses in Mato Grosso dwarf any found in the USA, as far as I can tell, and give you a sense of Bolsonaro’s chief social base. It is frightening.
Besides the vultures like Trump and Scaramucci, Opitz relies on the commentary of Tim Jackson, an ecological economist at the U. of Surrey. Jackson is the author of “Prosperity Without Growth” that clearly marks him as a co-thinker of Moore, Gibbs and Hickel. There’s a healthy share of the book’s contents on Google Books that are worth pursuing, especially from the first chapter “The Limits to Growth” that opens with this epigraph by Kenneth Boulding: “Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”
The chapter’s final paragraphs speak for the problems Moore, Gibbs and Hickel are grappling with:
The truth is that there is as yet no credible, socially just, ecologically sustainable scenario of continually growing incomes for upwards of nine billion people [the total by 2050]. And the critical question is not whether the complete decarbonisation of our energy systems or the dematerialisation of our consumption patterns is technically feasible, but whether it is possible in our kind of society.
The analysis in this chapter suggests that it is entirely fanciful to suppose that ‘deep’ emission and resource cuts can be achieved without confronting the structure of market economies. It is to this question that we now turn.