As a former environmental activist and environmental journalist with a brief appearance in Jeff Gibbs’ film Planet of the Humans—I was the guy trespassing at the biomass facility—I’m blown away by the amount of discussion the film has generated.
POTH brings up a slew of critical environmental issues ranging from ecosystem destruction to species extinction to climate change; the impacts of fossil fuels and limitations of alternative energy; the successes, compromises, and failures of the mainstream environmental movement; and, at the root of it all, our culture’s collective delusion of infinite economic growth on a finite planet. Intriguingly, the film also acts as a kind of Rorschach blot for people to read whatever message they want into it, whether it’s there or not.
On its own, POTH would’ve gotten plenty of attention thanks to its pertinent subject matter, its quality storytelling and production, and the fact that its distributor is Michael Moore’s Rumble Media. But ironically, what’s partly responsible for thrusting the film into global awareness are the attempts of certain mainstream enviros to not simply critique it—as one would hope—but remove it from public view because they don’t like some parts of it. (The most recent example being YouTube taking the film down for 12 days after a photographer—who stated in media accounts that he “doesn’t agree with its message”—objected to Gibbs’ Fair Use claim regarding four seconds of his footage.)
This isn’t to say I think the film is perfect. Like any documentary, it’s the subjective view of the filmmaker, and no two humans align on everything. What’s more, because POTH was roughly a decade in the making, some—definitely not all—of the featured technology’s efficiency has improved (in some cases significantly, in others, just barely), though much of it is still in use today.
Several other aspects are also worth debating, but a lot of the accusations made against the film makes one wonder how many of these folks even watched it.
First off, the notion that POTH has anything to do with “climate denial” or advocating for fossil fuels is beyond absurd, as the climate crisis obviously underlies the entire narrative.
And the idea that because conservatives love disagreements among the left means the film is “right wing” is as ridiculous as saying that a lifelong Democrat critical of Joe Biden is therefore pro-Trump.
Another bizarre conclusion reached by some critics is that since the film points out (mostly through the mouths of renewable energy industry representatives) drawbacks of industrial wind and solar—specifically, the six square mile Ivanpah hybrid gas/solar facility that burns up to 68,000 tons per year of natural gas—that means it’s demanding we should never build another turbine or panel.
Perhaps the most unhinged (and libelous) charge is that because the filmmakers bring up our exorbitant resource consumption linked to the world’s exponentially growing number of consumers, they’re therefore advocating for “eugenics” or even “eco-fascism,” whatever that is.
Unfortunately, these types of attacks are nothing new, as Big Green has a long history of trying to silence, suppress, and discredit the more biocentric elements of the environmental movement.
I believe the reason they’re so upset with POTH is that this time—largely thanks to executive producer Michael Moore’s massive platform and influence—they couldn’t act as gatekeepers to keep the film’s heretical ideas out of the public discourse. Indeed, the tantrums we’re witnessing are little more than the death throes of the mainstream environmental movement.
Hilariously, one of the segments of the film that mainstream greens haven’t attacked (but somehow barely mentioned) is the takedown of biomass energy, including the scenes in which I was interviewed. The reason this makes me laugh is because more than a decade ago when I and a handful of others across the country were struggling to call attention to the health and environmental impacts of burning trees and trash for “clean, renewable” energy, the vast majority of the environmental movement either advocated for the polluting energy source or, at best, turned a blind eye to the issue.
Previous to investigating biomass energy, I worked on various eco-causes ranging from the impacts of fossil fuels and nuclear power to forest protection (with Native Forest Council and Eco Advocates Northwest), for which I was often praised. Yet, as soon as I started calling attention to the dark side of biomass energy, I was shunned, censored, slandered, and blacklisted by many former allies, some of whom even went after my funding. Before very long, I found myself exiled both professionally and socially from the movement in which I was once celebrated.
As so often happens, the grassroots eventually called enough attention to the issue (thanks to groups like Energy Justice Network) that Big Green had no choice but to back off a bit on biomass. Even today, while many of them claim to dislike biomass, a closer look reveals they only oppose (in theory, if not in practice) stand-alone biomass power facilities while continuing to accept the vast majority of biomass energy in the form of transportation fuels and heating. Amazingly, forty-three percent of all “renewable” energy consumed in the U.S. still comes from biomass.
Anyway, my story is just another example of what happens when you bring up topics that aren’t rubber stamped by the mainstream Greens. Which makes you wonder what other issues they’re on the wrong side of and what voices they’re suppressing today.
“Less must be the new more”
I, myself, writer and director Jeff Gibbs, and most mainstream enviros all agree on one thing: We need to transition away from fossil fuels and nuclear power. And, guess what, thanks to the realities of peak oil, this will happen sooner or later, whether we want it to or not. But POTH dares to suggest that wind and solar alone will never power our ever-expanding industrial society, and therefore asks us to rethink our economic system and very ways of life.
Think that won’t be necessary? Let’s look at some numbers.
In 2019, fossil fuels and nuclear power made up 82.4 percent of U.S. electricity, with wind at 7.3 percent and solar at 1.8 percent. And that’s just electricity, only 38 percent of US energy use. The rest is transportation, at 28 percent—nearly all of which is powered by fossil fuels—and heating, about half of which comes from fossil fuels.
Even if we used every kind of alternative energy, no matter its impacts, from industrial-scale wind and solar to massive hydro to biofuels, could these energy sources power the world as it is, much less its ever-increasing energy demand? Frankly, I don’t see any future in which we’ll be flying solar powered planes across the Atlantic for our vacations, do you?
But say all that could come about sometime in the future. Will it happen soon enough to prevent runaway climate change? Or are we going to have to go deeper than a few tech fixes?
One analogy for looking at humanity’s dysfunctional relationship with the natural world might be a house on an acre of lawn. The conventional thinking is that we douse the grass with toxic pesticides, flood it with a hose during the heat of the day, and use a big old riding mower to cut it once a week.
Then the mainstream environmental movement came along and said, “Hey, we can do better!” So, they started using organic fertilizer, watered at night with efficient sprinklers, and brought out an electric mower every couple of weeks.
Finally, Planet of the Humans and other “radicals” come along and ask, “Why do we need such a big lawn, anyway?” And they plot out an area to plant vegetables, fruit and nut trees, while letting the rest of the lawn revert to a meadow full of wildflowers that blends into the adjacent forest.
For three reasons, the mainstream environmental movement not only doesn’t want to let go of their precious lawn, they don’t even want you talking about it.
The first is that if any nonprofit organization asked Americans to change their behaviors, they’d lose most of their membership.
Second, Big Green’s corporate (often the energy industry) backed foundations would never fund campaigns to go after the very economic system that’s filled their coffers in the first place.
Third, the mainstream environmental movement has become little more than an arm of the Democratic Party, which of course has zero interest in downsizing the American Way of Life™.
The Solution to Pollution is…Evolution?
A common gripe against Planet of the Humans, even from supporters, is that it doesn’t offer any solutions. And while that may be partly true—it does point out our overconsumption—I don’t think it was by accident. I believe Gibbs’ intention was to expose the root of the eco-crisis in a way mainstream greens have been unwilling or unable to do, while leaving it up to us to yank it out of the ground.
Think of environmentalism like a relay race. POTH has run the most recent leg and is handing us the baton. Embarrassingly, instead of continuing the race, mainstream greens are standing in the middle of the track yelling at their teammate for not running fast enough, or for dropping the baton along the way. Meanwhile, the rest of us have an unprecedented opportunity to snatch the baton and run like our lives depend on it.
So, enough of what we’ve been doing wrong, what can we do right?
It’s easy—and usually fair—to blame corporations that degrade and despoil the planet. It’s a bit tougher to acknowledge how these corporations continue to exist because we keep feeding them with our modern lifestyles. But if we’re going to do anything about that, we’ve got to take a look at why consume so much.
For hundreds of thousands of years, we humans didn’t distinguish ourselves from the natural world. Eventually, we evolved self-awareness and, with that, the concept of our own mortality. To cope with this crushing insight, we became obsessed with clinging to pleasures while chasing away anything that reminds us of our inevitable demise.
This is why we crave stimulation and distraction, why we’re addicted to drugs, alcohol, food, sex, shopping, travel, our smartphones, etc. Back in the day, with only a few million of us using simple tools, our ecological footprint was minimal. But, today, with billions of us exploiting modern technology, it’s a disaster.
And as we accumulate resources by slaving away at jobs we know aren’t good for the world, our communities, or ourselves, we raise our social status, which gives us more access to all of the above. And it’s this consumption that drives our economy of “endless growth.”
And for what? Individually, we’re more depressed and anxious than we’ve ever been. Collectively, we’re fragmented and tribalized by our ideologies. Despite our advanced civilization—or, more likely, because of it—we’ve spread a deadly plague across the world in a matter of months, with potentially worse ones likely to come in the future.
Even if we could power the status quo with wind and solar, why would we want to?
My favorite quote from Planet of the Humans is, “If we get ourselves under control, all things are possible.” So, how do we do that and move forward in a way that makes sense?
I truly believe that as we shed our preconceptions of the world, our dogmas and ideologies, we come to the realization that we’ve been a part of nature all along. That even as our individual lamps go out, the light that we are goes on, which means we need not fear death anymore.
And with that understanding, our frenzy to consume fades into the background and we just might find the balance we’ve been seeking all these years.