by John Kendall Hawkins
“There is but one freedom, to put oneself right with death. After that, everything is possible.”
– Albert Camus, Notebooks, 1942-51
For those of us who grew up watching Charlton Heston films, we can recall enactments of heroic courage, both in the early development and later downward decline of human civilization. Heston gave us a magnificent Moses in The Ten Commandments (1956), returning all scraggly from the wilderness, like some people I knew in the Sixties returning from poetry communes, holding up that Decalogue in revolutionary resistance to the gold lust of Baal. He refused to be a slave in Ben Hur (1959). He gave us a Live Free or Die kind of ethos. No debt slavery, no bondage of any kind.
Toward the end of his career, Heston got dyspeptic over gun control and dystopic in his roles, teaming up with Edward G. Robinson (his last film role) in Soylent Green (1973) as Detective Thorn, a contraband-sniffing cop for the State in a world catastrophically fucked up by climate change and overpopulation and resorting to cannibalism (recycled humans, get it?) that he has a late epiphany as he watches his good friend, Sol, old enough to remember beauty, die by euthanasia, fading to a surround screen explosion of splendor and Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony. He’s been told stories by Sol, but Thorn has never seen this before and he weeps, as if to say: My god, that’s the way it used to be?
But arguably his most important role came a few years earlier in Planet of the Apes, where he plays astronaut George Taylor, who, inadvertently time travels, and comes to realize that he’s landed on the future Earth controlled by fascist orangutans. Who can forget the final beach scene, Lady Liberty buried in sand, while an epiphanal Taylor exclaims, “Goddamn you all to hell!” When I remember his roles as a revolutionary, and an orbiter, I’m almost willing to cut him some slack for his last role, before dying, as president of the National Rifle Association, where he promised you’d have to pry his gun from his “cold, dead hands.” (Damn, the way things are going, we may need those 400 million guns after all.)
Apparently, the Taylor role is the one Michael Moore and Jeff Gibbs chose to remember for Planet of the Humans, a recently released film on the politics of things Green and the looming environmental catastrophe ahead, once we knock back Covid-19 with some more Happy Zoom and recreational therapy Corona mask decorations. The film is written and directed by Gibbs; Moore was executive producer. The film was released on YouTube, in time for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day (remember Earth?), and was available for viewing for free, until “controversy” over 4 seconds of Fair Use footage caused the film to be pulled by Google. It has since been put up, in its entirety, on Vimeo, without incident thus far.
As we recall, the last time Moore and Heston came head-to-head was in Bowling for Columbine (2002), and things got ugly during the interview, with Moore shooting his mouth off about Heston’s gun rhetoric, but not so much guns themselves (Moore is a member of the NRA). The question is: Why did Moore and Gibbs bring back Heston from the dead to ‘headline’ their environmental film? The answer is simple: Astronaut Taylor realized that They went ahead and did it: They blew up the planet despite years of warnings of impending catastrophe. And Moore and Gibbs are promoting the notion in their new film that we’re an environmental flashpoint away from a planet ruled by fascist orangutans. (Trump as omen.)
As you could almost guess from the title, the film wants to show and explain to us what happens when one species — guess which one — takes over the planet and shits repeatedly in its own well-feathered bed. Well, it’s a Michael Moore film (executive producer), so you can probably see where the film goes, after an opening sequence where passersby are asked the loaded gun of a question: How much longer do you think the human race has? Typically, no one has a clue. Then the soundtrack vibes somber synthetic, Gibbs’ voice-over all disillusioned monotone. Recalls Fahrenheit 9/11. Another bummer rant from Moore ahead.
According to Rolling Stone, “Moore and Gibbs said they decided to release it now, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, in the hopes of getting people to reflect on ‘the role humans and their behavior have played in our fragile ecosystem.’” This hope seems promising, on the surface, where most of us interface and internet, and so many people have already expressed wonderment at how much the world will have changed while we’ve been in ‘lockdown’. Prisoners opine that way: I wonder how the world will be, without me, in 5 to10.
But, we have people expressing the sentiment after just two months of half-assed ‘self-isolation’ (though increased internet activity). The New Yorker has weighed in for the comfy middle class. Psychology Today speaks for the masses. Yesterday, I watched masked baseballers play in an empty stadium (big screens inexplicably lit up) and thought I was hallucinating: How come this vision (of the future) doesn’t scare the shit out of us? (Plus, these guys like to spit: Yuck, when they remove their masks!)
Planet of the Humans is a tone poem more than a documentary. The vision is in the title. It suggests not so much defeatism as disturbing resignation in the face of Climate Change. Moore and Gibbs argue that We Just Don’t Get It: The much ballyhooed “transition” from an age of fossil fuel dependency to renewable energy is illusory, ineffectual, and too late. The “intermittent” technologies – Solar and Wind – as well as, biomass burning, will never be fully removed from fossil fuel dependency and/or usage. Even if these technologies have improved exponentially in the last decade (when the film was being produced), we humans should be spending our time preparing for the now-unavoidable climate apocalypse ahead. As far as Gibbs and Moore are concerned, pushing renewables at this stage is little more than stylin’ out Covid face masks.
And, yes, recognized leaders of the environmental movement – Al Gore, Bill McKibben, Sierra Club – even if not personally cashing in, have, by partnering with venture capitalists (like Goldman Sachs), corporates and other oil-associated companies, put the “problem” into the hands of private interests and reduced the role of public policymaking. As far as the filmmaking pair are concerned, putting the problem into the controlling hands of capitalists is exactly the wrong thing to do because their interest is growth and profit, not public interest, or, it seems, the fate of the human race. With the global population expanding, almost out of control, with a projected 11.7 billion people by 2100. Prodded by Gibbs, Penn State, anthropologist, Nina Jablonsky, tells us that population growth “continues to be not the elephant, but the herd of elephants in the room.”
Planet begins by reminding the viewer that we’ve had plenty of warning about disastrous climate upheaval. Gibbs inserts a clip from the 1958 Frank Capra movie, The Unchained Goddess, which graphically warns Americans of flooding that will greatly reduce the land mass. It’s not so wonderful a life anymore. Mother Nature standing behind us on a wintry snow-driven bridge telling us to Jump, after giving us a vision of how much Earth would have been better off if we’d never existed.
It’s clear that Planet is a deeply personal film, and Gibbs begins by laying down some street cred. Observing, as a child, some bulldozers taking down woods near his home, Gibbs lets us know he put sand in one of their gas tanks. More contrite, perhaps, he wonders, “Why are we still addicted to fossil fuels?” And he follows the Green movement to understand and to participate in the Pushback. There’s movement forward. 2008 Obama. A stimulus bill with billions for renewable energy development. (Hope, Change). Al Gore’s brought in for some inconvenient rah-rah. End Coal rah-rah. The New Green Economy rah-rah. Bill McKibben. 350.org. Sierra. The Chevy Volt. Rah-rah-rah. Give me a G. Give me an R. Give me an E. Give me an E. Give me an N. GREEN!
But then Gibbs’s anxiety creeps in (the Moore Uncanny with music) and suddenly he’s interviewing well-meaning ‘folk’ giving us the ta-dah! on the Chevy Volt, an electric car that will lead us into the future, no more mean Mr. Carbon. But how are they recharged? They’re plugged into the coal-powered grid, just like your toaster. And you can almost hear the bagpipe crumple into a bummed out wheeze. On to solar arrays. More despondent bagpipes. A ‘folk’ person tells us the football field sized array before us generates enough electricity to power an underwhelming “10 homes” per annum. Getting worked up, Gibbs reminds us that renewables are intermittent and that we can’t count on sun and wind in most places, and we need to have storage, and storage means dependency. In short, there are “profound limitations of solar and wind, rarely discussed in the media.”
Suddenly, we’re being sold a bill of goods by the snakes of Oil and mining; we’re Koch suckers, who believe we can frack (XL) and mine our way to private Paradise. The manufacture of solar panels and other materials that are not renewable replacements. Gibbs gives us a list of the elements unearthed in name of sustainability and renewableness. We are daunted: silicon, graphite, rare earths, coal, steel, nickel. sulphur hexaflouride, tin, gallium, cadmium, lead, ethylene vinyl acetate, neodymium, dyprosium, indium, ammonium fluoride, molybdenum, sodium hydroxide, petroleum. Sweet Jesus!
“It was becoming clear,” he tells us, “that what we are calling green renewable energy and industrial civilization are one and the same. Desperate measures not to save the planet, but to save our way of life. Desperate measures, rather than face the reality that humans are experiencing the planet’s limits all at once.” And he blames the direction that Greenies are now heading in on sell-outs in the ranks and co-optations by the Cappies. Bill McKibben gets enveloped in extra insinuating mood music because he once championed biomass energy and is caught on camera saying, “Woodchips is the future of energy…It must happen everywhere!” Though McKibben has since recanted, Gibbs is all bongos because McKibben’s enthusiasm got the Koch brothers involved. They own Georgia-Pacific, and “are now the largest recipient of green energy biomass subsidies in the United States.” Lawd, almighty!
Gibbs saves some of his best speed bag work for the face of self-appointed Environmental Savior, Al Gore. The Could-Have-Been-President-Had-He-Fought-A-Little-Harder is taken to task for selling his Current TV news company to Al Jazeera, for “that government is nothing but an oil producer,” and Gore picked up the tidy sum of $100m (pre-tax), and he has crowed about how “proud of the transaction” he was. Later Night show hosts lay into his hypocrisy. He doesn’t care.
Gore once claimed to have “created” the Internet because he was part of the Congressional committee that extended funding for ARPANET (the internet’s precursor), which is like tossing some coins into busker Tracey Chapman’s hat and taking credit for her later success. Later, two internet pioneers, Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn, trying to smooth things over said, Gore “helped create the climate,” which is when Gore got cluey and created the Environmental Movement, in his own mind. Look at the obese beaver get called out by Richard Branson.
Again, Planet of the Humans is a tone poem that begins where astronaut Taylor’s lamentations leave off. Gibbs consults anthropologists and psychologists to explain the mental limitations preventing us from getting it. “What differentiates people from all other forms of life is that we’re not only here, but we know that we’re here. If you know that you’re here, then you recognize, even dimly that you’ll not be here some day,” Sheldon Solomon, social psychologist at Skidmore College tells us. “And on top of that, we don’t like that we’re animals. So we don’t like that we’re going to die someday. We don’t like that you can walk outside and get hit by a fucking meteor.” Like the fuel-producing dinosaurs did. Or Climate Change for us. What a fucking feedback loop.
Gibbs closes the film with an appeal, or closing argument, of sorts to viewers, and it’s probably best to let it speak for itself:
There is a way out of this. We humans must accept that infinite growth on a finite planet is suicide. We must accept that human presence is already far beyond sustainability. And all that that implies. We must take control of our environmental movement and our future from billionaires and their permanent war on Planet Earth. They are not our friends. Less must be the new more. And instead of climate change we must at long last accept that it is not the carbon dioxide molecule that’s destroying the planet — it’s us….
This is the nub: We are looking for scapegoats instead of acting radically to save ourselves from extinction. Far from being outliers with their view, the New Yorker’s Jonathan Franzen asks the very same questions the film queries and responds: “What If We Stopped Pretending?”
Apparently as anticipated, criticism from fellow Greenies came fast and furious. Though, if you were inclined, you could have pointed out that Moore/Gibbs films have been for years more psychodrama in their approach than documentarian in, say, the mode of Ken Burns; suddenly, fellow environmentalists were complaining vociferously about the accuracy of Moore’s films. Nobody has been more reactive, so far, than Bill McKibben. It’s clear he feels personally bushwhacked. In a Rolling Stone piece, “‘A Bomb in the Center of the Climate Movement’: Michael Moore Damages Our Most Important Goal,” he bitterly denounces the film’s ethos and damage it is said to have done to the Movement, and avers that it was not only made “in bad faith,” but “dishonorably.” Ouch.
“Basically, Moore and his colleagues have made a film attacking renewable energy as a sham and arguing that the environmental movement is just a tool of corporations trying to make money off green energy,” says McKibben, and continues, “The film’s attacks on renewable energy are antique, dating from a decade ago, when a solar panel cost 10 times what it does today; engineers have since done their job, making renewable energy the cheapest way to generate power on our planet.” It short, the science cited in the film is bad, he says. Gibbs wants to raise consciousness, says McKibben, “But that’s precisely what’s undercut when people operate as Moore has with his film. The entirely predictable effect is to build cynicism, indeed a kind of nihilism. It’s to drive down turnout — not just in elections, but in citizenship generally.”
McKibben also defends his previous championing of biomass energy, saying, “I thought it was a good idea [at the time],” but, he goes on, “And as that science emerged, I changed my mind, becoming an outspoken opponent of biomass. (Something else happened too: the efficiency of solar and wind power soared, meaning there was ever less need to burn anything.)” So, McKibben may justifiably feel as if he’s been called to task for a view he no longer holds. But he’s most irate about the insinuation that he’s a “sell out.” McKibben feels the need to spend much space in the Rolling Stone piece defending his record of achievement over the years. And this may be entirely unfair to his activism.
However, McKibben may be off when he says little science is at play in Planet of the Humans. While it’s true that it relies heavily on anthropological and psychological considerations (because that’s really the concern of the film), Moore and Gibbs do cite a relevant study by Richard York, a much-lauded professor of environmental studies at Oregon State University, who published a peer-reviewed article in Nature magazine, “Do alternative energy sources displace fossil fuels?” His answer is No, not really. Other pieces there suggest similar findings, such as York’s more recent article, co-written with Shannon Elizabeth Bell, “Energy transitions or additions?: Why a transition from fossil fuels requires more than the growth of renewable energy” and the Patrick Trent Greiner (et alia) piece, “Snakes in The Greenhouse: Does increased natural gas use reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal consumption?” They say, No, not really.
In a private communique to me, York clarifies how his work was used in the film, “My research that Gibbs draws on found that in recent decades, nations that have added more non-fossil energy sources don’t typically reduce their fossil fuel use substantially (controlling for economic growth etc.) relative to nations that don’t add a lot of non-fossil energy. Thus, it’s not a simple case where there is a fixed energy demand so that adding renewables necessarily pushes out fossil energy, but rather adding energy sources is typically associated with rising energy consumption.” So, again Gibbs and Moore, if somewhat inarticulately, are drawing attention to renewables a s an expansion of energy options without a significant drop in the use of fossil fuels. “I find the movie frustrating,” writes York, “because I don’t think they do a good job of articulating a vision for action.”
Even a recent Guardian article meant to defend McKibben and the environmental movement against the slights of Planet accidently, it seems, underlined Gibbs’s point. Oliver Milman links to a study touting the extraordinary increase of efficiency in renewable technology designs – a study that brags, “Decarbonization of electric grids around the world by an average of about 30% will result in approximately 17% lower battery manufacturing emissions by 2030.” This, to Gibbs and Moore, is merely improvement (and only a best guesstimate at that) and insufficient for the long haul. Milman writes, “Scientists say the world must reach net zero emissions by 2050 to head off disastrous global heating, which would likely spur worsening storms, heatwaves, sea level rise and societal unrest.” By 2050. That’s exactly why Moore and Gibbs seem to be throwing in the towel. That’s not going to happen.
Moore and Gibbs have put together a sober and quiet response to the reactions of fellow environmentalist against Planet of the Humans. (You could argue that the 17 minute discussion is better than their film.) Once done with watching Planet and listening to rebuttals and getting dismayed, you may want to pull an Edward G. and have a lounge-down with a bev or bone and remember how much you love Being and Nature by watching the Qatsi Trilogy at Documentary Heaven. You could start with Koyaanisqatsi: Life out of Balance. A Palate cleansing after a hard-to-swallow reality check.
Or you could go the whole Earth Abides route, and prefer to see it the late George Carlin’s way. Cynical, but realistic, for a species that just doesn’t seem to give a shit about most things for very long. Distracted from distraction by distraction, as T.S. Eliot puts it. Of course, Carlin’s Way is unavailable to anyone with a family.