Who Stands With the Bears?

A defence of 'Planet of the Humans'

The recent documentary 'Planet of the Humans' sparked controversy within the environmental movement for its depiction of a destructive renewable energy industry. Tom Smith looks beyond the ire of its critics to the core message of the film.
has edited and contributed to numerous Dark Mountain books. In 2013, he co-founded An Teach Saor, a land-based community in the west of Ireland. He currently researches economic alternatives in the Department of Environmental Studies at Masaryk University.

Capitalism has absorbed the greens, as it absorbs so many challenges to its ascendancy. A radical challenge to the human machine has been transformed into yet another opportunity for shopping.

– Dark Mountain Manifesto, 2009

 

Once again, a rift at the heart of environmentalism has been revealed. These moments come along periodically, lifting up the bandages of a global ‘movement’ to reveal a festering wound underneath.

Planet of the Humans – the new documentary co-produced by Michael Moore – was released on Earth Day, questioning received wisdom about the plausibility of a 100% renewably powered future. Indeed, given the industrial extractivism and ecosystem destruction which would underpin any large-scale roll out of solar and wind – with their needs for vast amounts of concrete, steel, plastic and rare earth metals – the film dares to question the adequacy of using the term ‘renewable’ at all. Amidst fervour to sell the story of smooth transition to a bright green future, major environmental NGOs such as the Sierra Club are shown to have become ensnared in a web of big business, dodgy investment funds and greenwashing. This is heretical stuff, and the film was unsurprisingly greeted by a cacophony of enraged opinion, dismissals and not-so-polite requests for writer-director, Jeff Gibbs, to toe the party line.

Ten years ago, the Dark Mountain Project was accused of basically all the same things as the film: of giving up, of dividing the cause at an all-too-crucial time, of not providing solutions and, perhaps most grievously, of not providing hope. By leaving the viewer with no clear set of actions or ‘hopeful’ message, critics of Gibbs’ film say, it risks encouraging disengagement from the cause.

In classic internet censoriousness, pitchfork-wielding critics would have it wiped from the record. This perhaps says more about the weakness of their own position than it does about the film. Then came the guilt-by-association: Right wing commentators such as Breitbart News and the Heartland Institute were unsurprisingly receptive to criticisms of the green movement, and this was seen as evidence enough of shady motives on Gibbs’ part. He must be a climate quisling, critics implied, ignoring the time spent in the film examining the role of the Koch brothers, Goldman Sachs and other nefarious corporate actors. 

I will admit, of course, that there are flaws. In its quest to argue that something rotten lies at the heart of mainstream environmentalism, Planet of the Humans is laden with gotcha moments, old data and a distracting (yes, even potentially dangerous) fixation on ‘overpopulation’. Amidst the flow of spilled ink, however, in the rush to denounce, important messages were lost. Now that the attacks have slowed, it may be time to reflect on those.

It is clear, for example, that the question of where environmentalism goes from here is still being framed as an argument that needs to be won, not a paradox we must now live through. While any portrayal of uncertainty or hesitation is evidently unacceptable to its critics, the film at least has the bravery to hold this sense of paradox at its core. On a planet straining under occupation by humans and their handful of domesticated species, what matters now are humble and place-based practices of salvaging, resistance, and regeneration, not the millenarian visions of some high-tech civilisational reboot. 

What matters now are humble and place-based practices of salvaging, resistance, and regeneration, not the millenarian visions of some high-tech civilisational reboot.

It is appropriate, then, that the film does not end with upbeat solutions, but with utter horror. As orangutan habitat gets destroyed, the closing scenes of ecosystem annihilation are not just uncomfortable, they are pregnant with grief and incomprehensible violence. The film looks devastation in the eye, and does not try to respond with easy solutionism. No list of simple individualistic changes was proposed, and no magical technology was presented as lying just around the corner, waiting to save us. It avoids, then, exactly what got us into this mess in the first place. 

Absurdly, some critics filled this void of certainty themselves, taking the mournful silence as a sign that the film must implicitly advocate for nuclear power. This, they presume, is the one technology which could provide the vast energy required by the rapacious, Promethean systems which have been created. 

Others focused on saving the myth of wind and solar, outraged that the film used outdated or misleading figures regarding the efficacy of these so-called renewable energies. The price and efficiency of solar and wind, we are assured, are coming down rapidly. With salvation nigh, we can once again sleep well at night. Our key civilisational problem, however – the rift between the demands made of the natural world and what it can cope with – has not been overcome in the slightest in recent decades. A fanatical focus on the efficiency of renewable sources of electricity merely obscures this. 

Electricity demand, simply put, is not the same thing as energy demand. While it may be uncomfortable reading for advocates of the Green New Deal, there is no positive spin to be put on the fact that renewable energy use has basically flat-lined for the last 60 years, while dependence on oil, coal and natural gas have skyrocketed. Focusing on electricity from renewables is something akin to looking out the window, seeing a tsunami thundering towards your house, pulling down the blinds, and going about your day as if nothing were happening.

As the discussion in the film’s aftermath narrowed to the viability of electricity sources, it became clear that this is a poisonous sleight of hand. Firstly, it makes little difference whether you use an electric or petrol saw to fell a tree, the result is the same. An insatiable system based on renewable energy is no improvement over an insatiable system based on fossil fuels. Secondly, and related, the film lays bare the environmental movement’s continued obsession with reducing ecological problems to easily calculable metrics like CO2, a tendency described as ‘carbon fundamentalism’ by Charles Eisenstein. The ecocidal systems which have been built up, the accumulation of expansive stories and structures which thread through our lives, will continue to decimate the living world, whatever low-carbon source it is plugged into. If there is to be an end to this madness, we need to end the death cult of capitalism. 

Bill McKibben – who, due to his former advocacy of burning trees for electricity, becomes one of the film’s bête noireswrote about the documentary as a ‘bomb in the centre of the climate movement’. He appears to imply that it is unacceptable to step back to consider what precisely your ‘movement’ hopes to sustain. The film may be slightly unfair to McKibben, but his campaign group, 350.org, continues to prominently reassure us that the goal of 100% renewables is possible in the short-term, and that ‘Renewable energy is getting cheaper and more popular every day. As renewables grow and provide more clean, free energy to replace fossil fuels, we’ve seen emissions decrease in many countries’. The only problem for McKibben, as Gibbs and others are keen to communicate, is that none of this is true.

Herein lies the rift laid bare before our eyes: when environmentalism became ‘sustainability’ or the ‘climate’ movement, it became more concerned with making sure that the mode of life of a minority of humanity was kept on track, than dealing with the tangled roots of a truly nihilistic way of life. As Paul Kingsnorth put it, in this very publication, a decade ago: 

The ‘sustainability’ narrative we are presented with at present as our path to a better future, though it is intended to give us hope and something to work towards, seems quite hopeless: impossible and deeply disempowering and in some cases ugly and destructive. At least partly, I think this is because…it is so inhuman in its scale and ambition. It is like handing over the keys to the future to a low-carbon Henry Ford.

And ugly it is. Responses to Gibbs’ film have either ignored or played down the scenes which show a dead zone left behind after a solar array is removed. They ignore the simple acknowledgement that deserts are full of life, that they deserve to flourish on their own terms and cannot simply be designated as the barren energy playgrounds of a civilisation gone mad. When push comes to shove, it is not ‘nihilism’ to point out that green boosterism cares nothing for those wild and precious pockets of existence which lie outside the bubble of civilisation. 

It is not ‘nihilism’ to point out that green boosterism cares nothing for those wild and precious pockets of existence which lie outside the bubble of civilisation. 

So where can we go from here? Beyond recognising that the problems of industrial civilisation cannot be solved by ever-more industrial civilisation, does Gibbs really leave us at an utter loss? From the very beginning, Dark Mountain has nourished a vision of ‘hope beyond hope’, lying beyond quasi-religious beliefs in smart grids, enormous batteries, nuclear plants and other gods of techno-salvation. Within the ever-multiplying cracks in the narrative of Progress, I would suggest that there is a more grounded courage found in the film.

Although written out of the narrative by critics, there is an unexpectant hope threaded throughout. This rests in those humble, unbowed and passionate figures Gibbs speaks to who want to protect the places they love: those in Vermont who resist the destruction of mountain habitat for large-scale wind turbines, for example, or the woman brought to the brink of tears when discussing the sacredness of Lake Superior, under threat from a nearby incinerator. These individuals show more connection and solidarity with the Earth than any sustainability consultant spouting drivel about ‘circular economies’ and ‘green growth’.

It is apt to question why the critics decided to write these courageous people out of the narrative. After all, they demonstrate the reason the environmental movement came into existence in the first place – not to coat the planet in windmills so that Google and Facebook’s data centres can continue to hum, but to protect the nonhuman world which can’t stand alone against the onslaught. 

Perhaps the ensuing debate can be reduced to a foundational and urgent question: ecocentrism or sustainability? The Scottish naturalist John Muir is often quoted as saying that ‘When it comes to a war between the races, I’m with the bears’. 

The system is unravelling. The prophets of mainstream environmentalism are shown to be false. 

There has never been a better time to pick a side.

____

 

BIOMASS NOTE: Government legislation which currently makes new biomass power stations in the UK almost impossible to build. is presently in the process of  being repealed. Information here: https://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/2020/cfd-consultation-alert/

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 17

The Spring 2020 issue brings together essays. stories, poetry and artwork creating a new culture of restoration.

 

Read more
Comments
  1. Super stuff, as ever.

    For me, the issue is not necessarily that “capitalism” has absorbed the ecological movement; but that the Left, and its variants, are anchored to Marxism which itself is fundamentally coterminous with capitalism.

    Their shared economic criterion predicated on exploiting the planet on an industrial scale, forged by, again, a shared obedience to enlightened Humanism which went to deracinate us from the natural world, possessing at its heart the abstract enchantment of ‘isms,’ stats, theories, and praxis that produces the pablum techno-panaceas – in the face of the destruction wrought by the aforementioned criteria of human empowerment that both orders have at the heart of their ideas – that we’re seeing pitched by Silicon mafiosos and by those that sedulously bear the hammer and sickle. The logic to their Eco-socialism – worst still, Eco-maoism?! – is psychotic: “We’ve conquered the planet so let’s conquer technology in order to mollify our destruction of the planet; in so doing we’ll destroy more of the planet, but alas, we’ll stop emissions.” The psychosis of capitalism – a topic the Left have written on extensively (Capitalist Realism etc, etc) – is match only by the myopia of Marx. To see climate-destruction through the myopic lens of emissions is a perspective forged by mindsets that have already been lost.

    The New Dealer, capitalist form of green politics; and the Eco-socialist, Marxian variant are both inadequate, then – because they are one and the same.

    .

  2. Thank you so much for this deeply thoughtful and quietly inspiring response to Planet of the Humans.

    With the bears…and our all relations.

  3. Wow. This is a really powerful beautiful noble article! THANK YOU! This is really heartening. So real. And I very much appreciate that Mr. Smith refrained from the ironic righteous tone that has permeated much of the debate about PLANET OF THE HUMANS.

    That said, I do have a quibble or two with the movie makers, and ever so slightly with Tom Smith. Smith acknowledges some of the same issues with the film that I and others have, but I think he underplays them. I do feel the movie was grossly unfair and inappropriate in its character assassination of Bill McKibben, for example, and that is important. I honestly wish they’d apologize to him.

    Also, it is not insignificant that the film got a lot of technical details dead wrong. Mr. Smith — and Michael Moore and Jeff Gibbs — are challenging us all to get real. Let’s look reality in the face, they say. Renewable energy is not some angelic magical solution to ecocide — our very lives, our very mindsets (conditioned as they are) are going to kill us all and our planet absent radical foundational lifestyle/core value/soul-level change, which may not happen. But that’s what’s needed and so let’s at least look that in the eye, whether or not we have “hope.” Fair enough. Let’s get real. I accept the challenge.

    But the challenge is less credible when the film makers, and even Mr. Smith himself, are not entirely getting real about the details. Let’s please give credit where credit is due, even if it seems relatively unimportant. For example, Smith writes:

    “Responses to Gibbs’ film have either ignored or played down the scenes which show a dead zone left behind after a solar array is removed. They ignore the simple acknowledgement that deserts are full of life, that they deserve to flourish on their own terms and cannot simply be designated as the barren energy playgrounds of a civilisation gone mad.”

    Fascinating paragraph, from a rhetorical point of view. The first sentence is dishonest. The second sentence is dead-on accurate and goes to the heart of the matter.

    As the film’s critics have pointed out, the “dead zone left behind after a solar array was removed,” was in a transition state. The solar array that had been there was replaced with a more modern, efficient, and powerful solar array which exists in that “dead zone” currently. Some critics even provided an aerial photograph of it along with their angry criticism of the movie. And I don’t blame them for being mad.

    However, it is also the case that the popularly held idea of constructing massive solar panel farms in the desert is a deadly misguided fantasy, as the film points out, and as Mr. Smith echoes here.

    I think Mr. Smith muddies his own point by being so “one-sided” in his critique of the film’s critics. And I think this is a little tragic, because I believe it creates unnecessary alienation and division between well-intentioned groups of people. Put bluntly, I know for myself I’m a lot more likely to see the light and admit what’s real if someone leads me to that light compassionately and respectfully and doesn’t insult me and lie a little bit as they show me the light.

    Here’s another interesting paragraph in a somewhat similar respect.

    “It is clear, for example, that the question of where environmentalism goes from here is still being framed as an argument that needs to be won, not a paradox we must now live through. While any portrayal of uncertainty or hesitation is evidently unacceptable to its critics, the film at least has the bravery to hold this sense of paradox at its core. On a planet straining under occupation by humans and their handful of domesticated species, what matters now are humble and place-based practices of salvaging, resistance, and regeneration, not the millenarian visions of some high-tech civilisational reboot.”

    Brilliant stuff. Right up to the phrase “paradox at its core” I love what he’s saying and I want to stand up and applaud.

    And it’s not that I disagree with what he goes on to say either. The quibble I have with it is kind of subtle.

    Smith incisively — and refreshingly — calls out the absurdity and unnecssary-ness of “where environmentalism goes from here being framed as an ARGUMENT that needs to be won, not a PARADOX we must now live through …” YES! YES! YAY! OHHHH …. so well put.

    But then, his next statement — “what matters now are humble and place based practices …”
    is an ARGUMENT!!!

    I mean, right?

    And I think it’s an important argument to make. It may even be self-evident if we take a hard look at the facts together. But don’t just sneak it in there like it’s settled, right after you say we shouldn’t be “arguing” about this stuff.

    I mean, maybe the way forward involves both humble, place-based practices and some mixture of less destructive energy sources …? Just asking. To me it’s not settled, though I acknowledge I don’t know much.

    But just because Smith and Moore and Gibbs are good at articulating the big picture doesn’t make them my new gurus regarding the facts on the ground.

  4. Are there any Christian Environmentalists out there? Do you believe Genesis 1:28 “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” Maybe politics isn’t the problem, maybe religion is.

  5. How do I join the Dark Mountain project? On my cousins insistence, I saw the film and was sickened by what I learned; environmental organizations like Sierra Club entangled with the Koch Brothers, The Nature Conservancy clearcutting timber for “sustainable energy” creation. Capitalism and greed are the death of us all, and runaway population growth is exacerbating the situation.

    1. Hello Karlin and David – Thanks for your comment. We are not a membership organisation but you ave welcome to become a subscriber to our journals and support the project in that way. Details on how to sign up are on the website. Best wishes, Charlotte Du Cann

  6. Good points, except when you call overpopulation a “distraction” and link to an article with a social justice angle that doesn’t change the sheer physical mass of ~80 million more people per year on a finite planet. They all take up land, water and commensurate energy and many would behave just like richer people if they could. They strive for it, you know.

    Ignoring population for P.C. reasons is part of the same faux-green thinking that assumes we can overpopulate the world with wind turbines and somehow retain what’s left of wilderness and ocean views. It’s a selective form of infinity-denial and Greens should know better (if they’re sincere). I agree with Paul Kingsnorth that social justice has made “environmentalism” too much about people, not nature. Long before this film was released, many environmentalists had caved into population growth as long as it was among the poor. That’s what I call dangerous.

    I think the film should have spent more time on nuclear as a low-sprawl, reliable alternative to Big Wind, but they probably realized that would put off even more quasi-enviros, and nuclear doesn’t encourage conservation either. Solar can at least be put on existing man-made structures but that’s not happening enough. Energy sprawl is said to be the biggest future threat to open space.

  7. Thank you for the thoughtful responses to the piece.

    @ Dominic Brady – I think you are right. When we look to the past, it’s hard to tell the ecological and social implications of capitalism and socialism apart. I don’t see that changing. The ultimate vision I’ve seen, whether grounded in global capitalism or global socialism, would happily clear indigenous groups and other inhabitants from their land, if they happened to be sitting on the minerals needed for constructing renewable energy plantations. I think there is plenty of value in writings on the left (Mark Fisher, who you mention, for example, and ongoing debates which try to read a green thread into Marx’s thought), but I don’t see anything which really deals with the predicament we’re in.

    @Marc Polonsky – Thanks for your comment, Mark. Out of interest, which technical details did I or the film get wrong? Further, it makes no difference to me if they replaced the dead zone with more efficient panels – it’s still a dead zone, as you say. On the final point, about the argument/paradox: I know what you’re getting at, but feel that while the film’s critics give their supposedly quick and easy global solutions, I am arguing for contextual, slow and local survival (hopefully a convivial survival, not a painful one). The latter is based on the flourishing of self-willed nature, not human control. Giving up that control is the obliteration of argument, not its reiteration.

    @Ken – Both politics and religion, as many of us know them, are alienated from the earth, certainly.

    @False Progress – Trust me, I didn’t put that comment on population in, for the sake of being ‘PC’ or not offending the social justice-first crowd. I get that for others it will be a very important topic, not just a distraction (and, while disagreeing with them, I’m open to being swayed). However, there are just some basic points which I find tend to get lost as soon as population becomes the focus: 1. a tiny subsection of humanity is using resources disproportionately, and the places where population is growing fastest are the very ones with the lower impact. Therefore it isn’t true – or at least isn’t the full picture – that “They all take up land, water and commensurate energy”. (Though I admit that picture changes fast, as the global ‘middle class’ grows and demands more resources) 2. Fertility trends are changing all the time, maybe peaking sooner than we think 3. the most effective means of lowering fertility is not authoritarian clampdown on reproduction, but genuine liberty and women’s empowerment (see Kerala, India). Thus, it is more a symptom than cause, in this ecocidal and unequal monster we’ve created. Beyond that, I make a personal choice to focus on systems, practices and stories, rather than population (which almost always ends up looking at individual humans – usually with a skin colour different to yours – who are just trying to survive). What is achieved by railing against population? What is the next step? PS Why should the film have given attention to nuclear if it doesn’t encourage conservation?

  8. Pertinent to the discussion is this article freshly published in Nature, and not behind their paywall:

    “Introduction

    Recent scientists’ warnings confirm alarming trends of environmental degradation from human activity, leading to profound changes in essential life-sustaining functions of planet Earth1,2,3. The warnings surmise that humanity has failed to find lasting solutions to these changes that pose existential threats to natural systems, economies and societies and call for action by governments and individuals.

    The warnings aptly describe the problems, identify population, economic growth and affluence as drivers of unsustainable trends and acknowledge that humanity needs to reassess the role of growth-oriented economies and the pursuit of affluence1,2. However, they fall short of clearly identifying the underlying forces of overconsumption and of spelling out the measures that are needed to tackle the overwhelming power of consumption and the economic growth paradigm4.

    This perspective synthesises existing knowledge and recommendations from the scientific community. We provide evidence from the literature that consumption of affluent households worldwide is by far the strongest determinant and the strongest accelerator of increases of global environmental and social impacts. We describe the systemic drivers of affluent overconsumption and synthesise the literature that provides possible solutions by reforming or changing economic systems. These solution approaches range from reformist to radical ideas, including degrowth, eco-socialism and eco-anarchism. Based on these insights, we distil recommendations for further research in the final section.”

    https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-16941-y

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