By Michael Barker, Socialist Alternative (our sister organisation in England, Wales and Scotland)
Planet of the Humans demands our attention and most of all it demands our action. This widely-watched documentary, directed by Jeff Gibbs and produced by Michael Moore, presents a dystopian overview of the destruction that capitalism has wrought on our planet. Importantly the film castigates the ongoing attempts by liberal environmentalists to prevent the consumption of our planet and concludes: “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.”
Now if that was the only message that viewers took away from this documentary, I for one would be happy. But tragically, Moore and his environmentally concerned filmmakers, in telling an epic story of our times, get an awful lot wrong… very wrong.
Emulating the ending of the 1968 movie, Planet of the Apes, where Charlton Heston (Taylor) discovers that the alien planet he had returned to was a future planet Earth, Planet of the Humans ends with a dark glimpse of our own future if we do not act now. This is achieved by borrowing a long section of footage from Patrick Rouxel’s 2012 documentary Green, wherein we watch the devastating impact of corporate logging in Indonesia as told from the point of view of a dying orangutan. But while the 1968 monkey classic that inspired Moore’s latest contribution managed to cover timely issues of war and racial oppression that contributed towards a greater public understanding of the pressing issues of the day, Planet of the Humans unwittingly does the reverse.
Despite fingering the billionaire-class as the problem, the film simultaneously blames the daily inaction of ordinary people for the world’s problems. The closing sequence of the film ends with these words:
“Less must be the new more and instead of climate change, we must at long last accept that it’s not the carbon dioxide molecule destroying the planet, it’s us. It’s not one thing, but everything we humans are doing. A human-caused apocalypse. If we get ourselves under control, all things are possible.”
This was a bad ending for an otherwise interesting film, but it is a conclusion that flows from the population-obsessed narrative that undergirds the entire documentary. Contrary to its depiction in Planet of the Humans, this fixation on human population numbers as representing a suitable focus for environmental action is as old as the environmental movement itself. So, when Nina Jablonski, an anthropologist at Penn State University, states that “population growth continues to be not the elephant, [but] the herd of elephants in the room,” she is badly wrong.
The most significant billionaire funders of the environmental movement have always blamed the reproductive habits of the working classes for the environmental destruction and inequities caused by capitalism. And ironically, it has only been in the last decade or so that such dead-end priorities were largely forced out from the ranks of most green organisations – a refreshing process of clarification that owed much to the more class-conscious activists active within a parallel environment justice movement. So when population growth is described as the ‘elephant in the room’, it is in reality because socialist and environmental activists have only recently succeeded in kicking it out.
Planet of the Humans peddles the myth that the environmental movement has only recently been contaminated by the crooked fingers of corporate power. In reality, it’s history is far more nuanced. Take, for example, the ‘green’ practices of General Motors – the destructive corporate giant that formed the focus of Moore’s documentary, Roger & Me (1989). Indeed, just a few years after this film was released the chairman of General Motors board of directors, John Smith Jr., was a signed-up member of the environmental establishment when he became a trustee of The Nature Conservancy (or “the logging conservancy” as Planet of the Humans accurately describes it).
Corporate influence over many modern environmental organisations however goes much deeper than this, and it is significant that the main historic reference point for Planet of the Humans is Earth Day – an annual event that was launched on April 22, 1970. The documentary begins with a perfunctory introduction to this birth of the modern environmental movement before skipping on to footage of President Obama promising $100 billion for green energy, Van Jones promising green energy for all, and Al Gore promoting green issues by cosying up to corporate elites like Sir Richard Branson. But although the first Earth Day was a genuinely mass event, corporations and pro-capitalist figures were always there from the start, sometimes in the background but sometimes at the forefront.
This facet of green history, in which conservative conservation groups like the Sierra Club and WWF, backed by billionaires (including from the oil industry), consciously seeking to undermine democracy within the environmental movement, is studiously ignored in Planet of the Humans. This historical process is discussed in detail by Robert Gottlieb in his ground-breaking 1993 book, Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement.
Logging the history of the environmental movement
The filmmakers debased appreciation of environmental history consequently renders them incapable of comprehending why even the most sinister climate-change deniers like the Koch brothers would seek to profit from the so-called greening of capitalism. We should remember that amongst the most brutal elements of the ruling class there has always been a strong preservationist streak that runs alongside their relentless consumption of living resources. An example from the early twentieth century is the Save-the-Redwoods League which included, amongst its 1918 founders, a racist ultra-conservative eugenicist named Madison Grant – someone who could easily fit the bill as a dark forerunner to the Koch brothers. The League was always backed to the hilt by logging interests – which pretty much dictated the direction of the League’s preservation efforts – and the green outfit was also always wedded to the Rockefeller family’s (of Standard Oil, ExxonMobil fame) Republican vision of conservation.
90 years later and the capitalists are still at it. In 2005, the Koch Brothers purchased the US’s second biggest logging company, Georgia-Pacific Corporation. The following year the Koch family then made a $1 million donation to the long-corporatised Nature Conservancy, on the proviso that the federal government would be excluded from ownership of the land of their newly established Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. This relationship was no flash in the pan, as in 2011 Phillip Ellender, the Koch brothers’ chief propagandist and arch-anti-environmentalist was recruited to serve as a trustee of The Nature Conservancy in Georgia. This was also just a few years after the Koch brothers helped launch a new and highly profitable greenwashing web site called the Mother Nature Network. In 2012 this corporate advertising outlet then merged with TreeHugger.com, which Planet of the Humans states was “founded and funded by Georgia-Pacific… which is owned by our friends, the Koch brothers”. Almost true, but not quite. TreeHugger was actually founded in 2004 by an individual not by Georgia-Pacific, and before its acquisition by the Koch-funded Mother Nature Network the website had regularly published articles attacking Koch Industries and Georgia-Pacific. After the takeover such critical articles were no longer commissioned.
So, while few environmentalists would disagree with the documentary’s assertion that the Koch brothers are the “devils themselves”, Planet of the Humans completely distorts reality when trying to prove how fossil-fuel capitalists have only recently hijacked environmentalism. But should it really be surprising that Koch Industries, which is the second largest private company in America, should seek to turn a profit from every facet of industrial civilization? The question always resting heavily on the minds of the Koch brothers is can this make us money? And if they understand one thing, it is how to hedge their investments to minimise risk in the ever-chaotic world of capitalist trading. Their father did the same when he opportunistically helped Stalin build oil refineries in the Soviet Union in 1928, despite being an avid supporter of fascism.
Hence, at the same time that the Koch brothers continue to publicly attack government subsidies (for everything), they have actively lobbied to expand their share of the subsidy, provided because of their massive investment into biofuels and renewable biomass plants. This old news renders Planet of the Humans’ apparent revelation that Georgia-Pacific and the Koch brothers “are likely the largest recipient of green energy biomass subsidies in the United States” somewhat less shocking.
On the matter of so-called green alternatives to fossil fuels, like biofuels and biomass, Planet of the Humans is partially right in saying that many pro-corporate environmental groups continue to push forward all manner of worse than useless solutions to the ongoing climate catastrophe. But the documentary presents itself as ground-breaking while ignoring the existence of a huge literature, produced by leading environmentalists, that has already addressed the limitations of technological capitalist utopianism that is so rife within the green movement. Leading British environmentalist George Monbiot is one prominent example. In response to the documentary’s bizarre claim that they “found only one environmental leader willing to reject biomass and biofuels,” Monbiot correctly reminds his readers that he has been speaking out on this issue since 2004; but he goes further, explaining that: “Almost every environmental leader I know opposes the burning of fresh materials to generate power.” Ignorant of this history, the single environmental leader that the filmmakers found who was willing to reject biomass and biofuels was Vandana Shiva – a famous critic of industrial civilization whose romanticized views of peasant life in India and opposition to imperialism (particularly that of Bill Gates) had led to her forming various toxic alliances with far-right Hindu nationalists.
Socialist or liberal analyses?
Michael Moore is famous for using his documentaries to expose the deep inequalities that permeate society’s core – films like Sicko (2007) and Capitalism: A Love Story (2009). His longstanding failing is that he then calls for the people to support the Democratic Party. Such dangerous missteps (for us) are symptoms of his liberal analysis of society which frustrates his ability to see the nature of oppression as being rooted in class divisions. That being said, liberals like Van Jones, President Obama’s former ‘czar of green jobs’, whose involvement in colluding with green capitalists is repeatedly touched upon (albeit fleetingly) in Planet of the Humans, should really know better given his early fling with socialist politics during his youth.
Yet Jones’ political confusion has been germinating for years and his contradictory (now liberal) analyses are woven throughout his bestselling 2008 book The Green Collar Economy – a book which on the one hand castigates corporate greenwashing, while simultaneously acting to legitimise it. Thus he highlights how “since the 1980s, the United States has had a shameful secret: its environmental movement is almost explicitly segregated by race,” with the mostly white mainstream movement set against environmental justice activists (who are “made up almost entirely by people of color”). But Jones then embraces the insane logic of corporate America (which is what Moore correctly lambasts him for), which leads Jones to confidently conclude that the new green wave being propelled forward by “venture capitalists” is likely to be “inﬁnitely more expansive and inclusive [in racial terms] than previous environmental upsurges… because it is centered on investment and solutions”.
In a final bizarre twist, which echoes Vandana Shiva’s own cross-class activism, Jones is now the leading liberal booster of bipartisan alliances with the far-right. Jones actually formed his first highly problematic alliance with the Koch brothers in his efforts to reform the prison system. But Charles Koch is clear that he will fight on single issues alongside anyone whose interests align with his own, and in an interview carried out late last summer Koch confirmed Planet of the Humans’ false hypothesis when he boasted of his newfound green investments. Sickeningly he stated that Koch Industries’ two main priorities are “keeping people safe” and “protecting the environment.” Laudable concerns that contradict the truth; with Koch’s lies being exposed in Company Town (2017), a documentary that tells the tale of ordinary people fighting back against the Koch brothers and the carcinogenic output of a huge Georgia-Pacific paper mill in their small town.
Of course, with President Trump’s 2016 election victory, the minimal support from organisations like the US Environmental Protection Agency vanished overnight, as Trump quickly appointed a former Koch lobbyist/climate-denier to head (or rather dismantle) the Agency. Trump, whose “symbiotic” relationship with the Koch family is well-established, thus topped this appointment when in 2017 he made another Koch-consort named Daniel Simmons his Assistant Secretary for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy – an office which Simmons’ former fossil-fuel funded employer had actively tried to dissolve.
Another billionaire who, like the Koch brothers, is featured as a baddie in Planet of the Humans is Jeremy Grantham — a maverick capitalist who loves ‘Keynesian’ calls for strict environmental regulations on corporate polluters, but strenuously asserts that the world is massively overpopulated. The documentary, however, doesn’t make all these points and instead with no sense of irony introduces him by noting that…
“…the reason why we’re not talking about overpopulation, consumption and the suicide of economic growth is that would be bad for business. Especially the cancerous form of capitalism that rules the world, now hiding under a cover of green. … And who are these new partners? One of them was Jeremy Grantham, billionaire, world’s leading timber investment advisor.”
Planet of the Humans then ‘reveals’ that Grantham recently funded the Sierra Club to the tune of $3 million. But what they don’t say is that Grantham has been funding green projects for decades and, according to Naomi Klein, actually “underwrites a large proportion of the U.S. and British green movement, as well as a lot of related academic research” “ranging from The Nature Conservancy to… 350.org.” This is all true. Grantham likes to describe himself as “one of the last liberal Republicans” with sets him at odds with the Kochs and Trumps of the world. Yet Grantham maintains a disturbing fixation upon the total world human population which he believes needs to be reduced to about 2 billion over the coming generations. In a disturbing example of what has been referred to as the “greening of hate” Grantham made his appalling politics clear in a speech delivered in 2018 where (getting the numbers wrong as well as the ideas) he stated:
“The problem is Africa. In Nigeria the desired family size today is nine. They don’t achieve it, they only achieve about seven, but they would like nine, if they could… This is a cultural thing, very difficult to deal with. In the future all of the gains [in global population growth] are in Africa, 3.3 billion extra in Africa, 0.5 [billion for] the rest of the world added together – less than Nigeria alone.”
Grantham then went on to aggressively make the case that the only solution is to impose strict immigration controls to prevent countries like Britain being flooded by hundreds of millions of Africans. In reality, decades of capitalist exploitation and a collapsing social care system have played a big part in rising populations in countries like Nigeria. This oppression is very much connected to the ongoing exploitation of Nigeria’s oil reserves by Grantham’s former employer, Shell Oil – a company whose former chairman currently chairs the advisory board of Grantham’s environmental foundation.
Finally, another paranoid bugbear of Grantham’s is the declining sperm count of certain men, owing to pollution, which he says “may be contributing already to the declining fertility rate of the Western world”. This, he states, means ‘we’ “may face the problem of low fertility in the long term in the developed world while we face the problem of too-high a fertility rate in Africa.”
The end? The future?
In concluding this review, it is important to be crystal clear: population growth is not the problem facing our planet; the problem is capitalism. This is contrary to the conclusion presented within Planet of the Humans’ which ends by blaming “us” as being the primary problem. The suggestion that uncontrolled population growth is the elephant in the room misses the point, but it flows from the filmmakers inverted version of history. Over the last hundred years corporate elites have always sought to play a major role in environmental movements, and one of their abiding concerns has been limiting the reproduction of the working class and poor masses. Successes in recent decades in diverting the narrative away from population growth and towards addressing structural issues such as capitalist exploitation and environmental destruction has pushed the idea of population growth as a key concern into a more marginal position.
Population growth is in no way the elephant in the room. It is a right-wing ideological spectre that perpetually haunts the environmental movement to its detriment. It is not a new idea and it is not being suppressed by corporate environmentalists whose role in the green movement goes back to its beginnings. All that being said we can still agree with the filmmakers that billionaire elites have always stood in the way of building the type of democratic mass movements that can save our planet; and yes, “We must take control of our environmental movement and our future from billionaires”.
For all its many faults, Planet of the Humans has already helped start a conversation about the limits of social democracy, and for its many millions of viewers it will have posed the need for fighting for an alternative to capitalism. We would say that we need a socialist alternative that puts power to decide our collective future into the hands of ordinary working-class people. Tragically, if also typically for Moore, Planet of the Humans offers poor analysis and no way forward. This documentary should be contrasted with the powerful and inspiring storylines of films like Salt of the Earth (1954), which exposed the destructive nature of class society and demonstrated that only workers’ solidarity could lead to a brighter future. But unlike Moore’s films, Salt of the Earth – which was written by the same person who went on to write Planet of the Apes – was banned for decades precisely because of the threat it posed to the powerful. So, while the title of Moore’s latest cinematic contribution may have aped its forerunners’ positive aspirations, it falls short, leaving its viewers as paralysed as the lonely orangutan featured floundering for its life in the documentary’s apocalyptic and depressing closing sequence.