/ 14 May 2020

Review: ‘Planet of the Humans’ is a mess. You should watch it

Planet Of The Humans
Still from 'Planet of the Humans'

We’re doomed. That’s the first thing director Jeff Gibbs wants you to know in his film, Planet of the Humans. The documentary — which was released on YouTube on the eve of Earth Day and had been viewed more than 7.5-million times by May 12 — is executive produced by Michael Moore (Roger and Me, Fahrenheit 9/11). 

It begins with Gibbs asking a grim question: “How long do you think we humans have?” The responses he receives in man-on-the-street interviews vary from a few years to a few millennia. Gibbs’s own answer is unspoken, but the implication is clear: not long.

What follows is a condemnation of the characters who, in Gibbs’s view, have brought the planet — and the human species — to the brink of catastrophe. But precious little of Gibbs’s ire is reserved for the fossil-fuel companies who lied about climate change for decades, their stooges in government or the rapacious industries intent on commoditising every last inch of the natural world. 

Instead, Gibbs, an environmentalist and anti-capitalist, aims his arrows squarely at the renewable-energy industry and some of its most vocal boosters — including Al Gore, Bill McKibben of the climate-focused nongovernmental organisation 350.org, and Michael Brune of the Sierra Club, a 127-year-old conservation organisation. Gibbs also has a few in his quiver, too, for so-called green capitalists, such as Michael Bloomberg and Richard Branson. Moneyed interests, he claims, have co-opted the environmental movement and, in turn, led us all down a road to ruin.

It’s a provocative perspective for a film arriving amid a surge in global environmental activism, and Gibbs knows it. Like his producer, Gibbs delights in uncovering perceived hypocrisies — noting, for instance, the diesel generators powering an Earth Day concert touting its solar panels. 

He’s also fond of trespassing and catching interviewees on the fly. That posture, unfortunately, doesn’t always square with reality. In fact, the film elevates quite a few misrepresentations about the renewable-energy industry by leaning on old footage, antiquated statistics and blatantly false technological claims. It then extrapolates from those distortions to make some of the same flawed arguments popular among eco-fascists, climate deniers, and fossil-fuel industry apologists. These errors are so egregious, in fact, that climate experts have called for the film to be retracted, and one distributor briefly heeded the call.

Politically confused

All in all, Planet of the Humans can be generously described as a mess. It’s sloppily reported, shoddily produced and politically confused. 

 That’s a shame because Gibbs does tell a few important truths; the kind you’re unlikely to find in another environmentalist manifesto with such a large audience. His critique of green growth, for one, is welcome at a time when profit-hungry corporations such Blackrock are earning praise even from some environmentalists for making voluntary and wholly insufficient environmental pledges. And he’s right to criticise the sometimes nauseating coziness between “Big Green” nonprofit organisations and some of the financial institutions and corporations driving the environmental crisis.

Even Naomi Klein, who trashed the film on Twitter, makes similar points in her book, This Changes Everything.

Gibbs, like ecocentric environmentalists such as Paul Kingsnorth, is keen to point out that renewable-energy sources come with a steep environmental cost of their own. His harshest criticism is reserved for the biomass industry, which looks an awful lot like the logging industry. But solar and wind energy don’t come out looking so pretty either. As critics like the writer and data scientist Ketan Joshi have pointed out, however, some of Gibbs’ information on those industries is wildly outdated, and some of his assertions are simply untrue and dangerous.

And yet, there’s something refreshing about seeing “clean” energy described in less than messianic terms for a change. In one of the film’s most brutal scenes, Gibbs presents a montage of the industrial processes involved in the production of wind turbines and solar cells. It’s hard to watch and yet it doesn’t even fully cover the extent of the Faustian bargain that a global green-energy transition represents without a simultaneous reduction in global consumption and production.

Case in point: scientists now advocate mining the deep ocean floor for metals needed for “civilisation to become more sustainable”. Such alarming realities could have inspired Gibbs to speak with some leftist activists who oppose growth, including many members of the Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion, and the Democratic Socialists of America. But with the exception of a brief interview with the scholar Vandana Shiva, Gibbs lets those voices go unheard. 

Instead, he chooses to blithely advocate for population control, an argument that, devoid of any sort of nuance, becomes red meat for eco-fascists. By the end of the film, however, Gibbs seems to have forgotten his stance on population control altogether, instead naming both “billionaires” and “everything we humans are doing” as the cause for planetary destruction within the space of just a few sentences.

He’s even more vague about the solution. “If we can get ourselves under control, all things are possible,” he concludes. But what does that mean, exactly? Some viewers might take it as a call to abandon capitalism and adopt a healthy scepticism about extractive industries and individuals waving the banner of environmentalism. Others, who’ve heard that “we humans” are broadly to blame for planetary devastation and that renewable energy is worse than fossil fuels, might see the future as a lost cause. If the majority believe the latter, then perhaps we really are doomed.

This review was originally published on Africa is a Country