• Arnold Schroder

Talk about population and consumption, get wokescolded

Updated: Apr 29

A review of the reviews of Planet of the Humans

The right's explicit denial of the very existence of climate change specifically, and ecological collapse generally, has diminished our ability to talk about denial in more general terms, as a psychological phenomenon that characterizes human responses to anything that is too overwhelming or painful to come to terms with. I've been saying for a very long time that climate policy and mainstream environmentalism are forms of ecological denial. The new Jeff Gibbs documentary Planet of the Humans makes the same case—in a format that people will actually be exposed to en masse—that others have been making on the fringes of ecological politics for decades. It has, predictably, been the subject of righteous anger on the part of many within the liberal environmentalist landscape.

To be fair, Planet of the Humans features a bunch of footage of renewable energy failures that are roughly a decade old. The film apparently was nearly complete in 2012, and so being released eight years later, renewable energy has certainly progressed a long way since some of the scenes were captured. This is a primary theme of the liberal condemnations of the movie, and it makes sense. Focusing narrowly on technical discrepancies (Solar panels are at least twice as efficient! Renewable energy is cheaper than fossil fuels energy now!) is as good a strategy as any for ignoring the validity of the fundamental points the movie is making: 1) Renewable energy is not displacing fossil fuels, and; 2) Powering this economy with 100% renewable energy implies the sixth mass extinction by other means.

A Films for Action review—describing the film as “toxic”, “hugely disingenuous”, and “frankly misleading”—is characteristic of this format, so we'll use it as a template for the whole genre, which is becoming more populous with each passing day. In it, we are told that Bill McKibben “deserves an apology” for the film portraying his history of supporting biomass as a climate-saving alternative to burning fossil fuels, because he doesn't anymore. First of all, it is highly revealing that people like Bill McKibben and the major environmental groups he collaborates with presented biomass as a solution to climate change for so long—the science certainly already existed which made it clear it wasn't. It's a fairly intuitively obvious point that cutting down the world's forests and burning them isn't going to go far as a climate solution. Moreover, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) continues to write plans for averting the worst of climate change that involve massive biomass burning, not only as a carbon neutral technology but supposedly as a means of reducing net atmospheric CO2 concentrations. This is meaningless gibberish of the highest order, and liberal politicians and environmental groups continue to express support for compliance with various IPCC emissions pathways (e.g. the ceaseless idiotic babbling about restoring the Paris Climate Accords). So it's hardly an irrelevant point to make that mainstream environmentalism, at the NGO and governmental levels, remains deeply wedded to the notion of destroying the world's forests to save the world. But we're told the film is disingenuous for waiting until the end to reveal that McKibben and the Sierra Club have finally rescinded their support for biomass.

Then we're told that the representation of solar power is misleading because it involves footage of some old solar technology and now solar panels produce “at least twice as much energy”. We've been misled because the US now has 2 million solar farms generating 77 gigawatts, and that's a very impressive number, and by failing to include it in the documentary, viewers will get the impression that less of the US's energy mix is solar. But a less ideologically encumbered viewer of the film might get the distinct impression that this is irrelevant. The point the film is making isn't that the US doesn't have 77 gigawatts of solar energy—it's that solar energy isn't displacing fossil fuels. This happens to be true. The review acknowledges that 77 gigawatts is “a small percentage of the nation's overall electricity needs”, but it's probably more important that whatever the percentage, the trends toward greater deployment of increasingly cheap renewables hasn't brought down emissions whatsoever. It's added energy to our economy—which is to say, it's added destructive capacity.

This highlights the primary, signal failure of liberal environmental policy, as advocated by entities like the Democratic Party and corporate environmental groups. It's not really environmental policy—it's policy that one would craft as an adaptation to environmental policy. For decades, liberals have been pushing policies to add and develop technologies to the economy, under the assumption it will diminish resource extraction, rather than pushing policies to simply and directly prohibit resource extraction, with the understanding that people can throw up some solar panels, or expand public transportation, or whatever else, as an adaptation. None of these policies works, but it is a signature move of these establishment figures that they look at other policy approaches with derision, as the unsophisticated rantings of people who don't understand environmental issues, as they push policy after policy—like carbon taxes, cap and trade schemes, funding incentives, and research into new technology—with a vast empirical record of total failure. As with so many other domains of knowledge, it is only people who regard themselves as experts who can be so egregiously wrong about something so often, without intuition or observation ever interfering.

The Films for Action review continues to ramble about other ostensible shortcomings and misconstructions in Planet of the Humans. We are supposedly being misled about Germany's miraculous transition to renewable energy because the film focuses on the overall energy usage of the German economy (transportation, heating, industrial processes, etc.) rather than on electricity alone. I have no idea who this pedantic nonsense is supposed to convince of what—are we to understand that the question is something other than the overall impact of the current form society and economy take? Why is it better that the electricity sector, when looked at in isolation, is less destructive than the overall economy in which the electricity sector is embedded? What does this mean? We're also told that critiquing the lack of storage capacity for renewable energy is disingenuous, not because that capacity currently exists, but because someday it might. This would seem a lot more reassuring—or at least remotely interesting—if we were not facing such acute temporal thresholds with respect to runaway ecological change. If we need to radically reduce emissions now to retain any remote hope of preventing an unstoppable feedback dynamic (we do, and it might already be too late), in what sense is it irrelevant to mention that we don't have the technology to affect this change now?

What all these condemnations will inevitably simply avoid talking about is whether it is a good or a bad idea to continue powering this current economy, whether with 100% renewable energy or by any other means. The sixth mass extinction began as a result of our massively destructive economies before climate change became the palpable reality it is today. In fact, researchers have compared the current rate of extinction with those of the earth's previous five mass extinctions and found that it's higher now than it was in any of those previous, cataclysmic events.

Because no amount of pedantic talk about the viability of solar power has any relevance to this fact whatsoever, the fundamental claim that our current rates of consumption are a total catastrophe have to be countered by liberals in some other fashion. And their current paradigm for disputing anything they don't have a substantive argument against is to say it isn't woke enough. Liberals are finding out what radicals in fringe political movements have known about for a long time—that almost any discussion, whatever its substance, can be derailed with wokeness. This was central to the liberal playbook against Bernie Sanders in his presidential campaign—you have to vote for a neoliberal who supports mass incarceration and endless war because Bernie's supporters are white men who aren't woke.

Cue the implications that the film is fascistic or a justification for mass extermination. As the Films for Action review phrases it: “At the heart of Planet of the Humansis the basic premise that humans cannot continue a path of infinite “growth” on a finite planet. That much is indisputable. But what does it mean? Does it mean that all industrialization is bad? … Does it mean that there is no solution to global warming, apart from killing off a large part of the world’s population?” If putting up solar panels isn't the answer, surely genocide is the only other plausible approach. Policies of the form that I just described—simply shutting down resource extraction, and crafting a society that meets human needs in response to these new limitations—are just as inconceivable to these people, just as relegated the fringes of environmentalism, as they were when there was considerably more hope for planetary survival.

Then there is a litany of responses which all take the form: “You can't talk about overpopulation, because people who've done that in the past were racists, and thus if you do so, you will automatically be a racist, as well.” People on the internet are fond of calling a lot of things fallacies which they simply disagree with, which don't have any inherent logical flaws that qualify them as fallacies. But this one actually is a fallacy—one of the first ones they will teach you about in a logic class. Mussolini was a fascist, and Mussolini wore a hat. This does not make everyone else who wears a hat a fascist.

But my favorite review to date was written by someone who hasn't seem the film—in the mode of all those people who wrote about how The Joker was an incitement to racist violence who never saw it—where she tells us about how it's essentially a reflection of sexist dynamics in our society. The reason? A kind of man made it—a dude, in her phrasing—and this kind of dude is common, who has no real expertise but decides it is his unique mandate to tell the story of climate as no one ever has before: “The wheel starts to spin when a dude who spent his entire career doing everything except climate journalism decides he’s going to be the one to do a Big Climate Journalism Moment.” This doesn't really refer to the filmmaker, who actually spent his adult life in environmentalism, but Michael Moore, who is the executive producer. As for the filmmaker himself, we are told, his work isn't nothing, but it's not climate journalism. And expertise matters: “there’s a reason people start out in stock boy positions before becoming director of floor design.”

What I find so curious about this is that to say that you've been working on climate for a very long time—or covering it, or anything else—is to say that you've been failing, profoundly and decisively, to shift the global climate trajectory, for a very long time. I've spent years of my life wading through policies and scientific papers, as well as navigating the crushing empirical realities of climate organizing, and I find it hard to overstate how little this expertise should mean to anyone. I don't think I or anyone else who has put in this much time is really in a position to scold others for trying, because what we've been doing isn't working, and shows absolutely no plausible hope of beginning to work anytime soon.