The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Planet of the Humans -- NO
The movie "Planet of the Humans" was posted to YouTube on April 21, the day before Earth Day. By April 26, it had been viewed more than 2 million times. By April 28, the count was up to 3.4 million views. As of this morning, the number is just over 5 million -- all within just 10 days.
It could be appropriate to say that the film has "gone viral" -- with all of the implications of such a term in this time of a viral pandemic. It is spreading rapidly, and (from my perspective) causing substantial damage. And, as with COVID-19, the spreading virus has some positive effects, too -- just as the economic shutdown has brought cleaner air, so the film stirs up some important conversations -- but I'd say that those side benefits are not worth the enormous costs.
That's my opinion, and there are others who have a radically different take. It is a very controversial film, and I urge anyone who sees it, or who tries to talk about it, to tread carefully. That's what I'm going to try to do today.
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A Colorado environmental activist, and man whose values and intentions I trust, was the first to alert me to the film. In a follow-up email, Gary wrote, "the film is one of the most important environmental documentaries of the 21st century so far." A review in The Guardian gives Planet of the Humans a four-star rating.
On the other side, Naomi Klein tweeted, "It is truly demoralizing how much damage this film has done at a moment when many are ready for deep change. There are important critiques of an environmentalism that refuses to reckon with unlimited consumption + growth. But this film ain't it."
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What is Planet of the Humans about? Here's some of the description from producer Michael Moore that is posted on the YouTube page:
we are losing the battle to stop climate change on planet earth because we are following leaders who have taken us down the wrong road -- selling out the green movement to wealthy interests and corporate America. This film is the wake-up call to the reality we are afraid to face: that in the midst of a human-caused extinction event, the environmental movement's answer is to push for techno-fixes and band-aids. It's too little, too late. ... This urgent, must-see movie, a full-frontal assault on our sacred cows, is guaranteed to generate anger, debate, and, hopefully, a willingness to see our survival in a new way -- before it's too late.
There are elements of that agenda that I should be supporting whole-heartedly. I've been persistent in the notion that we need transformative change to address the deep eco-justice crises of our day, including but not limited to climate change. I've talked constantly about the important role of faith communities in dealing with values and worldviews, because technical fixes and attempts to maintain the American Way of Life are not going to work. There are aspects of the film's message that should resonate well for me, but they don't.
I have not watched the whole film. That's not a confession of writing without the full story. The fact that I've seen less than a third is at the core of my review. I simply couldn't do it, because I found the style and the content so offensive. Whatever positive message is in the film is utterly demolished by the distorted and misleading and off-target attacks that are inherent to the movie's approach.
The entire movie runs one hour, 40 minutes. Having read both generally positive and negative reviews, I settled down to let the thing speak for itself. 21 minutes in, I hit pause and said, "I quit," because the whole thing seemed misleading. I made myself keep going, though. Or I tried to. At 31 minutes, I vented, "I can't take any more!" and shut it off.
My notes from that half-hour of viewing have reactions like "episodes vs. statistics" about solar power. "Misleading clips from unreliable sources. No scientists, no engineers; salespeople and neighbors."
An extensive and well-researched review by Ketan Joshi says, "Not only is the documentary bad, it's old bad. ... All of the stuff in this documentary is ancient." Joshi does a meticulous job of pointing out old information and old ideas. I highly recommend his article if you're going to see or discuss the movie.
Let me name just two of the segments that I found offensive in the first half hour of the movie. Joshi also writes about both of them.
There was a piece (17:23-20:30) where the film crew visited a site in Vermont where a set of wind turbines were going to be installed. On a rainy, foggy day -- accompanying what appeared to be a group of local people opposed to the project -- they filmed a mountainous construction scene, with cut back hillsides and big piles of rock. The fog made it impossible to see how widespread the work area was. Several times (at around the 18 minute point) there was language about "mountaintop removal for wind" -- implying an equality of damage between huge coal removal projects and a 21 turbine wind installation. (Joshi's review, way down at the bottom, has pictures of the completed wind farm, which looks nothing like an Appalachian coal site, also pictured.)
There's an interview during a tour of a solar panel installation in Lansing, Michigan (14:33-16:21). A football field sized site, it is said, will provide enough power to meet the needs of ten average homes. The person giving the tour says that the panels -- a rather odd, locally made variety that is flexible -- have an efficiency rating of 8%. Joshi lets us know that the Lansing panels were installed in 2008. A quick internet search shows that most panels today are at 17-19% efficiency. The film gives the impression that the old ones, producing less than half as much power as current products, are the norm. We're led to believe that all solar power is grossly inefficient.
In these, and other scenes, the various technologies for reducing carbon emissions are attacked, belittled or maligned. It is suggested that all of our best efforts make no difference at all. That's where I think the film goes astray. That's where I think the film is really dangerous.
The transformational changes that need to come soon -- including cutting carbon emissions by 50% in the years, according to the IPCC -- will need the very best technologies we have. They are not perfect technologies -- and, yes, renewable energy does have environmental impacts that we don't often name -- but wind and solar are immensely better than coal and gas for energy sources. When Planet of the Humans attacks the technology, instead of taking on the ideology that our way of life is fine and that technology will save us, it devastates the options and the spirit that can allow change.
The film struck me, in the half hour that I saw, as muddled, unfocused, and willfully destructive. Its legitimate points are lost in misinformation and misdirection. As one local activist wrote, "It does fall in line with what I expect from Michael Moore, a decent point buried in s***" (asterisks in the original!).
The film is going viral. We need well-informed and public discussions about Planet of the Humans to flatten the curve before it does too much damage.
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