This documentary film delivers powerful negative vibes.
ROYALSTON, Mass. — Two old adages are perfect for analyzing the controversial new environmental documentary film, Planet of the Humans.
One saying is, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
The other is, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
These two imperatives, similar in meaning, were apparently ignored, intentionally or not, by the three men responsible for the film.
The trio consists of renowned liberal-left documentarian Michael Moore, executive producer and promoter; and producers Jeff Gibbs and Ozzie Zehner. Gibbs and Zehner both appear on screen while the familiar face of Moore does not. The “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” concept is appropriate especially for Zehner as he already did this in his 2012 book, Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism.
The movie concludes it has all been a
waste of time.
Like his book, the movie analyzes various approaches to “clean energy,” and essentially concludes it has all been a waste of time that will not save the planet. Respected environmentalists are assaulted in misleading and mean-spirited ways in this movie, and they are fighting back with critical reviews. Here’s a paragraph from a review in The Nation by Josh Fox, whose two Gasland documentary movies (2010 and 2013) provided valuable insights into fracking for natural gas:
I cannot describe my disappointment and anger to see a Michael Moore film which is willfully flying in the face of decades of renewable energy science, planning, and engineering. The film touts blatantly untrue fossil fuel industry talking points, deceitfully misleading its audience on renewable energy, disparages and attacks important climate leaders, ignores science and policy advances in energy, downplays or denounces climate and anti-fossil fuel campaigns and employs specious techniques of misinformation to deliver a deeply cynical and erroneous message. This is a total outrage at this moment when climate action and the leap to renewable energy is more important than ever.
At the end of my article, I provide links to The Nation’s review and a few others easily found on the Internet.
There’s a petition to Moore from an established progressive group, Action Network, demanding “an apology and retraction,” but these filmmakers are stubborn and clearly not going down that path. I’ve seen them on television interview programs defending themselves and claiming they were just trying as “friends” to correct the errors of their fellow environmentalists. That’s just disingenuous.
I experienced the film as hateful propaganda.
I consider myself an environmentalist and I experienced the film as hateful propaganda. I also felt its overall message is despair or its synonym, hopelessness. The trio who made the film are very skilled and its message so powerful that I was very disheartened by it. Much harm has been done by this video, which lacks any optimism or realistic path forward.
However, I won’t allow myself to be defeatist. Cleaner air and water, more alternative energy and less use of fossil fuels, land conservation, stopping nuclear power — these are things I’ve directly been involved with for decades, and I will continue. The dark hours that the film brought to me during these already dark times became considerably brighter in the following days when I read the critical reviews and responses, especially from Fox and Bill McKibben, one of the environmental leaders bashed in the film.
The word propaganda is something I’ve thought about a lot, having created hard-hitting political writing myself during the anti-war and gay liberation movements. When I worked at Liberation News Service in the late 1960s, I used to say that we are creating propaganda in the good sense of the word, that is propagating important and useful ideas and information that the establishment media was suppressing.
The more common (and negative) meaning of propaganda is relevant when it comes to this film. This piece of propaganda uses powerful images, mistruths, and misleading statements to dismiss and demean organizations and individuals which have done so much to educate and mobilize concerned citizens who want to protect the planet and work for progress.
It reminds us that much harm has already come to the planet.
One aspect of the film’s propaganda is its emphasis on the fact that it takes energy, including energy produced by fossil fuels, to manufacture solar panels and wind turbines. It reminds us that much harm has already come to the planet from exploitative practices of industry. So, to prove their point, the filmmakers cobbled together images featuring noisy, massive machinery at work, scenes of African child laborers working in mines that produce raw materials that are part of the technology, and rain forest devastation. What I call nasty propaganda is the way these images are shown, and then brought back in a 60-second boom-boom-boom package to hit the viewer’s eyes head-on.
Propaganda reared its ugly head in another part of the film, as it seeks to inform the viewers that there are greedy corporations and opportunistic people involved with “green.” Yes, money-hungry capitalists can be a problem and we need to be wary. Corporations like Exxon-Mobil will try “greenwashing” and we shouldn’t fall for it. However, the movie shows Sierra Club leaders, Al Gore, Bill McKibben and others praising some corporations’ green activities and supposedly this praise proves that our “heroes” are sellouts. For example, Caterpillar Corp. got some endorsement from the environmentalists and the movie takes notice of that — and then to “prove” the hypocrisy of McKibben etc., Moore shows a Caterpillar bulldozer doing bad things at the Dakota Pipeline actions.
So that proves hypocrisy? No, not in my eyes. The world needs bulldozers and Caterpillar makes them, and if someone uses a bulldozer for bad things, that is not a reason to “hate” the corporation. I do not have the expertise to evaluate this, but I found an item about a positive effort by Caterpillar, the firm’s Cat Microgrid system, which contains both photovoltaic solar modules and energy storage. People can dismiss this as “greenwashing,” but I tend to doubt that kind of accusation’s validity. Here’s the link.
The filmmakers could have focused on problems that can actually be solved.
What the filmmakers could have done, instead of pushing such negativity, is focus on problems with solar and wind that can actually be solved, to make them better and more efficient. In the area where I live, in North Central Massachusetts, there has been very inappropriate siting of solar arrays. (I reject the term “solar farms,” which is indeed pure propaganda, as farms grow food and these solar panels are industrial installations.) Community members had to engage in a battle to stop a scenic hillside over our beloved Tully Lake from having trees removed to install a solar array. In the town Orange, Mass., officials ignored the tearful pleadings of neighbors and were unable or unwilling to do anything to stop a money-hungry developer from cutting down 60 acres of pristine forest to install a solar array.
People who utilize or live near a scenic mountaintop should not have to put up with the disruption of wind turbines, when better locations can be found. Solar and wind power generation do a great deal of good. They are improving with efficiency and can be improved further with proper siting and more technical details. Biomass is lambasted in the film, and while industrial-scale biomass is wrong, local foresters have taught me that there is much waste including diseased hemlocks around here that could be used in a small biomass operation to provide energy and heat to a school, for example. Indeed, we shouldn’t let the perfect by the enemy of the good, as these filmmakers have done.
The documentary borrows its title from the famous movie, Planet of the Apes, and it ends with a very sad scene involving real-life apes — orangutans tragically struggling to survive in a rainforest humans have devastated for profit. It’s pure propaganda to pull at our heartstrings, making us sad for the ape and sad for ourselves.
In their comments I heard on television, Moore and others present a strong anti-capitalist and anti-growth message, citing over-population and humans’ obsession with modern conveniences and desire for more things. Moore even said that the current disruption in normal lives (due to the Coronavirus) is an indicator of the kind of disruption we really need, not the “fake” solution of solar and wind! Considering the suffering caused by the economic consequences of the virus, this is a cold, heartless way of thinking. It goes far beyond reasonable policy suggestions around conservation and simpler living.
A few friends of mine offered
A few friends of mine, commenting via email and on Facebook, offered interesting reactions to my comments on the darkness of the film, and I hope to enrich this review by sharing their rather spontaneous thoughts, not meant for publication — so I’m not using their real names.
I’ll start with what James wrote:
As I watched this well-made visually seductive movie, I kept waiting for the punchline. Well, I agree with the premise that we first world privileged people have desecrated and exploited the planet for our own selfish perceived needs and, as Richard Attenborough has said, we are a plague on the planet. Having said all that, I see myself as an optimist. And I would like to think that I base my opinions on the facts.
This is where Michael Moore lost me. Likely the narrator is smart and well-versed but provides at best short shrift to the science behind his claims and does little in the way of laying out the facts that investigative journalism would require. I get it, capitalism and exploitation go hand in hand, but my takeaway from the movie is this is simply propaganda, having just enough factual material to bring the audience along but slathers on the opinion with aplomb.
Responding to my comment that the film lacks a positive message, another friend, Ralph, wrote this:
Humans have been shitting in the nest for so long that it is far too late to even correct our path. Humans are going to witness the next mass extinction event for this planet, and WE CAUSED IT. Note that I used past tense. It isn’t that “we are causing it.” We have already caused it. I think we passed the tipping point at least 30 years ago. Even if we virtually STOPPED emitting carbon from fossil fuels tomorrow, the planet is headed for climate catastrophe, and there is nothing we can do to stop it now.
Two of my closest women friends, upon hearing of my distress over the film, responded this way (and I wasn’t surprised because I’ve discussed this issue of “negativity” with them in the past). Mary wrote:
Just the above conversations [reviews] are all I need to know that I am not interested in seeing the movie. I’m not sure when, but it was quite some time ago that I began to diminish the amount of upsetting information I am willing to consume. It’s not putting my head in the sand, so much as acknowledging the very limited power I have to “change the world” on a grand scale. I have one life to live. I’ve helped my family, my friends and my community. I vote, I’ve called and written to legislators on occasion. I try to model, as best I can, a conscious life.
Being a lover of history, particularly historical biographies, every era has its misery and joy. There have always been the power mongers and greedy bastards. This poor planet has been, and will be, better off without us. I am sorry for the young ones and what they will have to go through, but I have no illusions. So, I have as much fun and love that I can, and though I stay informed, don’t torture myself with constant ingestion of sad/mad news of the world. I have a big hope for change in November, just for a breather, not for some belief that all will be well. That said, my friend, keep calm and carry on. Know that you are loved.
The message from Isabelle is similar:
Well my dear, you’ve convinced me NOT to watch this film. Period. I don’t need this kind of assault on what’s going to happen to dear Mother Earth and us reckless humans who have despoiled it. I have a beautiful backyard (and front yard) paradise, with a garden growing nurturing (and eye-catching) veggies and flowers, I have lots of sunshine and blue skies. The world may be going to hell in a handbasket — what with global warming, greed, inequity, suffering of every kind, disease, divisiveness, but I can still choose to be glad to be alive and doing my part to model my ideals. I do NOT want to be caught in a dire eddy of disaster forecasts! Just my HO (humble opinion).
- Here’s the full text of Josh Fox in The Nation.
- McKibben’s Rolling Stone review is complete and personal.
- Jacobin magazine offered this commentary by Leigh Phillips.
- Here’s a more neutral review by Ed Rampell in The Progressive.
- Breitbart News, identified usually as right-wing, seems to celebrate the irony of famed leftist Moore going after his comrades.
- And finally, here’s a link to the Action Network petition, which you may or may not wish to sign.
Planet of the Humans can be viewed free of charge on YouTube at this link.
[Allen Young has lived in rural North Central Massachusetts since 1973 and is an active member of several local environmental organizations. Young worked for Liberation News Service in Washington, D.C., and New York City, from 1967 to 1970. He has been an activist-writer in the New Left and gay liberation movements, including several items published in The Rag Blog. Retired since 1999, he was a reporter and assistant editor of the Athol (Mass.) Daily News, and director of community relations for the Athol Memorial Hospital. He is author or editor of 15 books, including his 2018 autobiography, Left, Gay & Green; A Writer’s Life — and a review of this book can be found in The Rag Blog archives.]
- Read more articles by and about Allen Young on The Rag Blog.