03 March 2020
The controversy around ‘Planet of the Humans’ may end up much more effectual than the film itself in exposing the green movement’s biggest problem.
‘My hero has fallen.’ Josh Fox, an Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker himself, did not mince words in his social media charge against Michael Moore and the film he had just published. Fox’s open letter asking Moore for a public apology and retraction of ‘Planet of the Humans’ was co-signed by heavyweights like Naomi Klein and Michael E. Mann. Instead of apologies or retractions, the film is garnering millions of views, likely owing in no small part to the public campaign against it. Moore, who published and executive produced the movie, sells it as an unmasking: ‘we’re losing the climate battle, thanks to profit & greed & leaders who led us wrong.’ The critics deride it as ‘a gift to big oil’ rife with misinformation and deceit. Has Moore truly lost his ways? Or has he poked the beehive, exposed shameful relations?
Watching the film itself is painful in all the wrong ways. The criticism is justified. For 90% of its runtime, this movie is an exercise in misinformation polemics. For a detailed dissection of all the film’s falsifications and outright lies, these are four of the most prominent reactions: Fox’s open letter on Twitter and his later article, Ketan Joshi’s in depth rebuttal, or Bill McKibben, who is majorly attacked in the movie, responding himself.
Over several acts, the tragedy of bad filmmaking and worse journalism unfolds: First, the film pretends to expose solar energy as a lie, then it does the same to wind farms and, after that, to biomass. All three renewable energies are ‘debunked’ as inefficient scams, schemes to create new investment opportunities for big money, not doing anything to save nature but actually destroying it in new and even worse ways. Then, it shortly explores the idea of overpopulation as the world’s true problem, before it goes on to accuse prominent leaders of the climate movement, especially the Sierra Club, Bill McKibben and Al Gore, of being puppets of the capitalist industry. The movie ends, after nearly 100 minutes, on the message Michael Moore is selling as its main topic: that the idea of infinite growth will destroy us, renewables or not; that the green movement has been invaded by billionaires and corporations and has turned away from sustainability and towards profit; the only solution left to us is to learn to restrain ourselves, our consumption, find a new, truly sustainable way of life.
The articles linked above are detailed and effective in rebutting the attacks on solar and wind energy. The film really is ridiculously wrong there, using outdated and hair-raisingly skewed data on nearly every single point of a segment that makes up the better half of the entire runtime. Joshi and Fox both call out (rightfully so) the supremacist, neo-colonial idea of depopulation, brought forward by a bunch of white, mainly male, pseudo-experts. They fervently defend Bill McKibben, who himself debunks the implicit accusation of taking money from big corporations.
But sadly, the curiously similar pattern in all of these rebuttals doesn’t end there: None of the three articles or the open letter mentions either the Sierra Club or Al Gore, who feature quite heavily as the arch-villains of green corporate sellout in the last 30 minutes of the movie. Not a single word about them. Neither does any of the critics address the film’s end message of anti-capitalism and degrowth. In short, they are all together ignoring the very part Michael Moore is singling out for his promotional messages. Why?
Granted, Moore’s promotion is misleading. An uncovering of capitalist infiltration is, at best, the film’s underlying sub-plot. For most of the runtime, appallingly crude eco-bashing and dangerous misinformation takes its place. Moore has yet to answer why he has chosen to endorse a film that takes the majority of its argument straight out of the heavy industry lobby’s playbook. But the fact that the critics are so outspoken on some of its aspects and so very silent on others exposes an Achilles heel: The corporate infiltration of the green movement is really happening.
In fact, it has been happening for decades. Earth Day, posing as the movie’s McGuffin, is a good example. Already in 1995, the seminal piece of investigative journalism ‘Toxic Sludge is Good for You’ devoted an entire chapter to ‘The Selling of Earth Day’. Al Gore’s unholy matrimony of green policy and greedy capitalism can easily be retraced online, the same goes for the ultrarich figleaf society of the Sierra Club. Yet in their articles, McKibbens, Fox and Joshi are glaringly reluctant to distance themselves from the likes of Al Gore. Which, in a way, makes them complicit with his kind and thus, perversely, kind of proves Moore right: The green movement is unwilling to concede that turning away from perpetual growth and capitalism is inevitable. The open letters and outcries against ‘Planet of the Humans’ not only create unwarranted attention for a bad movie, they end up playing into its hands.
We should not need such an offensively bad film to shine a light on the problem of capitalism and sustainability. We should be able to shrug this movie off, because it makes even its one valid point exceptionally badly: using ten year old footage of Al Gore, who today is little more than a footnote in the green movement, and ignoring the new global youth and citizen initiatives that refuse to shake the hand of big money and are outspoken in their rejection of the capitalist agenda.
What many expected when Michael Moore endorsed this movie was a thorough unearthing of the corrosive, cancerous infiltration of corporate money and PR into the green movement, singling out the bad sheep and redeeming the true heroes. This kind of film still, urgently, needs to be made. The paradox of ‘sustainable capitalism’ needs to be confronted, not ignored. It will not go away and it will continue to do harm, demonstrated (in maybe its only useful aspect) by the unnecessary controversy and underserved attention surrounding this truly atrocious movie.