“Planet of the Humans” and the discord amongst us

Just as Planet of the Humans dropped on YouTube, Jeff Deal and I got an email from our friend and colleague Adam Thada. His tone and tenor was my introduction to the film and it foretold of his angst that has now, in the span of eight days, been repeated across progressive media:

So…. I’m interested in your take on Michael Moore’s latest, a take down of Bill McKibben, Sierra Club, et al “big greens”. Looks like some faces from North Carolina interspersed that I suspect you know.

Boy I’d love to have an in-person watch party with you guys.

I could only manage the first 30 minutes, then “light-speed-skipping” through the rest of the film. Maybe my twitter echo chamber soured me to it before I gave it a chance, but it just seems sloppy.

Planet of the Humans has raised a ruckus. It reminded me that I’d flown over the coalfields with Jeff Gibbs, the film’s director, about 20 years ago. Pictured at Chuck Yeager Airport in Charleston, WW.
I watched the film in short fits and starts, finally getting to the end the next day. It was a foggy morning out the window here in the Blue Ridge, and it was most definitely foggy in my brain. Along the way, it reminded me that I’d crossed paths with Jeff Gibbs maybe 20 years ago, so I went back through old digital photos and sure enough we’d taken a Southwings flight over the mountain top removal coalfields of “almost level” West Virginia. Proof positive that Gibbs had an interest of some sort in the coal industry’s desecration of mountains. So that zero-degree of separation got me thinking about the film a little bit more.

There’s been plenty of criticism and debunking, and I’ll leave that to those who’ve already cast their stones (e.g. here and here and here). And most significantly, since he’s one of the main targets in the film, I’m adding Bill McKibben’s rejoinder out in Rolling Stone yesterday. Even if the film gets the facts terribly wrong, even if we assume that bad actors or bad intent are behind the film, it also raises some valid questions around greenwashing. And maybe it raises some even more basic questions. Here are a few of my thoughts, none of which endorse the film nor refute the critics.

Adam’s capstone criticism was Gibbs’ omission of a solution or any thoughts toward one:

If we are seeking moral purity to this extent… why show videos of yourself driving around in gasoline cars? Posting a documentary on YouTube? It doesn’t add up.
Ok, great, I get it. You pointed out the hypocrisy. Did you develop AND scale a solution? Did you try?

So here we are in this immense struggle now, trying, working against what seems like are huge forces including ticking time. Gut check. My reflexive outcome was to affirm that we’re still right in trying to implement concrete solutions like the community solar we advocate and help develop. And this is where there’s no direct line to perfection. We know there are issues with module manufacturing, for example, but the net energy gain is well worth the investment. The film did make me “double-check my data and assumptions” on the lifecycle impacts of something like solar versus coal or gas. The results? Nothing we have so far is free of ecological or human costs but solar, wind and storage are orders of magnitude better than fossil fuels. I’m still comfortable putting my life energy into sustainability, developing community solar, and ending the plague of burning things and calling it progress. It’s not a full solution but it’s a piece with a lot of other requirements, some of which include:

1. Conflict minerals aren’t called that for nothing and we shouldn’t erase the human suffering and exploitation and ecological devastation involved. (For example, here.) The public just isn’t even aware of this. If we’re going to use these finite pieces of earth we need to recognize this and replace deadly exploitive practices with more human and equitable options. As my friend and colleague, Bucky Black, reminded me, oil and gas may not be considered to be “conflict minerals” but they sure are sources of conflict, destruction and misery, and have been for a long, long time.

2. We have to reduce consumption as opposed perpetuating the magic thinking of endless consumption because of “our way of life” (a certain infamous politician’s utterance leading up to the invasion of Iraq). I like Ivan Illich’s idea of communities in search of limits and at what cost to others?

3. Sure, I don’t want to drive my Nissan Leaf on coal. I want consumers to know the difference between driving on sunshine and driving on coal, natural gas or nukes. For sure, I don’t want ICE-powered vehicles on the road any more. Moreover, I want us all to move around less. Period. We do not need more highways and more electric vehicles congesting them because that leads to more bad land use, more sprawl, more consumption. We ought to be reorienting our economic, social and ecological systems toward local, regional, and bioregional cooperation where movement of people and things are optimized.

4. No doubt the population question is a dangerous one now simply because of the veiled solutions to it promulgated by racist/supremacist thinking.

5. Here’s where maybe Gibbs’ movie has some meaning that all of us discordant folks could agree on- the capitalist world system got us into this mess and it’s only digging the hole deeper. It’s just that the film may carelessly throw renewables under the same bus that some may quarrel with, and I think ultimately that’s fair game but it’s not to suggest that fossil fuel talking points are valid. Here’s what I mean– In our little world experience in financing solar for nonprofits, we’ve seen the predators calling themselves “impact investors.” Certainly not always the case by any means, but big, capitalist solar isn’t better than big fossil fuel on the democracy front. To make the point, the extreme example would be to question the morality and usefulness of, say, solar powered warmaking. What good does that do for us?

6. “Big green” is by definition constrained by #5. Something more critical and more rooted in everyday consciousness and a deep system change is preferrable. The greening of business-as-usual won’t cut it. Organizations make their bets with the devil though and surely funding drives them, with strings attached.

7. Burning trees for energy at an industrial scale is a bad idea. When we need more forest for CO2 uptake the last thing we ought to be doing is mowing them down in the Amazon, eastern North Carolina or anywhere on the planet.

8. We are making massive technological progress in terms of efficiencies in renewable energy generation. The 1970’s was a long time ago and that’s a good thing!

9. For me it all boils down to the possibility that we can have a change of heart; that we can shift our values at a social and planetary level away from passive and uneven consumption to something equitable and sustainable, and frankly, better. Technologies alone won’t save us whether you take the position that Planet of the Humans is flawed or prescient.

Meanwhile, disaster capitalism is looting and ravaging people and planet at a speed our naked eye can’t detect. So despite the shortcomings and discord amongst us, we’ve got to keep pushing, learning and improving.

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