There’s been quite a bit of controversy over the recent documentary Planet of the Humans by Jeff Gibbs and Michael Moore. The film has been rejected by many wholesale, because of its take-down of Bill McKibben and 350, and because of inaccurate or out-of-date accounting of the latest renewable technology. Many others deride their focus on overpopulation without also pointing out the racist attitudes of those who saw the problem this way in the past.
I will address these three concerns—I think they all have merit. But I also want to conduct a review in the truest sense—a looking again, to make sure that the powerful truth of the film is not lost as we scrutinize its flaws. Briefly stated, the powerful truth is this: we will not be able to save this civilization simply by switching out our fossil-fuel-based energy system for a renewable one, or, at least not “renewable” in the sense that it is currently understood. The crisis we are in runs far deeper than just the energy source of our machines. It permeates the undergirding of our civilization. It is a crisis within the systems and stories that our species uses to meet its needs.
The system is a globally integrated, digitized, industrialized capitalist domination hierarchy. The story is that high-technology is superior to nature and that high-energy, high-impact solutions will abolish all work, suffering and uncertainty for humans. The story is that endless economic growth and the enrichment of those at the top will, in the end, serve the wellness of all beings and that all problems will be solved when we fully master and tame nature, so that she serves our dictates.
Even if we create “free” energy (the promise of nuclear advocates and other technophiles), we will keep pace towards our own destruction if we do not address the system and the story that rule our world.
At Extinction Rebellion it is part of our ethos that we tell the truth. We no longer consent to tip-toeing towards “progress” while our friends are suffocating around us. When we look at the facts, we can see clearly we are fucked. We are no longer bound by the ideology that all viewpoints are equally valid. Nothing less than the absolute truth is worthy of our attention now.
We can debate about the relative efficiency rates of “renewables”, but at the end of the day, high-technologies (by which I mean complex, electric- and combustion-intensive processes) by their nature create a global caste system. Only some will have access to the resources, centralized, capital-intensive manufacturing and highly specialized labor necessary to supply such “goods.” Any community dependent on them will not know true sovereignty. High technology is colonization. And colonization heats the planet.
But can’t we just fix the social and economic conditions that make high-tech that way? Keep the baby, lose the bathwater? We could keep plugging away like this—by addressing the system’s flaws within the system, according to the rules of those who benefit most. Or, we could make the problem obsolete, by simply declaring independence, and changing the stories and systems we live by.
The only truly green solar panel is a leaf. The plants that have existed on this Earth for millions of years know how to heal her, and they should be regarded as our elders. They also have the means to partner with human culture, to provide communities with every measure of well-being and abundance.
Gandhi famously said that when challenging domination systems, first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. Today, if a future civilization based on biological energy systems is brought up at all, it is usually as an object of ridicule. But the sniggers (and sometimes outrage) cover up the fact that the ridiculers don’t have anything close to a decent critical response.
In the industrial worldview, overpopulation is a problem because each individual human imposes an ecological burden on the planet. But in a world where each individual is relating to the Earth—doing simple, manual work to heal her—most of us become an asset to it, not a burden. Humans would turn from a carbon dump into a carbon sink, as it were. We have more hands and more knowledge than at any time before in human history. Economist E.F. Schumacher advocated “production by the masses” as opposed to mass production. It is time we listened to him, for the sake of justice, peace, liberty and beauty.
If we were sensible beings, we would be melting down tanks to make high-quality hand tools, to empower communities to create wealth and beauty in a way that uplifts all life. We would create a concept of “development” that didn’t mean just getting a share of the plunder.
It is a trademark of Michael Moore’s story-telling style that there always needs to be a villain. This is a powerful organizing tactic and has arguments to be made in its defense. But ultimately it suffers from the same pitfalls that befall other high-energy solutions and even Moore’s own critics which have come out in force in response to the film. This villainization of the problem creates domination hierarchies and negative side-effects. That’s why at XRA we avoid shaming and blaming. It’s unfortunate that Bill McKibben was targeted in Planet of the Humans, as if shutting down 350 were the answer to our planet’s woes. The activist left must stop cannibalizing itself and get serious about addressing the structures that are actually leading us to our collective death.
I am not here to promote an ideology or utopia. XRA doesn’t endorse any solutions to our crisis except real democracy. But democracy doesn’t thrive unless accompanied by vast discussions about what is true, what we value together, how we are being bullshitted, and where our fear is preventing us from seeing what’s in front of us. In this respect, Planet of the Humans is highly valuable.
Rebel for life—that means we challenge our toxic system, and build a civilization that centers life and democracy to replace it.