Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door in Wittenberg, decrying the indulgence racket of a corrupt Church. Michael Moore, who despite the resemblance, is no Martin Luther, attempts something similar in 95 minutes of documentary bluster, aiming his invective at the high church of Environmentalism. Planet of the Humans is an exposé—a clarion call to the faithful, perhaps—that purports to reveal a squalid coterie of promoters of lies about green energy. And to a large extent, it is successful—demonstrating that the kind of green-energy penances we have been trained to accept to “save the earth” are empty at best or, worse, counterproductive.
Let me preface this by noting that an even moderately favorable review of a Michael Moore documentary was not, shall we say, a realistic expectation of mine. But here it is: a moderately favorable review. The style in Planet of the Humans is vintage Moore: gallingly smug, rife with misleading edits, plagued with poorly researched loose ends that bolster simplistic demonizations. Predictably Mooreish propaganda. All the same, he can be credited with calling a bluff: most of what we’ve been told about the environmental benefits of “green” energy is, to quote a favorite phrase in the film, “bullshit.” Not that this is any deep revelation—it’s the sort of thing people like Matt Ridley, Michael Shellenberger, and Andrew Morriss have been saying for years. But this time the revelation is coming from deep within the fold of the Left, and this alone makes the film worth watching.
Moore (or more accurately, Jeff Gibbs and Ozzie Zehner, his sometime partners in crime) sets out to peel back the fatuous mask of vested self-interest, doing so with his typically agonizing, cringeworthy finesse. Instead of corporate bigwigs (Roger & Me), gun owners (Bowling for Columbine), or healthcare providers (Sicko), the target is the Green Establishment and its promoters of glittering solar arrays, platinum blonde wind turbines, and silky-smooth electric cars. Erstwhile heroes of the ecosphere like Bill McKibben, Robert Kennedy, Van Jones, and Al Gore come across so decidedly venal that it’s almost comical.
According to the film’s promoters, it is “. . . the wake-up call to the reality we are afraid to face, . . . that techno-fixes and band-aids” are not only not sustainable but often downright counterproductive. Wind energy? Decidedly inefficient and a major contributor to industrial waste. Solar? A landscape gobbler and subsidy sponge that makes a few highly connected billionaires into multi-billionaires. Biomass? Intensely polluting while requiring the felling of entire forests. Electric Cars? Coal-fired transportation masquerading as an eco-friendly alternative. And so on. The solar plant at Ivanpah, the Green Mountain windmill farm in Vermont, biomass generators apparently everywhere—all of them come under close scrutiny and do not come away unscathed.
The film asks, “Have we environmentalists fallen for illusions, ‘green’ illusions, that are anything but green, because we’re scared that this is the end—and we’ve pinned all our hopes on biomass, wind turbines, and electric cars?” Are we desperate to accept “anything green” on the slimmest of credentials merely because it comes packaged with the right buzzwords? After the dawning realization that all of what he believed about green energy was fabricated or exaggerated, Gibbs says it poignantly enough: “Wait . . . I felt like my head was going to explode.”
But Moore’s real enemies, lest we imagine some Road-to-Damascus moment, are his usual ones: capitalism and human beings. A description of the film conspiratorially says:
Removed from the debate [over environmentalism] is the only thing that MIGHT save us: getting a grip on our out-of-control human presence and consumption. Why is this not THE issue? Because that would be bad for profits, bad for business.
The film, then, is essentially a screed against the “takeover of environmentalism by capitalism.” The cast of villains is still (predictably) the Koch Brother[s], big business executives, and tough-looking security goons. The difference this time is that Planet of the Humans adds many of the darlings of the environmental establishment to the rogues’ gallery. The high priesthood of pure eco-consciousness has been tainted, we are told, by the omnipresent profit motive. Filthy lucre has suffused the hallowed halls of environmental do-goodism, and only a return to a purer, misanthropic past can prevent spiritual decay and Armageddon. By minute 46 we are presented with the inescapable conclusion: “population” is the problem, and reining in human impact, preferably through a “major die-off,” is the only answer.
The film isn’t all gloom, of course. Moore & Co. are clever enough to recognize the power of humor. What makes the film emotionally effective (as in all of Moore’s films), is its use of bathos: moving unpredictably from the comically trivial to the tragically imperative. One moment we chuckle at camera-toting trespassers cheekily turning down a roaring security guard’s offer to “chat,” and the next moment we are brought to tears with footage of orangutans scrabbling through a cut-over wasteland.
Ozzie Zehner, as virtual tour-guide, presents an affable, sensible, and even cheerful recurring camera presence (in contrast to Gibbs’ dour voiceover). In a vignette that highlights the internal contradictions within the green community, he says he is sometimes seen as the enemy of progressives merely for pointing out the inconsistencies in what are deemed “sustainable solutions.” After carefully describing the chemistry and industrial processes of making solar panels, he gets a hearty ironic laugh: “The funny part is, when you criticize a [solar] plant like this, you get accused of working for the Koch Brothers.” One can’t shake the conviction that the filmmakers, like all gadflies, have become addicted to the taste of blood, and allies will do as well as enemies.
Perhaps the most revealing and introspective thrust of the film arrives midway. Gibbs muses aloud: “the Right has religion, could we have a religion we didn’t know about?” He goes on in this vein, stoking a lapsarian flame by wondering if we are “poised for a fall from an unimaginable height.” The implied remedy to this fall from grace is a “radical” turn away from capitalism. Coming from Moore at least, who is purported to be worth $55 million, this seems a bit rich. How much of the clever editing excoriating the wealthy was done in Moore’s 10,000 square-foot Torch Lake home? Or his Manhattan apartment complex? Or any of his other eight homes? It is, of course, irrelevant, but for someone who spends a great deal of time revealing moral conflicts of interest, Moore seems surprisingly insulated from deep introspection. Planet of the Humans is Luther selling indulgences.
The film reveals a distinct warp in the modern Left: the radical elements are so far removed from their mainstream allies that they’ve come to see their fellow progressives as part of the vast right-wing conspiracy. Environmental policy professor Leah Stokes laments the film’s twisting of basic facts: “We are used to climate science misinformation campaigns from fossil fuel corporations. But from progressive filmmakers?” So yes, in a way it’s refreshing to see Moore’s lens pointed at glib, self-satisfied elites on the other end of the spectrum for a change. I’d wager, however, that Planet of the Humans won’t be shortlisted for an Oscar like his other films.
It’s still essentially unfair though—like all the best propaganda, it has enough truth behind it to keep it propped up and presentable, but like Stalin’s corpse in the Hall of Columns it lacks a certain conviction. Moore & Co. never really give either the technologies or the people working on them a fair shake. YouTube’s Now You Know does an effective partial debunking, rightfully pointing out that (for instance) solar has come a long way since the initial filming and panels can be mounted on roofs, instead of enormous farms. But green progressives’ testy rebuttals to Moore’s film tend rather to emphasize the film’s premise (that “green” will brook no dissent) while simultaneously ignoring real, constructive options for a cleaner energy future. Neither the film nor its lefty detractors spend a single minute discussing new-generation nuclear, for instance, a viable and effective alternative both to the “legacy” energy industry as well as the ineffective “green” one.
This leads us to the film’s biggest failing, which is its fundamental misperception of humanity’s impact on the planet. Suggesting vows of poverty as absolution for the sins of an “out of control” species is both demeaning and unlikely to gain traction. Yes, a great deal can and should be said about our collective, consumptive habits. A great deal more could be said about harnessing human creativity and goodwill toward prosperity and environmental stability.
As provocative dramatization, Planet of the Humans fits the Moore template and therefore serves its purpose. As serious and constructive analysis, however, it doesn’t offer much. It has revealed many of the shams behind green energy, and for that it is to be commended. Perhaps Moore & Co. honestly believe that this film will be a call to the faithful toward a more ascetic form of eco-worship. It worked for Luther, after all. But I sincerely doubt Planet of the Humans will accomplish this—those who live (handsomely) by skewering other people’s sacred cows may find themselves friendless and alone.