Planet of the Humans, directed by Jeff Gibbs but featuring Michael Moore as its “presenter”, has been viewed by almost five and a half million people since it popped up on YouTube last month. In case you haven’t heard, it’s quite a provocation, and the response from almost every quarter of the environmental movement has been outrage. It traffics in disinformation and scurrilous personal attacks, they say, and I can’t argue. Two big problems: it falsely claims that more carbon is emitted over the lifespan of a photovoltaic cell than by generating the same energy through fossil fuels, and it uses dishonest editing techniques to portray activist Bill McKibben as having sold out to billionaire ecological exploiters. You can read about the misrepresentations elsewhere; my point is that, whatever else it is, the film is a logically consistent statement of the de-growth position.
Alas, much of the “left” has concluded that the chief obstacle to meeting our climate and other environmental challenges is the “capitalist” faith in economic growth. Capitalism requires growth, they say, and growth is destroying the earth, therefore we must abolish capitalism and embrace de-growth. Anything less is a sellout.
This philosophy is central to Planet; twice (at least) Gibbs proclaims, “You can’t have endless growth on a finite planet.” He shows charts depicting human population and consumption growth that portray us as a metastasizing cancer. Early in the film, when he’s setting the tone for what’s to come, he asks, “Is it possible for machines made by industrial civilization to save us from industrial civilization?”
But movies are not just words; they make their arguments visually as well. Planet has horrific scenes of mining and logging, as well as speeded up, frenzied shots of manufacturing, warehousing and shipping. It ends with heartbreaking footage of doomed orangutans amid a wasteland of deforestation. The message is clear: human use of nature is a travesty, and any activity that imposes a cost on Mother Earth is immoral.
There are two fundamental problems with this worldview. The first is that it is based on the mistaken idea that all economic value derives from the despoliation of nature, the second that it can’t be implemented by a viable program. Let’s look at each.
While Gibbs is the director and narrator of the film, its guru is one Ozzie Zehner, not only interviewed on camera as an expert but also, remarkably, its producer as well. Zehner is the author of a book entitled Green Illusions, and he has drunk deeply from the de-growth Kool Aid. In an article he wrote a year after his book, he announces
The cost of manufactured goods ultimately boils down to two things: natural resource extraction, and profit. Extraction is largely based on fossil-fuel inputs. Profit, in this broad stroke, is essentially a promise to extract more in the future. Generally speaking, if a supposedly green machine costs more than its conventional rival, then more resources had to be claimed to make it possible.
There it is, quite directly: economic value equals resource use. Truly, this can only be called an anti-labor theory of value. If I see two chairs in a store, one for $60 and the other for $600, the second has to consume about ten times the resources of the first—as if human skill, knowledge and care have nothing to do with it. Crazy, but that’s what you have to believe if you think that the only way to reduce our burden on nature is to de-grow consumption. (The alternative, of course, is to replace the degradation of the natural world by an expansion of the application of human skill, knowledge and care.)
Meanwhile, the attack on renewable energy, anti-factual as it is, is of a piece with this deep-seated hostility to “industrial civilization”. If economic production is the enemy, then how can green energy technologies, which embody this production in themselves and allow us to continue consuming energy-using products, be OK? There has to be something wrong with them, and mere evidence can’t be allowed to get in the way. Imagine trying to make a movie along the general lines of Planet without these attacks on wind and solar installations. Can’t be done.
The other problem is that, aside from economic catastrophes like the 2008 financial crisis and the current coronavirus shutdown, there isn’t a way to implement the de-growth “program”. And that’s what we see in the movie, too. At the end, as we stare at those soulful orangutans, we feel a load of guilt but no sense of what we can do about it. If the underlying problem is too many people, who among us should be chosen for extermination? Or if it’s too much consumption, who will be made to cut back and what will they have to give up? Or is there no program at all but just a mood, apologetic for who we are and how we live?
The worst thing that can happen to an irrational idea is for it to be taken seriously and followed to its conclusions. That’s the fate of de-growtherism and Planet of the Humans.