Planet of Yahoos

Is looking frankly at planetary limits... off-limits? A review of the new Jeff Gibbs / Michael Moore film, Planet of the Humans

Norm Reynolds

After seeing the controversial Michael Moore produced/Jeff Gibbs directed film Planet of the Humans you may ask yourself, as I did, why is this so incendiary? Why can’t Moore and Gibbs suggest that green energy sources like solar and wind come with inherent limits and challenges that make them less than the panacea we imagine them to be, without igniting such truculent opposition from so many, and from such vastly differing perspectives?

I have to admit that at first, it seemed picayune to me for the film to accusingly point out founder Bill McKibben’s support for biomass as alternative energy, when in fact McKibben had publicly renounced his support for clear cutting forests to burn as a replacement for coal in thermal electricity generation many years ago. However, after thinking about this for some time, I realized that Gibbs, rather than attacking McKibben, was trying to dramatize how sometimes what we want to believe gets in the way of our understanding of what is actually happening.

The idea of burning clear-cut trees (with a few tires and garbage thrown in) as a “green energy” alternative to coal was never a good idea but, quite understandably, there was a time when any alternative to mountaintop removing, air polluting, greenhouse-gas belching coal looked like a desirable possibility.

McKibben’s long-ago support for biomass is not about corruption, it is a succinct reminder that sometimes our longing for a workable alternative can cloud our vision of how clean the perceived alternative really is.

The real, profound, pervasive reason that Planet of the Humans is so despised and verbally spat upon by left, right, and centre is that it says the unspeakable, unthinkable truth that the current growth rate of the human population with its ever-increasing consumption/pollution of the natural world is not sustainable, or even survivable. To even murmur such a thing is to incur the most grievous possible wrath from all sides.

Human populations have grown so exponentially that small increments of time now yield huge increases in human numbers.

There seems to be no limit to the perspectives from which attacks on Planet of the Humans can be mounted. All of them appear as camouflage to hide from ourselves the fact we cannot imagine a human future without ever-increasing numbers of people on Earth consuming ever-increasing amounts of “resources” and leaving behind ever-mounting mountains of garbage.

Human populations have grown so exponentially that small increments of time now yield huge increases in human numbers. Worse yet, as the human population explodes, the rate at which humans convert Earth’s living systems to toxic waste and garbage advances as a multiple of the increasing population – ever pushing toward what is blithely called “population die-off” – which means The End for our grandchildren.

Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson estimates that 30,000 species per year (or three species per hour) are being driven to extinction. Compare this to the natural background rate of one extinction per million species per year, and you can see why scientists refer to it as a crisis unparalleled in human history.

We want to keep growing our numbers and our greedy habits so we choose to believe leaders on the left and right that tell us to forget the stop signs, forget the obviously impending collapse, we’re magical creatures: the math of exponential growth just doesn’t apply to us. We can have it all – isn’t that what our leaders across the political spectrum tell us?

From the right we hear that it’s all just hysteria; there is no problem. Why worry about melting ice, who knows what treasures we might be able to dig up when the ice is gone? From the left we hear that population, pollution and resource depletion are not a problem as long as we do it the green way, to ever-increasing economic growth. The Green New Deal will save us from our population and pollution problems just as Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s saved the US from an end to capitalism. Growth, in and of itself, is not the problem. Forget old-fashioned math. With a little greenwashing of our economy we can, after all, have it all, rich or poor. It is amazing how the discussion of what is enough and how much can our Earth can give/take has been buried beneath the idea of an ever-expanding green economy.

The left’s most enlightened ask how can the Earth’s most rapacious populations even think of cutting back on resource consumption until the world’s underprivileged populations have had a minimally just share of the Earth’s bounties?

Then along come Gibbs and Moore telling us what we don’t want to hear – there is a limit to growth on a finite planet. In our hearts we know he is right, and therein lies the rub: if we let in even a little of the message of Planet of the Humans, a great river of unconscious wisdom may just come rushing out and we will have to admit (first of all to ourselves) that we are wrong, we have been deceived by our own greed as well as the more organized greeds of others – there really is a limit to how much of the Earth we can pillage. There is a limit to how many humans Planet Earth can support.

The thing about Planet of the Humans that is so terrifying is that it doesn’t just point to one group or one action, it very blatantly says there are limits to how much of humanity and our greedy ways planet Earth will take. We need to re-envision what we do, how we do it, AND how much our beleaguered planet can endure without succumbing, rather than just painting over the old ways with a thin green veneer.

The problem isn’t that Bill McKibben once endorsed biomass for electrical generation. The problem is that under the ruse of green growth we have lost sight of the fact that too much is too much no matter what colour you paint it. If Planet of the Humans can reignite that urgent discussion, it might just save us from becoming a Planet of Extinct Yahoos.


Norm Reynolds, a Unitarian lay chaplain and author of Song of the Sacred, has been an environmental activist in British Columbia for over thirty years.

This article appears in our Summer 2020 issue.








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