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Planet of Capital

Michael Moore’s imperfect documentary Planet of the Humans raises important questions about infinite growth.

by David Bernans

Ape Money
Ape Money

The 2010 launch of the General Motors Chevy Volt electric car is just one of many over-promising under-delivering green PR operations covered in the Jeff Gibbs-directed documentary, Planet of the Humans, presented by Michael Moore. Gibbs pokes fun at GM spokesperson Kristin Zimmerman, when he points out that the Volt is plugged into Michigan’s coal-dependant electric grid.

But what if the grid were greened? What if the car were charged on clean energy instead of dirty coal? Much of the film is dedicated to debunking the very idea of clean power (wind, solar and biomass) and its promoters from Al Gore to Bill McKibben. The critique of biomass is very effective, while Gibbs misses the mark on wind and solar by about a decade. The green capitalist Gore gets some well-deserved comeuppance while attacks on McKibben come across as cheap shots.

More important than the hits and misses of specific techno-criticisms is the very idea that we can engineer our way out of what Planet of the Humans presents as a species-level problem. No matter how efficient the electric car is, no matter how green the grid is, there is no way that life on Earth can sustain the manufacture and operation of personal-use vehicles, electric or otherwise, for even half of the 7.8 billion humans who live on this planet.

This is why many viewers find the film so depressingly pessimistic. In a Malthusian twist at one point in the film, Planet of the Humans actually compares human beings to cockroaches. If we, as humans, are the problem, then what can be done? Clearly, we’re doomed.

On a biological level however, we are actually very similar to our fellow primates whose habitat we see so cruelly destroyed in the film. Our basic needs can be quite handily satisfied by the very generous planet we live on. The problem is not our species. The problem is the way we live.

Much like Greta Thunberg, Gibbs denounces the “fairy tales of eternal economic growth” that we tell ourselves. Those who think we can continue along our current path are the true utopians. But paradoxically, it is Gibbs who comes across as utopian, failing to offer any realistic alternative path to the dystopian story line of Planet of the Humans.

This is no doubt why the far right Breitbart and pro-nuclear enthusiasts have embraced the film. They revel in the takedown of the “left’s green energy scams” while promoting their own reactionary agendas.

Gibbs bursts the bubble of green capitalism’s easy solutions, but he leaves it to us to find more realistic ones.

What follows is a more progressive suggestion. It begins with a proper diagnosis of the problem (capitalism rather than the human species) and concludes with a reasonable solution (eco-socialism).

The origin of both the current ecocide and the fairy tales of eternal economic growth lies, not in human nature, but in the economic necessity of endless capital accumulation. In our political-economy, the law is accumulate or die. Those businesses that fail to accumulate are killed off through a kind of social Darwinism. This makes for an eco-system of very “healthy” giant corporations. Unfortunately, for us as a species, it means we all die. It is not the planet of the humans that is the problem; it is the planet of capital.

It follows that the solution to the problem lies in challenging the power of the political-economic “winners” of the capitalist game that make us all losers. Rather than subsidizing huge capitalist corporations to manufacture electric cars for us to purchase on an individual basis, we should use public resources to create a much more efficient and sustainable public electric transportation system. We need to take apart the huge agribusiness biotech conglomerates and encourage local smaller-scale sustainable farming of healthy affordable food. Billionaires should be taxed out of existence and everybody should get the fair wage they need to live a decent life.

In this time of pandemic and economic crisis, billions of pubic dollars are being funnelled into the ecocidal cruise line industry, the oil industry and the like. This is worse than socialism for the rich; it is socialism for the vampires. It’s time to give real eco-socialism a try.

David Bernans is a Québec-based writer and translator. Follow him on twitter @dbernans.

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