Planet of the Humans
Planet of the Humans begins with a question many of us may have asked ourselves: “How much time do we humans have?” Jeff Gibbs puts this to people on the street. Their answers range from “I don’t know” to “ten years” to “a million” to “we’ll survive, but not as human beings.” This is followed by a clip from Unchained Goddess, a 1958 film by Frank Capra made for Bell Labs explaining that global warming, as climate change was then called, could melt the ice caps. The warning is clear, and brings home how catastrophically we, at least in the U.S., have failed to stop or even slow climate change.Gibbs underscores the point with in-your-face close-ups of calving glaciers.
Few documentaries begin more powerfully, but Gibbs quickly gets bogged down in the obvious: solar panels don’t always deliver energy when it rains; in many places electric cars must be recharged with electricity from coal-fired plants; Obama was never a strong advocate for climate. None of this is news, but Gibbs treats each item as if it was a shocking, closely guarded secret that he is revealing to the public for the first time.
He goes on in the same spirit to show that solar energy has carbon costs, and that Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Bill McKibben once supported biomass. Gibbs implies that they can’t be trusted and that most environmental leaders are con artists, eager to take money from billionaire donors. Climate leaders, biomass, and renewable energy need to be criticized, but Gibbs comes across less as an avenging angel than as a man possessed by partial truths and much too quick to judge.
However, he is right to claim that replacing fossil fuels with other kinds of energy is far more difficult than Al Gore says. Capitalism runs on fossil fuels, and is global, hegemonic, and efficient in neutralizing or appropriating opposition. Today's renewable technologies are extensions of capitalism, which may mean that “green growth” is a contradiction in terms.
Gibbs says that “somehow we’ve got to cut back”, but beyond that offers no solutions. He calls economic growth “suicide”, in which case humanity’s only hope is a wide-ranging revolution, but he says nothing about how it might come about. We live in a time when revolution has been largely reduced to advertising copy, so Planet of the Humans’s silence about revolution creates the impression that as a practical matter we have no way out. We are headed for planetary collapse.
Which we may be. Gibbs conjures collapse but does not address it. Nor does he address environmental despair, or what it might mean if new beginnings must be paid for with a die-off. Instead he lashes out at environmentalists’ daydreams, hypocrisies, and shibboleths, which beg for criticism, but are secondary matters at the very most when compared with collapse and human survival.
Confused intentions mark Planet of the Humans, but it has moments of impressive cinematography. I have already mentioned the opening. There is also a dazzling sequence of images that show industrial processes behind electric vehicles. Whether this sequence creates an entirely accurate picture of the costs of these vehicles is another matter. Successful documentary depends on building audience trust, but Gibbs does not do it. For example, when he claims that renewables provide intermittent energy, he is clearly telling only part of the story. Solar and wind are intermittent, hydroelectric and geothermal are not. The Pacific Northwest, where I live, is powered largely by hydroelectric. The documentary’s many factual errors, few qualifiers, and refusal to give praise where praise is due, sometimes produce the sense that among its many problems, the film is an exercise in passing along pain.
Gibbs has been unfairly criticized for pointing out that Earth has too many people. It is true he fails to acknowledge that in the U.S., claims of “too many people” have a terrible history of meaning too many people who are not Anglo-Saxon Protestants: too many Catholics, Irish, Jews, East Asians, Slavs, Southern Europeans, Blacks, Latinx and other peoples of color – the list is long. However, to assume that numbers do not count ecologically, or that all they require is better distribution of resources, is wishful thinking. The eight billion people alive today are severely straining ecological systems and contributing to the sixth mass extinction. The so-called developed world drives environmental destruction, but it is happening even in places where per capita carbon footprints are low. Painful and contentious as the subject of population is, we would be wise to find ways to talk about it.
The documentary ends with footage of orangutans clinging to a snag, the last remnant of an Indonesian forest that has been transformed into a sea of mud to make way for a palm oil plantation. The images of devastation, and of highly conscious, peaceful creatures suffering absolute loss because of human activities, are some of the saddest I have ever seen. Planet of the Humans ends in grief and horror.
A convention of climate documentaries is to end on upbeat notes. An Inconvenient Truth is the famous example. In stark contrast, Planet of the Humans manifests despair. Despair is implicit throughout the film, but until the very end is muffled, rendered impotent by distractions, and overlaid by anger.
What derails Planet of the Humans is less its anger or factual errors than unexplored despair.How many projects today are derailed by environmental despair? It needs documentaries of its own. I would go well out of my way to see a film with Roy Scranton, Elizabeth Kolbert, Joanna Macy, Jared Diamond, Tim DeChristopher, and psychologists and spiritual leaders who are seeking to understand how our inner lives are affected by what is happening to the planet. We need to know what people from all walks of life are thinking and feeling. A documentary that engages environmental despair and the awful grief of climate change would not be Planet of the Humans, but could be medicine for what ails us.