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Will our civilisation negotiate this turn?

Panel reviews

Will our civilisation negotiate this turn?

25. 9. 2020 / AUTHOR: Kamila Boháčková
American documentarian Jeff Gibbs’ activist film Planet of the Humans, which criticises the way we treat renewable energy sources, has evoked numerous controversial reactions. It’s no surprise that the producer is well-known filmmaker Michael Moore, who released the film freely on YouTube on Earth Day, when the worldwide corona virus pandemic was at its peak.

In an interview with dok.revue, the film was discussed by ecological economist Naďa Johanisová (NJ) from the Department of Environmental Studies at Masaryk University in Brno, priest and biologist Marek Orko Vácha (MOV), and Pavel Bednařík (PB), chairman of the Association for Film and Audiovisual Education, film publicist, and director of the cinema Kino Pohoda in Jeseník.

What’s your impression of Jeff Gibbs’ new film? Supporters claim he’s stirred up a hornets’ nest, but critics accuse him of manipulating the facts.

NJ: I think it’s an important film which touches on something crucial, but a lot of people misunderstood him. To me, Jeff Gibbs is saying that renewable energy sources aren’t our ultimate salvation and that they could even prove problematic if we focus on them as the sole path to the economic transformation which is needed in order to save the planet. The film points to a lot of other issues as well, for example the impossibility of endless economic growth, the ever-growing population, and the need for a more modest lifestyle. 

Why do you think the film was misunderstood?

NJ: Gibbs’ film rather vehemently criticises renewable energy sources, but somewhat less vehemently emphasises that ecological problems are a given in our current system. There’s also a lack of hope in the film, so I think a lot of people dismiss it as pessimistic. And it makes little reference to any local solutions. It judges renewable energy sources too harshly and lumps them all together, for example juxtaposing a massive project in the Nevada desert against a small community burning wood for fuel.

Do you agree?

PB: The film is shot and edited in a way that makes a strong impact on the viewer. No one will walk out feeling indifferent, which is a mark of the Mooreian documentary style, if we can call it that. But all the same, for me it creates a feeling of anxiety from how it forcibly directs the viewer toward a particular worldview while at the same time attempting to create the impression that it provides factual information – that it’s balanced and relevant in some way. If a person is unable to critically comprehend the film’s message, they might get the impression that renewable energy is a new evil. I do agree that the film offers very little in the way of hope or solutions, and that it lumps all types of renewable energy together. I also felt the absence of any kind of personal level in Gibbs’ film. He speaks about corporations, the powerful elites, and global influences, but there’s no reference to how individual households, small farmers, or small organisations are utilising renewable energy sources. This could be due to the fact that the film originates from the United States, where this individual aspect is greatly suppressed.

Planet of the Humans

MOV: The film made an incredibly uncertain impression on me. It’s the same kind of propaganda as Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11 from 2004. Gibbs also blends pure truth with pure lies and a number of half-truths. I think he’s right to point out that renewable energy is not a new religion, but it’s also good to appreciate that we’re looking for alternatives to fossil fuels. The film simply ignores the fact that with renewable energy sources we’re moving forward. For instance, in Australia they’re making great strides with solar power. When there was a shot of a dying orangutan at the end of the film, a chill ran down my spine – not because I was moved, but because it seemed manipulative and inappropriate. I agree with the critique which said that much like fossil fuels, this film would be better left buried deep beneath the earth. I see it more as a missed chance because it comes across as so manipulative. One example is right at the beginning of the film. He shows a concert promoting solar power and then exposes that they have diesel generators in case of rain. But that’s not an argument against renewable energy! It’s okay as propaganda, but not as a film which is meant to objectively map out the situation. What’s more, the film offers no solutions. What kind of energy are we supposed to use then? Nuclear? Coal?

NJ: I would disagree with this. I think the director is warning us against viewing renewable energy as a cure-all. He’s criticising the stance which says that simply changing our technology will suffice, and then we can continue in this system which increases production and consumption and often exports costs, leading to the extraction of materials from countries of the global South to countries of the global North. In the film Gibbs uses the example of bioethanol, which is produced in southern Brazil using soybeans, the cultivation of which requires the clear-cutting of forests and the expulsion of the land’s original inhabitants. It’s necessary to take these social contexts into account as well. It’s not enough to simply lower our energy consumption or switch to an alternative source. We have to revise the entire story of economic growth. The film questions, though not explicitly, the present direction of our civilisation and tells us that switching to renewable energy is not enough – the change has to be deeper.

"It creates a feeling of anxiety from how it forcibly directs the viewer toward a particular worldview while at the same time attempting to create the impression that it provides factual information."

MOV: That’s true. We often hear the metaphor that humanity is in a car headed toward a cliff, and by switching to renewable resources we’re only tapping the brakes, not changing the fundamental direction of our civilization. I agree that it’s no solution to use more environmentally friendly resources while consuming the same amount or even more. We need to stop that metaphorical car and put it in reverse, which means a change of lifestyle or values, to quote environmentalist Hana Librová. But the film only offers one very problematic solution – to decrease the birth rate because there are simply too many of us on the planet. However, this is pretty debatable because, for example, the birth rate in Western Europe is stagnating, but in developing countries it’s growing. To me it seems that the film provides a simple solution to an extremely complex and difficult problem.

Could the current pandemic be a reason to reassess our civilization’s direction? It’s said that we now have the time and opportunity to give some thought to our lives…

NJ: Living through the pandemic has shaken our certainties, but it’s good to emphasise that this pandemic is the result of our  unsustainable lifestyle – we’re destroying the last remnants of the rainforests and wiping out their biotopes, which leads to viruses and their hosts moving and coming into contact with humans. A change of lifestyle is one thing, but what’s needed is a change of narrative – it’s a mistake to think that the capitalist system works and that it merely needs a little tweaking. It’s not so. We need to re-evaluate our basic economic postulates, which goes against the interests of the powerful elites. Planet of the Humans, much like the films of Michael Moore, opposes some form of power that strives to maintain the status quo.

Planet of the Humans

MOV: I think that in the Czech Republic the pandemic didn’t last long enough, nor was the crisis deep enough, for us to change our way of thinking or lifestyle. The impact was too shallow to spark a change, although the economic consequences will catch up with us yet. I was originally a molecular biologist, and from that perspective, pandemics have accompanied mankind from time immemorial.

Michael Moore published Gibbs’ film on YouTube right in the middle of the pandemic when it could garner the greatest amount of attention. So far, the film has been viewed eight and a half million times. Do you think the method of distribution and its timing also played a part in this heightened interest in the film?

PB: I don’t know if we can talk about some sort of universal lesson in connection with the publishing of a film on YouTube during a pandemic. Eight and a half million people is a tiny fraction of viewers worldwide. Besides, the film was mostly watched by those who already think about their impact on the environment and are seeking a solution. For many viewers, the film’s hopelessness instead induces panic or erodes their confidence in renewable energy sources. But the film stops halfway even from a film industry perspective. It tries to find a new, decentralised path to viewers. For me, as someone working in the film industry, changing the existing system is unimaginable. As soon as we remove classic distributors and cinemas from the game, the whole system starts to collapse. Putting a film on YouTube isn’t an expression of independence. It’s dependence on a corporation, from whose viewership the film producer profits. This film would be better suited to screening in cinemas or at festivals, but always with an accompanying discussion so that it could actually influence the audience’s thinking. As it is, it’s just random viewings, from which everyone can take what they like.

"I agree with the critique which said that much like fossil fuels, this film would be better left buried deep beneath the earth."

NJ: Nevertheless, releasing the film on YouTube was beneficial in that anyone who wanted to see it could do so. That’s another reason the film had a strong influence in the environmental and post-development communities in which I’m involved, and it contributed to the refining of opinions and elicited a series of discussions.

MOV: I would also only screen this film with a discussion. I find it unpleasant when the film criticises Bill McKibben or Al Gore, who are icons of the environmental movement, and they can’t defend themselves. It seems disrespectful. Showing how environmentalists are connected with capital can also discourage the viewer from sympathising with the environmental movement. Again, the result is hopelessness – everything is terrible, people only care about profit, there’s no solution, corruption is everywhere.

Planet of the Humans

American environmentalist Bill McKibben reacted to the film in a text claiming that Gibbs’ film is literally a bomb thrown into the ranks of the current environmental movement. How do you feel about this critique?

NJ: I don’t think the film criticises the environmental movement as such. On the contrary, it shows some activists in a positive light. However, the film goes against the elite green movement, which pushes for so-called green growth. This can be found in the European Commission’s strategic document the Green New Deal, which says that we can continue to grow as long as we use renewable resources. The film also takes issue with the way that influential environmentalists have aligned themselves with profit-driven groups. According to Gibbs, the environmental movement needs to remain independent, critical, and radical. No film is objective, and I appreciate that Jeff Gibbs isn’t afraid to stick his neck out and show how he sees the whole situation. On the contrary, I have a problem with films that pretend to be objective, but don’t acknowledge their own foundations.

PB: I would dare to disagree. While film doesn’t pretend to be objective, it uses deceitful argumentative strategies. Take for instance the scene with the biomass fuel station. The crew discovers a pile of wood and immediately creates the suspicion that it’s all a lie, and that biomass heating is bad in general. Another ideological foul is the emotional appeal on the viewer in the scene of the orangutan dying before its time. It creates a false connection between renewable resources and the death of wildlife.

"In the words of Kenneth Boulding, anyone who believes in infinite growth on a finite planet is either a lunatic or an economist."

NJ: But in Indonesia there really are massive areas of rainforests that have been clear-cut to make room for palm oil plantations, which is another energy crop. And so orangutans truly are threatened by pressure for new renewable energy sources. The dying orangutan is also a symbol of the dying environment. The filmmaker urges viewers not to avert their gaze. The film is saying: Let’s look this in the eye. Let’s weep. This is the environmental grief we talk about. First we have to cry, and only then can we search for a solution because we’ve cracked this shell of denial within ourselves.

MOV: We all know that we find ourselves in a period of environmental crisis and that the so-called “flag-species” is the aforementioned orangutan. But why use it in this film and imply to viewers that orangutans are obviously dying due to our use of renewable energy sources? This shortcut seems strange to me.

How do you feel about the criticism claiming that the film presents distorted or completely mistaken or outdated facts? Additionally, we have no idea what time period the filmed interviews are from – whether they all come from the same period or if it’s a time-lapse. The film gives us no solid anchor point in time.

PB: I think it’s quite bad that it’s unclear in what time period the film was made. Some graphs are even missing dates. Some of the figures used are eight or ten years old, and the film loses relevance because of it. But fact-checking is difficult, especially for the lay viewer, because it’s easy to get lost in all the technical and even non-technical documents.

MOV: Critics of the film reproach its mistaken claim that the production of photovoltaic cells requires more energy than the cells will produce in their lifetimes. When solar cell technology began in the 70s, its efficiency rating was about 17 percent, but today it’s around 20 to 25 percent. The film has also been criticised for making it appear at first glance that the United States gets most of its energy from burning biomass or wood, which is actually only about two percent. Moreover, in Gibbs’ view the only solution is to have fewer people on the planet, which according to critics is also not true because thanks to new technologies, our children will have smaller ecological footprints than we do.

Planet of the Humans

NJ: If any of the graphs were unmarked, then that certainly is a weakness of the film. On the other hand, it’s important to realise that scientists speak in polyphony. A layman feels like there are simple, clear-cut facts, but the reality is that facts vary. If the filmmaker was mistaken, and solar cells have greater energy efficiency than he claims, then it’s true all the same that current fossil and renewable fuels have substantially lower energy efficiency than oil did fifty years back. In other words, we can’t simply switch to renewable resources and continue on as if nothing happened. And that’s the fundamental message of this film. Many of Gibbs’ other conclusions are also still valid, for example about the dependence of battery cell technology on selenium and other elements that have to be mined. Jeff Gibbs bravely picked out facts that he felt were relevant. It’s also not true that if we just wait a bit, our children will destroy the environment less than us. That’s technological optimism. We have structural energy problems, for instance in the way goods are transported around the globe or how cheap air travel is. Planet of the Humans points out that we have a high population, high consumption, and high production. We have to stop putting our faith in technological progress and economic growth. The fact that the film doesn’t offer a simple solution is actually a good thing because it’s saying that we need to stop, start getting nervous, and lower our overall consumption. 

MOV: As a Catholic priest, I of course advocate Saint John of the Cross, who said that happiness comes not from the accumulation of material things but rather from a certain independence from them. The things that are important are not things at all. But whenever something new is starting out, it always has its growing pains. Take, for example, the development of solar energy in our country and the rise of solar barons or our problems with rapeseed and all of the horrors that go along with it. However, from a birds’ eye view we can see that these attempts are headed more or less in the right direction. We all know it’s not ideal, but in another 20 years we will have a better handle on things technologically. I don’t think the film needs to tell us to be nervous. Adding more panic isn’t necessary. It should instead tell us what to do about it.

We all agree that the film offers no solution. So what do you propose?

NJ: In my view, the solution would be to challenge the economic postulates claiming that undifferentiated economic growth and the free movement of property, goods, services, and capital across borders are unequivocally positive under all circumstances. Or that the metric isn’t important and the only thing that matters is what is financially worthwhile. Mainly we need to admit that we’re headed toward a dead end, and we need to take inspiration from cultures which aren’t so dependent on technology and energy resources and which have different philosophies than endless expansion. The solution is complicated and multi-level – the personal level is as important as the change in public policy, and not only in the field of renewable energy sources. That’s just a small piece of the pie we should be thinking about.

"A change of lifestyle is one thing, but what’s needed is a change of narrative – it’s a mistake to think that the capitalist system works and that it merely needs a little tweaking. It’s not so. We need to re-evaluate our basic economic postulates, which goes against the interests of the powerful elites."

MOV: I agree! In the words of Kenneth Boulding, anyone who believes in infinite growth on a finite planet is either a lunatic or an economist. The problem is deeper, and the environmental crisis reminds us of the basic human question of why we’re on the Earth and what brings us happiness and satisfaction. This is a huge theme for the Church all over the world today. In 2015, Pope Francis wrote Laudato si’, in which he says that there is a huge potential in Christianity because it has always had an affection for the marginalised – the homeless, the mentally ill, or generally anyone who can’t or doesn’t know how to speak in their own defense, including, in the words of Saint Francis of Assisi, our “little brothers and sisters” – plants and animals. We’ve been preaching for two thousand years that the goal is a change of lifestyle.

Isn’t it already too late to change course? Planet of the Humans begins with the question of how much time we have left on the planet…

MOV: It’s much too late. Many species are already extinct, and in two hundred years we will look back on the 21st century as the period when we wiped out this planet’s wildlife. Now we have to slow down and start protecting the biodiversity. As Gandalf says in The Lord of the Rings, there never was much hope.

Planet of the Humans

PB: We all probably know that our time ran out long ago and that our adventure as a civilisation will be whether or not we manage to negotiate this turn. I, however, am no defeatist, and I’m convinced that each of us has to be conscious of their responsibility – in how we raise our children and what we can influence in our work or free time. For example, I can change the thinking of potential viewers in the cinema. Here in Jeseník we will be screening the film Honeyland, which poetically highlights the dire straits our natural resources are in. More and more I get the feeling that it’s good for us to work on being self-sufficient, whether it’s growing our own vegetables or buying handmade shoes from our neighbor.

NJ: Yes, in a certain sense it’s already too late. But in another sense it’s never too late, and we should still imbue all of our actions with an awareness of the fragility of the planet. For me, this film prods us to look a difficult reality in the eye: renewable resources are far from a cure-all. It’s only after we realise we’re in such deep trouble that not even renewable resources can save us that we can begin to search for true hope not based on an illusion and set out to find our own path, because our actions matter too. We can’t just leave things up to technology and the elites. That’s what the film stirred in me. 

MOV: We have to save the planet, but this film definitely didn’t stir me to join the fight.

Translated by Brian D. Vondrak