‘Planet of the Humans’: A documentary film of despair or hope?
'Planet of the Humans’ (2019)

I was once having a conversation with an old erudite leftist, someone I’ll not name in order to protect the guilty. “We should oppose windpower,” he blustered, “because supporting it takes so much fossil fuel to get it constructed and running so as to negate wind’s original purpose.”

“Wait a minute,” I interrupted. “What about climate change? What about airborne particulates from dirty fossil fuels that both exacerbate existing illnesses and kill people in large numbers? What about blood for oil?”

As I continued to listen to this erudite speaker of the left, his picture of reality came into focus. He was imploring us to join the dirty fossil fuel oligarchies in opposing renewable energy! It brought home an old lesson. Just because a speaker or writer is knowledgeable, does not mean they are correct.

It fit well with other hints of despair from this ultra-leftist. He opposed elections and loved the “spontaneity” (i.e., disorganization) of the Occupy movement.

While watching the new 100-minute documentary film, Planet of the Humans, my mind drifted to that ultra-leftist and his anti-wind diatribe. The difference now was that the purveyors of despair, Jeff Gibbs and Michael Moore, are nationally known and influential among progressives.

Concerning Planet of the Humans, to those who may not be aware of the insidious and extensive ways the billionaire class of dirty fossil fuel oligarchs will go to infiltrate and derail any challenge to their profits and power, the film does that. It stops being helpful right there.

It’s disappointing that Jeff Gibbs and Michael Moore would make such a low-quality documentary film. Some of the renewable energy technology shown is very old—mirrors in the desert, for example. Facts are distorted: For instance, Bill McKibben of 350.org has long since written off biomass energy. While McKibben learned a hard lesson there about the dirty fossil fuel oligarchs running and ruining our country, it is disingenuous to show old footage of such an important environmental leader and the movement he helped spark.

The same can be said of the early endorsement of natural gas by some greens, like the Sierra Club. While there certainly was (and still is?) a problem with some in national Sierra Club leadership, at the state and local level there are few illusions about natural gas (methane) as a “bridge” to renewables. As one example, the Connecticut Sierra Club is a leader in the fight against fossil fuels, especially gas.

Picking up on that last point, one of the most damaging aspects of the film is that it can discourage people from struggling against dirty fossil fuels and fighting for renewables. In Naugatuck and Oxford, Conn., it was a grassroots movement in 2015 that led the fight against a methane gas power plant in Oxford. That battle was lost. But out of that fight, Naugatuck won a conservation commission. That group went on to win a fracking waste storage and transport ban, the first in the Naugatuck Valley. The fight moved on to include many other Conn. towns. With pressure building, the state eventually banned fracking waste storage and transport throughout the entire state.

The documentarians of Planet of the Humans seem to enjoy showing how many awful biomass plants have been built in the U.S. Right next door to Naugatuck is Waterbury. There, a labor council member led a fight against a similar plant. The community won! I emphasize it was a labor leader who led this struggle. The usual mantra of “Jobs, jobs, jobs!” did not work and fool the community. When labor and greens join together, it is an unbeatable alliance.

Seeing the horrific abuse of other living beings depicted in this film should help us welcome friends in the animal rights movement into broad green coalitions. Opposition to monoculture, and palm oil plantations specifically, to help save orangutans and rain forests, needs to be embraced by all of us. Check out this link to the important documentary She Walks with Apes.

There are two ways to distort the truth. One can lie outright. Another way is not to show the whole picture. This documentary does the latter big time.

The cynics in Planet of the Humans, both in so many words and images, point to the environmental movement and imply an awareness that is a mile wide and an inch deep. Be careful where cynics lead. It’s a “give up, it’s hopeless” outlook. The political right loves this stuff.

The truth lies elsewhere. The breadth of the environmental movement is a strength. Yes, consciousness needs to be extended and deepened to include broad coalitions and alliances, such as with the animal rights and labor movements. That will be accomplished by the normal day-to-day work that greens and labor are very good at. Do you know the names of the labor council members and animal rights leaders in your area? There lie both good work and answers to this downer of a film.

All this brought home another old lesson that is a corollary to the “knowledgeability” one. Just because a filmmaker, like Michael Moore, did make some very excellent and successful films, it does not make him correct with every endeavor. Robert Ardrey wrote a book on human evolution called African Genesis in 1961. Charles Darwin in the 19th century would have been pleased as he presciently pointed to Africa for our species origin. Unfortunately, Ardrey followed this writing with The Territorial Imperative, and then with The Social Contract. Those books brimmed with social Darwinism, a doctrine debunked many years earlier.

There was a glimpse of Moore’s overblown estimate of himself and his work during an interview with others including Greta Thunberg, the young leader opposing climate change and fossil fuels. When the topic of discussion turned to the mass shootings of young people, Moore mentioned his very good film Bowling for Columbine. Given the carnage at Florida’s Stoneman Douglas High School, Moore said that he failed in his mission to prevent more killings like at Columbine. Did he really think that one film, as good as Bowling was, would stop the National Rifle Association and the megaprofits of the gun industry? A film, like a book, can be an organizing tool, not a substitute for organizing itself.

Making connections between issues is where class, and its fullest expression, socialist consciousness, elevates the struggle. The pandemic has given us an opportunity to help people make those connections. Who is it that dismantled the pandemic office in 2018? Who is it that is trying to force workers back to their stations under unsafe conditions? Who is it that attacks Obamacare at every turn? Who took us out of the Paris Climate Accords? Who is sending gunboats with troops to Venezuelan waters to grab more dirty fossil fuels, and generate yet another war and continue the blood for oil carnage?

We need a Green Peace New Deal! We have an election to change the course of our country. Let’s help people make those connections.

I can still hear the words of a friend who experienced fascism and WWII first hand. When the violence at Charlottesville happened, she said, “This is the way it starts.” Remember the cages of immigrant children along our border. Remember the many, continuing attacks on voting rights, especially threatening people of color. Remember WWII and its 60 million men, women, and children dead. Is fascism a real threat here? Yes, I fear it is.

We need to help people make this “fascist” connection with all the other issues above. A mass movement yielded civil rights laws. A mass movement resulted in the EPA and the Endangered Species Act. A mass movement drove President Richard Nixon out of office. A mass movement elected an African-American president. In this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, unity makes sense to people on many levels, including those in environmental movements. There’s a film Moore and Gibbs should be making.

A cogent response by environmental filmmaker/activist Josh Fox can be seen here. Bill McKibben also responds here.


Len Yannielli
Len Yannielli

Long-time environmental activist Len Yannielli is the author of "Lyme Disease," "An Owl for the Killing," and the children’s play "The Stolen Boy." "Moon Shadow of War" is a memoir of his experiences on the home front during the U.S. War in Vietnam. More educators were fired during the late 1960s and early 1970s than during the depths of the Cold War in the 1950s. He was one of them.