September 7, 2020
By Max Blumenthal
“We must take control of our environmental movement and our future from billionaires and their permanent war on Planet Earth. They are not our friends.”
-Jeff Gibbs, director of “Planet of the Humans”
It is hard to think of an American film that provoked a greater backlash in 2020 than “Planet of the Humans.” Focused on the theme of planetary extinction and fanciful proposals to ward it off, the documentary was released for free on YouTube on April 21. The date was significant not only because it was the eve of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, but because a global pandemic was tearing through America’s social fabric and exposing the human toll of the country’s globalized, growth-obsessed economic model.“The Michael Moore-produced ‘Planet of the Humans’ faced a coordinated suppression campaign led by professional climate activists backed by the same ‘green’ billionaires, Wall Street investors, industry insiders and family foundations skewered in the film.”
Even before “Planet of the Humans” was released, however, the producers of the film had fallen under pressure to retract it. Upon the film’s release, a who’s who of self-styled climate justice activists proceeded to blanket the internet with accusations that it was a racist, “eco-fascist” screed that deliberately advanced the interests of the oil and gas industry. When “Planet of the Humans” was briefly yanked from YouTube thanks to a questionable copyright claim by an angry climate warrior, the free speech organization Pen America issued a remarkable statement characterizing the demands for retraction as a coordinated censorship campaign.
What had this documentary done to inflame so much opposition from the faces and voices of professional climate justice activism? First, it probed the well-established shortcomings of renewable energy sources like solar and wind power that have been marketed as a green panacea. “Planet of the Humans” portrayed these technologies as anything but green, surveying the environmental damage already caused by solar and wind farms, which require heavy mining and smelting to produce, destroy swaths of pristine land, and sometimes demand natural gas to operate.
While major environmental outfits have lobbied for a Green New Deal to fuel a renewables-based industrial revolution, and are now banking on a Democratic presidency to enact their proposals, “Planet of the Humans” put forward a radical critique that called their entire agenda into question.
As the director of the documentary, Jeff Gibbs, explained, “When we focus on climate change only as the thing destroying the planet and we demand solutions, we get used by forces of capitalism who want to continue to sell us the disastrous illusion that we can mine and smelt and industrialize our way out of this extinction event. And again, behind the scenes, much of what we’re doing to ‘save’ the planet is to burn the ‘bio’ of the planet as green energy.”
“Planet of the Humans” crossed another bright green line by taking aim at the self-proclaimed climate justice activists themselves, painting them as opportunists who had been willingly co-opted by predatory capitalists. The filmmakers highlighted the role of family foundations like the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in cultivating a class of professional activists that tend toward greenwashing partnerships with Wall Street and the Democratic Party to coalitions with anti-capitalist militants and anti-war groups.
Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org and guru of climate justice activism, is seen throughout “Planet of the Humans” consorting with Wall Street executives and pushing fossil fuel divestment campaigns that enable powerful institutions to reshuffle their assets into plastics and mining while burnishing their image. McKibben has even called for environmentalists to cooperate with the Pentagon, one of the world’s worst polluters and greatest exporters of violence, because “when it speaks frankly, [it] has the potential to reach Americans who won’t listen to scientists.”
Perhaps the most provocative critique contained in “Planet of the Humans” was the portrayal of full-time climate warriors like McKibben as de facto lobbyists for green tech billionaires and Wall Street investors determined to get their hands on the whopping $50 trillion profit opportunity that a full transition to renewable technology represents. Why have figures like Google CEO Eric Schmidt, Michael Bloomberg, Virgin’s Richard Branson, and Tesla founder Elon Musk been plowing their fortunes into climate advocacy? The documentary taunted those who accepted these oligarchs’ gestures of environmental concern at face value.
For years, leftist criticism of professional climate activism has been largely relegated to blogs like Wrong Kind of Green, which maintains an invaluable archive of critical work on the co-optation of major environmental organizations by the billionaire class. Prominent greens might have been able to dismiss scrutiny from radical corners of the internet as background noise; however, they were unable to ignore “Planet of the Humans.”
That was because Oscar-winning documentarian Michael Moore put his name on the film as executive producer, alongside his longtime producer, Gibbs, and the scholar-researcher Ozzie Zehner. “Michael Moore validates this film,” Josh Fox, the filmmaker who led the campaign against “Planet of the Humans,” told me. “So if Michael Moore’s name is not on that film, it’s like a thousand other crappy movies.”
By racking up millions of views after just a month on YouTube, “Planet of the Humans” threatened to provoke an unprecedented debate about the corruption of environmental politics by the one percent. But thanks to the campaign by Fox and his allies, much of the debate wound up focused on the film itself, and the credibility of its producers.
“I had some sense that the film was going to ruffle some feathers, but I was unprepared for that response from what ended up being a group of people who are like an echo chamber – all related to the same funding organizations,” said Zehner. “It’s a pretty tight circle and it was a really strong, virulent pushback.”
The line of attack that may have gained the most traction in progressive circles portrayed a convoluted section of the film on the dangers of population growth and overconsumption as Malthusian, and even racist. Zehner told me he considered the attacks opportunistic, but “from a public relations standpoint, they were effective. What we were trying to do was highlight the dangers of a consumption-based economic model.”
The backlash to “Planet of the Humans” also related to its portrayal of renewables as badly flawed sources of energy that were also environmentally corrosive. Many of those attacks painted the film’s presentation of solar and wind to present the documentary as out of date and filled with misinformation.
Oddly, the professional activists who coordinated the campaign to bury “Planet of the Humans” glossed over an entire third of the documentary which focused on the corruption and co-optation of environmental politics by “green” foundations and “green” investors.
As this investigation will reveal, those climate justice activists were bound together by support from the same family foundations, billionaire investors, and industry interests that were skewered in the film.