Film Review: ‘Planet Of Humans’ Misplaces The Blame On Population Growth

Above photo: Films for Action.

This is a very effective but flawed film, which already has been seen on YouTube by 2.5 million when I saw it on April 26. To sum up my review, it combines a very welcome biting critique of “green” capital-driven renewable energy creation and big capital funding/influence on the agendas of major U.S. environmental groups with a reactionary message calling human population growth the driver of an unsustainable planet.

The film’s conclusion is that there is a “human presence far beyond sustainability”. It argues that scientists all agree, at least the ones interviewed, that overpopulation is at the root of our environmental crisis. Well, I am a scientist among many others who strongly disagrees with this conclusion, rather that the “cancerous form of capitalism” identified in this film is the root cause.

This cancerous form is militarized fossil capital driving perpetual wars for the control of oil. Yes, overpopulation is real, especially for the number of billionaires on our planet, even one is one too many. There are certainly cities, especially in the global South, that are overpopulated, but this is the result of the capitalist political economy and the exploitative relations between the global North and South.

Population growth stabilizes when poverty is sharply reduced and women are empowered in society, e.g., Kerala India is a prime example. So the biggest problem I have with the film is its promotion of a neo-Malthusian explanation for our environmental crisis. The producer of the film is Ozzie Zehner, a big promoter of the overpopulation explanation as the root cause of the environmental crisis. Google him and overpopulation and see for yourself.

Too bad Jeff Gibbs and Michael Moore didn’t read Ian Angus and Simon Butler’s powerful critique of the overpopulation message in their book Too Many People? before they completed this film instead of promoting this user-friendly explanation on behalf of the capitalist ruling class, an explanation that puts a smokescreen over the political economy of capitalism thereby protecting their power and regime of extreme inequality on our planet.

The film very effectively exposes the false solutions of natural gas and biofuels/biomass energy, including burning wood on a massive scale, ethanol from sugarcane (Brazil), and how mainstream environmental groups like 350.org and the Sierra Club facilitated them in collaboration with big so-called green capital. We discuss this false solution in chapter 6 of our book, The Earth is Not for Sale.

Nevertheless, 350.org  has played a major role in generating a mass movement for terminating fossil fuels, especially among youth who believe the messaging, even with the foundation funding being rather opaque. So to claim as the film does, that the environmental movement has been taken over by capitalism ignores the real radical potential to move in a consistent anti-capitalist direction, in particular in advancing a Green New Deal increasingly guided by an ecosocialist agenda.

I have long critiqued Bill McKibben for not confronting militarism and imperialism. Militarized fossil capital would love to get control of the world’s biggest oil reserves (Venezuela) and the 4th biggest (Iran). That is the main reason for the U.S. imperialist regime change agenda which we must organize against, and convince the global climate justice movement to join this struggle.

So I don’t agree with Tom Athanasiou that this film is “crap.” But Athanasiou does make some good points such as the film’s  “rap against renewables is embarrassingly wrong. Not all of it, but most of it. Moreover, it is fantastically dated. He seems to not even know that the net-energy analysis of renewable energy systems is a thing.” Too bad Mark Jacobson wasn’t interviewed.

Nevertheless, the film’s strong point is that we cannot trust big “green” capital to deliver a wind/solar revolution minimizing ecological destruction. But not in the film is the imperative that ecosocialist class struggle must challenge “green” capital’s agenda at every step.  We must fight for maximum decentralized community control, along with the nationalization of the energy industry with bottom-up accountability and social management of wind/solar creation world-wide.  Further, the intermittency barrier to 100% renewable transition cited in the film is exaggerated given new technologies of storage and the complementarity of wind and solar at a large enough scale.

And Tom Athanasiou is right to conclude, “The film is long on criticism but offers no solution other than a vague non-capitalist pastoral alternative along with a bleak, harrowing final scene.”

In conclusion, both radical changes in the physical and political economy are needed. Here is a more concrete non-capitalist solution: ecosocialism with three critical measures: demilitarization of the global economy, i.e., dissolving the military industrial (fossil fuel nuclear state terror and surveillance) complex, substituting agroecologies for non-sustainable industrial/GMO/biofuel agriculture and the creation of a 100% wind/solar energy infrastructure to make possible the elimination of energy poverty of most of humanity and to have the energy capacity for climate mitigation and adaptation.

For more on this see my article, “100% Renewables: Wishful Thinking Or an Imperative?” and our book The Earth is Not For Sale: A Path Out of Fossil Capitalism to the Other World That is Still Possible (see updates including the challenge of extractive mining).