From Blue Collar Icon to Green Radical


In Planet of the Humans Michael Moore turns his back on working class politics by embracing neo-Malthusian eco-catastrophism.

The worldwide shutdown has been greeted by many prominent environmentalists and policy makers as a unique opportunity to wean our economies off their fossil fuel-addiction and to accelerate the transition to greener alternatives. But coming out of left field in time for Earth Day, the Michael Moore-backed documentary Planet of the Humans effectively skewered costly, intermittent and non-scalable wind, solar and biomass-generated electricity. Even worse, it illustrated that building ever bigger wind turbines and solar arrays was entirely dependent on carbon fuel-powered machinery and processes of all kinds, digging up a wide range of resources, cutting down iconic trees and razing entire ecosystems. Forget any type of Green New Deal, director-narrator Jeff Gibbs and producer Ozzie Zehner told viewers, the only way forward is the well-trodden path of a “politics of less (people and wealth).”

Because of its dual message (down with both renewables and people!), Planet of the Humans has generated polarized reviews among the political left.

The first type came from supporters of renewable energy and proved the point of an old joke:
Q: When is an environmentalist not an environmentalist? A: “When it comes to industrial wind turbines and solar farms.” Interestingly, Gibbs and Zehner do not make their case by quoting prominent environmentalists such as climatologist James Hansen who wrote that “[s]suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the United States, China, India, or the world as a whole is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy” or the “Simpler Way” guru Ted Trainer whose most famous book is titled Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society. Instead they use often original and sometimes poignant footage of environmental destruction and of local people voicing their anger at the projects cherished by Big Green and its hypocritical leaders.

The second type of outrage is aimed at the Malthusian outlook of the documentary (which is made more explicit in an Earth Day Live Stream, an interview with The Hill and in a recent post by Gibbs). It was mostly voiced by a younger generation of academics, writers and educators, knowledgeable about and utterly uncomfortable with the environmental movement’s eugenicist roots and past support of coercive policies towards marginalized populations.

Moore has long styled himself a champion of the working class. In the high profile divorce between the labor and environmental movements, however, his sympathies now clearly lie with the effective take-over of left-wing politics by the modern-day clerisy (mostly highly credentialed academics, journalists and other intellectuals along with the professional-managerial class employed by or dependent upon government and NGO activities). Indeed, while Planet of the Humans says much about the environmental impacts of renewable energy, it is virtually silent on its high financial costs for consumers and taxpayers, its impact on other industries and the economic opportunities lost by blocking natural resource and other development projects.

From the Population Bomb to Rooftop Solar Panel Infomercials

Most environmentalists whose income and raison d’être are not directly tied to the renewable energy industry reacted to the documentary based on their prior stance on green energy, population control and immigration policies. In the United States these conflicting perspectives most famously clashed in one of Moore, Gibbs and Zehner’s main targets, the Sierra Club.

Founded in 1892 by wealthy and politically influential northern Californians who enjoyed the fabulous local outdoors, the Sierra Club, like much of the American Conservation Movement of the time, was from its beginning tainted with the population control and racialist thinking then common among progressives. The organization later became engulfed in the overpopulation hysteria that took off at the end of the Second World War, with its Executive Director David Brower once famously declaring that “Population is pollution spelled inside out.” In time Brower recruited a young and charismatic Stanford biologist named Paul Ehrlich to write a hard-core neo-Malthusian tract eventually published as The Population Bomb in 1968. A few months later the organization’s board called for the “stabilization of the population of the United States as part of a broader policy on global population growth” and in 1978 it urged the US Congress to “study the effects of immigration on domestic population growth and environmental quality.”

The leadership of the Sierra Club later turned against population control and the immigration restriction-advocates as its political outlook shifted dramatically to the left, a stance disgruntled neo-Malthusian members attribute to the massive donations by Wall Street billionaire and prominent renewable energy investor David Gelbaum. While the Club has long engaged in business partnerships of various kinds, its current Executive Director (and one of Planet of the Humans’ main antagonists) Michael Brune has heavily promoted rooftop solar panels.

Reactions to Planet of the Humans have mirrored this schism. Environmental organisations and individuals with a strong neo-Malthusian and anti-technology bent have been generally supportive. These include Paul Ehrlich’s Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (MAHB), neo-Malthusian and immigration restrictionist philosopher Philip Cafaro, disciples of Ted Trainer and the radical UK-based Extinction Rebellion (which was co-founded by a failed organic farmer who insisted on using a workhorse rather than a tractor).

Younger environmentalists raised on the demonization of carbon fuels and promises of salvation through renewable energy have failed to acknowledge the obvious shortcomings of wind and solar power as demonstrated – if incompletely – by Gibbs and Zehner. They also could not admit that renewable energy production is entirely dependent on extremely costly government mandates and subsidies. (To be fair, as documented in another recent documentary, many mainstream environmentalists have been critical of the burning of wood chips and pellets for electricity production and some younger critics of Planet of the Humans have been more nuanced on this subject.)

Where Moore, his collaborators and his critics are in agreement is in their apparent lack of concern for the long history of failed eco-apocalyptic predictions, their dislike of market economies, and their utter lack of concerns for the impact of their preferred energy policies on the working classes and the poor. This stance marks a profound break with radical left-wing politics as it existed until Moore and Gibbs came of age at the turn of the 1970s.

When Leftists Cared about the Poor more than about Biomass

Historically, orthodox Marxists were primarily concerned with the economic progress of the working class. Their intransigent stance once led Margaret Sanger to despair that “Birth Control is not merely independent of, but even antagonistic to the Marxian dogma.” Look as hard as one might in Capital and other works, she wrote, one could not find any discussion of the “dangers of irresponsible parenthood and reckless breeding” or “any suspicion that this recklessness and irresponsibility is even remotely related to the miseries of the proletariat.” As she put it: “Any defense of the so-called ‘law of population’ was enough to stamp one, in the eyes of the orthodox, as a ‘tool of the capitalistic class,’ seeking to dampen the ardor of those who expressed the belief that men might create a better world for themselves. […] Birth Control has been looked upon as a subtle, Machiavellian sophistry created for the purpose of placing the blame for human misery elsewhere than at the door of the capitalist class.”

The key rationale for the Marxist stance was perhaps best stated by a young Friedrich Engels in 1844, when he observed that the “productive power at mankind’s disposal is immeasurable” and the “productivity of the soil can be increased ad infinitum by the application of capital, labour and science.” Engels further updated Malthus by observing that “science increases at least as much as population. The latter increases in proportion to the size of the previous generation [but] science advances in proportion to the knowledge bequeathed to it by the previous generation, and thus under the most ordinary conditions also in a geometrical progression.”

In 1960 the American Trotskyist Joseph Hansen commented that Marxists had long taken “a decidedly different view of humanity” than neo-Malthusians because they “note that man has hands and a brain, the capacity to use tools and an inclination for teamwork. These have made him, in distinction to all other animals, a food producer.” Hansen added that, in “today’s world, hunger is completely abnormal. Humanity can produce all it needs and many times over. Moreover, man’s capacity to increase his food supply expands with the increase in population and at an ever-higher rate than population growth.” A big population was therefore “an asset, not a liability. Failure to see this rather obvious fact is the basic flaw in the Malthusian argument.”

Apparently unbeknown to Moore and his collaborators, some of the main opponents of the “population bombers” in the 1960s and 1970s were Marxists who believed in transforming nature to make it better serve human needs. It is also telling that outlets where the influence of the traditional left is still palpable have criticized Moore’s recent stance on population as anti-progressive.

In time, though, the economic and environmental failure of communist economies proved too obvious to ignore. In a centrally planned economy devoid of both private property and the profit motive, waste and inefficiency reigned supreme. Scrap, spills, slag, discards, refuse, and other processing losses piled up. Lakes were drained, rivers were polluted, and forests were destroyed. Intermediary and final outputs were lost during transportation and storage. This ecological collapse was not the result of people increasing in numbers and lifting themselves out of poverty, but of the kind of economic system favored by the creators of Planet of the Humans.

Far from being rooted in progressive left-wing thought, the misanthropic neo-Malthusianism of the modern environmentalist movement ultimately came from a worldview more closely associated with aristocrats, the leisure class and reactionary and anti-liberal movements invested in preserving their privilege for the very few while denying any hope of a better future to the many.

How to Have your Green Cake and Eat It, Too

Planet of the Humans contains many valuable lessons, including its hinting at the notion that alternative energy, unlike nuclear power and the substitution of coal by natural gas, is a dead-end if one is serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, a key lesson that apparently escaped its creators is that both humanity and the environment have been made better off through the substitution of living resources produced on the surface of the planet by those dug up from below. Coal, petroleum and natural gas, along with minerals (e.g., iron, copper, gypsum) and sediments (e.g., sand, clay), have thus simultaneously increased wealth while allowing humans to reduce pressures on whales (whale oil), birds (feathers) and other wild animals (ivory, furs, skin), trees (lumber, firewood, charcoal) and domesticated plants and animals (fats, fibres, leather and dyes). In the grander scheme of things, far from having merely harmed us and nature, fossil fuels and other underground resources have been more akin to a growth serum for humans and some respite from exploitation to other life forms. Yet, the goal of alternative energy proponents is to reverse this accomplishment.

What needs to be buried for good is the wishful thinking that resulted in the creation of costly and destructive “green” energy policies and the inability to acknowledge the truly remarkable nature of the dominant species on this planet.

Pierre Desrochers, Associate Professor of Geography, University of Toronto Mississauga
Joanna Szurmak, Research services and liaison librarian, University of Toronto Mississauga and PhD Candidate, the Graduate Program in Science and Technology Studies at York University.