Planet of the green capitalists

Critical reviews of the new documentary Planet of the Humans have missed its key point: capitalism can never be sustainable.

We will go quietly, meekly to our graves if we believe that low-energy light bulbs will suffice to save us.” – Anonymous

On 22 April 2020, to mark the celebration of the 50th Earth Day, two important documentaries were released. The first was a film by Jeff Gibbs, Michael Moore and Ozzie Zehner called Planet of the Humans. This flawed film highlights the environmental impact of renewable technologies such as solar panels and wind power and observes that a great deal of greenwashing takes place in their promotion as a path towards an ecologically sustainable world. It has been condemned by numerous critics as relying on dated information, making unsubstantiated claims, drawing false equivalences, cherry-picking data and lacking in journalistic integrity.

The second, much better film, is Planet of the Humans, a documentary by Jeff Gibbs, Michael Moore and Ozzie Zehner. This film draws attention to the capture of large NGOs by market forces and the selling out of environmentalist aspirations to the logic of green capitalism. It has been largely ignored.

In reality there’s only one documentary, of course, but responses have been so divided that it may be more helpful to imagine there are two, so let’s do just that.

Bright green capitalism

The criticism generated by the first film is to some extent warranted. It is true, for example, that the filmmakers rely on figures from 2009 when discussing photovoltaics, which have at least doubled in efficiency since then. It’s also the case that they misrepresent some of the wind and solar projects they document in order to score rhetorical points. Most egregiously, they point out the obvious fact that every form of energy production has an ecological impact without discussing the scale of the ecological impact of each, something that one astute observer has described as arguing that cake has sugar and strawberries have sugar, therefore strawberries are as bad for you as cake.

However, while the specific examples and arguments put forward by the film are problematic, it alludes to many overlooked issues accompanying renewables development and deployment. For instance, the calculation of the true ecological and social costs of any new technology – its externalities – are a lot more difficult to quantify than is suggested by the research commonly cited by renewable energy advocates. There are a wide range of lifecycle analyses to choose from, some concluding that per kilowatt hour, solar and wind are more socially and environmentally friendly than fossil fuels, and others reaching the conclusion that they’re around the same or represent only the most marginal of gains.

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The fundamental difference is in modelling assumptions and the fact that decisions have to be made as to what counts as an externality. One would imagine that this is easy to determine when you look at direct inputs and outputs – how many units of carbon are emitted or how many tons of rare earth metals have to be mined for solar panels, inverters, batteries, windmills and so on – but it gets increasingly fuzzy as we examine more distant, indirect flows and processes in the network. Some costs simply cannot be quantified. As Zehner observes in his book, Green Illusions, “when people embrace renewable energy systems, many do not realise that they require various forms of violence against people, environments, and animals … These systems, which require concrete, steel, copper, rare earth minerals and, by extension, fossil fuel and mineral extraction, are made acceptable by being placed out of sight and out of mind, in the materially poor, rural, and Indigenous territories of the Global South and North.”

The broader externalities of renewables are seldom discussed by its enthusiastic advocates, who tend to describe it using misleading terms such as “clean”, “zero-impact” and so forth. In fact, the tens of millions of metric tons of copper, lead, zinc, lithium and aluminum and billions of tons of iron that are needed to shift to renewables on a significant scale will entail a substantial short term increase in resource extraction, which in turn means more fossil fuel consumption. The hope is that this transition period will follow what is called a Kuznets curve, meaning that the ecological costs of renewables development will be successfully amortised over a reasonable time period, but research in this area is inconclusive and, given the finite nature of all the resources involved, there is only one real chance to get it right. As Jason Hickel observes, the real issue here is that “this will exacerbate an already existing crisis of over extraction” and drive “deforestation, ecosystem collapse and biodiversity loss around the world”.

The value of taking such a risk largely hinges on solar, wind and so on performing at levels of efficiency, as well as what is known as Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROI), close to what is observed in scientific papers and ideal laboratory conditions. However, many real-world deployments of these technologies operate far from optimal levels. It is not uncommon for solar arrays to produce less than half the watts they are rated for and the lingering problem of intermittency – providing backup power for unpredictable fluctuations in available amounts of sunlight and wind, for example – also lessens actual operational efficiency.

Another inconvenient fact is that green energy production at its current level of development is largely confined to end-consumer use, ie, as part of domestic electricity production. A huge percentage of energy, however, is consumed by forms of industrial production that require fossil fuels. The enormous machines used to mine, log, process, smelt and transport the raw materials of the industrial economy require a staggering amount of high-density energy. Nuclear power notwithstanding, oil and coal, which represent the contraction of millions of years of accumulated energy, are by far the densest sources of power production we know of and, although there are some highly speculative studies, it is exceptionally unlikely that the mechanical behemoths of 21st-century capitalism will be powered by sun and wind in the foreseeable future.

Rifts and shifts

Underlying all the common arguments for the ecological benefits of a shift to mixed renewables is an assumption, reasonable perhaps, that overall energy usage patterns will stay largely the same. However, some environmental researchers argue that there is good reason to believe that instead of alternative energy sources simply displacing fossil fuels, they will instead normalise a higher level of energy usage. This is known as the Jevons Paradox: the historical phenomenon that efficiency measures lead to larger profits, which in turn spur more growth and a higher level of energy consumption. Another way of articulating the Jevons Paradox, of course, is the banal observation that capitalism is premised upon continuous growth (and, notably, upon crisis).

Relatedly, attempting ecological reforms within a capitalist context without challenging capitalist social relations tends to lead to what Marxist ecologist John Bellamy Foster and his co-authors describe in The Ecological Rift as “rifts and shifts” – the displacing and rearrangement of problems by capitalism in ways that end up creating larger problems.

It is unfortunate that the film did not make any of these issues clear. Regardless of its many problems, however, it is worth noting that the most vocal criticisms have emerged from two overlapping spaces. First, the Big Green sector, consisting of large, reformist NGOs that are heavily reliant on corporate and state funding. Also known as the Light Greens, these NGOs tend to see environmental protection as the responsibility of the individual consumer. The kinds of activism they engage in are usually limited to symbolic forms of petitioning and protest, and the solutions they endorse are firmly entrenched within the logic of the market.

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Joining them are the Bright Green sector – the green technologists, often employed by large corporations, who enthusiastically promote “clean energy” technologies like electric cars, alga-diesel and photovoltaics. The Bright Greens tend to downplay the social consequences of technology and fetishise technological development for its own sake, with the result that their solutions, which are also almost solely market driven, often sound a lot like the contrivance and lack of nuance of a TED talk: if we can just tinker with some of the technical inner workings of the systems that run the world as it currently exists, the world can continue to exist in largely the same way.

Mapping the broader space within which these two overlapping groups operate, one quickly encounters various other influences: investment consultants, researchers in university departments heavily funded by the green sector, benevolent-seeming foundations and advisory councils and so forth. An alarming number of these actors have connections to lobby groups. Resources for the Future, which is closely tied to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which is in turn funded by organisations including Shell, Goldman Sachs, Blackrock, BASF, ConocoPhillips, Chevron, Mitsubishi and Weyerhaeuser, some of which are among the worst polluters on the planet, comes up frequently, for instance. In fact, several the more popular criticisms of the film come from people who also endorse nuclear energy as renewable, work as PR consultants for the Big Green economy, or have ties to groups such as NRDC or the Breakthrough Institute, which Foster describes as “the leading think tank for capitalist ecomodernism”.

Corporate Watch summarise the limitations of Light and Bright Green hubris in their A-Z of Green Capitalism: “Green capitalism involves various institutions, including governments, corporations, think tanks, charities and NGOs, implementing policies, practices and processes to incorporate nature into capitalist market systems. It takes the same capitalist ideas and values that create environmental crises – ie continual economic growth, private property, profit and “free” markets – and applies them to the natural world as a way to solve those crises. It serves to maintain capitalism’s dominance, both through finding new ways to generate profit, and as a way of protecting it from criticism of being environmentally destructive.”

Additionally, as Zehner reminds us in his book, “the excessive concern with possible energy solutions within capitalism as opposed to more fundamental social transformations expresses our inability to imagine any other way of living, blinding us to the deeper socio-ecological insurrection that climate change has made necessary”.

There is, however, another shade of green.

A darker green

With some exceptions, critics of the first film seem not to have watched the second. If they did, it was so far outside of their worldview that it may as well have been a seven-hour Hungarian art film with no subtitles, which is possibly why it has been misrepresented – sometimes in the guilty-by-association rhetoric of lobbyists – as a form of fossil fuel apologism.

The fact that the film so strongly dismisses solutions that represent long-standing commitments to coopted forms of activism, technotopianism – or the belief that technology will create utopia – and capitalist interests can make it hard to accept, just as it is hard to accept anyone telling you that what you’ve been doing hasn’t been working, especially when it’s the only thing you know how to do. This perhaps goes some way towards explaining why the dominant emotional reaction to the film has been one of anger and disappointment: it’s not because environmentalists know it’s wrong, it’s because they sense that it’s right and, if that’s the case, it forces them to confront the large-scale appropriation by capitalist interests of sincere, passionate experiments in changing the world.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but the Dark Green film is unwavering in its challenge to capitalist forms of environmentalism and its scathing denunciation of the big environmental NGOs, which filmmaker Gibbs argues often consist of well-meaning people, but which has “sold out the green movement to wealthy interests and corporate America”.

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This is perhaps something endemic to the NGO model, or what various Left activists refer to as the Nonprofit-Industrial Complex (NIC). As the writings collected in the anthology The Revolution Will Not Be Funded describe it, the nonprofit-industrial complex is “a set of symbiotic relationships that link political and financial technologies of state and owning-class control with surveillance over public political ideology, including and especially emergent progressive and leftist social movements”. The NIC model of social change, while it does sometimes achieve limited reforms within the current system, is deeply paternalistic and hierarchical. It often alienates the very grassroots activists and communities whose interests it purports to represent, and in practice it usually leads to a closed-door decision-making inner circle that has little accountability towards members and supporters.

The second film also encourages us to pose some more radical questions about how society has come to be structured like it is. Instead of exactly quantifying the ecological impact of electric cars, for instance, perhaps we should be asking whether having over a billion mostly single-occupant cars travelling along vast tracts of highway is the most ecologically and socially optimal form of transport, as well as whether what is being achieved through these mass movements of people to and from various forms of alienated labour is in our human interests.

Finally, the second film opens up a difficult but vital conversation around per-capita consumption levels that some lazily accuse of endorsing eco-fascist ideas like forced population reduction. The question of carrying capacity posed by the filmmakers, however, is descriptive, not prescriptive. They are not naive Malthusians, nor does a solution to the urgent need to lower overall human consumption levels – which are of course highly unequally distributed between different regions, groups and lives – entail the morally abhorrent mass culling of millions of human beings. Dramatically lowering overall consumption levels simply means a critical engagement with capitalist values and forms of life, along with a substantial shift towards simpler living by the most economically privileged 20% of global society.

The happy chapter

Together, whatever their flaws in reasoning or presentation, the two films – along with the strong reactions to them – have marked a line in the sand that will not be erased. They have demonstrated the stark divide between the various shades of green and their underlying value systems and asked each of us to decide where we stand. On the one side is the Big Green capitalist economy and its largely recuperated NGO PR wing. On the other is the Dark Green rebellion, a motley collection of grassroots environmentalists and leftists who recognise that ecological struggle intersects with capitalism and that we need to fight both struggles simultaneously. Here, we can learn a lot more from the ongoing community-led ecological struggles taking place in Chiapas and Rojava than we can from the professionalisation of struggle represented by the Greenpeaces and WWFs of the world. The horizontal forms of anti-capitalist activism developed by the mostly poor and indigenous communities of the Zapatistas and the Rojava revolutionaries hold far more promise for the preservation and enhancement of the intrinsic value of life than the facile machinery of extraction and quantification through which the death machine of capital seeks hegemony over the world.

Most documentaries on environmentalism include an obligatory happy chapter at the end – the sweeping aerial shot of solar panels on rooftops underpinned by sentimental piano music and an uplifting voice-over delivering platitudes about everyone uniting to save polar bears by using fewer plastic straws. Neither of these films has a happy chapter. In fact, both use the same heart-wrenching footage of an orangutan, stranded in a tree in the midst of a clear-cut, as their closing scene. While we have come to expect a message of hope as a pay-off for sitting through documentaries narrating the ongoing decimation of the natural world, perhaps it is right that we feel as hopeless as that orangutan at this juncture. If we’re honest there is little cause for optimism – the odds are not in our favour and no amount of green investment portfolio padding or saccharine TED-talk solutionism is going to change that.

A ghost species is one that, while its members may seem plentiful today, has already accumulated an extinction debt. Extinction debt is a term ecologists use to describe the unavoidable future demise of a species due to events in the past. By some measures, orangutans have already incurred such a debt, just as black rhinoceroses, Rufous-headed hornbills, blunt chaff flowers and candelabra trees did before them. Like the orangutan, our fading evolutionary cousin, we find ourselves between the two brittle branches of capitalism and tomorrow, unsure of what, if anything, to cling to. It is in this interregnum, haunted by everything we have known and everything that could be, that we will determine the future.

Correction, 18 May 2020: This article has been edited to revise a link that implied support for nuclear energy by Ketan Joshi, a consultant for the renewables industry who is opposed to nuclear energy.

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