Month: June 2020

Planet of the Humans exploits our unprocessed climate grief

Planet of the Humans exploits our unprocessed climate grief

After watching Planet of the Humans (POTH), Michael Moore and Jeff Gibbs’ recent film about the ecological crisis, I found I had a sympathy for it that was hard to understand. After all, the movie is premised on misleading science and unjustified attacks on leaders of the environmental movement. The failures and falsehoods of this movie are by now well documented. Then what was this sympathy about? What chord was it striking in me? And what might others’ reactions to this film illuminate?

With Planet of the Humans, the production team aims to take down the idea that green energy will save us from climate change, and to provoke deeper and wider conversations about how we’re living in relation to our planet. It has two main attacks—pointing out deficiencies in solar and wind energy, and critiquing biofuels and environmental leaders who once supported them. It presents a grim and hopeless picture of our situation, one in which we have been sold false hope and been betrayed.

The film was extremely controversial, was met with intense criticism, and was taken down from YouTube after being watched 7.5 million times in about a month.

A deeply flawed movie

Planet of the Humans uses outdated and misleading science, portraying the state of renewable energy roughly ten years ago as current and using out of context examples. The directors claim that this doesn’t matter, that what they are trying to reveal is the delusional and almost religious nature of our faith in green energy, which has been unchanged over the decade or so over which they made the film.

It’s interesting that their overall point may be true—there are significant limitations to wind and solar, and it’s unlikely that we’d be able to maintain our current lifestyles while transitioning completely to green energy. But since the movie is based on inaccurate science, much of the conversation about it has focused on debunking the science and dismissing the movie, or, on the other side, defending the movie and denying the validity of the criticism. Although the directors hoped to avoid conversations focused on technical details, their use of misleading science guaranteed that that would be the result. In my experience, it hasn’t yet resulted in genuine conversation about how much of a green energy transition is truly possible, or how we might change the way we live.

The other major thrust of the movie is an attack on Bill Mckibben and other environmental activists and groups for being corrupted, and again they miss the mark. But, taken impressionistically and ignoring the particulars, their general point is true—there are environmental groups corrupted by financial interest, well documented for example by Naomi Klein in Capitalism vs. the Climate. Again, the odd combination of an emotionally resonant, generally valid larger point built from a pile of falsehoods seems perfectly designed to generate fruitless debate.

Lastly, the movie raises questions that environmental movements have been grappling with for years and decades as if they were new, without presenting any of the ideas, projects, organizations that seek to answer them. For example, the idea that just changing our energy system won’t solve our ecological crisis is found in groups spanning the indigenous sovereignty movement, the techno-optimists of drawdown, de-growthers, eco-socialists, and eco-spiritualists, each with their own analysis and vision.

The producers counter that given the lack of progress the environmental movement has made, disruption by outsiders is needed. But their timing is poor: over the last few years, the climate movement has been gaining momentum, especially through youth climate strikes, and has developed a policy agenda that is unifying and inspiring. As the movie ignores the depth of understanding in the environmental movement and the momentum it’s built, things that people have devoted their lives to out of their love for the world, it’s easy to understand why it’s provoked such pushback and frustration.

Feeding on despair

And yet, in spite of all of this, there’s a part of me that’s still sympathetic. The movie speaks to my pain and frustration with the failures of the climate movement, my grief and despair about the ecological crisis. If you relax your eyes and allow the details to blur out, the emotional arc of the film comes into focus. It’s a story of a journey from curiosity and optimism through questioning, betrayal, and ultimately, despair. And in relation to climate change, despair resonates now.

There’s been a patronizing tendency in the climate movement to only find hope and optimism acceptable, at least in it’s public-facing messaging, out of the belief that the message must remain positive to prevent people from becoming overwhelmed. This limiting of acceptable responses happens both in the relationship between activists and the general public, and culturally within activist organizations, leaving people’s anxiety, despair, confusion, and grief unspoken and unaddressed.

In contrast, Planet of the Humans opens with asking people on the street how long they think it will be before humans go extinct, openly embracing despair. The appeal of this movie is a reflection of widespread unprocessed climate grief. It speaks to this dimension of our emotional lives when there are few things that do.

By mirroring these emotions, POTH elicited my sympathy. These emotions, our grief and despair, flow from our care for humanity and all of life. By validating them, this part of me felt seen and accepted. When the movie is denounced and rejected, this important part of myself is felt to be denounced and rejected. Extrapolating to others, is it any wonder that the movie is vigorously defended?

On the other side of the argument are people who have invested their hope and energy into a green energy future. In what for me was the most compelling part of the film, the producers interview Sheldon Solomon, who argues that we fixate on green energy to avoid facing our mortality. Might some of the defensiveness be resistance to facing the possibility of climate catastrophe?

Accompanying climate grief

The journey of living with the truth of our precarious situation, of learning to live in the emotional landscape of climate change, including the despair, grief, and anxiety, is essential. We need to learn how to carry these weights without falling into cynicism, how to stay connected to the love at their roots. We need stories to teach us the way and communities where we accompany each other along the way.

Planet of the Humans fails in this regard. It leads us into our despair and leaves us there. For some, this is doubtlessly part of the appeal. Despair abdicates responsibility, our obligation to act. To know what will happen is a relief—it’s harder to live with not knowing, to grapple with finding an appropriate response to a wildly uncertain future.

A different climate change documentary that attempts to do this is Josh Fox’s How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Cant Change. The film paints the grim picture of climate change, and then explores the courage of those resisting around the world, including those most impacted. But it’s really about the director’s journey through despair to renewed hope, and the possibility of finding joy in spite of loss, learning how to hold both.

I’d also like to highlight Extinction Rebellion as a movement that tries to make space for climate grief. In their introductory talk, Heading for Extinction and What to Do About It (& Pt. 2), they aim to tell the truth about our climate emergency, give time to grieve, and call for courage rather than hope.

From controversy to constructive conversations

Now that the debate about Planet of the Humans has quieted down, I hope we can move on to constructively engage with some of the questions it gestures toward:

  • How do we process our collective grief and come out with grace and compassion, not bitterness and cynicism?
  • How do we make meaning of our lives in the shadow of possible climate catastrophe?
  • How can we change how we live together on this Earth? If changes beyond adopting green energy are needed, what does humane de-growth look like? Are there possibilities for more meaningful and happier lives within it?
  • Can we create a compassionate society in the midst of climate disruption and prevent the rise of eco-fascism?

Posted by Edmund Mills in Essays, 0 comments
Three simple anti-racist spells

Three simple anti-racist spells

I hope whatever resolve you have to work for racial justice is still alive and well in you. We may be near the time when the flash of inspiration fades and we transition to steady, patient work. Like me, you may be all too familiar with the cycle of waxing and waning inspiration, played out in ways large and small, across areas of life. How do you fold these cycles into steady resolve and patient effort? One way is to establish conditions that carry us forward, independent of our effort or inspiration. I like to think of as magic: the channeling of the energy of inspiration into transmuting the blueprint that shapes our life’s unfolding. In other words, working through changing underlying conditions rather than discrete and direct actions.

Reworking your media stream

The media we take in color our thoughts and shape our worldview. For many of us, this stream comes about haphazardly, an accumulation of small decisions, all influenced by inner and outer conditions. If we haven’t looked at the media we take in through the lens of race (& gender), we might be surprised by how much of it is produced by white men. To take some time to diversify your stream can yield months to years of listening to the perspectives of people of different backgrounds, particularly black & indigenous people of color (BIPOC).

In Practice:

  1. Inventory your media stream. What are the channels it flows through? (e.g. books, news, FB, twitter, youtube, etc.) What are the topics you regularly attend to?
  2. Who’s voices are present? Who’s are absent?
  3. Devote some time seeking out BIPOC voices in each of your main areas of interest and bringing them into each of the channels in your media stream. The key is to embed these new sources pervasively throughout and deep within the stream, rather than as a one-of, add-on, or distinct topic.

Bending the flow of green energy

Money flows in patterns. Like our media stream, these patterns are often unconsciously accumulated, but can be shaped to reflect our deeper values. New habits set in place can over time wear away the centuries-built racial wealth gap.

In Practice (A): Redirect donations to organizations that are committed to racial justice.

  1. Read this short article on Social Justice Philanthropy.
  2. Research the organizations you currently support. Are they committed and working toward racial justice? Are there similar organizations that meet more of the criteria in the above article, like being led by people in the communities they serve?
  3. Make a monthly donation in support of racial justice, to one of the organizations listed here.
  4. Notice how this feels—remembering and appreciating our ethical integrity or generosity supports it’s growth.

In Practice (B): Support local black-owned local businesses.

Black-owned businesses have been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus, and as we begin to open up and go out more, it’s the perfect time to put in place habits of supporting them. Find a list of local black-owned businesses online. Consider which could be incorporated into your routines of shopping, eating out, etc. What could reasonably become an enduring habit, rather than a one-time event?

Tapping into social permeability

The people we spend time with co-create us. They influence the attitudes and actions we consider normal and acceptable. By joining a group of people dedicated to anti-racist action, we can be carried forward if we just keep showing up.

In Practice:

Find a local white caucus like SURJ. You may also be able to find one through your local faith community, or another organization or community you’re a part of. Try to find one where you might make friends and establish long term bonds.

With these three relatively simple spells, with just a few hours of craft, reach into the underlying patterns that give rise to your life, divert the stream to carry your resolution for justice to fulfillment.

Posted by Edmund Mills in Practice, 0 comments
Racism and climate change are inextricable

Racism and climate change are inextricable

One of the things that’s becoming clear to me these days is how racism is linked not only to the impacts of climate change, but also to our ability to respond to it.

Climate change asks us, in both mitigation and adaptation, to unify across racial and national lines, to invest in economic transformation, and to have effective civic institutions. It will ask us to take in more climate refugees without succumbing to further fascism. It asks us to cooperate internationally for the sake of millions of people in the global south who are the first and hardest hit.

Racism in our society is impeding responding effectively to climate change. It’s been used for centuries to preserve the position of those with power by dividing those without it. It’s been used to block social welfare programs. It’s been used to weaken and dismantle a functional federal government, which seems to no longer be able to do anything but serve the short-term interests of the wealthy. We can see all this play out in our government’s feeble response to the coronavirus: both in it’s disfunction and in it’s willingness to sacrifice the lives of people of color for the continued profit of the wealthy. This is identical to what we’re doing with climate change.

If we’re going to respond to climate change well, we need a society that isn’t divided by racism. We need a multi-racial working class coalition to take democratic control in order to enact a just transition.

Beyond the importance of advancing racial justice, I’m hopeful that the current uprisings are a step in that direction. I’m encouraged by the new alliances and connections being made between groups working for justice, by the rapid shift in public opinion, by people discovering their power through successful protest, and by all the political education and training that is happening. May this be the ground for a brighter future.

Posted by Edmund Mills in Reflections, 0 comments