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Planet of the Humans uses outdated and misleading science, portraying the state of renewable energy roughly ten years ago as current and using out of context examples.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?

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