"Planet of the Humans" isn't Michael Moore's film. He is, however, the executive producer of the sort-of documentary and its main promoter. And he should really know better. Now George Monbiot has taken Mike to the woodshed.
Planet of the Humans, whose executive producer and chief promoter is Michael Moore, now has more than 6 million views on YouTube. The film does not deny climate science. But it promotes the discredited myths that deniers have used for years to justify their position. It claims that environmentalism is a self-seeking scam, doing immense harm to the living world while enriching a group of con artists. This has long been the most effective means by which denial – most of which has been funded by the fossil fuel industry – has been spread. Everyone hates a scammer.
...Occasionally, the film lands a punch on the right nose. It is right to attack the burning of trees to make electricity. But when the film’s presenter and director, Jeff Gibbs, claims, “I found only one environmental leader willing to reject biomass and biofuels”, he can’t have been looking very far. Some people have been speaking out against them ever since they became a serious proposition (since 2004 in my case). Almost every environmental leader I know opposes the burning of fresh materials to generate power.
There are also some genuine and difficult problems with renewable energy, particularly the mining of the necessary materials. But the film’s attacks on solar and wind power rely on a series of blatant falsehoods. It claims that, in producing electricity from renewables, “You use more fossil fuels to do this than you’re getting benefit from it. You would have been better off just burning fossil fuels in the first place”. This is flat wrong. On average, a solar panel generates 26 units of solar energy for every unit of fossil energy required to build and install it. For wind turbines the ratio is 44 to one.
Planet of the Humans also claims that you can’t reduce fossil fuel use through renewable energy: coal is instead being replaced by gas. Well, in the third quarter of 2019, renewables in the UK generated more electricity than coal, oil and gas plants put together. As a result of the switch to renewables in this country, the amount of fossil fuel used for power generation has halved since 2010. By 2025, the government forecasts, roughly half our electricity will come from renewables, while gas burning will drop by a further 40%. To hammer home its point, the film shows footage of a “large terminal to import natural gas from the United States” that “Germany just built”. Germany has no such terminal. The footage was shot in Turkey.Then Monbiot comes to the film's real sticking point - overpopulation - and here I do side with Moore and Gibbs.
The film offers only one concrete solution to our predicament: the most toxic of all possible answers. “We really have got to start dealing with the issue of population … without seeing some sort of major die-off in population, there’s no turning back.”
Yes, population growth does contribute to the pressures on the natural world. But while the global population is rising by 1% a year, consumption, until the pandemic, was rising at a steady 3%. High consumption is concentrated in countries where population growth is low. Where population growth is highest, consumption tends to be extremely low. Almost all the growth in numbers is in poor countries largely inhabited by black and brown people. When wealthy people, such as Moore and Gibbs, point to this issue without the necessary caveats, they are saying, in effect, “it’s not Us consuming, it’s Them breeding.” It’s not hard to see why the far right loves this film.
Population is where you go when you haven’t thought your argument through. Population is where you go when you don’t have the guts to face the structural, systemic causes of our predicament: inequality, oligarchic power, capitalism. Population is where you go when you want to kick down.Monbiot casts this as white guys trying to preserve their privilege by blaming the black and brown people of the Third World for creating too many mouths to feed.
It's not an either-or problem. We're way past that argument. To solve our problem, to avert catastrophe, you need very serious action on both over-consumption and overpopulation. There has to be a leavening. We need to reduce the global population to a sustainable level and we must find equitable solutions to resource consumption. We of the developed world have to stop consuming so gawddamn much stuff. We have to abandon rapacious and excessive consumption, putting quality of life over quantity of things. That means growing smaller and fast.
The brown and black folks of the Third World. Yeah, they've got to get their numbers down, way down. Monbiot's "it's us, not them" argument falters on the issue of sustainability. Just a few days ago a research paper warned that much of the world, the Third World, is headed for unbearable heating, Sahara Desert-grade warming.
At that level [a global temperature rise of just 3C], about 30% of the world’s population would live in extreme heat – defined as an average temperature of 29C (84F). These conditions are extremely rare outside the most scorched parts of the Sahara, but with global heating of 3C they are projected to envelop 1.2 billion people in India, 485 million in Nigeria and more than 100 million in each of Pakistan, Indonesia and Sudan.An "average temperature" of 29C. That's the average - day and night, summer and winter. It doesn't matter if you can tough it out for 300 or 320 days a year if you have to experience 40 or 60 days of killer temperatures, real "wet bulb 35" conditions where it gets so hot that your body can no longer cool itself and you literally bake from the inside out.
As the climate changes, deadly heatwaves that combine high temperatures with humidity so severe that the human body can no longer cool itself, could start to affect regions of the world currently home to hundreds of millions of people. That’s the conclusion reached by Columbia University’s Ethan Coffel, reported at an American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco in December.
Coffel’s study used the latest IPCC climate projections for 2060 and found regional, relatively near-future effects from modest heating.
This extreme humidity is less likely to occur in arid spots like Marble Bar. Coffel’s climate models suggest that there is more risk in India, West Africa, Iran, Saudi Arabia and other countries along the Arabian Gulf – environments where hot air meets very warm coastal waters.
Wet-bulb temperature is taken by placing a damp cloth over the thermometer’s bulb. Evaporation cools the bulb, the same way perspiring cools the body. As humidity increases, the cooling effect slows. For many mammals, including humans, 35 °C wet-bulb temperature is critical.
“In theory, a 35 °C wet-bulb temperature is the point at which your sweat will not evaporate,” Coffel says.What we may be watching here is a form of tribalism emerging in the ranks of environmentalism, two camps each pointing fingers at the other. Real climate scientists know there is no either/or argument. Each of these problems, unaddressed, presents a genuinely existential threat to human civilization and most other life on Earth.
At that point, even the fittest young adult is unlikely to survive more than a few hours before fatally overheating. But lower wet-bulb temperatures can still claim the lives of the elderly or infirm. Deadly heat waves in India and Pakistan that killed 5,000 people in 2015 only produced wet-bulb temperatures in the range of 29-31 °C, he says.
University of Hawaii's climate science prof, Camilo Mora, put the problem this way:
...the planet is limited in the amount of resources that it can produce. We already have calculated that the planet has on the order of 11 billion hectares that can be harvested in a sustainable manner. Of course we can increase the number by increasing technology, but that’s been happening for the last three decades. The worldwide population is 7 billion people, and we know that to sustain a human being you need on the order of two hectares per person. That means that the world human population every year consumes on the order of 14 billion hectares. The planet only has eleven to give to us. Every year, we consume in excess of three billion hectares.Damaging physical systems? Yes, even as the global population burgeons beyond Earth's carrying capacity - to the order of several billions - we're rapidly degrading our already inadequate stocks of arable land. We have all but forgotten the December, 2014 report of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization that warned most of the world's farmland will be severely degraded within just 60-years.
I grew up in a country where there has been a long history of violence. We have been in war for 50 years, and one thing people don’t realize is what it means to be in a place where anyone can get shot at any moment, where people are starved to death, where there is not enough food to feed people. In the first world, people don’t know how rich they are, and they don’t realize what is happening in the rest of the world. And for me that’s a driving force. It’s scary to think about climate change because when we start damaging physical systems and the carrying capacity of physical systems to produce food, people will react to this in a terrible way. I’m telling you, I have seen it in my own country. It’s very negative the way in which people react to hunger. And that’s one of the things that’s most frightening to me with this large-scale analysis — the fact that I know we’re on our way to some very disturbing scenarios if we go down this pathway of damaging physical systems in the ways that we are today.
Generating three centimeters of top soil takes 1,000 years, and if current rates of degradation continue all of the world's top soil could be gone within 60 years, a senior UN official said on Friday.
About a third of the world's soil has already been degraded, Maria-Helena Semedo of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) told a forum marking World Soil Day.
The causes of soil destruction include chemical-heavy farming techniques, deforestation which increases erosion, and global warming. The earth under our feet is too often ignored by policymakers, experts said.
"Soils are the basis of life," said Semedo, FAO's deputy director general of natural resources. "Ninety five percent of our food comes from the soil."
Unless new approaches are adopted, the global amount of arable and productive land per person in 2050 will be only a quarter of the level in 1960, the FAO reported, due to growing populations and soil degradation.This map depicts what's already going on. It shows how humans have transformed the planet. That's our doing.
For Monbiot to argue that overpopulation is off limits is no more sensible than Moore and Gibbs contending population growth, not fossil fuels, is the singular threat. You can't champion one to the exclusion of the other. A pox on both their houses.
This brings me back to my starting point. There are several ways in which mankind has ventured far beyond our planet's carrying capacity. They fall under three categories - greenhouse gas emissions, excessive consumption of resources and overpopulation. A survivable future depends on humanity finding responses to all three that bring us back within the limits of our environment, the biosphere, Spaceship Earth. We either live in harmony with Earth or human civilization faces a number of rather ugly consequences. Time is definitely not on our side.