Michael Moore and Jeff Gibbs released Planet of the Humans (POTH) on YouTube last week, and many environmentalists are unhappy about it. The documentary, released on the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day, is aimed as a critique of the environmental movement from the perspective of someone who believes in climate change. It uses flawed logic to suggest that current sources of renewable energy are deficient, and speculates on a perceived conspiracy between environmentalists and big business.
Many writers have offered blistering take-downs of the film — so many in fact, that Films for Action has an index. Solar Nerd provided a fact check of the film, focusing on the many flaws with the science. Ketan Joshi gave an analysis of the science, but with a focus on how the commentary was out of date, and disconnected from current science. Emily Atkins wrote two seething commentaries on the film, the first attacking the premise of a climate documentary by a film maker like Michael Moore, and the second explaining how the documentary is lazy and poorly constructed. I highly recommend all of these articles.
One topic that has been partially covered by a number of authors is the film’s implied “solution” to the climate crisis. POTH suggests that population control should play a bigger role in climate discourse. On its face, population control may sound reasonable, but it is extremely problematic once you scratch the surface. Not only is this strategy weak on the merits, it is also associated with some of the most foul racist beliefs of the last two hundred years. This article offers a critique of population control, and explores its links to racist ideologies.
Overpopulation And Climate Change
POTH offers a concise summary of the “overpopulation” theory: there are too many human beings using too much too fast. This statement, at its core, is true. In fact, this statement can even be converted to a mathematical equation.
Number of people x Amount of CO2 released per person = Total CO2 emissions
This equation is, of course, true. It is also true that if the “Number of people” term was to go down, then the “Total CO2 emissions” term would also decrease. Simple as that! All we need to do is lower the “number of people” to the point where “total CO2 emissions” gets small enough to avert climate change! What is there to object to?
To understand why the above version of the overpopulation narrative is problematic, let’s run through a simplified example.
Ten people live in a house. Fifty cans of food are delivered each week. This works fine for a while, but slowly food consumption increases. The house is now eating 60 cans of food each week, and running low on their stockpile. Jon (a member of the house) declares that “there are too many people eating too much food too fast”, and suggests that they must kick people out of the house, or everyone might starve!
What Jon fails to mention is how many cans of food each person is eating. Three people are eating two cans per week, three are eating three cans per week, two are eating five cans, one is eating ten, and one is eating a full twenty-five. In fact, it is Jon who is eating twenty-five cans per week!
Viewed in this light, you can see that the problem is not “too many people” in the house, because different people consume wildly different amounts of food. If Jon cuts back to ten cans of food a week, the house would be totally fine! Population control is unnecessary when everyone gets their fair share.
By focusing on managing population, one is pulling the attention to the “number of people” term in the equation, but the “amount of CO2” is more important. Disparities in CO2 emissions across the globe are astonishing. Here is a list of the top 20 countries by greenhouse gas emissions, organized by CO2 per capita (source).
A citizen from Australia, the US, or Canada emits roughly ten times the CO2 of an Indian or Indonesian. Saudi Arabia emits more CO2 than Mexico, even though Mexico has almost four times the population. It’s not as if every country with low per-capita emissions is living in destitute poverty; France and Italy have less than one-third the per capita impact of the United States. Hearing American film makers imply population control as a solution to climate change sounds an awful lot like Jon suggesting that people be kicked out of the house when he is the one stuffing his face.
To highlight the absurdity of focusing on population, let’s flip the question. How much would global population need to be reduced to meet CO2 targets? The IPCC has projected that CO2 emissions will need to fall 45% by 2030 in order to meet the 1.5 °C warming target. The current population of the world is 7.6 billion people. If we stopped all new births, and we assume CO2 emissions were evenly distributed, the global population would need to fall to 4.2 billion by 2030 to meet the IPCC goal. That is just not realistic. Even if we were to combine all the deaths of World War I, World War II, the Spanish Flu, and COVID-19, this would make almost no difference in the math. There would need to be a Thanos-level drop in population. CO2 emissions need to fall fast, and any humane solution relying on limiting population would need generations to take effect. It might be possible to pair population control with initiatives to decarbonize the economy, but you would still need a massive depopulation strategy. In addition, you also have to deal with POTH’s problems with renewable energy!
In order for population control to be a meaningful part of a solution to climate change, you would need to take some drastic steps. A lot of people would need to be sterilized or killed. So, the question is, who would it be?
Here’s Where Things Get Racist
Before proceeding, I want to make absolutely clear that I am not trying to argue that Moore, Gibbs, or anyone involved with POTH is a racist. Rather, this is an exploration of the connection between population control discourse and racist ideology.
“Overpopulation” and “population control” are not exactly new concepts. Thomas Malthus (1766–1834) is credited as the founder of demography, and suggested that unlimited population growth would lead to a collapse of human society due to scarcity and famine. Even at that time, “population control” was connected to a hierarchy of who deserved to live and who did not. Malthus thought that laws aimed at feeding the poor would only lead to more poor children, which would create more misery in the long run. Letting them starve to death would be more humane.
While Malthus’ predictions did not pan out, his way of thinking has made regular appearances throughout history. Malthus was a major influence on Sir Francis Galton (1822–1911), who was the founder of the “field” of eugenics, which was devoted to improving the gene pool of the human species. The history of the eugenics movement is horrifying. It includes the forced sterilization of the disabled, the racist pseudoscience of phrenology, and was even an inspiration for Adolf Hitler.
Eugenics was mostly abandoned after the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, but more subtle forms of environmental racism have persisted. Paul Ehrlich became famous for his 1968 book Population Bomb which forecasted widespread famine and suffering due to overpopulation. One of the images he used in his book was a slum in Delhi, India where he felt fear and disgust when seeing the crowded streets and the severe poverty. Environmental racism has also worked its way into white supremacist thought. References to overpopulation and climate change can be found in the manifestos of the Christchurch and El Paso shooters. Population control has also been mentioned by present-day white supremacists such as Richard Spencer.
This quote could have easily come from POTH, and is in line with the toxic history of environmental racism and population control. In fact, far-right aligned media like Breitbart, AltNewsMedia, and the Daily Wire — who are usually skeptical of global warming — have defended POTH against its critics.
“Respectable” folks rarely specify who should be forced to control their population, or how that control might be enforced, but it is easy to jump to certain conclusions. The current population of Africa is projected to increase from 1.4 billion today to 2.5 billion by 2050, and 4 billion by 2100. Africa accounts for almost all of the population growth over the next century. India is projected to add roughly 250 million people by 2050. While “population control” does not make an explicit reference to race, we all know that black and brown populations are the ones doing the growing, implying they are the ones that would need to be controlled. POTH does not argue that hundreds of millions of Africans or Indians should be sterilized or killed, but those with racist beliefs could use POTH as evidence to make that case.
What Does Planet of the Humans Actually Say?
The most maddening aspect of POTH’s overpopulation speculation is how little the concept is fleshed out. The film declares that “we’ve got to deal with population growth”, that “We humans are poised for a fall from an unimaginable height” as a result of overpopulation, and that “every expert they talked to” wanted to discuss the issue. No time is spent explaining how a population control policy might work, who would implement such a policy, or project how much it would decrease carbon dioxide emissions. This vacuum of specifics means the film does not add anything to environmentalism’s search for solutions.
Perhaps this interpretation of film is uncharitable, but if the film makers had made a more explicit argument, we could discuss it! As far as I can tell, there is no other solution to climate change clearly referenced in the film. This analysis of POTH’s solutions is based on the most obvious reading of what the film says. Imagine if the narrator had said the following:
Population control is a thorny subject, but there are ways to implement it that are ethical. In the developed world, we should improve funding for family planning services, to make condoms, birth control and abortion free and readily available. We should also introduce generous subsidies for families that adopt children instead of having children of their own. For the developing world, we should greatly increase funding for aid organizations that offer family planning services, as well as agencies that lift girls out of poverty, so they will have better control of their child-baring decisions.
While I don’t agree with this strategy, it is at least an interesting idea! Furthermore, the film makers could have discussed with experts on how such initiatives might mitigate decrease carbon dioxide over the next 50 years. Not only that, the film could convince people who are socially-conservative that handing out condoms and birth control pills is good policy. I’m not saying these ideas would actually work — I don’t think they would — but they would at least offer a solution that many people have not thought about.
Instead, the film ends on the following monologue:
Now I know this all might seem overwhelming. It’s the kind of thing we normally don’t try and think about. But by not thinking about it, it stands a good chance of doing us in. I truly believe the path to change comes from awareness. That awareness alone can begin to create the transformation. There is a way out of this. We humans must accept that infinite growth on a finite planet is suicide. We must accept that our human presence is already far beyond sustainability, and all that that implies. We must take control of our environmental movement and our future from billionaires and their permanent war on planet earth. They are not our friends. Less must be the new more. And instead of climate change, we must at long last accept that it’s not the carbon dioxide molecule that is destroying the planet, it’s us. It’s not one thing, but everything we humans are doing. A human-caused apocalypse. If we get ourselves under control, all things are possible. And if we don’t…
To many, this reads like someone stitched together melodramatic quotes they saw on the internet. It is meant to be a passionate plea for “awareness”, but it is largely hollow aphorisms.
Now imagine reading this as an alt-right curious youth. Someone who worries about climate change, but is also suspicious of immigrants, or half-believes conspiracies about Soros, the Bill Gates, and “The Jews”. Through that lens, lines like “It’s the kind of thing we normally don’t try and think about. But by not thinking about it, it stands a good chance of doing us in,” sound like an argument for radical population control. It may not be the case that the makers of POTH intended to give that darker message, but when your message is unclear, it is much easier to be misinterpreted.
POTH’s creators have addressed some of their critics by explaining that they are looking to “raise a lot of questions”. I don’t see many question marks in that diatribe quoted above. POTH’s arguments on population control are so shallow that it is entirely unclear what they are actually supporting. But this goes to the core problem of POTH — they are not interested in detail, depth, or clarity. The film does not want to construct logical arguments, delve into the research, conduct thorough fact-checks, crunch numbers, or talk to relevant experts. Instead, the film makes vague suggestions with outdated facts, punctuated by ominous imagery, and lets the audience fill in the gaps. When you leave the viewer to do their own research on issues such as population control, you are inviting them to follow a deeply problematic rabbit hole.