Ending Overshoot
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Ending Overshoot

The Inconvenient Truth of Planet of the Humans

We’ve Gotten Way Too Big for Our Planet

Planet of the Humans must be one of the most-reviewed films in the history of cinema. That’s quite a feat for a film that has been in wide release for less than a month. My review here won’t bring up any new topics, but I will offer some fresh perspective and highlight the most important insights already offered by others.

The controversy swirling around this film brings up mixed emotions for me. The film explores the most important subject in all of human history, so I’m glad to see it getting a lot of attention and so many views (over 7.5 million as of this writing, about 20 days into it’s free, monthlong debut on YouTube). But I do wish so much of the attention wasn’t negative. Of course, the negative attention has been backlash from the film’s harsh critique of renewable energy technology and some of its champions. One would expect those critiqued to offer a loud self-defense.

It’s unfortunate Planet of the Humans isn’t more bullet-proof on every fact, though it’s closer to the truth than many want to admit. There’s a reason the critiques of the film (and defenses of renewable energy technology) tend to zero in on details rather than rebut the irrefutable higher-level take-aways. Sadly, those critiqued in the film, and their most ardent supporters, may feel so injured and defensive that they won’t be able to see the forest for the trees. It will be a real shame if these skirmishes distract any of us from getting the important truths offered by this film.

We’re All the bad guys.

First, many of the film’s criticisms of renewable energy technology have some validity. Solar and wind DO have some serious challenges. The math is a little different today than it was over a decade ago when Ozzie Zehner researched and wrote Green Illusions. But there is plenty of serious analysis today suggesting renewables cannot scale up to replace the amount of fossil fuel energy needed to run our currently oversized economy. Credible data also suggests that it would require a ton of fossil energy to manufacture and install that level of renewable infrastructure. And a ton of energy and raw materials would be necessary to replace that infrastructure at the end of its rather short useful life. And yes, the technology depends on some raw materials that must be mined and do have finite supplies.

While the film doesn’t portray solar and wind intermittency issues in a fully modern light, these issues remain to some extent. Pumped storage is one partial solution, but dams have their issues. And if battery storage is the solution, then the mining of raw materials for batteries comes into play. And if you point out that battery technology is improving…well, yes, but what a great example of how technology rarely solves one problem without creating another. This sound bite in the film from anthropologist Nina Jablonski may give the techno-optimist in us comfort, until we think about it for a minute:

“We’re in ecological hot water, but there are technological fixes. And if we’re just creative enough, if we’re just ingenious enough, and if we just work hard enough, we will triumph.”

If we’re just creative enough, just ingenious enough, work just hard enough, and get everything perfectly right, then technology fixes MIGHT allow us to continue ignoring the most important message of the film. (The film skewers environmental NGOs and renewable energy advocates because they have been largely silent about this.) It’s a point that is critical to the long-term sustainability of our civilization. The sheer scale of the human enterprise is just too big. We’ve outgrown the planet, and no known technology can resolve that. Betting on technology to solve the problems created by our scale is a very, very, very long shot.

Let me be very clear about what the “human enterprise” (my words) is. It is not just human numbers. It is the size of our population AND the size of our economy. This is an important point because some of the film’s critics somehow got the impression that the film presents human overpopulation as a problem but ignores overconsumption. I suspect they heard what they expected to hear, rather than what was actually in the film. Here’s what I heard:

Jeff Gibbs (at 43:30): “It was becoming clear that what we had been calling green, renewable energy, and industrial civilization are one and the same — desperate measures not to save the planet, but to save our way of life. Desperate measures, rather than face the reality humans are experiencing the planet’s limits all at once.”

Richard Heinberg, interviewed in the film, sums it up nicely in one short sentence:

Richard Heinberg (at 44:35): “There are too many human beings, using too much, too fast.”

Note that Gibbs didn’t cut Heinberg’s sound bite after “too many human beings.”

Jeff Gibbs (at 1:10:00) “the reason we’re not talking about overpopulation, consumption, and the suicide of economic growth, is that would be bad for business.”

Jeff Gibbs (at 1:28:50) “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.”

“Less must be the new more.”

“It’s not the carbon dioxide molecule that’s destroying the planet. It’s us.”

I am 100% positive that this perspective is 100% true. The best analysis by the Global Footprint Network conservatively estimates we have been in overshoot (too big for our planet) for 50 years, and we’re approaching two-planet living (making twice the demands on Earth that she can sustainably meet). Gibbs’ main gripe with the likes of 350.org is that they conveniently leave this out of their messaging, focusing instead only on the need for a rapid shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy. His fear — well founded, I’m afraid — is that the general public is left with the impression that we can go on living high on the hog, if we just switch from oil, coal and gas to wind and solar.

In a particularly insightful review, scientist/journalist Kristine Mattis nailed the problem. I couldn’t say it any better, so I’ll quote her, from Climate Crisis: Our Ecological Dysfunction Has a Marketing Problem (and it’s not Michael Moore)

“Some critics of the film are proving to be as disingenuous as they purport the filmmakers to be. The film may be facile at times, but so are many of the critiques. Myopia on the topics of renewables and population…overlook the heart of the film: that we cannot continue to increase our economic growth and resource use on a finite planet; that we are leaving a morass of waste and pollution in our wake that is killing all life on the planet, including us; that our high-tech solutions to maintain our over-consumptive way of life have not done any good in terms of mitigating our colossal environmental emergencies….”

I’ve long suspected that leaders of the big environmental NGOs are quite aware that we must do much more than switch to renewables. I think they understand that we’ve got to rein in the overconsumption of the overdeveloped world, and most probably understand that the planet cannot long withstand continued growth of the entire global economy. I have often imagined this conversation taking place in a meeting room at 350.org:

Tamara: We’re getting a few complaints, from some of the more knowledgeable engineers, physicists and the like. They’re insisting that we add to our messaging that we need to put a stop to economic growth.

Maeve: I know, I know. I got ten emails today wondering why we don’t encourage supporters to stay off airplanes, out of automobiles, give up meat, and trade in their McMansions for tiny houses.

Bill McKibben: I know that you all know — all that is true. We have got to do those things.

Maeve: But…

Bill McKibben: Exactly. If we add all those things to our message, on top of swapping out coal for renewables, it’s going to look too hard. We’ll lose people. So right now we just have to focus on the switch to renewables.

That conversation is pure conjecture on my part.

Bill McKibben has written about our problematic love affair with economic growth. But I’ve not seen anything from 350.org (or most of the other NGOs) denouncing public policy pursuing GDP growth. And I’ve not seen emails encouraging activists to take the train, or car pool, or ride their bikes to rallies. Bill McKibben wrote in Rolling Stone that he and 350.org have pushed energy conservation. I hope that’s true. I haven’t noticed it.

Kristine Mattis articulated it well:

“Powerful and influential, these celebrity leaders of the climate crisis, with huge social media and public followings, are aligned in their messages and talking points because they are engaged in a marketing campaign. They have something to sell. Their product may be a prescription of climate mitigation technologies and they may be marketing environmentalism, but it is marketing nonetheless, and as such, truth can sometimes be a casualty in the process.

Not only have they condescendingly decided that people do not need to know the full picture of our ecological emergency because it would be too overwhelming to bear, they peddle positivity and hopium to diminish the necessary discomfort that inspires critical thought and contemplation.”

Maybe they would have made even less progress if they’d been telling their followers the whole truth. And maybe that was the right decision, for that reason. I’m not sure. But I am sure it’s not wrong for a filmmaker to try to tell the whole truth. I’ve been trying to, myself, in my 2011 documentary, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth, and more recently in the GrowthBusters podcast about sustainable living.

Let’s turn our attention to the human population subject. It’s important, and was rightly mentioned in the film. Why? Because when you have a civilization engaged in two-planet living, odds are you’re not going to be able to get back into sustainable balance by focusing only on the overconsumption problem. You’d have to cut the global economy in half, and at the same time allow a few billion of the most impoverished people a chance to have their needs met (which would grow their economic footprint). The final result, if fair, would require all 7.8 billion of us to live like paupers. The pushback on that would be severe. It may well be impossible to achieve. So we’ve got to address our numbers, as well. And on that front, we’ve already demonstrated a willingness to do what’s necessary. The average family has dropped from 5 kids to less than 2.5 over the past 60 years. And we know that gender equity, education and access to family planning — all noble pursuits in themselves — generally result in freely chosen smaller families.

A few critics of the film have taken Gibbs’ one sentence lamenting that we don’t talk about “overpopulation, consumption, and the suicide of economic growth.” They subtracted “consumption, and the suicide of economic growth.” And they’ve decided the film “trots out overpopulation tropes.” And they’ve decided the film brings up overpopulation without mentioning overconsumption. And they’ve decided the filmmakers and interviewees are a bunch of privileged racists who can’t possibly be right about overpopulation. And, even if the filmmakers and interviewees are right, how dare THEY bring it up?

These critics disappoint by assuming ill motivations and intent where there is no evidence of such. Guardian columnist George Monbiot wrote:

“When wealthy people, such as [Michael] Moore and [Jeff] Gibbs, point to this issue without the necessary caveats, they are saying, in effect, ‘it’s not Us consuming, it’s Them breeding.”

“Them” in Monbiot’s review are “black and brown people.” The film does not single out people of any color or country, but Monbiot assumes that Gibbs’ general statement about overpopulation means Gibbs wants to dictate family size to black and brown people in high fertility nations. If you’re going to bring the subject up, you’d better immediately offer a thorough explanation of who, what and why. That is the unfortunate state of the overpopulation conversation today. But Monbiot should know better than to assume the worst. That is patently unfair on Monbiot’s part, and I find it very disappointing.

This isn’t the ugliest, most false accusation Gasland director Josh Fox hurled in his commentary published by The Nation, but it serves my point adequately:

“We see old white male after old white male declaring there is no solution to climate change except reducing the population. (With this many white guys, we can only guess which groups of people are supposed to stop reproducing.)”

False. Not a single person in the film made such a statement. And how dare they be white and male (like Josh)!

Science blogger (and former renewable energy industry employee) Ketan Joshi wrote:

“The film features a parade of — solely — white Americans, mostly male, insisting the planet has to reduce its population. There is no information provided on which people in the world need to stop fucking, but we can take a guess, based on the demographics of the people doing the asking.”

Wow. I had no idea that would be a safe guess. It assumes we’re in a nearly universal race and class competition. Personally, I prefer to think that kind of interracial competition, fear and hatred is shared by a small minority of the world’s people, even a small minority of the white people. Would it have been smart for Planet of the Humans to have a more diverse array of interviewees? Yes. Should we automatically discount someone’s perspective, and even assume we know what they’re thinking, just because they are a white male? I don’t think so. You can certainly be skeptical if you want, but Joshi’s statement is more racist than anything in Planet of the Humans.

Forgive me (or thank me) for not passing up an important, teachable moment. Speaking of overpopulation, or addressing overpopulation, is not the exclusive domain of Sub-Saharan Africa. Most overdeveloped countries are overpopulated. In many cases, even if they weren’t profligate overconsumers, they might still be out of sustainable balance due to the size of their population. The fact that an overconsuming nation has below replacement fertility does not mean “overpopulation solved here; mission accomplished.” Every child born in the overconsuming world has twenty to sixty times the environmental impact, carbon footprint, etc. of a child born in the “developing” world. We owe it to the world to keep choosing smaller and smaller families.

The mention of overpopulation does not automatically mean you’re ignoring levels of consumption (or population) in the overdeveloped world. And it does not automatically mean you’re attempting to dictate family size specifically among black or brown, impoverished or uneducated, or people of any particular nation or region. It doesn’t even mean you’re advocating dictation of family size. There have been instances in the past where it did mean all these things. But we have moved so far beyond that, it’s time for overpopulation deniers to cease trotting out that tired, old, classist, racist trope.

I’m a fan of renewable energy. I think we need to embrace it and shift to it as quickly as possible. But that won’t matter if we don’t also get over our love affair with economic growth and our fear of addressing human overpopulation. Our scale is creating many more problems beyond climate change. We could accomplish the impossible — somehow miraculously equippping the world to run our current, and growing, society on renewable energy — and still we would be on our way off a cliff. It’s a shame Jeff Gibbs couldn’t get to this point early and hammer it home. Unfortunately, it took him the entire film to undermine our irrational faith in the technology remedy of renewable energy. I’m thankful he started this conversation.

Renewable energy advocates and climate activists, and especially their NGOs, have focused intently on pushing the technology and have ignored the concurrent need to begin shrinking the scale of the human enterprise (both our economy and our population). That’s the inconvenient truth of this era, and a few factual inaccuracies — while unfortunate — should not distract us from the ultimate truth that we have created a “planet of the humans.” We’ve gotten way too big for our planet.

NOTE: Because of the strong need to get the important take-aways from this film, and to chart a course correction, GrowthBusters and World Population Balance are co-hosting a free webinar on May 19:

Planet of the Humans: a Sequel
What did the film get right? And what should we do about it?

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Dave Gardner

Dave Gardner co-hosts the GrowthBusters podcast about coming to terms with limits to growth. He directed the 2011 documentary, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth.