What the controversy over Michael Moore’s “Planet of the Humans” reveals about the “green” economy and the “Green New Deal”
On April 21, 2020, the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, at the same time as a global pandemic was exposing the human toll of the growth-obsessed capitalist economic model, Michael Moore released “Planet of the Humans,” a documentary revealing the many inconsistencies in the supposed “green” energy movement. In particular, the film revealed the links between many elements of the movement and big capital itself. On 9-7-20, Max Blumenthal published an article on thegrayzone.com showing how, as its title indicates, “‘Green’ billionaires [were] behind [the] professional activist network that led [the temporary] suppression of [the] ‘Planet of the Humans’ documentary.” Below the title, Blumenthal wrote: “The Michael Moore-produced ‘Planet of the Humans’ faced a coordinated suppression campaign led by professional climate activists backed by the same ‘green’ billionaires, Wall Street investors, industry insiders and family foundations skewered in the film.” Below this is a quote from Jeff Gibbs, the director of the documentary, exhorting is to “take control of our environmental movement and our future from billionaires and their permanent war on Planet Earth.”
The rest of this blog post contains my edited version of Blumenthal’s piece, as shortened as I can make it. It may be long, but it’s important reading, because it shows how mainstream thinking on climate change and what we need to do to stop or curtail it defeats the purpose by, as always, putting profits for big corporations and the 1% ahead of what the earth and the 99% need. (For more on this, read anything recent by Richard Heinberg, and by all means watch the film, still available in its entirety on YouTube.)
Blumental asks what “Planet of the Humans” “to inflame so much opposition from the faces and voices of professional climate justice activism? First, it probed the well-established shortcomings of renewable energy sources like solar and wind power marketed as a green panacea.” No truly green technology or combination of technolgies will allow us to continue current species-destroying, resource-depleting, and carbon-intensive Western lifestyle, especially as practiced in the United States, and “Planet,” indicates this. Its also portrays current solar and wind technologies “as anything but green, surveying the environmental damage already caused by solar and wind farms, which require heavy mining and smelting to produce, destroy swaths of pristine land, and sometimes need natural gas to operate. While major environmental outfits have lobbied for a Green New Deal to fuel a renewables-based industrial revolution, and are now banking on a Democratic presidency to enact their proposals, ‘Planet of the Humans’ put forward a radical critique that called their entire agenda into question. As the director of the documentary, Jeff Gibbs, explained, ‘When we focus only on climate change as the thing destroying the planet, and demand solutions, we get used by forces of capitalism that want to sell us the disastrous illusion that we can mine and smelt and industrialize our way out of this extinction event.’
‘Planet of the Humans’ crossed another bright green line by taking aim at the self-proclaimed climate justice activists themselves, painting them as opportunists willingly co-opted by predatory capitalists. The filmmakers highlighted the role of family foundations like the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in cultivating a class of professional activists that tend toward greenwashing partnerships with Wall Street and the Democratic Party. Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org and guru of climate justice activism, is seen throughout the film consorting with Wall Street executives and pushing fossil fuel divestment campaigns that enable powerful institutions to reshuffle their assets into plastics and mining while burnishing their image.” Big capital, “green tech billionaires, and Wall Street investors are determined to get their hands on the whopping $50 trillion profit opportunity that a full transition to renewable technology represents,” and the documentary urges us not to take the “gestures of environmental concern of oligarchs like Google CEO Eric Schmidt, Michael Bloomberg, Virgin’s Richard Branson, and Tesla founder Elon Musk been at face value.
For years, leftist criticism of professional climate activism has been largely relegated to blogs like Wrong Kind of Green, which maintains an invaluable archive of critical work on the co-optation of major environmental organizations by the billionaire class. Prominent greens might have been able to dismiss scrutiny from such radical corners of the internet as background noise, but once Oscar-winning filmmaker Michael Moore put his name on ‘Planet of the Humans’ as executive producer, alongside those of his longtime producer Jeff Gibbs and the scholar-researcher Ozzie Zehner,” they had to try to squelch it. Even though they failed to get the film off YouTube permanently, they’ve succeeded in overshadowing its message about “the corruption of environmental politics by the 1% with a debate about its credibility, especially the part, as Zehner told me, about the dangers of a consumption-based economic model.
The ringleader of the push to suppress ‘Planet of the Humans’ was Josh Fox, the Oscar-nominated director of the film ‘Gasland,’ which highlighted the destructive practices inherent in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Fox launched the campaign with a sign-on letter calling for the documentary to be retracted by its producers. Then, in an incendiary takedown published in The Nation magazine, accused Michael Moore of being a racist and ‘eco-fascist.’ The relentless push by Fox and others eventually triggered a striking statement by PEN America, the free speech advocacy group: ‘Calls to pull a film because of disagreement with its content are calls for censorship, plain and simple.’
As the attacks on ‘Planet of the Humans’ snowballed, director Jeff Gibbs tried to defend his film. A few left-wing journalists also pushed back on the attacks, but in almost every case, they were spiked by editors at ostensibly progressive journals. Christopher Ketcham, author of This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism, and Corruption are Ruining the American West, was among those unable to find a venue in which to defend the documentary. ‘I’ve come across few editors radical enough to have the exceedingly difficult conversation about the downscaling, simplification, and the turn in the developed world toward diminished affluence that a 100% renewable energy system will necessarily entail,’ Ketcham told me. ‘They want to believe that they can keep their carbon-subsidized entitlements, their toys, and their leisure travel – no behavioral change or limits needed, and it will all be green and “sustainable.”’
Naomi Klein, perhaps the most prominent left-wing writer on climate-related issues in the West, not only didn’t weigh in to defend ‘Planet of the Humans,’ she was an early participant in the campaign to suppress it, calling it ‘demoralizing’ on Twitter, and promoting a ‘fact check’ of it by Ketan Joshi, a former communications officer for the Australian wind farm company Infigen Energy. Like most of the film, Joshi painted the documentary as ‘a dumb old bull in the china shop that is 2020’s hard-earned climate action environment.’ Along with other critics, he accused the film’s co-producers, Gibbs and Zehner, of wildly misrepresenting the efficiency of renewables. To illustrate his point, he referenced a scene depicting the Cedar Street Solar Array in Lansing, Michigan with flexible solar panels running at 8% efficiency, purportedly enough to generate electricity for just 10 homes. Because that scene was part of a historical sequence filmed in 2008, Joshi dismissed it as an example of the film’s “extreme oldness.”’ However, this February, the solar trade publication PV Magazine found that Tesla’s newest line of flexible solar shingles had an efficiency rate of 8.1% – almost exactly the same as those depicted in ‘Planet of the Humans.’” The more expensive mono-crystalline solar panels have an efficiency rate of 15% to 18% in commercially available form, but they still have the problem of imtermittency common to all forms of solar energy.
Was the presentation of renewable energy sources in ‘Planet of the Humans’ false? Ecological economist William Rees has claimed that ‘despite rapid growth in wind and solar generation, the green energy transition isn’t really happening, perhaps because it’s chasing energy growth rather than curtailing it. The surge in global demand for electricity last year exceeded the total output of the world’s entire 30-year accumulation of solar power installations.’ A September 2018 scientific study also found that solar power installations are dependent on mined minerals. [See a link to the study online.]
The negative impact of massive wind farms on the environment and marginalized communities, an issue highlighted in ‘Planet of the Humans,’ is also a serious concern, especially in the global South. Anthropologist and Renewing Destruction: Wind Energy Development, Conflict and Resistance in a Latin American Context author Alexander Dunlap published a peer-reviewed 2017 study of wind farms in the indigenous Tehuantepec region of Oaxaca, Mexico, marketed as one of the most ideal wind generation sites in the world. Dunlap found that the supposedly renewable projects ‘largely reinforced income inequality, furthered poverty entrenchment, and increased food vulnerability and worker dependency on the construction of more wind parks, which cumulatively has led to an increase in work-related out-migration and environmental degradation.’
When wind turbines reach the end of their life cycle, their fiberglass blades, which can be as long as a football field, are also impossible to recycle. As a result, they’re piling up in rural dump sites across the US. Meanwhile, the environmentalist magazine Grist warned this August of a ‘solar e-waste glut’ that will produce ‘megatons of toxic trash’ when solar panels lose efficiency and die.
Already devastated by coups and neocolonial exploitation, swathes of the global South from Bolivia to Congo – home to massive reserves of cobalt hand-mined in ‘slave conditions’ for electric car batteries and iPhones – are being further destabilized by the minerals rush. Evo Morales, the indigenous former president of Bolivia, was driven from power in 2019 by a military junta backed by the United States and local oligarchs, in what amounted to a lithium coup. Bolivia is estimated to hold as much as half of the world’s lithium reserves, and when Morales’ government passed a law that only state-owned firms could mine it, multi-national corporations supported his right-wing domestic opponents in order to get their hands on the mineral, an essential element in electric batteries. This July, Tesla CEO and electric battery kingpin Elon Musk appeared to take partial credit for the 2019 military coup that forced Bolivia’s Evo Morales from power, asserting that big tech billionaires like him could ‘coup whoever we want.’ Electric batteries are also heavily reliant on cobalt, most of which is mined in the Congo, often by child labor in illegal and dangerous conditions. In December 2019, over a dozen Congolese plaintiffs sued Apple, Google’s Alphabet parent company, Microsoft, Dell, and Tesla, accusing them of ‘knowingly benefiting from and aiding and abetting the cruel and brutal use of young children in Democratic Republic of Congo to mine cobalt.’
In his piece hammering ‘Planet of the Humans’ in The Nation, Fox touted “the proliferation of 100% renewable energy plans put forward by Stanford University Professor Mark Jacobson” as one of the most important pieces of evidence refuting the film’s grim narrative. Jacobson’s study, according to National Geographic, was ‘a foundation stone’ of the Green New Deal proposal put forward by Democratic Senator Ed Markey and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It was also central to the energy plan advanced by the presidential campaigns of Senator Bernie Sanders, who co-authored an op-ed with Jacobson that calling for a full transition to ‘clean’ energy by 2050. Jacobson helped Fox found the environmental advocacy organization the Solutions Project, alongside actor Mark Ruffalo and the banker and former Tesla executive Marco Krapels in 2011. Besides his working relationship with Jacobson, Fox failed to acknowledge that the professor’s all-renewables projection was strongly challenged by 21 leading energy scientists in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal. The scientists concluded Jacobson’s paper was rife with ‘invalid modeling tools, contained modeling errors, and made implausible and inadequately supported assumptions.’ A survey of the debate by Scientific American scoffed at Jacobson’s assumption ‘that U.S. hydroelectric dams could add turbines and transformers to produce 1,300 gigawatts of electricity instantaneously…or the equivalent of about 1000 large nuclear or coal power plants running at full power.’
The tactic of fossil fuel divestment is at the heart of the so-called climate justice movement’s plan to defeat the fossil fuel industry. Launched by Bill McKibben’s 350.org and a coalition of professional activists soon after the re-election of President Barack Obama in 2012, the campaign has resulted in institutions like Oxford University and Goldman Sachs supposedly divesting their holdings in oil and gas companies. Campaigners like McKibben encouraged their constituents to invest in funds whose portfolios were supposedly free of fossil fuel companies. ‘Planet of the Humans,’ however, demonstrated that investment funds endorsed by 350.org have engaged in a shell game in which fossil fuel assets are replaced with investments in plastics, mining, oil and gas infrastructure companies, and biomass. In one of the most controversial scenes in ‘Planet of the Humans,’ Bill McKibben was seen inaugurating a wood-burning biomass energy plant at Middlebury College in 2009. McKibben and his allies have attacked the scene as an unfair representation of his current position, yet less than a week after The Nation published Josh Fox’s attack on Michael Moore and ‘Planet of the Humans,’ Nation editor-in-chief D.D. Guttenplan hosted an event with McKibben that was sponsored by Domini Impact Investments, a fund with major investments in several wood-to-energy biomass companies. One Domini holding is a wood-to-energy company called Ameresco, which builds ‘large, utility-scale biomass-to-energy plants,’ according to its website. Domini Impact also has supposedly sustainable timber holdings, including Klabin SA, a company with logging operations spanning 590,580 acres in Brazil. Klabin SA manufactures pulp and paper products and operates a 270-megawatt on-site black liquor biomass plant. This May, just days after Domini sponsored McKibben’s talk, the company purchased a second biomass plant. (Fabio Schvartzman, the former CEO of Klabin SA, was charged with 270 counts of homicide in Brazil this January, after allegedly concealing knowledge of an imminent dam burst to protect the share price of his current company, Vale. The 2019 Mariana dam collapse has been described as Brazil’s worst environmental disaster.) While introducing the Domini-sponsored event with McKibben, The Nation’s Guttenplan stated, ‘By investing in the Domini Funds, you can help build a better future for the planet and its people, and be part of a movement working to address a wide range of social and environmental issues including human rights, climate change mitigation and forest stewardship.’ Neither McKibben nor Guttenplan responded to email requests for comment from The Grayzone.
Domini Funds is hardly the only investment fund that McKibben has partnered with to promote fossil fuel divestment and which has engaged in the shell game exposed in ‘Planet of the Humans.’ In what was perhaps the film’s most devastating scene, narrator Jeff Gibbs detailed how McKibben has advised 350.org members to direct their money into the Green Century Fund, an investment portfolio that boasts of being ‘wholly owned by environmental and public health nonprofit organizations,’ and free of fossil fuel stock. As ‘Planet of the Humans’ revealed, however, the Green Century Funds’ portfolio has contained heavy investments in mining companies; oil and gas infrastructure companies, including an exploiter of tar sands, the biofuel giant Archer Daniels Midland; McDonald’s; Coca Cola (the world’s leading plastic pollution proliferator); logging giants; and big banks from Bank of America to HSBC. Asked about this section of the film, Josh Fox dismissed it as out of date. He claimed that ‘the entire idea of what constitutes a divested fund has changed radically over the last eight years, starting at first from just oil, coal and gas investments, to then encompassing things like plastics and the meat industry.’ However, a probe of the 2019 Securities and Exchange Commission filings by Green Century Funds showed the fund held thousands of shares in meat giant McDonald’s and Royal Caribbean Cruises, among other mega-polluters. The latter company’s Harmony of the Seas ship is the most environmentally toxic cruise liner on earth, relying on three massive diesel engines burning 66,000 gallons of fuel a day. By the end of one voyage across the Atlantic, the ship has expended the same amount of gasoline as over 5 million automobiles traveling the same distance. Green Century’s SEC filing boasted that it elicited a pledge from Royal Caribbean ‘to make its food waste management and reduction strategies more public.’ It also claimed to have ‘helped convince McDonald’s, the largest purchaser of beef in the world, to restrict the use of antibiotics in its beef and chicken supply chains.’ These are classic cases of greenwashing, in which corporate behemoths burnish their reputation among progressives by embracing cosmetic reforms that do little to challenge their bottom lines.
The climate ‘warriors’ criticized in the film are sponsored by many of the ‘green’ billionaires seeking to cash in on the renewables rush, as well as by the network of family foundations that help set the agenda for groups like 350.org. In perhaps the most uncomfortable scene in ‘Planet of the Humans,’ McKibben was shown visibly squirming as an interviewer asked him about Rockefeller Family Foundation support for his 350.org. ‘We’re not exactly Big Greens,’ McKibben insisted during a 2011 interview with climate journalist Karyn Strickler. ‘I’m a volunteer, and we’ve got seven people who work full time on this 350.org campaign.’ When Strickler asked McKibben how his group sustained itself, he said, ‘To the degree that we have any money at all it’s come from a few foundations in Europe and the US. A foundation based in Sweden, I think it’s called the Rasmussen Foundation, has been the biggest funder.’ After some prodding by Strickler, a visibly uncomfortable McKibben admitted that ‘the Rockefeller Brothers Fund gave us some money right when we were starting out. That’s been useful too.’ In fact, the Rockefeller Brothers were instrumental in establishing 350.org and guiding the organization’s agenda. It began when the foundation incubated a group called 1Sky with a $1 million grant, and McKibben immediately joined as board member. As documented by radical environmentalist Cory Morningstar, 1Sky’s launch was announced at a 2007 gathering of the Clinton Global Initiative by former President Bill Clinton, who stood on stage beside Rockefeller Brothers Fund President Stephen Heintz. Four years later, the Rockefeller Brothers announced “the exciting marriage of 1Sky and 350.org – two grantees of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund’s Sustainable Development program.’ Why McKibben was so uncomfortable about discussing his relationship with Rockefeller was unclear. Perhaps he was concerned that the organization he once described as a ‘scruffy little outfit’ would be seen as a central node in the donor-driven non-profit industrial complex. Whatever his motives were, since the testy exchange with Strickler, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund has contributed over $1 million to McKibben’s 350.org.
Alongside a network of foundations and ‘green’ billionaires, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and its $1.2 billion endowment serves as a primary engine of the network of self-styled ‘climate justice’ activists that sought to steamroll ‘Planet of the Humans.’ These interests have cohered around the Environmental Grantmakers Association (EGA), located in the New York City offices of the Rockefeller Family Fund. The EGA enables elite foundations and billionaire donors to cultivate a cadre of professional ‘doers’ during retreats in scenic locations like Napa Valley, California, and the Mohonk Mountain House resort in New York’s Hudson Valley.
In accordance with its relationship with the EGA’s network of environmental cadres and outfits like 350.org, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund embraced their fossil fuel divestment campaign, shedding its stocks in oil and coal while increasing assets in other industries that can hardly be described as green. A look at the most recent publicly available financial filing of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, from 2018 [PDF link online], offered a clear glimpse at the shell game that divestment has entailed. According to the filing, while the Rockefeller Brothers foundation freed itself of fossil fuels, it remained invested in companies like the oil services giant Halliburton, the Koch-run multinational petroleum transportation partnership Inter Pipeline Ltd, and Caterpillar, whose bulldozers are familiar at scenes of deforestation and Palestinian home demolitions. The foundation also padded its portfolio with stock in financial industry titans like Citigroup and Wells Fargo, as well as Newcrest Mining, Barrick Gold, Wheaton Precious Metals Corporation, and Agnico Eagle Mines.
Since the Rockefeller Brothers Fund answered 350.org’s call to divest from fossil fuels in 2014, the foundation’s wealth has increased substantially. As the Washington Post reported, ‘the Rockefeller Brothers fund’s assets grew at an annual average rate of 7.76% over the five-year period that ended December 31, 2019.’ The outcome of the Rockefellers’ widely praised move established a clear precedent for other elite institutions: by allowing organizations like 350.org to lead them by the hand, they could greenwash their image, offload stocks in a fossil fuel industry described by financial analysts as a ‘chronic underperformer,’ and protect their investments in growth industries like mining, oil services, and biomass. McKibben, for his part, has marketed fossil fuel divestment as a win-win strategy for the capitalist class: ‘The institutions that divested from fossil fuel really did well financially, because the fossil fuel industry has been the worst performing part of our economy. Even if you didn’t care about destroying the planet, you’d want to get out of it because it just loses money.’
In another move apparently intended to burnish its green image while padding its assets, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund invested over $100 million in Generation Investment Management’s Generation Climate Solutions Fund II and Generation IM Global Equity Fund. These entities are jointly managed by Al Gore, the former U.S. vice president who negotiated a notorious carbon offsets loophole at the 1997 Kyoto Climate Protocol that’s been blamed for the release of 600 million tons of excess emissions. Gore launched the fund alongside David Blood, the ex-CEO of asset management for Goldman Sachs, in order to promote climate-friendly capitalism. In a 2015 profile of Blood and Gore’s Generation Investment Management fund, The Atlantic’s James Fallows described their investment strategy as ‘a demonstration of a new version of capitalism, one that will shift the incentives of financial and business operations’ toward a profitable ‘green’ economy. Blood himself admitted, ‘We’re making the case for long-term greed.’
The banker Blood and the green guru McKibben shared a stage together at the 2013 conference of Ceres, a non-profit that works to consolidate the mutually beneficial relationship between Big Green and Wall Street. The event featured a cast of corporate executives from companies like Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) and GM. Sponsors included Bank of America, PG&E, Bloomberg, Citi, Ford, GM, Prudential, Wells Fargo, TimeWarner, and a collection of Fortune 500 companies. During their conversation, the investor Blood pledged to mobilize ‘something in the order of $40 to $50 trillion of capital’ in renewables, underscoring the massive profit center that a transition to ‘green’ energy represents.
As noted above, Naomi Klein, a longtime critic of elite family foundations and the billionaire class, was among the most prominent figures to join the campaign to censor ‘Planet of the Humans.’ Her opposition to the film was surprising given the views she’s expressed in the past on mainstream environmental politics. In 2013, for example, she bemoaned the ‘deep denialism in the environmental movement among the Big Green groups [on how to fight climate change]. To be very honest with you,’ she continued, ‘I think it’s been more damaging than right-wing denialism in terms of how much ground we’ve lost.’ Klein was appointed to 350.org’s board of directors in 2011, and published This Changes Everything, her book on climate change in 2015. The book was initially launched as a project called ‘The Message,’ supported with hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants from the same who’s who of major family foundations that help sustain McKibben’s political apparatus. In one of several grants to the book and film project, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund contributed $50,000 to ‘The Message’ via a non-profit pass-through called the Sustainable Markets Foundation. Susan Rockefeller served as a co-executive producer of the documentary version of This Changes Everything. Her husband, David Rockefeller Jr., is the son of tycoon David Rockefeller, a U.S. government-linked cold warrior who co-founded the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and helped back the U.S.-managed coup that put Pinochet and the Chicago Boys in power in Chile, something Klein railed against in her 2008 book The Shock Doctrine. In 2014, the Ford Foundation chipped in with $250,000 for Klein’s project.
In April 2019, Klein released “A Message From The Future,” a video collaboration with Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and artist and pundit Molly Crabapple, which promoted the Green New Deal as a pathway to a renewable-powered economic utopia. Crabapple is an Eric and Wendy Schmidt Fellow at the New America Foundation, a Democratic Party-linked think tank substantially funded by Google’s Schmidt, the Ford Foundation, and the U.S. State Department. In a recent Intercept column, Klein took aim at Schmidt, describing him as one of the billionaires exploiting ‘a coherent Pandemic Shock Doctrine’ to begin ‘building a high tech dystopia.’ She noted that Schmidt is closely aligned with the national security state as chair of the Defense Innovation Board, which consults for the Pentagon on the military’s application of artificial intelligence. Schmidt also happens to be a proponent of a ‘smart’ energy grid, which he says will ‘modernize the electric grid to make it look more like the Internet.’ Such a model would not only benefit tech companies like Google which make their money buying and selling data, but the U.S. national security state, whose partnerships with big tech companies increase the capacity of its surveillance apparatus. The Senate version of the Green New Deal calls for the construction of ‘smart’ power grids almost exactly like those Schmidt imagined. Klein and other high-profile Green New Deal proponents have neglected to mention that this seeming benign component of the well-intentioned plan could represent a giant step on the way to the ‘high tech dystopia’ of Silicon Valley barons and their national security state partners.
In May 2018, Klein became the Gloria Steinem Endowed Chair in Media, Culture and Feminist Studies at Rutgers University. The position was created ‘following a three-year, $3 million campaign including a dozen foundations,’ including the Ford Foundation. Contributions also poured in for the endowment from tycoons like Sheryl Sandberg, the billionaire chief operating officer of Facebook and advocate of corporate ‘Lean In’ feminism; and Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood mogul who was sentenced this March to 23 years in prison for first degree criminal sexual assault. According to Rutgers, Weinstein provided ‘a gift of $100,000 in honor of his late mother, who shared Gloria Steinem’s hopes for female equality.’
I had hoped to have a conversation with Klein, a former colleague at the Nation Institute, about her opposition to a documentary that advanced many of the same arguments that appeared in her past writings. Was the exclusive focus on carbon emissions by professional climate warriors not a blinkered approach that ignored the environmental damage inherent in producing still-unproven renewable technology? Did ‘cleantech’ tycoons not have a vested interest in advancing a global transition to the renewable products their companies manufactured? When she had clearly articulated the problems with billionaire-backed Big Green advocacy, why had Klein cast her lot with a political network that seemed to epitomize it? My emails were met with an auto-reply informing me Klein was ‘off grid,’ and referring me to her personal assistant. According to Fox, high-profile climate warriors like McKibben and Klein had no interest in speaking to me about their opposition to the film because ‘it’s like four months ago, man, everybody’s moved on.’
By August, members of the professional climate advocacy network that saw its interests threatened by ‘Planet of the Humans’ were preparing for a much more elaborate on-screen production that promised new opportunities. In the weeks ahead of the Democratic National Convention, climate justice organizations like the Sunrise Movement 501 c-4 which emerged in the shadow of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential run and condemned former Vice President Joseph Biden as a tool of the establishment suddenly changed their tune. Flush with dark money from Democratic Party-aligned billionaires, Sunrise Movement co-founder Varshini Prakash stated on July 14th, the day Biden released his clean energy plan: ‘It’s no secret that we’ve been critical of Vice President’s Biden’s plans and commitments in the past. Today, he’s responded to many of those criticisms: dramatically increasing the scale and urgency of investments. Our movement, alongside environmental justice communities and frontline workers, has taught Joe Biden to talk the talk.’ While it brands itself as a grassroots movement that’s organized anti-establishment stunts putting centrist figures like Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein on the spot, the Sunrise Movement was incubated with a grant from the Sierra Club, the Mike Bloomberg-backed juggernaut of Big Green organizing, and today, offices of the two organizations are located a floor apart in the same building in downtown Washington DC.
Ahead of the DNC, the Biden campaign introduced a $2 trillion plan pledge to invest heavily in renewable technology to achieve ‘a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035.’ The plan promised to erect 500 million solar panels in the next five years alongside 60,000 new wind turbines. With the demand for solar plummeting due to the coronavirus pandemic, the prospect of gigantic government subsidies was music to the ears of the ‘cleantech’ tycoons who sponsor Democratic Party-aligned climate advocacy organizations. Many of these green millionaires and billionaires had feasted at the trough of Obama’s stimulus package, which was directly responsible for powering the rise of America’s solar industry. After promising upon his inauguration to invest $150 billion in ‘a new green energy business sector,’ Obama doled out an eye-popping $4.9 billion in subsidies to Tesla’s Elon Musk and a $1.2 billion loan guarantee for Tom Dinwoodie’s SunPower US to construct the California Valley Solar Ranch. In June 2019, an ‘avian incident’ caused a fire at the SunPower Solar Ranch project, impacting over 1200 acres and knocking out 84% of generating capacity for several weeks.
‘Planet of the Humans’ presented viewers with the disturbing story of the Ivanpah solar plant, a signature initiative in Obama’s green energy plan co-owned by Google. Gifted with $1.6 billion in loan guarantees and $600 million in federal tax credits, Ivanpah was built on 5.6 square miles of pristine public land close to California’s Mojave National Preserve. In its first year, the massive plant produced less than half its of its planned energy goal while burning over 6,000 birds to death. Because of the intermittency inherent to solar power, the gargantuan energy project has had to burn massive amounts of natural gas to keep the system primed when the sun’s not shining. Despite its dependence on fossil fuel, Ivanpah still qualifies under state rules as a renewable plant. ‘The bottom line is the public didn’t expect this project to consume this much natural gas,’ David Lamfrom, California desert manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, told the local Press-Enterprise. ‘We didn’t have full knowledge that this was what we were signing up for.’
Even after the Obama administration poured billions of dollars into solar projects, solar energy output increased between 2008 and 2016 by just .88% as a total of American energy production. Meanwhile, across the country, many new wind projects remain stalled due to community concerns about land destruction. In the home state of Green New Deal advocate Senator Bernie Sanders, the only remaining wind project was canceled this January. For raising questions about the efficacy and environmental cost of renewable projects like these, and proposing an explicitly anti-capitalist solution to the corporate destruction of the planet, the makers of ‘Planet of the Humans’ were steamrolled by a network of professional climate activists, billionaire investors and industry insiders. Now, with the Biden campaign promising a new flood of renewable subsidies and tax breaks under the auspices of a ‘clean’ energy plan, the public remains in the dark about what it’s signing up for. Even if the ambitious agenda fails to deliver any substantial environmental good, it promises a growing class of green investors another opportunity to do well.