I recently watched Michael Moore’s controversial documentary “Planet of the Humans”. The overall theme of the film was that renewable energy will not reduce carbon emissions. It moves on to argue that the main focus on climate change ought to be overconsumption and the profit motive that exists in a capitalist economy.
The first half of the film is what attracts most criticism. I am not a climate scientist, so I cannot analyse the claims made in the film regarding renewable energy. However, Oliver Milman from The Guardian summarised the complaints made by climate scientists in his article, which can be read here: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/apr/28/climate-dangerous-documentary-planet-of-the-humans-michael-moore-taken-down
The message in the second half of the film is that there seems to be no focus on the issue of capitalism and overconsumption, and the simply moving to renewable energy is all that is require to solve the problems of climate change. And this is something I agree with. However, this message does not require renewable energy to be useless. This argument can be made whilst acknowledging the legitimacy of renewable energy as an alternative to fossil fuels.
Moore’s approach to the film can do more harm than good. This is because this gives the message of “renewables useless, therefore focus on overconsumption” can risk “renewables useful, therefore no need to focus on overconsumption”. Both arguments are equally fallacious, but this is the message that can heard when the documentary grounds its defence on focussing on capitalism and overconsumption on the basis that renewables are useless in attacking climate change. Moore could have easily left out the first half of the film and still produced a compelling argument. But since he dedicated so much time attacking renewables, it gives the message that his argument depends upon it.
Documentaries are no stranger to this mistake. Films that focus on diet, especially one’s focussed on vegetarianism/veganism, commit the same fallacy. What I typically see is cherry picked data to argue that all animal based food is intrinsically unhealthy. The pro-vegan film “The Game Changers” is a recent example. Healthline.com provides a useful review here: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/game-changers-review#healthy-eating
This is something everyone should be wary of watching any documentary. Documentaries are, by their nature, telling the narrative of from the perspective of who is producing it. They choose what can be put in to the film and what is left out of it. They do not need peer-review prior to disseminating it to the public. They may ofter claim neutrality, but in my experience, this has rarely been the case.
The claim made by the film that environmentalists typically are unconcerned with capitalism and think renewable energy will solve all the problems I found to be quite bizarre. Take Extinction Rebellion (ER), who are far from a fringe environmentalist group. ER explicity argue for the changes Moore mentions are ignored by environmentalists. On the ‘about us’ section of their website (see here: https://rebellion.earth/the-truth/about-us/ ) , where they say:
“We are focussed on significant change here towards:
- A functioning democracy, where people have real agency in decision making. This would include devolution of power to the level closest to people and communities, with structures to facilitate decision making locally, regionally, nationally and internationally, where appropriate.
- An economy designed to maximise well-being for all people and minimise harm to each other, our fellow creatures and our home planet. We need policies and laws that achieve greater equality, localised production, reduced consumption, zero carbon emissions and zero waste.
- Creating a regenerative culture. We can begin doing that right now! (See 3. Below and interspersed throughout).
We can focus on symptoms of this toxic system, yet we also we take opportunities to point out that full system change is needed. We also focus on the pillars that keep the current neo-liberal system in place:
- A debt- and interest-based, deregulated finance sector.
- A fake and decaying democracy.
- A media captured to the interests of exploitative rich people and corporations.“
So, the second part of the film although more compelling than the first, Moore seems to not be in touch with the views of contemporary environmentalist movements.
Therefore, Moore has lost a potential opportunity to discuss a legitimate issue by unnecessarily grounding the film’s argument on the effectiveness of renewables. And given that the renewables argument seems to be discredited, this risks leading many people ignoring the film overall, even though it does point out an issue worth discussing.
This reminds me of a quote I once heard (although I forget the source) regarding the effectiveness of vaccinations and pharmaceutical companies, which was ” Big Pharma sucks, but vaccinations work!”. In respect to climate change we can also say “Capitalism sucks, but renewables work!”.
If you are interested in political philosophy, I have recently published a book called “Contrasting Identities: Navigating Identity Politics Conversations” It is available on Amazon Kindle and/or as a hard copy through Amazon. See links below to purchase: