By Chris Lang
The documentary Planet of the Humans continues to raise controversy. This week, YouTube took down the documentary in response to a copyright infringement claim by Toby Smith, a British photographer. The offending four-second clip comes in a sequence titled “How Solar Panels & Wind Turbines Are Made” and shows a rare earth metal mining operation.
I tend to agree with Jeff Gibbs, the director of the documentary, that taking the film down is “a blatant act of censorship”. After getting nearly 8.5 million views on YouTube, the documentary is now available on Vimeo:
In a statement about the removal of the documentary Gibbs says that the film “has opened a serious conversation about how parts of the environmental movement have gotten into bed with Wall Street and so-called ‘green capitalists'”.
There have been a huge number of largely critical reviews of the documentary. This post is the second in a series on REDD-Monitor looking into issues raised in the film that deserve further discussion – regardless of whether or not there are inaccuracies in the film (there are plenty).
I didn’t really want to write this, which probably explains the one month gap since my first post about Planet of the Humans. That post looked at Al Gore and David Blood, and their investment vehicles hidden away in a series of tax havens. Blood and Gore deserve criticism, although the film didn’t do a particularly good job of criticising them.
I didn’t want to write this because criticising Bill McKibben doesn’t make much sense. In 1989, he wrote The End of Nature, the first book about the climate crisis for a general audience. He’s written more than a dozen books. In 2007, he co-founded 350.org, an organisation that has helped motivate millions of people to protest about the need for action globally to address the climate crisis. In 2014, McKibben and 350.org won the Right Livelihood Award.
Since Planet of the Humans was posted on YouTube, McKibben has received even more threats and abusive emails than he usually does. So please don’t write to McKibben to tell him he’s evil. He’s not.
But McKibben is not infallible. This post looks at four issues raised in Planet of the Humans about McKibben: 350.org’s funding; McKibben’s support for biomass; McKibben’s dismissal of the impacts of wind turbines on Lowell Mountain in Vermont; and McKibben’s chumminess with Wall Street. I think the film gets two right, and two wrong.
British environmentalist Mark Lynas slams the film. On the film’s portrayal of McKibben, he writes,
The only genuine leader featured is Bill McKibben, who is framed to look as if he’s taking money from bad people – this also is untrue, as is obvious from the flimsiness of the evidence provided.
Now I would count Bill as a friend, but even so I would say this: take down McKibben if you have some evidence of bad faith or foul play, but doorstepping him at a rally and showing out-of-context gotchas about 350.org’s funding is not going to convince me.
Let’s get the funding issue out of the way first. On the Planet of the Humans website Gibbs writes that the documentary, “does not charge 350.org or Mr. McKibben with taking corporate money.”
The film includes footage from a 2010 interview with journalist Karyn Strickler. That’s three years after McKibben co-founded 350.org. It’s a Skype interview, which, during the coronavirus crisis, makes it seem strangely contemporary. It’s a really interesting interview:
It’s a pity that Jeff Gibbs didn’t follow Strickler’s example, and sit down with McKibben for half-an-hour (or more) to raise some concrete questions about his activism.
Instead, the documentary shows us footage of Strickler asking McKibben how 350.org is funded. Here’s how the conversation went:
Strickler: How is 350.org funded?
McKibben: “Not very well.”
Strickler: “Who are your funders?”
McKibben: “To the degree that we have any money at all it’s coming from a few foundations, in Europe and the US.”
Strickler: “Which ones?”
McKibben: “Er, let’s see. The, er, I’m trying to think who the biggest er funders are. Er, ay, na, na. Er, there’s a foundation in er, based in Sweden, er, called, I think it’s called the Rasmussen Foundation, that I think has been the biggest funder.”
Strickler: “So you don’t get money from Pew, or Rockefeller, or any of those big foundations?”
McKibben: “No we did, Rockefeller Brothers Fund gave us some money right when we were starting out. That’s been useful too.”
Strickler: “But they no longer fund you?”
McKibben: “Er, I don’t know. I don’t have the sort of …”
McKibben: “… funders sitting in front of me. But they’ve been …”
Strickler: “But that’s usually something that people know.”
McKibben: “Rockefeller’s been one of our, er, it’s one of, is a great ally in this fight.”
It’s surprising that McKibben seems unable to say where 350.org got its funding from. Particularly because he’s sitting at a computer, and earlier in the interview read a lengthy quotation from climate scientist James Hansen about why the target should be 350, rather than 280, or 300 parts per million.
But as McKibben points out in a response to the documentary,
I have never taken a penny from green energy companies or mutual funds or anyone else with a role in these fights. I’ve never been paid by environmental groups either, not even 350.org, which I founded and which I’ve given all I have to give. I’ve written books and given endless talks challenging the prevailing ideas about economic growth, and I’ve run campaigns designed entirely to cut consumption.
Looking on 350.org’s website, the 2018 Annual Report (the most recent available) gives a long list of the foundations that support 350.org. The organisation raised more than US$19 million in 2018, with US$8.7 million coming from grants and foundations. More than US$10 million came from individual donations.
As George Monbiot points out in The Guardian,
There is also a real story to be told about the co-option and capture of some environmental groups by the industries they should hold to account. A remarkable number of large conservation organisations take money from fossil fuel companies. This is a disgrace. But rather than pinning the blame where it lies, Planet of the Humans concentrates its attacks on Bill McKibben, the co-founder of 350.org.
The documentary is rightly critical of biomass. Jeff Gibbs has long been a critic of biomass. In 2010, he wrote an article for the Huffington Post under the headline “Green Nightmare: Burning Biomass is Not Renewable Energy”.
The documentary shows footage of Bill McKibben speaking in February 2009 at Middlebury College in Vermont. Middlebury College had installed a biomass gasification plant. At the launch of the plant McKibben said,
“What powers a learning community? And as of this afternoon the easy answer to that is woodchips. It’s incredibly beautiful to stand over there and see that big bunker full of woodchips. You can put any kind of wood in. You know, oak, willow, whatever you want. Pretty much anything that burns we can toss in there if we can chip it down to the right size. And there are very few similar cases any place in this country of that kind of change over that scale. But it shows it could happen anywhere and it should happen anywhere. In fact it must happen everywhere.”
In his response to the documentary, McKibben writes that he “previously personally supported burning bio-mass as an alternative to fossil fuels”. He lists three articles to show how he’s changed his mind.
2016: Burning trees for electricity is a bad idea
2019: Don’t burn trees to fight climate change – let them grow
2020: 2 simple steps to address climate change: Protect conservation land, ban burning of wood for energy
McKibben describes biomass as a “false solution”, “one of the biggest climate hoaxes”, and “greenwashing”. It’s clear that McKibben has changed his mind on biomass.
Before the documentary came out, McKibben wrote to Gibbs “to set the record straight”, but didn’t get a reply. “That seems like bad journalism, and bad faith,” McKibben writes.
In the documentary, Gibbs asks, “Is it possible for machines made by industrial civilisation to save us from industrial civilisation?”
He travels to Lowell Mountain in Vermont, where a woodland site was being cleared to build 21 wind turbines. Gibbs went with a group of local citizens to look at the site. We see the construction site. Trees have been cleared, leaving a muddy mess.
Gibbs asks one of the local people whether they’ve asked Bill McKibben to come and see the impact of these wind turbines. “He thinks anything renewable is good. That’s what I’ve heard people say,” is the answer.
When I watched the documentary, I thought that was pretty weak, because it wasn’t clear that the local community had actually contacted McKibben.
It turns out they did.
Back when Green Mountain Power’s bulldozing and blasting began at Lowell Mountain, a group of locals organized “open-house” walks up the mountain to view the devastation. Hundreds attended these fall/winter treks. Shock and heartbreak were the response. Bill McKibben was personally invited to attend. Though his response was polite, he would not be coming. He dismissed our concern for the mountain as “ephemeral.”
That word underscored what has gone so terribly wrong with green energy “environmentalism.” Something is absent. That something? Love. Love of the places and living beings that are suffering or being destroyed so that we can live our electronic, nature-less existence. Affection for the natural, non- human world is missing in the discussions about climate, carbon and techno-fixes. Nothing seems to matter now but humans and their desires.
In his interview with Karen Strickler in 2010, McKibben says that 350 “is the most important number in the world”. 350.org even had a tie made with the number 350, presumably to make the point:
The trouble with this sort of obsession over parts per million of CO2 is that it runs the risk of failing to pay sufficient attention to the impacts of the “solutions” put in place in an attempt to reach the 350 goal. The impacts of “green energy” become “ephemeral”.
McKibben, Wall Street, and David Blood
Planet of the Humans includes footage of Bill McKibben sharing a stage with David Blood, former CEO of asset management at Goldman Sachs, and Al Gore’s business partner in Generation Investment Management.
The event was part of a conference organised by Ceres in 2013, under the title, “Mobilizing Business Leadership for a Sustainable World”. The session is titled, “Investors and Environmentalists for Sustainable Prosperity”:
McKibben talks about mustering “political will” to raise trillions of dollars for green investments, “very fast”.
McKibben starts his speech by saying, “Let me just start, if I could, just by saying, what a pleasure to be here.” His talk focusses on the urgency of addressing the climate crisis. Blood talks about making money out of techno-fixes that are supposed to solve the climate crisis.
At no point does McKibben show any awareness whatsoever that at least some of the trillions of dollars of investments could have serious impacts for communities living near the “green energy” projects.
Five years before the Ceres event, Generation Investment Management bought an equity stake in a company called New Forests Pty Ltd. David Blood is on the board of New Forests. McKibben could have asked Blood some questions about the “financialisation of nature” and whether New Forests accessing international finance to pour money into industrial tree plantations is really anything to do with a “Sustainable World”.
McKibben could have raised the issue of where the raw materials to make “green energy” are to come from. That’s one of the important issues raised in Planet of the Humans. Of course it’s not the first time this issue has been raised, but it is crucially important.
McKibben could have asked Blood a few awkward questions about Goldman Sachs’ role in the 2008 financial crisis, and the fact that despite the massive and blatant wrong-doing, no one went to jail.
He could have asked about the fact that Goldman Sachs is everywhere – “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money”, as Matt Taibbi famously put it.
Oddly enough, McKibben seemed to have a grasp of this, when he wrote in 2010 that,
If we’re going to slow global warming in the very short time available to us, then we don’t actually need an incredibly complicated legislative scheme that gives door prizes to every interested industry and turns the whole operation over to Goldman Sachs to run.
McKibben even provided a link to Taibbi’s vampire squid article.
McKibben could have raised a question about Blood’s ex-colleague at Goldman Sachs, Mark Tercek, who in 2008 became CEO at The Nature Conservancy? (Of course, The Nature Conservancy would have provided a far better example than McKibben of so-called environmentalists who are in bed with Wall Street – not to mention the oil industry, tech companies, banks, and mining companies.)
Instead, at the end of the session, McKibben shakes Blood’s hand and says, “What a pleasure. That was great.”