Planet of the Humans Swings Wildly, Misses Badly

Toward the end of the recently-released, Michael Moore-produced film Planet of the Humans, the narrator blames everyone: “It’s not one thing, but everything we are doing. A human-caused apocalypse.”

Does this universal condemnation apply to public health workers in besieged reproductive health clinics risking their lives to foster a safer, less-crowded world? Does it include dedicated engineers who have reduced the cost of solar panel installations by 65% over the past decade? What about young, would-be teachers facing crushing student debt burdens?

We sadly expect sweeping incoherence from the current occupant of the White House. It’s disconcerting in a film presumably seeking to open our minds to the state of the world.

Planet of the Humans has been soundly criticized for deploying out-of-date information on various renewable energy options. But what’s really striking is its vague, insubstantial handling of population issues.

The film has been tagged as Malthusian. Like many oft-cited writers, Thomas Robert Malthus is more often referenced than read. His main thesis, proffered long before the advent of modern contraception and in an era when women were often treated as mere property, was that population growth would outstrip human capacity to feed those growing numbers. But Malthus also observed, “To minds of a certain cast there is nothing so captivating as simplification and generalization.”

This film falls all-too-neatly into that very trap. It’s not that it exaggerates the scope of the threats posed by human activity. And its general reference to population impacts is grounded in fact. But it feels like yet another unnecessary nostalgia trip back to the ’60s in its failure to recognize the extraordinary potential of modern contraception.

In 1950, the average woman on earth had five children. Today the average is 2.5 children. In 1970, there were about four nations on earth at or below replacement rate fertility—which is just over two children per woman in a reasonably safe and healthy society. Today, there are nearly 100 such nations.

These revolutionary shifts go unnoticed in this film. With hundreds of millions of women worldwide still facing huge barriers to contraceptive freedom, focusing on that challenge would seem more worthwhile than sour observations that progress toward a greener world can be wildly uneven.

The film’s thesis that the environmental movement—with its tens of millions of active members—is stale, stalled, and captured by corporate interests is as sophomoric as it is flat-out wrong. The documentary unfairly degrades and obfuscates tireless efforts of our fellow citizens devoted to making our air and water cleaner—indeed to saving our living planet.

In our complex pluralistic society, there is no progress without compromise. It might be nice if it were otherwise, but it isn’t. Besides, none of us possess all the answers. Those who loudly claim to do so always turn out to be insufferable windbags.

As for renewable energy, well, it’s renewable. With every passing day, solar arrays and wind turbines are getting more efficient. Let’s keep in mind that it’s taken centuries to degrade the planet. Like it or not, it’s going to take much time and vast effort to achieve a sustainable world.

There is no better place to start than by respecting and supporting all voluntary reproductive health services. We now know that most women prefer to have smaller families, given the choice. Saving the planet starts by respecting their rights and lifting them up, not by putting down efforts by decent people working hard to shift us away from a fossil fuel economy.

11 thoughts on “Planet of the Humans Swings Wildly, Misses Badly

  1. I did not see the film as putting down efforts by decent people, rather as making it clear that the current technological and market-based “fixes” for environmental devastation are not bringing about the environmental healing that we desperately need and are unsustainable in themselves. Yes, some things have improved, but when it comes to measurable results, we have failed to turn things around. For instance, only when the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere is significantly reduced can we claim to have succeeded in any way in our struggle to address climate change. The same can be said about the growing mountains and islands of plastic and the dying coral reefs and other species. Of course we need to support women in their struggle for reproductive rights and raise the status and opportunities of women, all of which have been shown to reduce rates of population, as has raising people from extreme poverty. As for climate change, we need a science-based approach that eliminates fossil fuel subsidies and uses the goal of 30 to 40 percent reduction of emissions by 2030, as scientists say we need to achieve in order to limit warming to 1.5 degree C, not hit or miss attempts to create bipartisan win-win approaches that corporations can get behind but may take years to see their effects. Of course, that will take a change in vision, values, and worldview away from the conventional wisdom of neoliberalism and it will take a change in our ourselves (and the lifestyles we take for granted), our institutions, and our system–which means, building a grassroots movement capable of bringing about the systemic changes we need in order to address not only environmental issues, but inequity and so many other forms of injustice.

    • The film took a hard shot at some very good people. It rejected incredibly complex efforts to move toward a better future in favor of . . . what? No one places higher value than we do on the importance of stopping population growth, but, if that’s key to a global solution, why was it just a throwaway line in the film? I think it’s because real progress is always, always so difficult. It’s lots easier to toss a brick through a window than it is to build any structure. Exasperation is not a strategy. Neither is wishful thinking.

  2. I have many problems with Moore’s new film, especially with regard to the analysis of the current state of renewable energy development, and the sincerity/integrity of many leading environmental activists. That said, I think the statement near the film’s end that “[the cause of our present environmental crisis] is not one thing, but everything we’re doing” is itself a generalization, and not meant to be taken literally as meaning “everything.” I agree that it would have been helpful for the film to highlight the progress made in human contraception, but I think the film’s larger point is that even with it, our ongoing 200 year old population explosion has caused more than a doubling of world population just since the 60’s, something even most environmentalists, and virtually all elected officials don’t even want to talk about. Regarding citizen activists urging environmental reform, I think the film could have been more accurate, supportive and positive in its portrayal, but it remains a fact that corporate interests have largely stalled, obfuscated and undermined those efforts at every turn, substituting their own highly funded green-washing campaigns…which, again, I think was the film’s larger point. Lastly, I’m afraid the time for incremental progress and compromise have long since passed. Over the last 50 years we’ve dithered away all the time we might have spent in thoughtful deliberation and incremental action. We’ve painted ourselves into a corner. I think only massive emergency mobilization (think response to WWII) has a prayer of saving us now.

    • Thanks Craig. We’re 100% in favor of transformative change. It’s what we work toward every day. But getting there, as far as I can tell, means grinding away every day. Maybe someone, somewhere has a better approach, but I didn’t see it in this film.

  3. I’m disappointed in this anodyne review. It’s almost as if you’re scared to walk outside of the path accepted by McKibben-esque middle of the road environmentalists. Writing on behalf of those beings being wiped from existence by one species of greedy monkey, I reject the idea you put forth that we must laud the failing efforts of the average environmentalist of today. It’s going to take “much time… to achieve a sustainable world”, is it? Unfortunately, as someone like you should know, we don’t have the luxury of that time.

    I know you have to attract funds to keep your organization going and that means you’re worried about offending potential donors, but consider the idea you might be turning away more realistically minded folks with such weak positions.

    • Actually, our donors want us to be out front and aggressive. And we are. If we’re going to put down the efforts of environmentalists, who will we then lift up? I wish it wasn’t going to take generations, at best, to undo as much damage as possible, but it is. No one is pushing harder in that direction that the environmentalists I know. But they live in the real world. Show me a faster way to effect change consistent with respecting basic human rights.

  4. I know comments are being submitted and you are not posting them. Nonetheless…I dare you to post this.

    In reference to John Seager’s post about the documentary Planet of the Humans.

    This viral video has already done more to advance birth reduction than any production. Anyone truly concerned about overpopulation would embrace any media that helps shift awareness. Given your mission, I can’t fathom your motivation for such a reactionary post. Petty jealousy because your group wasn’t involved? Denial?

    You pull a Trump here by alleging the movie condemns things it does not. You are proving the left can be just as absurd and irrational at conflating messages as the president you loathe. You bring up criticisms that are paltry and irrelevant for the sake of grandstanding. The takeaways from the movie is simple: (1) OVERPOPULATION IS KILLING THE PLANET; any population dependent upon finite resources must not exceed the carrying capacity of their environment, and we are well beyond that point (2) We can’t manufacture any renewable technology, nor can we operate it without engaging in ecological destruction. These epiphanies should cause minds to circle back to thinking about birth reduction as the primary goal, which, according to the site you are affiliated with, is supposed to aligned with your overarching objective.

    Do you disagree with those two takeaways? Because when you discredit this documentary, you are doing just that. I don’t see your better, more effective production anywhere. Maybe you should focus more on producing something yourself, instead of sniping others who make such attempts in earnest.

    As a man who felt strongly about this issue to make no offspring and opted for a vasectomy at age 25, after reading your post, I’d sooner start a new nonprofit than donate anything to yours.

    • I’m sorry for the delay in approving comments. I’ve been incredibly busy with other tasks and haven’t had time to review the comments until now!

      Not having seen the film myself, I’ll have to pass these comments along to the blog post’s author (John Seager, President and CEO of Population Connection) for his response.

      –Marian Starkey, VP for Communications

  5. Of course, we believe overpopulation threatens everything. I’m not sure the level of our commitment can be measured by how many times we use CAPITAL LETTERS. It takes so much hard work to shift the world in a better direction. Renewable energy methods are improving every day, but not by magic. If we’re not going to support those efforts in a world where population will continue to increase every day for some considerable period of time, then what should we do?

    Maybe the film will reduce family size, but I doubt it. Historically, we saw a near-50% drop in family size in the US from 1960-1977 (which has substantially been sustained to this day) because of advancements in (guess what) technology (i.e. modern contraception), court decisions, dramatic increases in women’s education, and the women’s movement generally. All of these efforts took mountainous hard work.

    We do produce results in terms of education and advocacy. Competition in that arena is good, so we welcome other efforts.

  6. The only group causing harm are the rich. The only group growing in numbers are the poor. Population growth in all groups has been slowing for 50 years. Decline in population itself is virtually inevitable as births keep leveling off and death rates rise from the worsening ecological crisis.

    Consumption Dwarfs Population as Main Environmental Threat×691/1720×0/filters:focal(0x0:950×691):no_upscale()/

    Diagnosing a problem wrong means you spend time with leeches on the patient instead of antibiotics in them. Here are 2 allegories. There’s a quiz at the end of each so pay attention!

    1. A ship sinks. There are people in the water and a lifeboat with room for 20. 12 people are in it but only 4 have seats because one guy has brought along a bunch of trunks full of Columbus Day decorations—he’s a big fan. And he has a gun. He says he’ll shoot anyone who tries to take away his Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria models or sit in the seats they take up.
    Quiz question: How many people did Columbus’ brother enslave and kill?
    Or try this one:

    2. Everyone in the world vanishes except for 10 people (raptured? alien abductions? No, that’s not the quiz.) 9 of them decide to live in the forest as our distant ancestors did; the other, a US air force pilot driven quite insane by his military indoctrination, keeps flying around the world bombing nuclear reactors and missile silos, chemical factories and storage sites, and napalming wildernesses.
    Now the total damage humanity is doing has actually gone up from when there were 7 billion, and the per capita damage has gone WAY up. Worried about those stats, the people in the forest get together and think about switching from stone tools to only wooden ones, but finally decide it must be a population problem, so they kill 3 of their group.
    Meanwhile the pilot has gotten better at destroying things, and so both total and per capita damage have gone up even more. The people in the forest, knowing this, decide to kill more of their group.
    Question: how many will the group kill before they realize, oops, it’s not a population problem?

    3 Questions
    1. Show with facts and studies how population growth is the main cause of the the climate crisis.
    2. Show what population policy will solve—or even significantly effect–the climate crisis in time—the 10 years or less we have left to eliminate fossil fuels and massively sequester carbon through forestry and agriculture.
    3. Or show that the crisis is not so dire that we need to solve it before any population policy could work.

    • Firstly and most importantly: Your allegories that end with people getting killed are unhelpful at best. Nobody is talking about ending lives—every effort undertaken by Population Connection and other like-minded groups and individuals is in service of making life better for people around the world.

      We are developing an archive of materials that link population growth and climate change—more will be added soon, but for now, you can scope out what we have published to date.

      There is no “population policy” currently under consideration in the United States. The only policies we work on are those that would expand access to high-quality, affordable, voluntary family planning for Americans and for people living in countries that receive U.S. global health assistance.

      Nowhere in any of our materials do we claim that population stabilization alone can solve the climate crisis. Lower consumption obviously has to be a huge part of the mitigation strategy. Going back to the decades-old I=PAT formula, the solution to climate change lies in three areas: Population, Affluence, and Technology. (The I is for Impact.)

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