This is part 5 of an ongoing conversation between myself and Mark Green about Michael Moore’s latest documentary, “Planet of the Humans”. The conversation actually started on Facebook, but then moved to the blogosphere. I’m pretty sure only Mark and I are the only ones reading these posts at this point, but if you care to, you can catch up on the conversation here:
- “Damn Dirty Humans!: ‘Planet of the Humans’ and Progressive Denial” by John Halstead
- “Why The Doomsters are Completely Wrong” by Mark Green
- “Beyond Doom: A Response to Mark Green” by John Halstead
- “The Doomsaying Simply Isn’t Helping: More on My Exchange with John Halstead” by Mark Green
In what follows, Mark’s response is italicized and my reply is in bold.
Mark: … he ignores the thorough debunking of Michael Moore’s recent film … false claims about the impact and effectiveness of renewable energy sources …
Me: Critics have taken issue (some of them correctly) with some particulars of the film, but most of them overlook the main point of the film: It is impossible to sustain our current energy demands using renewable energy sources. That is not really in dispute, though mainstream environmentalists want to bury their heads in the sand about it. (If you want to know more, do some google searches of “energy-return-on-investment” (EROI) of renewables.)
Mark and other progressives are techno-optimists who hope that improvements in efficiency or future technological advances will save the day. (That’s probably how we’re going to end up with some geoengineering disaster.) That’s because they see climate change primarily as a technical and political problem. Whereas, the filmmakers (and I) believe that, on a deeper level, it is a psychological and spiritual problem. As the filmmaker, Jeff Gibbs, asks rhetorically in the film, “Is it possible for machines made by industrial civilization to save us from industrial civilization?” The implied answer is “no.”
This recalls a quote often attributed to Albert Einstein, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” We didn’t get where we are because we lacked technological solutions. We got here because we humans think the laws of physics don’t apply to us. This New York Times op ed from 2013 is typical:
“The idea that humans must live within the natural environmental limits of our planet denies the realities of our entire history … Our planet’s human-carrying capacity emerges from the capabilities of our social systems and our technologies more than from any environmental limits. …The only limits to creating a planet that future generations will be proud of are our imaginations and our social systems. In moving toward a better Anthropocene, the environment will be what we make it.”— Erle C. Ellis, “Overpopulation Is Not the Problem”, New York Times, Sept. 13, 2013
That’s a truly terrifying thought!
Mark: … Planet of the Humans, which does the dirty work of the fossil fuel industry …
Me: This is tribalism on display. Refusing to accept an idea because somebody you don’t like shares it is just irrational. Mark and I agree that the fossil fuel industry is made up of a bunch of dirty rotten bastards. But if the fossil fuel execs say that renewables can’t replace fossil fuels, they happen to be right. Their motives for saying it are definitely suspect, but that doesn’t make them wrong.
Mark: … while he says that “of course” we should pursue renewable energy, he does so while promoting a propaganda piece that leaves the viewer with the sense that we should do no such thing …
Me: In my first essay, I acknowledged that this is one of the weaknesses of the film: it gives the impression that we shouldn’t bother with transitioning to renewables. I don’t think that’s what the filmmakers intended. This is what often happens when you try to correct an imbalance in a public discussion. You can seem to go too far in the other direction, when all you’re trying to do is balance things out.
I do think the filmmakers erred by not distinguishing between different kinds of renewable energy projects: On the one hand, the film criticizes the massive, centralized facilities, which are ecologically destructive, and are owned and controlled by big corporations driven by the profit motive—essentially industrial capitalism in a green guise. And on the other hand, there are small-scale, local/decentralized, community-controlled uses of renewable energy, which the film ignores.
Mark: … the handful of “Doomer” thinkers that he lists are not particularly influential except with others like themselves … the average voter or person has never heard of any of the people that Halstead lists, nor their ideas, and that if they did, they would most likely yawn and turn to something else…
Me: I don’t even know where to start with this B.S. Obviously Post-Doom/Deep Adaptation is not a mainstream idea. In fact, much like the Atheopaganism which Mark promotes, it is a fringe of a fringe. So what?!
Also, I doubt the average voter would know who James Hansen or Bill McKibben are. But they should! And I think they should get to know some of the people on my list too.
(Also, they are not Doomers.)
Mark: … or worse, they would listen to them, and give up entirely …
Me: So what we are dealing with here is a contagion model of knowledge. Mark seems to believe that some ideas are dangerous, and if you hear them, you’re likely to be infected. In this case, infected with despair. Mark’s solution is to quarantine dangerous ideas. But I think the solution to bad ideas is better ideas. If I can use an analogy, you don’t fight racist rhetoric with censorship. You fight it with anti-racist education.
Mark: While John describes his own position as “post-defeatism”, it certainly doesn’t look like that from the outside.
Me: I suspect that the reason Mark is worried about people feeling despair is because he feels a creeping sense of it himself (see below). This is no judgment on Mark. All honest environmental activists will feel it at some point. I have felt it myself.
“… the question is, ‘What happens when you bump into people who don’t share those beliefs?’ Whether you know it or not, whether you like it or not, that’s undermining the confidence with which you subscribe to your own views, and exposing you to the very anxiety that those beliefs were constructed to eradicate in the first place.”— Sheldon Solomon in Planet of the Humans (2020)
But I don’t think the solution is to run from it, or repress it, or deny it. I think there’s only one way to deal with despair, and that’s to go though it. We have to feel our feelings. Despair can be a teacher. It can lead us to a greater wholeness, more compassion, and a deeper sense of purpose. I has in my case. And I have seen it in many others.
Mark: It looks like it takes a kind of grim satisfaction in indicators of impending doom and gloom …
Me: I take no satisfaction in the thought of the suffering that will occasion the collapse of industrial civilization. Just like I don’t take satisfaction in the suffering that is caused by industrial civilization.
Mark: … encourages people to sit and get their minds around the impending disaster rather than to do something. …
Me: There’s an idea, popular among activists, that any action is better than no action. I’ve actually said that myself before. It’s very much a product of a Western (and Protestant) mindset. And it’s stupid.
Sometimes it makes good sense to take a beat, to pause and get your bearings, before plunging ahead. This doesn’t mean inaction. It means right action. It means wise action. And sometimes that means holding space for a while, listening, and discerning what the right and wise action is. It’s kind of a Buddhist attitude–albeit more of a socially-engaged Buddhism (see Joanna Macy) than a world-denying Buddhism.
Mark: “How do we live meaningfully in light of this awareness (of possible impending extinction)?” he asks. “What suffering might we be able to alleviate? What beauty might we cultivate?” These are questions one asks when one has given up, and is just waiting to die.
Me: Actually, those are questions that people ask when they start to really live their life for the first time.
Mark: They are the questions one asks after one has arrived at Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ final mourning phase: acceptance.
Me: I don’t think the process ends with acceptance. Check out the Good Grief Network’s 10-step program. Their program starts with acceptance (Step 1) and ends with showing up (Step 9) and reinvesting in meaningful efforts (Step 10). This is the same program I use in my grief group.
Mark: As I pointed out in my piece, this flies in the face of the very nature of the human organism: problem-solving, aspirational, with a soaring imagination.
Me: That’s one side of humanity. But that side also has a dark aspect. It’s that part of us which “rages against the dying of the light”. Which which refuses to recognize limits (death being the ultimate limit). It’s what the ancients called hubris. It always leads tragedy. And it has in our case.
There’s another side of humanity, which recognizes that we are mortal, that we are limited physical beings, that we are kin with the other-than-human beings with whom we share this planet. This side of recognizes that sometimes less is more and “small is beautiful”.
Mark: “Let’s have a nice collective death” is not a vision that any significant portion of humanity will EVER embrace. It is therefore intellectual masturbation, not a real-world engagement with the challenges that face us.
Me: I wonder if Mark thinks his Atheopaganism is “intellectual masturbation” too? Or does he really believe that a “significant portion of humanity” will embrace his idea in the future?
Mark: … But getting people on board with the wiping out of their progeny, works, and hopes for the future is a non-starter. … John’s suggestion that we need to promote the idea of the “end of civilization” is just…well, frankly kind of silly.
Me: He’s probably right that most people are never going to embrace this idea. But Mark admits that the collapse of industrial civilization is probably inevitable. If you believe that, like Mark says he does, then what’s the alternative? Lying to people and calling it “marketing”?
Mark: It is the height of elitism to dismiss “the popularity of ideas”—in other words, the great unwashed, the “little people”—just because your ideas won’t fly with them.
Me: It’s the height of elitism to believe that people can’t be trusted with nuanced ideas or hard truths.
Mark: I understand the desire to give up. It is a siren song; it lures us with how easy it would be to just stop trying and hoping and to lay down and die.
Me: I figured you did. (See above.)
Mark: But that’s not what this species does. It survives.
Me: This is called human exceptionalism. It’s a vestige of Christianity. It’s bad science. And it’s wishful thinking.
Mark: Yes, windmills and solar panels require extraction from the Earth. But what about their alternatives? … There is no level of technology that isn’t extractive. When you pick up a stick and sharpen it…well, there’s that much less biomass to create soil with in the area where you picked up the stick.
Me: This is a logical fallacy: false equivalence. An example of false equivalence from Wikipedia is: “The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is no more harmful than when your neighbor drips some oil on the ground when changing his car’s oil.”
The whole problem of civilization is one of scale. Yes, human beings have always altered their environments. All species do. But we have taken it to a whole new level. We are making the planet uninhabitable for ourselves and most other species. Sharpening sticks doesn’t do that. Large scale fossil fuels projects do. And so do large scale wind and solar projects, as shown in the film. (See above about small-scale renewable projects.)
Mark: Better that the public embrace renewable energy sources so they are familiar with how they work as the wheels come off industrial capitalism. …
Me: What?! What use will solar panels be when industrial civilization collapses. Solar panels only work for about 10 years. And without industrial civilization, they can’t be replaced. The same goes for the giant wind turbines, which only last 20 years.
Mark: … they are giving themselves an out from being activists for a human future …
Me: I’m actually still involved in activism. The character of my activism has changed. I still do some of the things I did before, including protesting and campaigning, though that’s not my focus anymore. Mark seems to think that facing the truth about the limits of renewables (and the limits of humanity) necessarily leads to paralysis. I know that’s the fear. But it doesn’t have to.