Has Capital Co-opted the Environmental Movement?
In a radical critique of the green energy industry, Jeff Gibbs hopes to reveal how the Environmental Movement has lost their way. Although this film has raised the ire of many environmentalists, Planet of the Humans is not criticising environmentalism itself, nor is it an endorsement of the status quo reliance of fossil fuels. On the contrary, the film lays out the apocalyptic destruction that will occur if humans continue to pursue endless economic growth. Somewhere along the way, however, well-meaning environmentalists have been deceived into thinking that our ability to sustain our planet can be achieved through capitalism. It might be uncomfortable to accept, but Gibbs is revealing that something is rotten in the state of Denmark, and we would all do well to pay better attention.
The relationship between energy and industrialized capitalism has always been symbiotic, and economists have long understood this. More than a century ago, Max Weber asserted that humans would be bound to industrialized capitalism until: “the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt”. Will it be that long? It seems likely, and if Gibbs’s revelations are true, the human species may not be able to outlast our supplies of fossil fuels. Although we are nowhere near to having burnt that last ton of coal, many believe that we are making progress by replacing fossil fuels with innovative forms of sustainable green energy. The fact is that we are hardly making any progress at all in switching to green energies, despite $100 billion in public investment by the United States alone.
Between 2000 and 2018, despite huge investment and expansion in green energies, less than 4% of U.S. energy needs were supplied by solar and wind power. That is roughly the same percentage that total U.S. energy consumption has increased over the same period. It gets worse. Americans have become more efficient with a reduction as much as 64% in the amount of energy required to produce $1 of GDP, but they also are using more energy than ever before. If you think there is something odd going on with these numbers you are correct. The tragedy in this is that, thus far, the cure has been just as bad or worse than the disease.
With a rise in green energy sources, increased efficiency of energy use, and a downward slide in the % of GDP derived from U.S. manufacturing over the last 20 years, anyone would expect that the expansion of the green energy industry would have had more of an impact than it has. Overlooked by many is that all the investment in renewable energy resources is not reducing consumption of fossil fuels. The problem is that energy must be manufactured, and it takes energy to manufacture energy. Sometimes, it can take a lot of fossil fuel energy to manufacture green energy. That realization is a bitter pill to swallow.
1World Bank :U.S. Manufacturing output as % of GDP
The largest consumer of fossil fuels is the electric power industry. While electricity can be generated by many sources, only 18% is generated from renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, hydro power, and biomass. The rest of the U.S. electricity supply is generated from fossil fuels (63%) and nuclear (20%). 18% is a start, but as Gibbs’s film uncovers, it takes a lot of fossil fuels to make renewable energy infrastructure, and not every energy source currently recognized as renewable is actually green. That is what is so controversial about this film. It is not just about how fossil fuels are bad, or how industrialized capitalism is bad, as the film strongly criticisms many of the sacred cows of environmentalism. Some of these sacred cows are related to different forms of renewable energies and the way they are manufactured, and others deal with the motives of certain environmentalists and their industrialist business partners.
It is said that the only thing we can be sure of in life are death and taxes, but there is more we can be sure of. No matter what, in a world organised through industrialised capitalism, seekers of economic rent will rent-seek. Unsurprisingly, global Capital have seen the opportunity in environmental subsidies and have facilitated a path to profit. The problem with that is that much of research and development is not geared toward improving our collective situation. Instead, global corporations are taking an increasing share of of the social surplus generated by environmentalism, leaving us only with unsustainable fuel supplies that are green in name only, and insufficient renewable energy infrastructure. As Jeff Gibbs muses: “is it possible for machines made by industrial civilisation to save us from industrial civilisation?” After watching this documentary, you will know the answer. 5 stars.