As America’s most famous activist filmmaker, Michael Moore has made his name with documentaries that prompt strong reactions from the right, from conservative pressure that led some theater chains to ban “Fahrenheit 9/11” to an entire film dedicated to explaining that “Michael Moore Hates America.” But now it’s prominent progressive activists and filmmakers — people who have been inspired by and have championed his work — who are calling on the filmmakers to retract and apologize for the latest project to bear his name, “Planet of the Humans.”
The documentary, directed and produced by “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “Bowling for Columbine” collaborator Jeff Gibbs and executive produced by Moore, offers a blistering critique of the modern environmental movement and its promotion of wind, solar, and biomass energy. But some filmmakers, activists, and scientists are pushing back against what they say is a film that relies on cherry-picked facts, gotcha interviews, and outdated information to paint a bleak, misleading portrait of the state of renewable energy.
“Is it possible for machines built by industrial civilization to save us from industrial civilization?” narrator Gibbs asks 17 minutes into the movie. His answer is a resounding no, explored through a series of takedowns of coal-powered EVs, solar panel inefficiencies, and natural resource exploitation. Gibbs trashes that green-future vision — the one we’ve been promised is just out of reach — as pure fantasy. He argues the energy needs that come from overpopulation and overconsumption are just too great for Earth and green technology to support; our only chance at saving the planet, he concludes, will come from a confrontation of those issues. However, the film falls short of offering specific ways to address overpopulation and overconsumption.
As the film raked up over 5 million views in its first 10 days on Moore’s YouTube channel, “Gasland” filmmaker Josh Fox mounted a campaign for Moore and Gibbs to disavow the project with the endorsement of big-name environmentalists like Naomi Klein and Michael Mann.
“They’ve gotten this so wrong that they’ve raised the ire of the entire climate science world,” Fox said in an interview with IndieWire.
That’s the same world — Bill McKibben and his 350.org, The Sierra Club, Al Gore, and others profiled in his film — that Gibbs argues has been corrupted to varying degrees by greed and corporate interests, including the fossil-fuel industry, the Koch brothers, and Wall Street, whose mandates are predicated on continuous growth and consumption. Of course they’re going to come after the filmmakers, Moore and Gibbs seem to reason.
Moore and Gibbs declined to comment for this story, but in an interview with The Hill, Moore addressed the backlash. “The real point here is it’s only your friends who can tell you when you’re messing up, when you’re doing wrong,” he said. “We are the environmental movement, we’ve been involved, Jeff and I, since the first Earth Day … if we can’t say to each other ‘Hey, look, if we’re not winning then why don’t we have the discussion of what we need to do.'”
One group of environmentalists pushing back against the expression of differing ideas of another raises obvious concerns; free-speech organization PEN America on Wednesday chided Fox’s campaign. But for Fox, Gibbs’ film is so detrimental to the core tenets of the movement, it might as well have been produced by the fracking-company devil himself. (“Meet the New Flack for Oil and Gas: Michael Moore,” reads the headline of an editorial he wrote for The Nation published Thursday.)
“The film trades rather deceitfully on fossil fuel industry tropes about renewable energy, namely that they don’t work, that they’re dependent on fossil fuels, that they’re inefficient,” Fox told IndieWire. “All these things are blatantly untrue. Any renewable-energy scientist, climate scientist, or proponent of the Green New Deal would know this. Our renewable energy literacy in the United States is pretty low and therefore it’s easy for the producers of this film to be deceitful about it. The things that they’re saying are utterly false, scientifically proven to be false when it comes to renewable energy.” On Twitter, Klein that it was “truly demoralizing how much damage this film has done.”
This is indeed a group of normally friendly people finding themselves, perhaps for the first time, firmly on opposite sides of an issue that’s central to their shared politics. Fox, Moore, and Klein all campaigned for Bernie Sanders. Fox counts Moore as an inspiration for his first-person documentary style (“Is Josh Fox the new Michael Moore?” IndieWire asked in 2012). Moore called Klein “one of my heroes” during a February appearance on his podcast.
Through a publicist, Moore and Gibbs declined to comment on the specific factual disputes raised by Fox in his article and in his letter calling for a rebuttal. Instead, the rep pointed to promotional statements released for the film, Gibbs’ FAQ, his response to the Sierra Club and Aspiration, his response to McKibben, and the video interview Moore, producer Ozzie Zehner, and Gibbs did with The Hill — where the trio offered broad-based responses to Fox’s criticism.
“I think the existing environmental movement is going to be the last to come around to the story in this film. They’ll continue to argue that solar cells and wind turbines are going to become more efficient and cheaper. What they miss is that it doesn’t really matter,” Zehner said. “These are based on technological processes that require fossil fuels for their construction … we’re no better off, in fact we’re much worse off, than we were when we started this 30 years ago.”
Moore and Gibbs have pushed back on a tweet from Fox suggesting that social-change film library Films for Action was the distributor of the film and that the site had dropped it. The film was removed from the site before later being made available again with a disclaimer, but representatives of the film have reiterated the film is distributed by Moore’s Rumble Media and that Fox was being untruthful when he referred to Films for Action as “the distributor.” Fox told IndieWire he made a mistake and should have clarified it was “a” distributor of the film.
The dust-up over “Planet of the Humans” finds Moore’s once again in a place where his work is serving as a cultural flash point. “Bowling for Columbine” won the Best Documentary Oscar in 2003 and a year later “Fahrenheit 9/11” became — and remains to this day — the highest-grossing documentary ever with a $222.45 million gross, splashes he’s been unable to replicate in the 16 years since. His 2007 health care expose “Sicko” was nominated for an Oscar, while his most recent theatrical release, the Trump-era “Fahrenheit 11/9,” brought in $6.67 million. To date, “Planet of the Humans” has reached over 6 million views on YouTube.