By Steven Hayward
One of the signal intellectual events of the early Cold War period was the 1950 publication of The God That Failed, in which six prominent figures explained why they broke from Communism. The book was a sensation because it came from leading figures on the left, rather than from longtime anti-Communists whose arguments and commitments were discounted. Most of the six distinguished and diverse figures, including the Hungarian Arthur Koestler, Italian novelist Ignazio Silone, and American Richard Wright, did not abandon their leftward dispositions, support for egalitarianism, or even socialist planning, but they did recognize the Soviet Union to be a malignant regime and the Communist parties in the West to be willing dupes of this massive ideological fraud. The stature of these writers as prominent figures of the left legitimized anti-Communism for other left-leaning people.
It was telling—and accurate—that Communism at that time was understood as a literal religious faith, with enforced orthodoxy and severe penalties for doctrinal heresy, complete with inquisitionary show trials to compel recantations or confessions of guilt, as well as public shunning of apostates. Which brings us to the new Michael Moore–produced documentary Planet of the Humans. It could almost (but not quite) have been called The Green God That Failed.
The film has caused an uproar among environmentalists because it casts a deeply critical eye on environmentalism’s favorite remedies for climate change, such as solar and wind power and biomass. Serious energy analysts have long known that wind, solar, and biomass are costly, cannot scale to our current power needs, and accomplish only modest reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Wind and solar, in particular, have intensive resource supply chains (including a lot of toxic chemical waste), require huge amounts of land area, have a working life span that is less than half that of conventional power plants, and are not amenable to recycling. Even electric cars are not very “green” when the full resource supply chain and product life cycle are calculated competently. None of these energy totems can accurately be described as “clean.”
Environmentalists have long dismissed these substantive criticisms with fraudulent claims on behalf of the potential for “renewable” energy, along with a near-religious fervor in the sanctity of “green” technology. The effectiveness of Planet of the Humans is that the critique of “green” energy is made entirely by left-leaning academics and analysts rather than supposed “fossil fuel stooges.” Of course, for people like Michael Moore, “corporation” is a four-letter word, and the film makes clear that most renewable energy is owned by private partnerships and corporations, though the film could have said more about how renewable “profits” are largely dependent on generous subsidies and favorable tax treatment. Adding insult to injury, the film commits lèse-majesté in on-camera shaming of several leading icons of environmentalism for their ignorance, including Al Gore, Bill McKibben, and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
The environmental activist community and their media sycophants have erupted with outrage over Planet of the Humans, demanding its suppression. The Nation called the film “dangerous,” stating that “you could be forgiven for thinking it was created by Breitbart News or Steve Bannon,” and a petition demanding that Moore apologize and retract the film drew the signatures of environmental activists such as Naomi Klein and Michael Mann. (And it appears the suppression campaign might succeed: YouTube has taken down the film on the flimsy pretext that one scene violates a photographer’s copyright).
At this point, it is tempting to sit back with a barrel of popcorn and watch the environmental Stalinists and Trotskyites fight among themselves. While it is edifying to see a few knowledgeable people on the environmental left come to grips with the reality of the energy utopianism of the climate campaign, Planet of the Humans is gravely defective in the end, and it deserves only two stars out of five.
A telling clue of the film’s central defect is that it omits mention of nuclear power, the one scalable source of near-zero emission energy technology that we already have in use; nor does it give consideration of possible future innovations in fusion or genuinely carbon-neutral biofuels. Although many environmentalists—including, most recently, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—have expressed second thoughts about the longtime environmental opposition to nuclear power (AOC now says that she is “open” to it), Planet of the Humans seems unable to escape the congenital environmentalist hostility to nuclear.
Ultimately, Planet of the Humans represents a throwback to the gloomy Malthusianism that informed the birth of the modern environmental movement—the view that humans are a plague on the planet and that the planet can be saved only by having fewer humans on it, living subsistence lives. Some environmentalists have tried to leave this debilitating Malthusianism behind, but it is irrepressible, especially for those environmentalists who conceive their cause in religious-redemptive terms. Today’s neo-Malthusianism goes under the banner of the “degrowth movement,” and it is not hard to see the frisson of self-satisfaction among some environmentalists over the effects of the COVID-19 forced economic depression.
It is almost enough to make you prefer the naïve utopianism of Al Gore. Back in the final days of the Cold War, Norman Podhoretz observed that the authors of The God That Failed diminished the effectiveness of their message by clinging to socialism and refusing to acknowledge the moral and political superiority of the United States and the democratic capitalist system. Communism tried to blur the lines between itself and democratic socialism and liberalism and duped many Western liberals; likewise, environmentalism—or the climate-change fanatics, at least—blurs the lines between easy utopian solutions for energy and Malthusian “degrowth.” Planet of the Humans pierces some of this easygoing deception, but no true environmental reformation can be accomplished that doesn’t acknowledge that environmental progress depends on the pro-human understanding of our place on the planet, as well as the effectiveness of free markets and technological innovation in delivering vast environmental improvements in recent decades. We still need a robust version of The Green God That Failed.
This article appeared on the RealClearEnergy website at https://www.realclearenergy.org/articles/2020/05/28/the_green_god_that_failed__almost_494439.html