Why has the Environmental Movement failed us?

Updated: May 24

It’s not clear what question Michael Moore’s new film, “Planet of the Humans” is trying to answer, but a good guess would be that it is a question about the failure of the environmental movement to save the planet. This assumes, of course, that the environmental movement has failed, but when one considers our current climate crisis, that’s not unreasonable. It depends on your expectations. In any case, Moore’s film gives what I see as an unsatisfactory answer. I don’t totally agree with Tom Athanasiou's assessment that the movie is “crap,” but it certainly does not rise to the level of Michael Moore’s best work. (Tom is an advocate for environmental justice, you can read the review on his web site: ecoequity.org)

In this movie, Jeff Gibbs walks us through his interpretation of the promise and hypocrisy of the renewable energy movement. At first he seems to argue that the environmental movement failed because of partnerships with corporations in building large scale solar and wind installations, installations that use more energy from fossil fuels to build than they deliver from renewable sources. This is a factual question, of course, and Tom Athanasiou argues that Gibbs needs to do his homework, which could include in my opinion, the work of such organizations as the Climate Equity Reference Project. In any case, the real reason for the failure of the renewable energy movement, according to Gibbs, is that it fails to address what he sees as pushing us toward an unlivable future: the population problem and human nature.

With both issues, Gibbs, and Moore for that matter, should have done more homework. For decades, population growth has been clearly identified as a red herring. We will probably see around 10 to 11 million inhabitants on the planet, and then the number will level off. Could be less. In any case, such a number will not smother the earth.

The other “reason” for our predicament, according to this film, is human nature. Gibbs pulls out the old Western male mythology of men refusing to accept limits because of the fear of death. This is not human nature, but a Western social world with roots in monotheism, radical individualism and Eurocentrism. Modern neurobiology and attachment theory provide a very different picture of human nature. Like other primates we seek relational security. Humans are more complicated because our social lives are largely shaped by the stories in which we live. We need to tell a different story.

I think we need to tell the story of the Atlantic commerce that created a climate of injustice that has never been corrected. Instead of a white environmental story, the story needs to include the crimes against humanity that occurred in the colonization and establishment of the American empire.

Here is how I see it: These acts of enslavement and genocide created a “climate of injustice” that has never been lifted, because doing so would have endangered American prosperity. Now American prosperity threatens our planet. We must change the current climate of injustice to a climate of justice to save the planet.

This strategy is not the same as that of environmental justice, which is concerned with the equitable distribution of responsibility for creating a livable habitat. Not unlike Gibbs, I also recognize our apparent inability to create appropriate limits to live among others on this one earth. I believe we need to locate this inability not in human nature, but in the white man’s fear of confronting and repairing the harm caused by American prosperity

American prosperity is like a boat in a bottle. To change its direction, you have to break the bottle.

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