Saturday, May 2, 2020

Planet of the Humans: A De-Growth Manifesto

Planet of the Humans, directed by Jeff Gibbs but featuring Michael Moore as its “presenter”, has been viewed by almost five and a half million people since it popped up on YouTube last month.  In case you haven’t heard, it’s quite a provocation, and the response from almost every quarter of the environmental movement has been outrage.  It traffics in disinformation and scurrilous personal attacks, they say, and I can’t argue.  Two big problems: it falsely claims that more carbon is emitted over the lifespan of a photovoltaic cell than by generating the same energy through fossil fuels, and it uses dishonest editing techniques to portray activist Bill McKibben as having sold out to billionaire ecological exploiters.  You can read about the misrepresentations elsewhere; my point is that, whatever else it is, the film is a logically consistent statement of the de-growth position.

Alas, much of the “left” has concluded that the chief obstacle to meeting our climate and other environmental challenges is the “capitalist” faith in economic growth.  Capitalism requires growth, they say, and growth is destroying the earth, therefore we must abolish capitalism and embrace de-growth.  Anything less is a sellout.

This philosophy is central to Planet; twice (at least) Gibbs proclaims, “You can’t have endless growth on a finite planet.”  He shows charts depicting human population and consumption growth that portray us as a metastasizing cancer.  Early in the film, when he’s setting the tone for what’s to come, he asks, “Is it possible for machines made by industrial civilization to save us from industrial civilization?”

But movies are not just words; they make their arguments visually as well.  Planet has horrific scenes of mining and logging, as well as speeded up, frenzied shots of manufacturing, warehousing and shipping.  It ends with heartbreaking footage of doomed orangutans amid a wasteland of deforestation.  The message is clear: human use of nature is a travesty, and any activity that imposes a cost on Mother Earth is immoral.

There are two fundamental problems with this worldview.  The first is that it is based on the mistaken idea that all economic value derives from the despoliation of nature, the second that it can’t be implemented by a viable program.  Let’s look at each.

While Gibbs is the director and narrator of the film, its guru is one Ozzie Zehner, not only interviewed on camera as an expert but also, remarkably, its producer as well.  Zehner is the author of a book entitled Green Illusions, and he has drunk deeply from the de-growth Kool Aid.  In an article he wrote a year after his book, he announces
The cost of manufactured goods ultimately boils down to two things: natural resource extraction, and profit. Extraction is largely based on fossil-fuel inputs. Profit, in this broad stroke, is essentially a promise to extract more in the future. Generally speaking, if a supposedly green machine costs more than its conventional rival, then more resources had to be claimed to make it possible.
There it is, quite directly: economic value equals resource use.  Truly, this can only be called an anti-labor theory of value.  If I see two chairs in a store, one for $60 and the other for $600, the second has to consume about ten times the resources of the first—as if human skill, knowledge and care have nothing to do with it.  Crazy, but that’s what you have to believe if you think that the only way to reduce our burden on nature is to de-grow consumption.  (The alternative, of course, is to replace the degradation of the natural world by an expansion of the application of human skill, knowledge and care.)

Meanwhile, the attack on renewable energy, anti-factual as it is, is of a piece with this deep-seated hostility to “industrial civilization”.  If economic production is the enemy, then how can green energy technologies, which embody this production in themselves and allow us to continue consuming energy-using products, be OK?  There has to be something wrong with them, and mere evidence can’t be allowed to get in the way.  Imagine trying to make a movie along the general lines of Planet without these attacks on wind and solar installations.  Can’t be done.

The other problem is that, aside from economic catastrophes like the 2008 financial crisis and the current coronavirus shutdown, there isn’t a way to implement the de-growth “program”.  And that’s what we see in the movie, too.  At the end, as we stare at those soulful orangutans, we feel a load of guilt but no sense of what we can do about it.  If the underlying problem is too many people, who among us should be chosen for extermination?  Or if it’s too much consumption, who will be made to cut back and what will they have to give up?  Or is there no program at all but just a mood, apologetic for who we are and how we live?

The worst thing that can happen to an irrational idea is for it to be taken seriously and followed to its conclusions.  That’s the fate of de-growtherism and Planet of the Humans.


Jerry Brown said...

I saw the movie and thought much the same as you. Which of the producers wants to volunteer to help with the depopulation by going first? I'm usually a big fan of Michael Moore but this was just too slanted towards de-growth as the only option we could possibly embrace. I was surprised they didn't claim that hydro-electric power used more energy in construction than it has produced. Maybe they realized that wouldn't fly.

Ironic how many scenes were shot of them driving around the country to make the film also. They have a poor understanding of what economic growth means- it doesn't necessarily mean using more natural resources. Productivity is also about using less resources to make the same amount- or maybe even more.

I was very disappointed with this film. All doom and gloom.

Anonymous said...

What a terrific review review, and helpful comment as well.

No, I did not watch the film since I was not about to watch a film that slanders Bill McKibben and I immediately accepted McKibben's word about that. I did read Doughnut Economics however:

June 6, 2018

Kate Raworth’s economics of miracles

-- Branko Milanovic

The degrowth argument struck me then as inherently nihilistic and this review reinforced that.

ken melvin said...

Can't but ask: Who was really behind the film? What was the motive?

That being said:

What is the proper role of an economy?

We are not going to grow our way out of this; That's how we got into this mess.

Population is a big part of the problem.

Economics can and must evolve. It's in its genes.

Consumption is a big part of the problem.

A good economic model yields a sustainable economy.

Jerry Brown said...

Ken Melvin-

"What is the proper role of an economy?" My answer is that it is, and should be, a system that people have created to facilitate the production and distribution of both physical goods and all kinds of services in order to benefit human well being. It is far from perfect though.

"We are not going to grow our way out of this; That's how we got into this mess." - Yeah, but only if your idea of economic growth means using more and more natural resources. And not reusing them at all. And not improving our use of them at all. We do more with less material and energy and labor all the time and I don't think that is going to stop happening.

"Population is a big part of the problem." Maybe- but what is your solution for that? I hope you aren't going to off yourself for the sake of the planet. Moore's crew didn't specify any solutions for that either. I'm sure because they realized they had none that wouldn't be worse than the problems we already face.

"Consumption is a big part of the problem." Depends on what kind of consumption you are talking about. SUV's- sure. Books- no. Either can lead to economic growth.

"A good economic model yields a sustainable economy." Absolutely true. And we aren't there yet.

ken melvin said...

Jerry Brown

In re role; I think you are pretty close; might extend it to something like:

—In a well functioning Economy, the requisite goods and services are efficiently produced and equitably distributed whilst all the while giving utmost consideration to Human Welfare and to the protection of the Natural Environment.—

In re growth:

Sounds too much like buzzwords, like rhetoric. Can you provide one or two less abstract examples?

In re population:

It is the elephant in the room. The question is how to work around the elephant. How many gross errors is our species allowed? Can you come up with something that will/might work? As I imply in 'Anthropocene and Global Warming',, maybe we should have stopped around 2.5 billion

In re consumption:

An elephant question

Jerry Brown said...

Ken, what is an elephant question?

As far as growth without using more materials- isn't a modern sedan compared to one made in 1970 a material example of that? Lasts longer, more fuel efficient, drives better, is far safer also. Less steel, less weight, less gasoline, less human labor to produce. The factory probably pollutes less as well.

Population- I asked you for your solution. My position is that all 'solutions' I have heard of so far are unethical- to the point of being worse than the problem. The film offered no solution to that either.

I will read the article you linked to tomorrow. It's late now for me. said...

Another problem wirh degrowthing that emphasizes population is that it is high incomes with urbanization that leads to lower birth rates to the point that we now see more and more high income nations that have negative natural population growth rates now, although some still have positive population reowth due to immigration.

A problem that arises from this is having enough young people around to pay for the pensions of the older people. Do the degrowthers want to have a social security crisis? Or maybe the solution is to have a much more serious pandemic than our current one that hits older people especially hard so as to clear them out and have a more rapidly declining population while not having paying for pensions overburden young people.

Jerry Brown said...

Well Ken, had trouble sleeping, (damn virus situation makes me anxious) so I read it. I agree with you about the political aspects. But we did not stop at two billion people and now there are 7.5 billion. So we better make that work. I think we are disagreeing as to what constitutes growth. I think we can have economic growth without that meaning buying more and more 'stuff'. Maybe I am wrong, but if I am, why is that? said...

BTW, I used to have discussions about this with Herman Daly, who was the most well-known pro-zero growth (if not degrowth) economist for a long time. He was always focusing on the problem of physical throughput. When I would ask him if growth were possible due to rising quality of human service activities unconnected to resource use, he readily agreed.

Jerry Brown said...

Ken, still can't sleep. The most obvious and least abstract example has to be whatever you used to write your response to me. I know very little about computers but I imagine that one comparable to the 2 pound laptop computer I am using would have mostly filled my apartment in 1967 and used more electricity to run for a few weeks than I use in a year. If it could be built at all then.

That is positive economic growth. Less materials, less energy used and needed, better product.

Jerry Brown said...

Professor Barkley, I think I would have enjoyed arguing with Herman Daly also. Economic growth does not necessarily mean more physical things. Services do not necessarily use many resources. Entertainment arguably uses less resources per customer.

Anonymous said...

The nihilism of degrowth thinking rests in the rich thinking they are going to instruct the poor to forever continue to be poor. African nations are not about stop trying to develop. India is not about to stop trying to develop. Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Philippines...

India has been responsible for almost no global warming and India was exploited by rich Britain for generations. The British are not about to be listened to by Indians should the British preach degrowth.

Degrowth is a nihilist and is effect a racist stance. American degrowth folks are not going to be listened to by Indonesians.

The need is to find "green" ways for an India or Indonesia or South Africa or Ethiopia to continue to develop.

Anonymous said...

Here is the problem, not India growing:

A Trump Insider Embeds Climate Denial in Scientific Research

and the rest:

In the Trump Administration, Science Is Unwelcome. So Is Advice. June 9, 2018

The Interior Secretary Wants to Enlarge a Dam. An Old Lobbying Client Would Benefit. Sept. 28, 2019

E.P.A. to Limit Science Used to Write Public Health Rules Nov. 11, 2019

ken melvin said...

In response to Jerry Brown — Morning

Population and consumption are inextricably linked

When Jim Lehrer asked Prof Cole what the solution to Falujah was, the good Prof said that there wasn't any solution. Prof Cole was never on the News Hour again.

Consumerism, consumption, and population, too, are elephant questions. If we took sustainable production and divided it among the world's populace, would it be enough?

ken melvin said...

Prof Rosser

Those calling for immigration are, by definition, pro-growthers, no?

Reproduction as warfare?

I see the ubiquitous pension problems as consequence the end of the Industrial Age. Everything , taxes, pensions, … was structured around that model; a model that is no more.

ken melvin said...

Morning Anne
To your whose responsible, I agree, until 1980 or so, 'twas the west. Please read my 'Tip of the Iceberg' — —and let me know what you think (I would also like your comments on my 'Anthropocene and Global Warming' — — obviously, I think them both applicable your query)
Prof Borlaug, Green Revolution, thought the world had at most 25 yrs to get population under control. This all is somehow tied into growth.

Anonymous said...

May 1, 2020

‘A Bomb in the Center of the Climate Movement’: Michael Moore Damages Our Most Important Goal
It hurts to be personally attacked in a movie. It hurts more to see a movement divided

If you’re looking for a little distraction from the news of the pandemic — something a little gossipy, but with a point at the end about how change happens in the world — this essay may soak up a few minutes.

I’ll tell the story chronologically, starting a couple of weeks ago on the eve of the 50th Earth Day. I’d already recorded my part for the Earth Day Live webcast, interviewing the great indigenous activists Joye Braum and Tara Houska about their pipeline battles. And then the news arrived that Oxford University — the most prestigious educational institution on planet earth — had decided to divest from fossil fuels. It was one of the great victories in that grinding eight-year campaign, which has become by some measures the biggest anti-corporate fight in history, and I wrote a quick email to Naomi Klein, who helped me cook it up, so that we could gloat together just a bit. I was, it must be said, feeling pleased with myself.

Ah, but pride goeth before a fall. In the next couple of hours came a very different piece of news. People started writing to tell me that the filmmaker Michael Moore had just released a movie called Planet of the Humans on YouTube. That wasn’t entirely out of the blue — I’d been hearing rumors of the film and its attacks on me since the summer before, and I’d taken them seriously. Various colleagues and I had written to point out that they were wrong; Naomi had in fact taken Moore aside in an MSNBC greenroom and restated what she had already laid out to him in writing. But none of that had apparently worked; indeed, from what people were now writing to tell me, I was the main foil of the film. I put together a quick response, and I hoped that it would blow over.

But it didn’t....

Anonymous said...

Ken Melvin:

Reading these now... What you write is always interesting and important.

Anonymous said...

Ken Melvin:

[ Wow, thanks so much for pointing to these essays. They are excellent, and now for a second reading.

Before another reading, slowing population growth was critical for the development of China and is necessary for equitable development from India to Nigeria... ]

Anonymous said...

Ken Melvin,

The essays are excellent, though the earlier should be made simpler and clearer to read possibly by breaking in half and making it less of a listing with more explanatory narrative. No matter though, I am quite in agreement and would like to read more such writing.

Really nice.

Anonymous said...

Peter Dorman:

The message is clear: human use of nature is a travesty, and any activity that imposes a cost on Mother Earth is immoral.

There are two fundamental problems with this worldview. The first is that it is based on the mistaken idea that all economic value derives from the despoliation of nature, the second that it can’t be implemented by a viable program....

[ Perfect. ] said...


Immigration is not about reproduction. At the global level immigration is completely irrelevant, but for anti-immigrant ecofascists it is relevant.


While in aggregate India is far down the list in GHG emissions over time it has come to currently be the third largest emitter of GHGs as a nation in the world, although still well behind China and the US.

Anonymous said...

Barkley Rosser,

Both points are important. I had no idea India was "the third largest emitter of GHGs" and am surprised. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Barkley Rosser:

While in aggregate India is far down the list in GHG emissions over time it has come to currently be the third largest emitter of GHGs as a nation in the world:

[ I need to think carefully about this. ]

Anonymous said...

Barkley Rosser:

Immigration is not about reproduction.

[ Important to remember. ]

john c. halasz said...

The Gibbs film was a mess, no doubt about it. But that doesn't make for an argument against no growth or "degrowth" economics, (which is not an end, but an effect).

For one, "growth" is usually taken to mean quantitative increase in GDP figures, which are fetishized by economists, as providing supposedly neutral data to to feed into and validate abstract mathematical models, no matter how unfounded or unrealistic their assumptions. But not only was the development of NIPA not originally intended for such exercises and full of gaps and perplexiites as the originators were well aware, but such figures ignore the distributions of incomes, the content and real structures of production (and the roles that institutions, not just governmental, play in determining that), non-monetized costs, burdens and externalities, and the actual technical efficiencies that determine real economic surpluses (and the potential costs of switching non-homogeneous capital stocks), which are not simply identical to recorded monetary flows. IOW there is no reason to suppose that GDP growth is an automatic good, nor that it at all corresponds to improvement in human well-being, let alone environmental sustainability.

What's more, there is a huge amount of waste, dysfunction, redundancy. and fictitious value-added contained in GDP data. Just consider the U.S. health care system, which is riddled with rent-seeking interests from doctors to Big Pharma, to insurance companies and accounts notionally for 18% of GDP when the same or better health care could be delivered to the population easily for 12% of GDP. Our food system wastes as much as 1/3 of the produce of farmers. Real estate prices are inflated by the FIRE sector, (which could be eliminated by a universal land value tax). And that same predatory and parasitic FIRE sector, not only misallocates investment for speculative and short-term interests, but in turn counts as economic activity which must be added somehow into the GDP figures. said...


Keep in mind that several of the cities in the world with the worst air pollution now are in India, not to mention that it will probably surpass China in population sometime in the next decade or so. Per capita emissions are not all that high, but it simply has a very large population. Three out of eight people on the planet are in either China or India, and, frankly, China has been doing a much better job of dealing with pollution than has India.

john c. halasz said...

But if we were to develop and institute a truly energy and natural resource efficient economy that would be environmentally, ecologically, and humanly sustainable within the finite limits of the planet, in accordance with human and natural ends, (rather than pursuing the endless accumulation of means without any regard for limits or ends), then GDP would most surely contract, because of a short-fall of aggregate demand, (much of which, as above, is wasteful, redundant, or fictitious). For example in the U.S. there are currently 1 cars or light trucks for every 3 people and 17 mn new ones are sold each year, almost all powered by petroleum, while the average private vehicle is used just 75 minutes per day. There is a whole lot of energy and natural resources that go into that production for what is just a system of transport. If it would be displaced by electrified public transport systems perhaps just 25% of current production would be needed, with the corresponding demand on energy and resources correspondingly reduced, as well as a reduction in the demand for and income of workers in that sector. Technically efficient (electric) energy production would of itself reduce energy costs and thus energy prices as recorded in GDP. Abolishing industrial agriculture and substituting more labor intensive and environmentally sound agricultural practices and land usage would eliminate GHG emissions and form a natural carbon sink, though assuming agricultural workers are to be adequately paid, that would raise the relative price of food stuffs, though likely increase long-run yields per hectare. So it's not all a oneway street in terms of GDP prices. (Currently globally 21 bn tons of topsoil are lost to soil erosion annually, which took millenia to build up by natural processes, and can't be substituted for by chemical additives, which consume energy and resources, 4% of fossil fuels globally for the Haber-Bosch production of nitrogen alone, and poison the natural environment). But what's more, there are a whole lot of economic activities that are socially and environmentally useful and even necessary that can't be produced profitably under current auspices or at all. Environmental repair and conservation is one example. (The failure to develop vaccines for foreseeable pandemics because not profitable for Big Pharma, in spite of the immense insurance value of such endeavors, is currently an obvious case in point). Recycling extracted natural resources is another. Industrial products should be produced such that at the end of the useful life (without planned obsolescence) they can be disassembled and their components recycled. Full life-cycle recycling is imperative long-run for a sustainable economy, even if continued extraction would remain economically cheaper and boost GDP. But the bottom line is that the real wage is not determined by nominal monetary payments, but by the real cost-of-living, and reducing the cost of housing, health care, education and the like would subtract from demand and GDP, whereas increasing nominal wages, might merely increase the costs of such under current extractive institutional arrangements, boosting GDP without any improvement in well-being.

john c. halasz said...

So why must GDP continuously grow? Obviously to maintain and expand capitalist profits. More specifically, to pay off and/or service debt obligations on which hypertrophied capitalist finance depends, regardless of how wastefully or extortionately contracted. But one can't squeeze blood out of a turnip and the neo-liberal inflation of financial "assets", mere paper legal claims on underlying production incomes, has reached its limits. Debts that can't be repaid won't be repaid. And assuming the Covid-19 crisis is long lasting and results in a global depression, then a huge amount of private debt willy-nilly must be transferred onto the public fiscal and monetary authorities, and then restructured and written down. In effect. an orderly process of global capitalist bankruptcy. How that would be achieved, which debts should be honored and which extinguished, will be a source of huge political contention. And there is but the dimmest hope on the horizon that a new political economy could be instituted, no longer dependent on needless and heedless "growth". An institutional order of private austerity and public wealth, as Hyman Minsky once put it, not private affluence and public squalor, as J.K Galbraith put it. But one thing is for sure: economists should in no wise be regarded as experts on human and natural welfare. Those supposed welfare theorems of GE theory, (which Joe Stiglitz basically eviscerated from within, if I understand correctly), are defunct, just an unfounded mathematical fantasy and economists in the main have done more harm than good.

reason said...

I'm neutral in this "debate", in the sense that I don't have preconceptions as to what the rate of "growth" in a sustainable economy would look like. I tend to agree that population growth is a clear impediment to the concurrance of sustainability and human thriving. But I think there are a set of policies - emphasizing economic security and human development (not simply increasing income - compare Kerala and Saudi Arabia) that will reduce population fairly automatically.

Senator-Elect said...

Both sides of the debate are right, in a way. Theoretically, we know that economic growth can occur without environmental destruction. We could, for example, have an economy that meets our basic needs (food, water, shelter) and, aside from that, we all sit around and read and write poetry. GDP would be high without damaging the environment, provided all we bought and sold, beyond the basics, was poetry (no insult intended; I like poetry).
But would capitalism ever lead to a society like that? It seems that, whenever a process becomes more efficient through the profit motive and entrepreneurial ingenuity (or whatever), it simply leads to more consumption, so the efficiency gain is lost. In capitalism, people seem to have an insatiable desire for more. Look at how we deplete resources, whether it's hunting animals to extinction or drawing down aquifers. This is the Jevons paradox (thanks, Sandwichman!).
So I think economists should continue pushing for the theoretical possibility of more GDP with less environmental damage. But they should also be working on ways to achieve degrowth (of the polluting parts of our economy) responsibly. I'm just an ignorant commenter, but it seems that economists have ignored lots of practical economic problems in favour of theoretical ones. The boom town and the ghost town would seem ideal objects of study for our current predicament. Or the Rust Belt, hollowed out by international trade. How do you really, practically replace a core industry in a city?
As for the depopulation point, I think Prof. Dorman is being a little disingenuous. Population control is achievable without killing living humans. In any case, I don't think anyone is suggesting that.
I also agree with john c. halasz's comments. Thank you!