Climate Justice: Environmental Movement Needs a Soul-Searching Reset

Planet of the Humans
Planet of the Humans

Third contribution to a discussion about the new documentary “Planet of the Humans”.  Read the other contributions here

by Rosemary Kean

The proficiency of corporate capitalism in co-opting ideas and people that threaten its demand for infinite growth is demonstrated in the history of the US environmental movement. Earth Day 2020 marked 50 years since the annual Spring celebration on April 22 began. Its ‘golden anniversary’ has prompted a number of somber reflections on our worsening climate crisis, including the documentary Planet of the Humans and the article in Common Dreams titled “Abolish Earth Day”.

Jeff Gibbs’ and Michael Moore’s Planet of the Humans puts the spotlight on some of the environmental movement’s leaders, including Bill McKibben (, The End of Nature), Michael Brune (Sierra Club) and Al Gore (An Inconvenient Truth, 2006). Planet of the Humans addresses environmental problems of industrial wind power and solar energy, the use of fossil fuels in their production, and the limitations of their usefulness.

The outcry against Planet of the Humans by activists including Naomi Klein and Josh Fox asserts that the film misstates the facts, so much so that it should be ‘taken down’. Timmon Wallis, life long peace activist, author, and Executive Director of NuclearBan.US, describes Jeff Gibbs as a ‘skeptic’, the film as ‘toxic’, and asserts that it doesn’t offer solutions to the looming climate catastrophe.

In narrating Planet of the Humans, Gibbs states that the idea that green, alternative energy will save us is an illusion, perhaps akin to a dream of immortality. The film portrays unflinchingly many scenes of industrial extractive capitalism. In one, Vermonters are surveying an industrial wind turbine site on a formerly verdant hillside. They express regret that the legacy left to their children after the 20 year lifetime of the wind project, with profits going to out of state international corporate owners, will be another iteration of mountaintop removal.

In “Abolish Earth Day”, Markie Miller and Chrystal Jankowski contend that there is another illusion that environmentalists are suffering under- the illusion that the law is on their side. Miller and Janowski are organizers in Toledo, Ohio, affiliated with the Community and Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF). They are working to help Ohio citizens to stop oil and gas injection wells from being installed in their communities among other on the ground environmental assaults. They write that laws that supposedly protect the environment “have systematically failed to guard against mass species die-offs, the climate crisis, deadly air pollution, the corporatization of freshwater, and the largest loss of biodiversity in human history.”

Miller and Jankowski describe local people struggling with laws and a court system “that continues to permit the very harms that the communities want to prevent.” The message of “Abolish Earth Day” is perhaps just as provocative as the message put on screen by Gibbs and Moore: “It’s time environmentalists finally let go of the blind faith they have in the current environmental laws and regulatory system. Doing so will allow them to work in more meaningful solidarity with other movements who have also been abandoned by the law.”

Both “Abolish Earth Day” and Planet of the Humans are telling us that something is fundamentally wrong with the way the environmental movement has been approaching our task. Smart, educated, and talented people in the climate justice movement are working hard and at the same time climate conditions are deteriorating to the point that we are now in a crisis situation.

Possible solutions to the crisis identified in Planet of the Humans are more radical than scaling up ‘green’ energy with profits going to the usual suspects. Recommendations are to 1) decrease energy consumption, 2) change the American consumer lifestyle, and 3) change the economic system. Though Senator Sanders has re-introduced the word ‘socialism’ into the US political discourse, it is nearly impossible for most Americans to imagine an economy not primarily motivated by profit, even in the sphere of health care. However, as we are seeing dramatic changes in our own personal routines and rapid federal, state, and local government responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, we also see that longstanding ways of doing business can change and change quickly.

Naomi Klein has said that the climate crisis has resulted from the economic system acting as though certain people and places are expendable.

Fundamental to preventing the worst outcomes of climate change is maintaining a laser focus on climate justice and following the leadership of marginalized communities. The Poor People’s Campaign, which addresses the intersectional oppressions of environmental degradation, racism, poverty, and militarism, is doing this. If marginalized groups who have been ‘abandoned by the law’ begin to work in solidarity, who knows what we might accomplish for climate, racial, and economic justice, perhaps even peace on earth?

There are many sources of inspiration for engaging in the struggle for climate justice. For some, seeing Planet of the Humans will strengthen a  commitment to ending species extinctions, maintaining biodiversity, and increasing the possibility that human life on earth may continue for many generations with climate justice for all. As Richard Heinberg concludes in his review at, Planet of the Humans “… starts a conversation we need to have, and it’s a film that deserves to be seen.”

— Rosemary Kean is co-chair of Massachusetts Peace Action’s board of directors and chairs is Racial Justice/ Decolonization Working Group