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Saving the baby from Michael Moore’s dirty bathwater


Jeff Rudin works at the Alternative Information & Development Centre (AIDC)

Michael Moore’s documentary film, ‘Planet of the Humans’, has been met with widespread outrage. But there are some important lessons to be learnt here and from the Covid-19 pandemic – not least that when crisis strikes, capitalism can be redirected to save us, and capitalism itself, from capitalism.

There is a large amount of dirty water in the bath Michael Moore filled in his documentary, Planet of the Humans. Leonie Joubert details some of the Moore-produced slime in her recent Daily Maverick article. We live and learn, even though many of us, respecting Moore, would prefer not to have learnt about his shenanigans.

Demanding that YouTube remove the film, which was the widespread response (though not Joubert’s), to what was seen as a mischievous attack on renewable energy and a gratuitous gift to the coal lobby, is the sort of censorship we – the environmentalists and broad left – decry when others attempt to do the same to us.

The danger with all these easy attacks to which Moore surprisingly opened himself is that they detract from the important things the film either says or invites us to consider. There is a baby to be saved.

I say this despite the fundamental contradiction at the heart of the film. It argues, on the one hand, that the Green Economy is the false solution offered by capitalism to the problem of what it says is capitalist-caused climate change. Yet, on the other hand, it argues, as its very title denotes – Planet of the Humans – that, again in its own words, “it is not CO2 that is destroying the planet, but us.” And “us” – this un-disaggregated collective equally responsible everywhere in the world for climate change and for a very long time – who are doing this because there are just too many of “us” on a finite world.

This brings us straight back to the (almost) pre-capitalist Malthusian idea of overpopulation. For the past 220 years, apologists of capitalism, while enthusiastically claiming ownership of the enormous growth in wealth during that period, have been using the mere fact of population growth to disown the enduring poverty that stubbornly won’t go away.

These and other contradictions have been well noted, but to focus on them is to fixate on the dirty bathwater rather than saving the anti-capitalist baby.

Covid-19 is doing more than just showing us the urgency of saving that baby. It has made many of us feel that urgency. In his New Yorker article, The Coronavirus Is Rewriting Our Imaginations, Kim Stanley Robinson, writes:

“Economics is a system for optimising resources, and, if it were trying to calculate ways to optimise a sustainable civilisation in balance with the biosphere, it could be a helpful tool. When it’s used to optimise profit, however, it encourages us to live within a system of destructive falsehoods. We need a new political economy by which to make our calculations. Now, acutely, we feel that need.”

“Now, acutely, we feel that need.” Moore’s anti-capitalist baby feeds that need we now feel acutely. Among the three immediate lessons Moore points to are, for me: (1) that privately-owned renewable energy is a gleeful capitalism maximising the marketing bonanza now attached to anything “Green” (along with the lucrative incentives being paid by the public purse for renewable energy with guaranteed payments for 20 years and beyond); (2) that renewable energy is heavily dependent on non-renewable minerals and materials and that a post-capitalist world – if there is still to be a habitable world – has to come to terms with the inherent finiteness of energy; and (3) although more implied than stated, the most immediately challenging of all are the specificities of what it means to come to terms with the finiteness of energy, notwithstanding the abundance of renewable energy. It is these specificities that give content to the transition from where we are today to where we need to be tomorrow. Critical interventions in the economy are what is immediately needed.

There are no easy answers here. And Moore doesn’t attempt to offer any. Nonetheless, Covid-19 encourages us to think boldly without being reckless. We now know that what was utterly unthinkable in yesterday’s pre-Covid-19 world is today’s reality. To quote again from Kim Stanley Robinson:

“Right now we’re hearing two statements being made. One, from the President [Trump] and his circle: we have to save money even if it costs lives. The other, from the Centers for Disease Control and similar organisations: we have to save lives even if it costs money. Which is more important, money or lives? Money, of course! Says capital and its spokespersons. Really? People reply, uncertainly. Seems like that’s maybe going too far? Even if it’s the common wisdom? Or was.”

Today’s reality obliges us to question the foundation upon which the economies of the world are built: free enterprise. This is the freedom enshrined and protected in constitutions worldwide. Anyone with sufficient money has the almost God-given right to do virtually anything they think is likely to maximise their profit, regardless of all other consequences.

This centuries-old liberty – which is the essence of one meaning of liberalism – has, nonetheless, been restricted over time, beginning with the abolition of slavery and British legislation capping the length of the working day and placing limited restrictions on the employment of children. However, despite the deluge of deregulations characteristic of neoliberalism’s determination to cheapen the cost of doing business, most of today’s severe restrictions are ones capitalists have imposed on themselves: to protect themselves from each other.

Capitalists, for instance, accept the regulations of stock exchanges worldwide. They similarly accept the national variations of South Africa’s Companies Act.

It is now time for the vast majority of everyone else to consider capping capitalism, only this time to save us from them. This, I suggest, is a more focused contribution to the now almost global recognition of the need for a (problematically called) Green New Deal.

Drawing on nothing more than the searchlight of Covid-19 and our already-had experiences of climate change, we need to dare to challenge the right of unelected and unaccountable investors, the corporations they create and the rating agencies they employ to decide such fundamentals as: what gets produced, where, when and under what conditions it gets produced and, finally, in what quantities. Their destructive liberty needs to be curtailed by our democracy. This is all the more so when their calculations are all based – either exclusively or primarily – on their own profit maximisation.

What this means in practice is a challenge for our imaginations, now guided by the new importance being given to science.

Some of my own immediate imaginings include:

  •   As a central part of a planned, rapid transition from private motor cars and heavy vehicles to a rational, integrated, and publicly owned and provided transport system based mainly on buses and trains, the urgent phasing out of car and heavy vehicle production, including electric vehicles (EVs) because the problems of road transport far exceed how vehicles are propelled;
  •   A maximum allowed engine size, car weight and speed will be part of this planned phasing out of cars; and
  •   Bottled water production will be vastly curtailed to meet a supply restricted to emergency purposes only.

To further counter the planned obsolescence of the throwaway age and as indicative of what to include:

  •   A prohibition on new models of cellphones and computers for a specified number of years;
  •   When allowed, new models of both cellphones and computers must guarantee the availability of the installed hardware and compatible software for a period still to be agreed; and
  •   Apart from the knock-on effect of the above on advertising, despite advertising being so inherently wasteful, it will still probably be a huge industry warranting further limitations to its freedoms, which are so incompatible with climate change and resource depletion.

The required, radical conservation of energy will differ from country to country. In South Africa, along with much of the rest of the world, enormous amounts of energy are needed just to ensure that everyone has the minimum benefits of living in the 21st century. Nothing extravagant, just humble expectations for things that Covid-19 has so dramatically exposed so many people don’t have: proper housing, education, water, sanitation and transport; sufficient food and the provision of health services.

The energy (and materials) saved by my indicative proposals could be used to provide all these very basic needs. Moreover, there will be little if any need to build the necessary productive capacity. It already exists. Capitalism leaves most, if not all, economies with unused productive capacity, for it is profit not need that drives these economies. The scale of the waste, of the idle productive capacity, is staggering: 22.8% in the US; 19.4% in the EU and 19.3% in South Africa (all 2019 figures).

There is an essential, additional component to providing the unmet basic needs: workers – in their hundreds of thousands, and, much more likely, tens of millions. Many of the workers who will be made redundant by my proposals – but, this time, not because it’s no longer sufficiently profitable to employ them, but rather because the products of their work are no longer viable in an economy recognising the finiteness of both energy and materials – will find ready work in the new economy reflecting the primacy of social and environmental consciousness.

Other displaced workers will find employment with a little retraining. Such will be the probable demand for labour, that global unemployment levels, to say nothing of South Africa’s, will shrink.

The Covid-19 crisis has already led some very pro-capitalist governments – like that of today’s US and Britain – capping capitalism by redirecting business to help meet the demands of the pandemic. This has been no more than a taste of what governments do in wartime. The current lockdown of entire economies shows what governments can do when required.

Having learnt the lessons of Covid-19, the unlocked world must then give the climate crisis the urgent attention science has been demanding for so long. Nothing less than a radical capping of capitalism will suffice if we are to be saved from the climate catastrophe we know is happening.

My proposals have been offered as kernels of ideas waiting to be polished.

Let us be inspired by Kim Stanley Robinson:

“The [Northern] spring of 2020 is suggestive of how much, and how quickly, we can change. It’s like a bell ringing to start a race. Off we go — into a new time.” DM


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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