PR flak plays film critic: a reheated mess of lazy old spin.

By Leslie Butler and Alan Wain

Ketan Joshi’s review of the current YouTube hit, Planet of the Humans, is packed with vicious personal insults, faulty assumptions, logical fallacies and downright dishonesty. It reads like the overreaction of a man so personally stung by the film’s thesis than he lost control of his temper. And yet the review has gotten endorsements from giants like Naomi Klein.

The film, produced by Michael Moore and directed by Jeff Gibbs, takes aim at the green energy industry, documenting how extensively and covertly the renewable industry relies on the old fossil fuel industry to operate, and how fossil fuel billionaires are now funding a massive greenwashing effort. Its main argument is that believing renewable energy will save the planet from the fossil fuel crisis is a delusion, and that green washing is a con job.

This thesis apparently made Joshi so angry that he unleashed a string of ad hominem insults at the filmmaker. He called Gibbs lazy, mediocre, out-dated, an outright liar, someone suffering from the Dunning-Kruger Effect (a fool who doesn’t realize how ignorant he is), an old white guy who mostly talks to his fellow whites, a fellow traveller with climate deniers, arrogant, akin to an anti-vaccination nut, a cruel “dog whistle” racist who wants non-whites to stop fucking and who thinks renewable energy is bad.

Whew! If any of these testable claims were true, Gibbs would certainly have a lot of explaining to do. But fortunately none of them is true. For instance, nowhere in his film does Gibbs deny climate change, dump on vaccinations, or call for less fucking. He doesn’t even say that all renewable energy is “bad”; he says only that renewable energy isn’t stopping, and won’t stop, the disaster the human race is headed for as a result of the orgy of consumption fuelled by fossils.

Everything in this review is spin

Let’s begin with the source. Joshi tells us he used to work in wind farms, research, and advocacy. This is offered apparently as evidence of expertise. But The Guardian, to which he contributes, describes him as a “communications consultant for the renewable energy industry” (Emphasis ours). His LinkedIn page paints him as a brand manager/marketing communicator who turns science into “compelling narratives”. Is that a euphemism for “spin doctor” or “PR shill”?

Joshi’s ties to the Green Energy PR industry seriously taint his credibility as a film critic who’s reviewing a film that takes on the sacred cow of green energy. He has a dog in the fight over whether greenwashing is fraudulent hype or if renewable energy is something real and wonderful.

Attack the Cassandras

In the 1960s, Eisenhower warned that the military-industrial complex was getting dangerously large and might lead to wars being waged for profit. The PR hacks went to work and Eisenhower was ignored, leaving us with today’s grossly bloated military and wars fought for profit.

In the same decade, Paul and Anne Ehrlich warned that the population was getting too big. PR hacks attacked the Ehrlichs and world population kept soaring. Rachel Carson warned that spewing chemicals into the rivers…well, you know the rest.

Attacking the Cassandras is the role of guys like Ketan Joshi. You can bet he will not be the last spin doctor with green industry ties who will try to defend their bread and butter by attacking Gibbs’ film using the rhetorical tricks of their trade.

What tricks?

Deliberate misrepresentation: Joshi attacks Moore and Gibbs for featuring mostly white male experts who are insisting the planet needs to reduce its population: “There is no information provided on which people in the world need to stop fucking, but we can take a guess, based on the demographics of the people doing the asking.”

Joshi surely knows that it is not just white people who worry about overpopulation. And he surely knows that, thanks to the option of reliable birth control, people of all colours can fuck to their heart’s content while avoiding pregnancies. The depth of Joshi’s intellectual dishonesty is stunning. What would be truly racist would be to assume birth control is only for white countries or that giant populations of non-whites don’t matter to the environment because they will never develop high consumption, high emission economies like the white countries have.

Similarly, Joshi accuses Gibbs of “bashing” renewable energy, or thinking renewable energy is “bad”, as if Gibbs just dislikes renewable energy itself or finds it inherently objectionable. At one point, Joshi implies the either/or fallacy that renewables are either wonderful or useless. It is clear that Gibbs’ objection to renewable energy is that it is inadequate, not useless, for solving planetary destruction. And he clearly objects to lying about that inadequacy so people can feel free to keep consuming.

The Straw man: Joshi spends a considerable amount of time proving that green technology is better than it used to be as if this, would, if established, refute Gibbs’ thesis. But Gibbs never claims that technology is stagnant and will never get any better than it was in 2010 or some other year. The point is not whether a technology is better than or the same as it used to be. The only relevant point is whether a technology has changed from being inadequate to adequate for solving the problem at hand. Joshi doesn’t even try to argue that green technology has already solved (past tense) the problem Gibbs raises. Joshi just trusts that eventually, one day, the technology will become up to that task. That does not refute Gibbs’ thesis.

Throughout the piece, Joshi’s implied assumption is that green technology will just get better and better, cheaper and cheaper, so we won’t ever have to change the way we live. But blind faith in the imperative of technological progress can be a very dangerous thing. It is what Greta Thunberg called “fairy tales of unlimited growth” and other environmentalists have dubbed “magical thinking”. Betting on the idea that we clever apes will stay one step ahead of catastrophe is a wager with potentially catastrophic consequences. And this is what Planet of the Humans is really about.

Moore’s Law

It was a wet dream for not just the tech industry, but anyone who wanted to believe in the infinite ability of technology to solve human-created problems like climate change and overpopulation. Investopedia observes that what started as a mere observation became a prediction, a truism and then…a law. (emphasis ours). Investopedia gushes, “Moore’s Law has been a driving force of technological and social change, productivity, and economic growth that are hallmarks of the late-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.” A miracle. Except it isn’t.

A short-term trend is not a law and therefore not a guarantee of any future outcome no matter how ardently we might wish for it. Some in the tech industry have acknowledged that Moore’s Law is already dead. The gains made by green energy will not infinitely keep pace even if they are currently as great as guys like Joshi claim. But this hasn’t stopped the spin industry from co-opting Moore’s law into all areas of our lives, creating a false premise for endless growth and consumption.

We’ve got a fast car…

The extreme example and false equivalent. Joshi attempts to dismiss Gibbs’ point that up until now, renewables have had to rely on the help of fossil fuels like natural gas to make a viable contribution to the energy grid. But that’s not happening everywhere, says Joshi, noting that Denmark cut its reliance on fossil fuels while increasing its use of renewables. But Denmark has a tiny population and is a rare exception to the rule. To refute Gibbs’ point, Joshi would have to prove that Denmark, the exception, represents the future. And Joshi doesn’t even try to do that.

Omission. When Joshi has no rebuttal, he wisely clams up. Nearly half of Gibbs’ film is about the dangers of biofuel and the devastation of industrial scale burning of trees. But Joshi devotes only one line of his 2000-word salad to this issue, acknowledging that the practice is indeed “problematic”. This is the language of shill, the technique of spin. He is likewise silent on the extensive evidence the film devotes to showing that fossil fuel billionaires like Richard Branson and fossil fuel hypocrites like Al Gore are funding a gigantic greenwashing effort.

Looking off into the future, seeing the population heading for a crash, the resources dwindling to zero, the temperature relentlessly rising, the forests shrinking, wildlife disappearing, while not having an adequate solution, and calling that merely “problematic” is irresponsible in the extreme. I’d go further. You’ve become part of the problem.

Ridicule. Joshi, who is much younger than Gibbs, plays the age card. He repeatedly calls Gibbs’ ideas old, as if that alone invalidates them. He also implies they are uncool — the obsolete ideas of some old white dude not woke enough to have talked to lots of young people of colour. And he makes fun of Gibb’s “monotone” delivery and sombre music. It isn’t clear what kind of soundtrack Joshi would approve of for a film about the destruction of the planet.

Shifting the argument. Joshi’s bitterness at the idea that anyone has dared question the motherhood and apple pie of green tech explodes at the end of the piece when he accuses the film makers of not looking into other bad things like corporate malfeasance. Never mind that Michael Moore has made a career out of doing just that. Changing the subject is a desperate last resort. Saying “never mind me, what about the bad thing somebody else did” is what one says when one is all out of other defences.

Planet of the Humans exposes the pretty little lie the green industry PR pros peddle. It would be so nice if human ingenuity could guarantee an endless cornucopia of consumption despite the fossil fuel crisis. It would be so nice if the greenwashing of capitalism were not a fairy tale. But Gibbs should not be excoriated for warning that the survival of life on this planet demands that we do more than tinker with the cogs of our overheated economic engines. Do more than cling to the belief that the ravages of capitalism can — or should — be saved by capitalism lite.

It’s ironic that Joshi tries so hard to portray a left-wing filmmaker as right wing for not parroting the happy talk that the good fight is going swimmingly even when it clearly isn’t. Trying to paint truth-tellers as traitors is, for example, what Donald Trump does whenever his critics refuse to go along with his sunny fictions about trouncing the coronavirus.

Dog lover, parent, citizen. Interested in constructs and rhetoric in everyday life.

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