The Michael Moore-produced ‘Planet of the Humans’ faced a coordinated suppression campaign led by professional climate activists backed by the same ‘green’ billionaires, Wall Street investors, industry insiders and family foundations skewered in the film.
By Max Blumenthal
“We must take control of our environmental movement and our future from billionaires and their permanent war on Planet Earth. They are not our friends.”
-Jeff Gibbs, director of “Planet of the Humans”
It is hard to think of an American film that provoked a greater backlash in 2020 than “Planet of the Humans.” Focused on the theme of planetary extinction and fanciful proposals to ward it off, the documentary was released for free on YouTube on April 21. The date was significant not only because it was the eve of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, but because a global pandemic was tearing through America’s social fabric and exposing the human toll of the country’s globalized, growth-obsessed economic model.
Even before “Planet of the Humans” was released, however, the producers of the film had fallen under pressure to retract it. Upon the film’s release, a who’s who of self-styled climate justice activists proceeded to blanket the internet with accusations that it was a racist, “eco-fascist” screed that deliberately advanced the interests of the oil and gas industry. When “Planet of the Humans” was briefly yanked from YouTube thanks to a questionable copyright claim by an angry climate warrior, the free speech organization Pen America issued a remarkable statement characterizing the demands for retraction as a coordinated censorship campaign.
What had this documentary done to inflame so much opposition from the faces and voices of professional climate justice activism? First, it probed the well-established shortcomings of renewable energy sources like solar and wind power that have been marketed as a green panacea. “Planet of the Humans” portrayed these technologies as anything but green, surveying the environmental damage already caused by solar and wind farms, which require heavy mining and smelting to produce, destroy swaths of pristine land, and sometimes demand natural gas to operate.
While major environmental outfits have lobbied for a Green New Deal to fuel a renewables-based industrial revolution, and are now banking on a Democratic presidency to enact their proposals, “Planet of the Humans” put forward a radical critique that called their entire agenda into question.
As the director of the documentary, Jeff Gibbs, explained, “When we focus on climate change only as the thing destroying the planet and we demand solutions, we get used by forces of capitalism who want to continue to sell us the disastrous illusion that we can mine and smelt and industrialize our way out of this extinction event. And again, behind the scenes, much of what we’re doing to ‘save’ the planet is to burn the ‘bio’ of the planet as green energy.”
“Planet of the Humans” crossed another bright green line by taking aim at the self-proclaimed climate justice activists themselves, painting them as opportunists who had been willingly co-opted by predatory capitalists. The filmmakers highlighted the role of family foundations like the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in cultivating a class of professional activists that tend toward greenwashing partnerships with Wall Street and the Democratic Party to coalitions with anti-capitalist militants and anti-war groups.
Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org and guru of climate justice activism, is seen throughout “Planet of the Humans” consorting with Wall Street executives and pushing fossil fuel divestment campaigns that enable powerful institutions to reshuffle their assets into plastics and mining while burnishing their image. McKibben has even called for environmentalists to cooperate with the Pentagon, one of the world’s worst polluters and greatest exporters of violence, because “when it speaks frankly, [it] has the potential to reach Americans who won’t listen to scientists.”
Perhaps the most provocative critique contained in “Planet of the Humans” was the portrayal of full-time climate warriors like McKibben as de facto lobbyists for green tech billionaires and Wall Street investors determined to get their hands on the whopping $50 trillion profit opportunity that a full transition to renewable technology represents. Why have figures like Google CEO Eric Schmidt, Michael Bloomberg, Virgin’s Richard Branson, and Tesla founder Elon Musk been plowing their fortunes into climate advocacy? The documentary taunted those who accepted these oligarchs’ gestures of environmental concern at face value.
For years, leftist criticism of professional climate activism has been largely relegated to blogs like Wrong Kind of Green, which maintains an invaluable archive of critical work on the co-optation of major environmental organizations by the billionaire class. Prominent greens might have been able to dismiss scrutiny from radical corners of the internet as background noise; however, they were unable to ignore “Planet of the Humans.”
That was because Oscar-winning documentarian Michael Moore put his name on the film as executive producer, alongside his longtime producer, Gibbs, and the scholar-researcher Ozzie Zehner. “Michael Moore validates this film,” Josh Fox, the filmmaker who led the campaign against “Planet of the Humans,” told me. “So if Michael Moore’s name is not on that film, it’s like a thousand other crappy movies.”
By racking up millions of views after just a month on YouTube, “Planet of the Humans” threatened to provoke an unprecedented debate about the corruption of environmental politics by the one percent. But thanks to the campaign by Fox and his allies, much of the debate wound up focused on the film itself, and the credibility of its producers.
“I had some sense that the film was going to ruffle some feathers, but I was unprepared for that response from what ended up being a group of people who are like an echo chamber – all related to the same funding organizations,” said Zehner. “It’s a pretty tight circle and it was a really strong, virulent pushback.”
The line of attack that may have gained the most traction in progressive circles portrayed a convoluted section of the film on the dangers of population growth and overconsumption as Malthusian, and even racist. Zehner told me he considered the attacks opportunistic, but “from a public relations standpoint, they were effective. What we were trying to do was highlight the dangers of a consumption-based economic model.”
The backlash to “Planet of the Humans” also related to its portrayal of renewables as badly flawed sources of energy that were also environmentally corrosive. Many of those attacks painted the film’s presentation of solar and wind to present the documentary as out of date and filled with misinformation.
Oddly, the professional activists who coordinated the campaign to bury “Planet of the Humans” glossed over an entire third of the documentary which focused on the corruption and co-optation of environmental politics by “green” foundations and “green” investors.
As this investigation will reveal, those climate justice activists were bound together by support from the same family foundations, billionaire investors, and industry interests that were skewered in the film.
“Censorship, plain and simple”
The ringleader of the push to suppress “Planet of the Humans” was Josh Fox, the Oscar-nominated director of the film “Gasland,” which highlighted the destructive practices inherent to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Fox launched the campaign with a sign-on letter calling for the documentary to be retracted by its producers. Then, in an incendiary takedown published in The Nation, he branded Michael Moore “the new flack for oil and gas,” a racist, and “eco-fascist” for producing the film.
As videographer Matt Orfalea reported, Fox’s crusade began the night Moore’s film was released, with an unhinged mass email to online publishers that blasted the documentary as “A GIGANTIC CROCK OF SHIT.” Fox commanded, “It must come down off your pages immediately.”
Hours later, Fox fired off another breathless email to a group of public relations professionals. “A number of reputable websites are hosting this abomination and I need your support in getting them to take it down,” he wrote. The following day, Fox took to Twitter to assure his ally, 350.org founder Bill McKibben, “We are on it.”
Next, Fox organized a sign-on letter demanding the film “be retracted by its creators and distributors and an apology rendered for its misleading content.” Among the letter’s signatories was academic and renewables advocate Leah C. Stokes, who proclaimed her wish in an article in Vox that “this film will be buried, and few will watch it or remember it.”
On April 24, Josh Fox claimed he had successfully pressured an online video library, Films For Action, into removing “Planet of the Humans” from its website. His victory lap turned out to be premature, as Films For Action re-posted the film and publicly condemned Fox’s campaign to drive it into oblivion.
#PlanetOfTheHumans is worthy of a good critique, but we don't support the campaign to have the film removed from Youtube, and we definitely don't support abusing copyright law (in a clear case of 'fair use') to accomplish that goal. https://t.co/G6pvuOsb0P
— Films For Action (@FilmsForAction) May 26, 2020
The relentless push by Fox and others eventually triggered a striking statement by PEN America, the free speech advocacy group. “Calls to pull a film because of disagreement with its content are calls for censorship, plain and simple,” PEN America declared.
“Listen, nobody called to censor this movie,” Fox insisted to me. “We asked the filmmakers as part of their community to retract it, because it unfairly attacked people that we know are good, honest dealers and its premise was wrong and false.”
Fox likened “Planet of the Humans” to radio host Mike Daisey’s monologue on visiting the Foxconn factory in China where iPhones are made, and which was retracted by NPR after major fabrications came to light. “It’s clear to me that the filmmakers… put incorrect information into the film that they knew was incorrect. That thing was out of date,” Fox said of the Moore-produced documentary. “And many, many people from within our community reached out to them, which I didn’t know actually, prior to the release of the film and said, ‘This information is incorrect. What are you doing?'”
Fox was particularly incensed at Michael Moore for attaching his reputation to the film. He described the famed director as one of “the bad guys”; “a megalomaniacal multi-millionaire who craves attention unlike anyone I’ve ever met”; “the 800-pound elephant in the room”; the maker of a “racist” and “eco-fascist” film; and “a multi-millionaire circus barker” guilty of “journalistic malpractice.”
“The real bully is Michael Moore here,” Fox maintained. “It’s not me.”
Though Fox and his allies did not succeed in erasing “Planet of the Humans” from the internet, the documentary was momentarily removed from YouTube on the grounds of a copyright claim by a British photographer named Toby Smith. In a tweet he later deleted, Smith said his opposition to the film was “personal,” blasting it as a “baseless, shite doc built on bull-shit and endless copyright infringements.”
As the attacks on “Planet of the Humans” snowballed, director Jeff Gibbs attempted to defend his film. Following an article at The Guardian branding the film as “dangerous,” Gibbs emailed the paper’s opinion editors requesting a right of reply. He told me they never responded. However, just hours after Toby Smith’s politically-motivated copyright claim prompted YouTube to remove Gibbs’ documentary, he said The Guardian reached out to him for comment. “How’d they catch that so early?” he wondered.
A few left-wing journalists tried to push back on the attacks as well. But in almost every case, they were spiked by editors at ostensibly progressive journals. Christopher Ketcham, author of “This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism, and Corruption are Ruining the American West,” was among those unable to find a venue in which to defend the documentary.
“I have come across very few editors radical enough to have the exceedingly difficult conversation about the downscaling, simplification, and the turn (in the developed world) toward diminished affluence that a 100 percent renewable energy system will necessarily entail,” Ketcham reflected to me. “You see, they have to believe that they can keep their carbon-subsidized entitlements, their toys, their leisure travel — no behavioral change or limits needed — and it will all be green and ‘sustainable.'”
Naomi Klein, perhaps the most prominent left-wing writer on climate-related issues in the West, did not weigh in to defend “Planet of the Humans.” Instead, the Intercept columnist, social activist, and Gloria Steinem Endowed Chair in Media, Culture, and Feminist Studies at Rutgers University was an early participant in the campaign to suppress the film.
According to McKibben, “Naomi [Klein] had in fact taken Moore aside in an MSNBC greenroom” before the documentary’s release to lobby him against publishing the film. Klein later signed Josh Fox’s open letter demanding the film be retracted.
On Twitter, Klein condemned “Planet of the Humans” as “truly demoralizing,” and promoted a “big blog/fact check” of the film by Ketan Joshi, a former communications officer for the Australian wind farm company Infigen Energy.
Thank you for writing this. It is truly demoralizing how much damage this film has done at a moment when many are ready for deep change. There are important critiques of an environmentalism that refuses to reckon with unlimited consumption + growth. But this film ain't it. https://t.co/BmO7ABsIhZ
— Naomi Klein (@NaomiAKlein) April 26, 2020
Mining a green future and burying the cost
Like most opponents of “Planet of the Humans,” Ketan Joshi painted the documentary as “a dumb old bull in the china shop that is 2020’s hard-earned climate action environment.” And along with other critics, he accused the film’s co-producers, Gibbs and Zehner, of wildly misrepresenting the efficiency of renewables.
To illustrate his point, he referenced a scene depicting the Cedar Street Solar Array in Lansing, Michigan with flexible solar panels running at 8% efficiency – purportedly enough to generate electricity for just 10 homes. Because that scene was part of a historical sequence filmed in 2008, Joshi dismissed it as an example of the film’s “extreme oldness.”
However, this February, the solar trade publication PV Magazine found that Tesla’s newest line of flexible solar shingles had an efficiency rate of 8.1% – almost exactly the same as those depicted in “Planet of the Humans.”
While it is true that mono-crystalline solar panels boast a higher efficiency rate (between 15% and 18% in commercially available form), they were also on the market back in 2008. These panels are significantly more expensive than the flexible, less efficient panels, however. And their efficiency levels do not account for the intermittency inherent to solar energy, which does not work well in cloudy or dark conditions.
Yet according to Josh Fox, the most vehement opponent of “Planet of the Humans,” the planet-saving capacity of solar and other supposedly clean forms of energy was so well-established it was beyond debate.
“The premise of the film is renewable energy doesn’t work and is dependent on fossil fuels. And that is patently ridiculous,” Fox remarked to me. “And the reason why I got into this is because I had young environmentalists – young people who are steadfast campaigners – calling me in the middle of the night, freaking out, [telling me] ‘I can’t believe this!’ And I looked at them and I said, ‘Well, there’s a reason why you can’t believe this; it’s because it’s not true.'”
But was the presentation of renewable energy sources in “Planet of the Humans” actually false? Ecological economist William Rees has claimed that “despite rapid growth in wind and solar generation, the green energy transition is not really happening.” That might be because it is chasing energy growth instead of curtailing it. Rees pointed out that the surge in global demand for electricity last year “exceeded the total output of the world’s entire 30-year accumulation of solar power installations.”
Are there not reasonable grounds then to be concerned about the practicality of a full transition to renewables, especially in a hyper-capitalist, growth-obsessed economy like that of the United States?
A September 2018 scientific study delivered some conclusions that contradicted the confident claims of renewables advocates. A research team measured solar thermal plants currently in operation around the world and found that they are dependent on the “intensive use of materials,” which is code for heavily mined minerals.
Further, the researchers found that the output of these plants was marred by “significant seasonal intermittence” due to shifting weather patterns and the simple fact that the sun does not always shine.
The negative impact of massive wind farms on the environment and marginalized communities – an issue highlighted in “Planet of the Humans” – is also a serious concern, especially in the Global South. Anthropologist and “Renewing Destruction: Wind Energy Development, Conflict and Resistance in a Latin American Context” author Alexander Dunlap published a peer-reviewed 2017 study of wind farms in the indigenous Tehuantepec region of Oaxaca, Mexico, which has been marketed as one of the most ideal wind generation sites in the world. Dunlap found that the supposedly renewable projects “largely reinforced income inequality, furthered poverty entrenchment and increased food vulnerability and worker dependency on the construction of more wind parks, which cumulatively has led to an increase in work-related out-migration and environmental degradation.”
When wind turbines reach the end of their life cycle, their fiberglass blades, which can be as long as a football field, are impossible to recycle. As a result, they are piling up in rural dumping sites across the US. Meanwhile, the environmentalist magazine Grist warned this August of a “solar e-waste glut” that will produce “megatons of toxic trash” when solar panels begin to lose efficiency and die.
In response to my questions about so-called renewable energy, Fox referred me to a close ally, Anthony Ingraffea, who signed his letter calling for “Planet of the Humans” to be pulled. A civil engineer and co-founder of Physicians, Scientists and Engineers for Healthy Energy, which advocates for renewables, Ingraffea is a former oil and gas industry insider who turned into a forceful opponent of fracking. In the past six years, he has produced scientific assessments for the governments of New York State and California on a transition to mostly renewable energy sources.
Ingraffea slammed “Planet of the Humans” as “way off base” and derided research by Ozzie Zehner, the co-producer, as “conspiracy theory shit.” He contrasted his credentials with those of Zehner, boasting that while he has earned 15,000 citations in peer-reviewed academic journals during his career as an engineer, Zehner had chalked up a mere 300.
When I turned to the subject of social and environmental damage caused by so-called renewables, Ingraffea argued that the burning, storing, and transportation of fossil fuels outweighed any of those costs. According to Ingraffea, when New York State makes a decisive transition to renewables, only about 2% of the state’s land would be occupied by solar and wind farms – which translates to about 1,100 square miles.
He pointed to the New York State Assembly’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act as an embodiment of the foresight of proponents of a near-total transition to renewable energy. The bill, which calls for the state to run 70% of its publicly generated energy off of “renewable energy systems” by 2030, also mandates that “35 percent of investments from clean energy and energy efficiency funds [be] invested in disadvantaged communities.”
“That’s wisdom speaking,” Ingraffea said of the legislation. “That’s telling you that yes, we are aware of the problem that you said we should be aware of. Yeah, we’re not all dumb. We’re not all crazy. We’re not all ideological. Not all technical nerds who just fall in love and want to make sex with solar panels.”
However, the communities (or their designated NGO representatives) supposedly compensated through the New York State bill are not located in the regions that will be most impacted by the extraction necessary to manufacture so-called renewables. Already devastated by coups and neocolonial exploitation, swathes of the Global South from Bolivia to Congo – home to massive reserves of cobalt hand-mined in “slave conditions” for electric car batteries and iPhones – are being further destabilized by the minerals rush.
Even mainstream environmentalists acknowledge that rising reliance on renewable energy “means a lot of dirty mining” to extract the minerals required for electric batteries and solar cells. This prospect has sparked excitement within the mining industry, with the editor of Mining.com, Frik Els, dubbing Green New Deal spokeswomen Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Greta Thunberg “mining’s unlikely heroines.”
“Going all in on the green economy and decarbonisation requires siding with the greens against fossil fuels,” Els informed fellow mining industry insiders. “It means selling global mining as the solution to climate change because mining metals is the only path to green energy and green transport.”
The inevitable rush on minerals required to power the green revolution has not exactly delighted residents of the Global South, however.
Evo Morales, the indigenous former president of Bolivia, was driven from power in 2019 by a military junta backed by the United States and local oligarchs, in what he branded a lithium coup. With the world’s largest untapped lithium resources, Bolivia is estimated to hold as much as half of the world’s reserves. Under Morales, the country guaranteed that only state-owned firms could mine the mineral.
The ousted socialist leader argued that multi-national corporations supported his right-wing domestic opponents in order to get their hands on Bolivia’s lithium – an essential element in the electric batteries that provide the cornerstone to a digital economy dependent on smartphones, laptops, and electric vehicles. “As a small country of 10 million inhabitants, we were soon going to set the price of lithium,” Morales said. “They know we have the greatest lithium reserves in the world [in a space of] 16,000 square kilometers.”
Just before the military coup in Bolivia, a report (PDF) by the World Economic Forum’s Global Battery Alliance reported that the global demand for electric batteries will increase 14-fold before 2030. Almost half of today’s lithium is mined to produce electric batteries, and the demand for the mineral will only rise as power grids incorporate high levels of battery powered tech and the demand for electric vehicles increases.
Electric batteries are also heavily reliant on cobalt, most of which is mined from Congo, and often in illegal and dangerous conditions by child labor. In December 2019, over a dozen Congolese plaintiffs sued Apple, Google’s Alphabet parent company, Microsoft, Dell, and Tesla, accusing them of “knowingly benefiting from and aiding and abetting the cruel and brutal use of young children in Democratic Republic of Congo (‘DRC’) to mine cobalt.”
This July, Tesla CEO and electric battery kingpin Elon Musk appeared to take partial credit for the 2019 military coup that forced Bolivia’s Evo Morales from power, asserting that big tech billionaires like him could “coup whoever we want.”
“Renewable” energy kingpin Elon Musk practically takes credit for the Bolivian lithium coup just months after planning a meeting with Bolsonaro ahead of a Tesla factory in lithium rich Brazil https://t.co/PcizH4pLfQ https://t.co/7kTrA7fPsV pic.twitter.com/zaVqte1KHW
— Max Blumenthal (@MaxBlumenthal) July 25, 2020
The payoff for all the dirty and deadly mining required to manufacture the solar panels, wind turbines, and electric batteries required to power the new industrial revolution is supposed to be a planet no longer faced with a “climate emergency” – and nevermind the damage to the Earth and its non-human inhabitants. But with the demand for electricity constantly growing, is it even possible to power an economy like that of the US with entirely renewable sources of energy (excluding nuclear)?
A scientific projection by one of the closest allies of Josh Fox and Anthony Ingraffea was supposed to have answered that question and put all doubts to bed. Instead, it resulted in acrimony and embarrassment for its author.
The 2050 transition goal: real science or a murky crystal ball?
In his piece hammering “Planet of the Humans” in The Nation, Fox touted “the proliferation of 100 percent renewable energy plans put forward by Stanford University Professor Mark Jacobson” as one of the most important pieces of evidence refuting the film’s grim narrative.
Jacobson’s study, according to National Geographic, was “a foundation stone” of the Green New Deal proposal put forward by Democratic Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It was also central to the energy plan advanced by the presidential campaigns of Sen. Bernie Sanders, who co-authored an op-ed with Jacobson that called for a full transition to “clean” energy by 2050.
Jacobson, like Ingraffea, is an environmental engineer and political partner of Fox. The Stanford professor helped Fox found the environmental advocacy organization the Solutions Project, alongside actor Mark Ruffalo and the banker and former Tesla executive Marco Krapels in 2011. (More on this group later.)
Besides his working relationship with Jacobson, Fox failed to acknowledge that the professor’s all-renewables projection was strongly challenged by 21 leading energy scientists in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal. The scientists concluded Jacobson’s paper was rife with “invalid modeling tools, contained modeling errors, and made implausible and inadequately supported assumptions.”
A survey of the debate by Scientific American scoffed at Jacobson’s remarkable assumption “that U.S. hydroelectric dams could add turbines and transformers to produce 1,300 gigawatts of electricity instantaneously… or the equivalent of about 1000 large nuclear or coal power plants running at full power.”
Jacobson retaliated against his critics by filing a $10 million defamation lawsuit, which he was forced to withdraw in 2018. Legal commentator Kenneth White described the suit as “clearly vexatious and intended to silence dissent about an alleged scientist’s peer-reviewed article.”
This April, a DC Superior Court judge invoked anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) legislation that reportedly ordered Jacobson to pay the defendants’ legal fees.
It appears the Superior Court of D.C. granted motions from the National Academy of Sciences & researcher Christopher Clack, each seeking awards of attorneys fees and costs, in a case involving Stanford professor Mark Jacobson that dates back to a 2017 PNAS paper. pic.twitter.com/X8Ni27IBhT
— James Temple (@jtemple) April 21, 2020
“Planet of the Humans” co-producer Ozzie Zehner saw Mark Jacobson’s flameout as a symptom of a wider problem within mainstream climate activism. “When Big Greens talk about ‘facts,’ they often aren’t talking about what most people understand to be facts,” he explained. “They’re usually talking about models, which attempt to predict the future based on estimations of physical conditions, projections, and assumptions. Greens industrialists claim they can accurately model a renewable energy future and its effects on the global biosphere. But our best science can’t even model a fish tank.”
Ingraffea insisted that Jacobson’s legal fight had only begun, and said the professor’s critics were “partially driven by Mark [Jacobson] having made a very famous name for himself in an arena with many other people working, and they’re not getting all the fame.”
Jacobson echoed this line in his own defense: “They don’t like the fact that we’re getting a lot of attention, so they’re trying to diminish our work.”
“Give the guy a break,” Ingraffea appealed. “You know, if he’s wrong, of course he’s wrong. No one’s going to be right. No one could possibly be right right now about what’s going to happen in 25 years. We’re all entitled to our projections. We’re all entitled to our crystal balls.”
That same courtesy was not extended by Ingraffea and his allies to the makers of “Planet of the Humans,” however. “We were unable to identify any factual errors in the film, and we’re open to the idea that we could be wrong about some things,” Zehner said. “But we’d like to have that debate and not be shut down.”
Among the wave of attacks on “Planet of the Humans,” a disproportionate number were churned out by renewables industry insiders, from an “innovation strategist” at the Green Power Energy firm that was criticized in the film for clearing a Vermont mountaintop to build a wind farm (“For me, this film was personal,” he stated), to Now You Know, a podcast by two mega-fans of Elon Musk who fawningly refer to the billionaire as “Elon” and have proudly declared that they are “long on Tesla stock.”
Missing from nearly all of the takedowns was the documentary’s scathing critique of the corruption of environmental politics by billionaires and elite family foundations.
“The conversation our critics really didn’t want to have was about the last one-third of the film,” Zehner remarked, “which dealt with the influence of billionaires and money in the environmental movement, and the divestment sham.”
The shell game of fossil fuel divestment
The tactic of fossil fuel divestment is at the heart of the so-called climate justice movement’s plan to defeat the fossil fuel industry. Launched by Bill McKibben’s 350.org and a coalition of professional activists soon after the re-election of President Barack Obama in 2012, the campaign has resulted in institutions like Oxford University and Goldman Sachs supposedly divesting their holdings in oil and gas companies. Campaigners like McKibben simultaneously encouraged their constituents to invest in funds whose portfolios were supposedly free of fossil fuel companies.
“Planet of the Humans” raked this tactic over the proverbial coals, demonstrating how investment funds endorsed by 350.org have engaged in a shell game in which fossil fuel assets are simply replaced with investments in plastics, mining, oil and gas infrastructure companies, and biomass.
“The big issue with divestment is that it absolves the destructive power of extreme wealth,” Zehner explained. “It’s saying that family foundations can be forgiven and money can be moved into mining, gas and oil infrastructure, solar, wind, and biomass. They divest from the brand name coal companies while investing in infrastructure companies that support coal mining.”
In one of the most controversial scenes in “Planet of the Humans,” Bill McKibben was seen inaugurating a wood-burning biomass energy plant at Middlebury College, where he has been a scholar-in-residence. The environmental leader praised the initiative as “an act of courage.”
Because the event took place in 2009, McKibben and his allies have attacked the scene as an unfair representation of his current position. In an official 350.org response to “Planet of the Humans,” McKibben claimed that his views on biomass have evolved, leading him to cease his support for the energy source in 2016.
Yet less than a week after The Nation published Josh Fox’s incendiary attack on Michael Moore and “Planet of the Humans,” Nation editor-in-chief D.D. Guttenplan hosted an event with McKibben that was sponsored by a fund with major investments in several wood-to-energy biomass companies.
Called Domini Impact Investments, the fund claims to hold investments in “68 companies… that both impact forests and depend on them, whether for forest derived products or ecosystem services.” One such Domini holding is a wood-to-energy company called Ameresco, which builds “large, utility-scale biomass-to-energy plants,” according to its website.
Domini Impact also features its sustainable “timber” holdings, including Klabin SA, a company with logging operations spanning 590,580 acres in Brazil. Klabin SA manufactures pulp and paper products and operates a 270MW on-site black liquor biomass plant. This May, just days after Domini sponsored McKibben’s talk, the company purchased a second biomass plant.
(Fabio Schvartzman, the former CEO of Klabin SA, was charged with 270 counts of homicide in Brazil this January, after allegedly concealing knowledge of an imminent dam burst to protect the share price of his current company, Vale. The 2019 Mariana dam collapse has been described as Brazil’s worst environmental disaster.)
While introducing the Domini-sponsored event with McKibben, The Nation’s Guttenplan stated, “By investing in the Domini Funds, you can help build a better future for the planet and its people, and be part of a movement working to address a wide range of social and environmental issues including human rights, climate change mitigation and forest stewardship.”
Neither McKibben nor Guttenplan responded to email requests for comment from The Grayzone.
Domini Funds was hardly the only investment fund that McKibben has partnered with to promote fossil fuel divestment – and which has engaged in the shell game exposed in “Planet of the Humans.”
In what was perhaps the film’s most devastating scene, narrator Jeff Gibbs detailed how McKibben has advised 350.org members to direct their money into the Green Century Fund, an investment portfolio that boasts of being “wholly owned by environmental and public health nonprofit organizations,” and free of fossil fuel stock.
As “Planet of the Humans” revealed, however, the Green Century Funds’ portfolio has contained heavy investments in mining companies, oil, and gas infrastructure companies, including an exploiter of tar sands, the biofuel giant Archer Daniels Midland, McDonald’s, Coca Cola (the world’s leading plastic pollution proliferator), logging giants, and big banks from Bank of America to HSBC.
Asked about this section of the film, Josh Fox dismissed it as out of date. He claimed that “the entire idea of what constitutes a divested fund has changed really radically over the last eight years, starting at first from just oil, coal and gas investments, to then encompassing things like plastics and the meat industry and derivatives and all other options.”
However, a probe of the 2019 Securities and Exchange Commission filings by Green Century Funds showed the fund held thousands of shares in meat giant McDonald’s and Royal Caribbean Cruises, among other mega-polluters. The latter company’s Harmony of the Seas ship happens to be the most environmentally toxic cruise liner on Earth, relying on three massive diesel engines to burn 66,000 gallons of fuel a day. By the end of one voyage across the Atlantic, the ship has expended the same amount of gasoline as over 5 million automobiles traveling the same distance.
Green Century’s SEC filing boasted that it elicited a pledge from Royal Caribbean “to make its food waste management and reduction strategies more public.” It also claimed to have “helped convince McDonald’s, the largest purchaser of beef in the world, to restrict the use of antibiotics in its beef and chicken supply chains.”
It was a classic case of greenwashing, in which corporate behemoths burnished their reputation among progressives by embracing cosmetic reforms that did little to challenge their bottom lines.
When I informed Fox about Green Century’s ongoing investments in carbon-heavy industries, he said, “Well, I’m all for an investigation of those things on real grounds.”
In the same breath, Fox pivoted to another complaint about “Planet of the Humans”: “The film attacks Bill McKibben in ways that were unfair and untrue.”
Was that the case, though? One of the most provocative points about McKibben and his allies in “Planet of the Humans” – that they function as de facto public relations agents for the “green” billionaires seeking to cash in on the renewables rush – was never coherently answered. But as this investigation reveals, the climate warriors criticized in the film are sponsored by many of those same billionaires, as well as the network of family foundations that help set the agenda for groups like 350.org.
The Rockefeller Brothers Fund incubates 350.org
In perhaps the most uncomfortable scene in “Planet of the Humans,” Bill McKibben was shown visibly squirming as an interviewer asked him about family foundation support for his 350.org.
“We’re not exactly Big Greens,” McKibben insisted during a 2011 interview with climate journalist Karyn Strickler. “I’m a volunteer, we’ve got seven people who work full time on this 350.org campaign.”
With a telling smirk on her face, Strickler asked McKibben how his group sustained itself.
“To the degree that we have any money at all it’s come from a few foundations in Europe and the US,” McKibben insisted.
He mentioned “a foundation based in Sweden, I think it’s called the Rasmussen Foundation that I think has been the biggest funder.”
After some prodding by Strickler, a visibly uncomfortable McKibben divulged that the “Rockefeller Brothers Fund gave us some money right when we were starting out. That’s been useful too.”
However, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Rasmussen were not observing the birth of 350.org from the sidelines. In fact, the Rockefeller Brothers were instrumental in establishing 350.org and guiding the organization’s agenda. It began when the foundation incubated a group called 1Sky with a $1 million grant. McKibben immediately joined as board member.
As documented by radical environmentalist Cory Morningstar, 1Sky’s launch was announced at a 2007 gathering of the Clinton Global Initiative by former President Bill Clinton, who stood on stage beside Rockefeller Brothers Fund President Stephen Heintz. Four years later, the Rockefeller Brothers announced “the exciting marriage of 1Sky and 350.org — two grantees of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund’s Sustainable Development program.”
Why McKibben was so uncomfortable about discussing his relationship with Rockefeller was unclear. Perhaps he was concerned that the organization he once described as a “scruffy little outfit” would be seen as a central node in the donor-driven non-profit industrial complex.
Whatever his motives were, since the testy exchange with Strickler, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund has contributed over $1 million to McKibben’s 350.org.
Alongside a network of foundations and “green” billionaires, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and its $1.2 billion endowment serves as a primary engine of the network of self-styled “climate justice” activists that sought to steamroll “Planet of the Humans.”
These interests have cohered around the Environmental Grantmakers Association (EGA), which is located in the New York City offices of the Rockefeller Family Fund.
The EGA enables elite foundations and billionaire donors to cultivate a cadre of professional “doers” during retreats in scenic locations. One first-time student attendee said the retreat experience was designed with “the intention of strengthening relationships between funders and build[ing] relationships within the environmental movement.” As soon as she arrived, she was “paired with mentor ‘buddies,’ folks who had been to past EGA Retreats to show us the ropes.”
These encounters take place in Napa Valley, California, or at the Mohonk Mountain House resort in New York’s Hudson Valley. A report by the Threshold Foundation described the theme of the 2015 EGA fall retreat at Mohonk: “‘Fund the Fighters!’ That’s the rallying call from the stars. Not the celestial stars, but from well-known artists such as Mark Ruffalo and Naomi Klein.”
In accordance with its relationship with the EGA’s network of environmental cadres and outfits like 350.org, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund embraced their fossil fuel divestment campaign, shedding its stocks in oil and coal while increasing assets in other industries that can hardly be described as green. A look at the results of the foundation’s move offers another disturbing case study in the divestment shell game.
The Rockefeller Brothers go “green,” invest in Halliburton
In 2014, following consultations with 350.org, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund announced that it was divesting from fossil fuels. “We were extremely uncomfortable with the moral ambivalence of funding programs around the climate catastrophe while still being invested in the fossil fuels that were bringing us closer to that catastrophe,” Rockefeller Brothers Fund President Stephen Heintz said.
At a December 2015 side session of the UN climate conference in Paris, 350.org executive director May Boeve joined Heintz to celebrate the foundation’s decision to divest. “A growing number of investors representing a growing amount of capital do not want to be associated with this industry any longer,” Boeve stated.
A look at the most recent publicly available financial filing of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, from 2018 (PDF), offered a clear glimpse at the shell game that divestment has entailed.
According to the filing, while the Rockefeller Brothers freed itself of fossil fuels, the foundation remained invested in companies including the oil services giant Halliburton, the Koch-run multinational petroleum transportation partnership Inter Pipeline Ltd, and Caterpillar, whose bulldozers are familiar at scenes of deforestation and Palestinian home demolitions. (Several NGOs that advocate divestment from companies involved in the Israeli occupation of Palestine, such as +972 Magazine and the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, have also received support from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund).
The foundation padded its portfolio with stock in financial industry titans like Citigroup and Wells Fargo, as well as Newcrest Mining, Barrick Gold, Wheaton Precious Metals Corporation, and Agnico Eagle Mines.
The Rockefeller Brothers Fund listed at least $20 million of investments in Vision Ridge Partners, which was itself invested in a biomass company called Vanguard Renewables under the guise of “renewable energy.” In December 2019, Vanguard Renewables forged a partnership with Dominion Energy – the energy giant whose Atlantic Coast Pipeline was defeated this June thanks to grassroots environmental mobilization – to convert methane from farms into natural gas.
Since the Rockefeller Brothers Fund answered 350.org’s call to divest from fossil fuels in 2014, the foundation’s wealth has increased substantially. As the Washington Post reported, “the Rockefeller Brothers fund’s assets grew at an annual average rate of 7.76 percent over the five-year period that ended Dec. 31, 2019.”
The outcome of the Rockefellers’ widely praised move established a clear precedent for other elite institutions: by allowing organizations like 350.org to lead them by the hand, they could greenwash their image, offload stocks in a fossil fuel industry described by financial analysts as a “chronic underperformer,” and protect their investments in growth industries like mining, oil services, and biomass.
McKibben, for his part, has marketed fossil fuel divestment as a win-win strategy for the capitalist class: “The institutions that divested from fossil fuel really did well financially, because the fossil fuel industry has been the worst performing part of our economy… Even if you didn’t care about destroying the planet, you’d want to get out of it because it just loses money.”
Blood and Gore make “the case for long-term greed”
In another move apparently intended to burnish its green image while padding its assets, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund invested over $100 million in Generation Investment Management’s Generation Climate Solutions Fund II and Generation IM Global Equity Fund.
These entities are jointly managed by Al Gore, the former US vice president who negotiated a notorious carbon offsets loophole at the 1997 Kyoto Climate Protocol that has been blamed for the release of 600 million tons of excess emissions. Gore launched the fund alongside David Blood, the ex-CEO of asset management for Goldman Sachs, in order to promote a climate-friendly capitalism.
In a 2015 profile of Blood and Gore’s Generation Investment Management fund, The Atlantic’s James Fallows described their investment strategy as “a demonstration of a new version of capitalism, one that will shift the incentives of financial and business operations” toward a profitable “green” economy – while potentially saving the system of capitalism from itself.
Blood was blunt when asked about his agenda: “We are making the case for long-term greed.”
The banker Blood and the green guru McKibben shared a stage together at the 2013 conference of Ceres, a non-profit that works to consolidate the mutually beneficial relationship between Big Green and Wall Street.
The event featured a cast of corporate executives from companies like Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) and GM. Sponsors included Bank of America, PG&E, Bloomberg, Citi, Ford, GM, Prudential, Wells Fargo, TimeWarner, and a collection of Fortune 500 companies.
During their conversation, the investor Blood pledged to mobilize “something in the order of $40 to $50 trillion of capital” in renewables, underscoring the massive profit center that a transition to “green” energy represents.
“It’s entirely dependent on what kind of political will we can muster,” McKibben proclaimed, pledging to work toward Blood’s goal.
The unsettling sight of McKibben discussing multi-trillion dollar profit possibilities with a former Goldman Sachs banker was featured prominently in “Planet of the Humans,” and undoubtedly helped inspire the ferocious backlash against the documentary by the 350.org founder’s network.
McKibben was far from alone among climate justice warriors in his dalliance with the billionaire class, however.
A foundation-supported “ragtag bunch”
Before Josh Fox launched his media blitz against “Planet of the Humans,” he directed a full-length documentary vehicle for 350.org, titled “Divest.” For the 2016 film, Fox followed McKibben and allies like Naomi Klein as they embarked on a cross-country road trip to promote fossil fuel divestment.
Fox’s ties to the professional activists extend to the funding network centered around the Environmental Grantmakers Association. Between 2012 and 2017, Fox’s film company International WOW reported grants totaling $2.5 million. Much of that funding came courtesy of the Rockefeller Brothers Cultural Innovation Fund and Rockefeller MAP fund, as well as the Ford and Park Foundations.
In 2012, the year Fox and his allies launched their campaign promoting fossil fuel divestment, he co-founded an environmental advocacy group called the Solutions Project. He conceived the organization alongside celebrity actor Mark Ruffalo, former Tesla executive Marco Krapels, and Stanford University’s Mark Jacobson – the professor behind the dubious 2050 all-renewables projection.
The four founders gathered seed money from the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation of the eponymous film actor, and from the 11th Hour Foundation of Google CEO Eric Schmidt and his wife, Wendy, according to Fox. Fox said that after a power struggle and an attempt to force him out in order to raise several million from the Sierra Club, he, Krapels, and Jacobson eventually left the organization.
Krapels has since launched an electric battery company in Brazil – another country that happens to hold a massive reserve of lithium and other minerals necessary for his products. Brazil has experienced a rush on lithium mining in recent years thanks to the roaring demand for lithium-ion batteries.
Krapels’ former partner at Tesla’s disastrous Solar City project, Elon Musk, announced plans this year to build an electric car factory in Brazil. Musk has even reportedly sought an audience with the country’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, to further his business interests.
He @MMFlint is receiving too much attention for a film which forgot to mention solar panel efficiency is 24% and mislead the viewer to believe its only 9%. Uninspiring and just scientifically wrong. https://t.co/f69zaWJeaP
— marco krapels (@KrapelsMarco) April 27, 2020
Today, the Solutions Project is “100% co opted and sold out,” Fox acknowledged. Indeed, the group’s board members currently include Brandon Hurlbut, a former Obama Department of Energy official who founded Boundary Stone Partners – a lobbying firm that represents the nuclear industry. Also on the board is Billy Parish, the founder of Mosaic, a financial firm that declares its “mission to revolutionize two of the biggest industries in the world: energy and finance…” Mosaic’s website states. “We focus on the integration of doing good (for the planet) and doing well (financially).”
According to its website, the Elon Musk Foundation is among the Solutions Project’s funders. The organization describes Musk as “the guy who is trying to save humanity in like four or five different ways,” comparing him to a Marvel Comics superhero.
In reality, Musk is a ferocious union-buster who recently fired workers for staying home as the Covid-19 pandemic hit – but not before deceiving them into believing they had permission to safely quarantine.
Other Solutions Project supporters include the Skoll Global Threats Fund, run by eBay billionaire Jeffrey Skoll. Skoll funded Al Gore’s film on climate change, “An Inconvenient Truth,” which went into production soon after Gore launched his Generation Investment Management fund – an inconvenient truth pointed out by “Planet of the Humans.”
The 11th Hour Project foundation of Google CEO Schmidt and his wife remains a supporter of the Solutions Project after ponying up the seed money to launch it. Asked in 2014 about the inequality and displacement that start-up tech businesses bring to the Bay Area, where Google is located, Schmidt responded, “Let us celebrate capitalism. $19 billion for 50 people? Good for them.”
When I challenged Fox about the co-optation of climate justice politics by tech oligarchs like Skoll, Schmidt, and Musk, he grew defensive. “You have to see these things in a time continuum of us trying to take off big, something bigger than anybody’s ever tried to take on in the world,” he stated, referencing his and his allies’ fight against the fossil fuel industry. “They’re bigger than Nazi Germany, bigger than America. Bigger than all of them combined. We’re a ragtag bunch of extraordinarily committed people who are willing to put our lives on the line to stop the fossil fuel industry.
“Yeah, that’s that’s really laudable,” Fox continued, referring to his own efforts, “and for a multi-millionaire circus barker, as Bill McKibben calls Michael Moore, to take potshots using flawed science, dishonest techniques, misrepresentation of the timeline, and 1,000 other things that are journalistic malpractice and that was called out by an extraordinary number of people – that’s the real story here. The real bully is Michael Moore here. It’s not me.”
This year, Josh Fox launched a one-man show and film called “The Truth Has Changed.” According to promotional material for the performance, Fox narrated his experience as “an eyewitness to history” who “was the subject of a 100 million dollar smear campaign from the oil and gas industry.”
“Josh Fox was the beta test for the types of propaganda and smears the gang that created Cambridge Analytica is now known for world wide,” the film’s website stated. “And Josh is telling his story in an uncompromising way like never before.”
The performance was supposed to have enjoyed a lengthy run this January at one of the most renowned venues for political theater in the country, The Public Theater in New York City. But the show was abruptly canceled after the Public accused Fox of violating the theater’s code of conduct through “a series of verbal abuses to the staff.”
Fox, who is Jewish, retaliated by accusing the theater’s directors of anti-Semitism. According to the New York Times, Fox “said he had been told that he was too passionate, too loud and too emotional.”
“To me that is distinctly cultural,” Fox told the paper. “That’s a classic anti-Semitic trope.”
Behind the drama over the monologue’s cancellation, a more salient issue lingered. The executive producer of Fox’s “The Truth Has Changed” was Tom Dinwoodie, a wealthy “cleantech” entrepreneur and engineer who owned dozens of patents on solar technology, and therefore stood to reap a massive windfall profit from the renewables revolution that Fox and his allies were campaigning for.
Dinwoodie, who signed Fox’s letter calling for the retraction of “Planet of the Humans,” was a top donor to the Rocky Mountain Institute, a so-called “do-tank” where he serves as a lead trustee. In 2014, Dinwoodie helped oversee the merger of his think tank with billionaire Virgin CEO Richard Branson’s Carbon War Room, which was founded with “a mission to stimulate business-led market interventions that advance a low-carbon economy.”
“Increasingly, the solutions for climate change are those policy measures that drive economic growth,” a spokesman declares in a video announcing the strategic partnership between Branson’s non-profit and Dinwoodie’s Rocky Mountain “do-tank.”
In the same video, billionaire former Democratic Party presidential candidate and Rocky Mountain Institute donor Tom Steyer emphasized the profit motive behind the renewables transition: “Changing the way we generate and use energy is the largest industry in the history of the world. There is no time to waste.”
This July 9 – the day after the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force released its policy recommendations – the Rocky Mountain Institute launched the Center for Climate Aligned Finance in partnership with four of the biggest banks in the world: Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, and JPMorgan Chase.
The initiative, according to Rocky Mountain, will serve as “an engine room for the financial sector to partner with corporate clients to identify practical solutions through deep partnerships with industry, civil society and policymakers to facilitate a transition in the global economy to net-zero emissions by mid-century.”
The partnership represented an obvious boon for green tycoons like Dinwoodie who profit from renewable energy. And for the big banks that continued to top the list of the world’s most prolific investors in the fossil fuel industry, it was another opportunity to greenwash their public image.
Given the economic interests represented by Dinwoodie and his “do-tank,” it was easy to understand why he signed Fox’s letter calling for “Planet of the Humans” to be retracted. The documentary had not only hammered his political partner, Richard Branson, as a PR savvy oligarch exploiting environmental politics; it took aim at the ethos of Big Green outfits that comforted their ruling-class funders with the promise that they could do good while continuing to do well.
When I asked Fox why he thought big tech tycoons and their family foundations were plowing their fortunes into climate activism, he responded, “Probably saving the planet.”
The Danish connection
While wealthy green businessmen like Dinwoodie and Elon Musk furthered their commercial interests by underwriting green advocacy, the V. Kann Rasmussen Foundation and its closely affiliated KR (Kann-Rasmussen) Foundation have strategically directed their resources into nurturing a who’s who of professional climate warriors – including several that played a role in the campaign to suppress “Planet of the Humans.”
Brian Valbjørn Sørensen, the executive director of the KR Foundation, was a former special advisor to the center-left Danish government that lost power in 2015. KR’s chair, Connie Hedegaard, was the ex-minister for climate and energy for the center-right Danish government of Anders Fogg Rasmussen, who went on to serve as secretary general of the NATO military alliance. As the European Union’s first climate chief, Hedegaard argued that renewable energy could strengthen NATO’s soft power against Russia by reducing natural gas imports from the designated enemy state.
KR’s support for groups like 350.org surfaced in “Planet of the Humans” during the cringe-inducing scene in which journalist Karyn Strickler grilled Bill McKibben about his organizational funders. According to the KR Foundation, it donated $2 million to 350.org in 2019.
Toby Smith, the photographer who filed the copyright claim against Planet of the Humans on explicitly “personal” grounds, happened to have been the media outreach director of a KR-funded non-profit called Climate Outreach. As the Rasmussen family’s KR Foundation stated in a recent financial filing, it initiated grants totaling nearly $2 million to Climate Outreach in 2019 alone.
When British columnist George Monbiot published a vitriolic condemnation of “Planet of the Humans” in The Guardian, he neglected to mention that he had been a board member of the Rasmussen-backed Climate Outreach.
The V. Kann Rasmussen Foundation has also supported Naomi Klein’s environmentalist outfit, The Leap, according to the foundation’s website.
Klein, a longtime critic of elite family foundations and the billionaire class, was among the most prominent figures to join the campaign to censor “Planet of the Humans.” As her ally McKibben acknowledged, she unsuccessfully pressured Michael Moore to retract “Planet of the Humans” before it was even released.
Klein has celebrated the Danish government where KR Foundation leaders have served for advancing “some of the most visionary environmental policies in the world.” At the same time, she has denounced the “autocratic industrial socialism” of the Soviet Union and the “petro-populism” of the socialist government of Venezuela, where Denmark has recognized US-backed coup leader Juan Guaidó.
1. @jaketapper: the article you tweeted is full of crap. In my case it Ignores my extensive criticism of Venezuela's petro-populism https://t.co/c5DDUeyiG5
— Naomi Klein (@NaomiAKlein) August 3, 2017
Klein’s recent broadsides against Venezuela contrasted strongly with her signing of a 2004 open letter that proclaimed, “If we were Venezuelan… we would vote for [Hugo] Chavez”; and a 2007 column in which she wrote that thanks to the Chavez government, “citizens had renewed their faith in the power of democracy to improve their lives.”
From Big Green critic to “Planet of the Humans” opponent
Naomi Klein’s opposition to “Planet of the Humans” was surprising given the views she has expressed in the past on mainstream environmental politics. In 2013, for example, she bemoaned the “deep denialism in the environmental movement among the Big Green groups [on how to fight climate change]. And to be very honest with you,” she continued, “I think it’s been more damaging than the right-wing denialism in terms of how much ground we’ve lost.”
In her widely acclaimed 2008 book “The Shock Doctrine,” Klein documenting the Ford Foundation’s role as a CIA cutout that helped establish the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Chicago.
The Ford-funded academic department nurtured the infamous “Chicago Boys,” a group of neoliberal economists led by Milton Friedman who conceived the disaster capitalist “shock doctrine” that inspired the title of Klein’s book. They applied their program to Chile as General Augusto Pinochet’s economic advisors following his CIA-backed military coup to destroy the leftist government of Chilean President Salvador Allende.
Klein also surveyed the Ford Foundation’s support for the “Berkeley Mafia” at the University of California that advised the hyper-repressive junta of General Suharto, which toppled Indonesia’s socialist government in 1965.
“The Berkeley Mafia had studied in the US as part of a program that began in 1956, funded by the Ford Foundation…” Klein wrote. “Ford-funded students became leaders of the campus groups that participated in overthrowing Sukarno, and the Berkeley Mafia worked closely with the military in the lead-up to the coup…”
Henry Kissinger, the Nixon foreign policy guru whom Klein identified as the mastermind of the dirty war in Chile, had previously served as the director of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund’s Special Strategies Project, which helped conceive US national security strategies for countering the spread of communism.
Today, the Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Brothers Fund support an array of liberal causes, from diversity and racial justice initiatives to the network of NGO’s organizing for fossil fuel divestment. At the same time, the Ford Foundation backs organizations that push regime change in Latin America, partnering with the US government to fund Freedom House, a DC-based NGO which supported the failed coup to oust Nicaragua’s elected leftist government in 2018. For its part, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund has supported The Syria Campaign, a public relations outfit that clamored for US military intervention to remove the UN-recognized government of Syria.
In 2011, when Klein was appointed to 350.org’s board of directors, she joined forces with an environmental organization incubated by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and supported by the Ford Foundation. “As 350.org founder Bill McKibben puts it: unless we go after the ‘money pollution,’ no campaign against real pollution stands a chance,” Klein wrote at the time.
Klein’s 2015 book and documentary film on climate change, “This Changes Everything,” was initially launched as a project called “The Message.” It was supported with hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants from a who’s who of major family foundations that help sustain McKibben’s political apparatus.
In one of several grants to the book and film project, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund contributed $50,000 to “The Message” via a non-profit pass-through called the Sustainable Markets Foundation. [PDF]
Susan Rockefeller served as a co-executive producer of the documentary version of “This Changes Everything.” Her husband, David Rockefeller Jr. is the son of tycoon David Rockefeller, a US government-linked cold warrior who co-founded the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and helped back the US-managed coup that put Pinochet and the Chicago Boys in power in Chile. Rockefeller Jr., a major supporter of conservationist causes, is a former chairman of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and board member of Rockefeller Financial Services.
In 2014, the Ford Foundation chipped in with $250,000 to Klein’s project. [PDF]
Klein’s “The Message” also benefited from $140,000 in support from the Schmidt Family Foundation of Google CEO Eric Schmidt and his wife, Wendy. The Schmidt Family Foundation is an ongoing contributor to McKibben’s 350.org, kicking in $200,000 in 2018 [PDF].
In April 2019, Klein released “A Message From The Future,” a video collaboration with Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and artist and pundit Molly Crabapple, which promoted the Green New Deal as a pathway to a renewable-powered economic utopia.
Crabapple, a vehement supporter of Washington’s campaign for regime change in Syria, is an Eric and Wendy Schmidt Fellow at the New America Foundation, a Democratic Party-linked think tank substantially funded by Google’s Schmidt, the Ford Foundation and the US State Department.
In a recent The Intercept column, Klein took aim at Schmidt, describing him as one of the billionaires exploiting “a coherent Pandemic Shock Doctrine” to begin “building a high tech dystopia.” She noted that Schmidt is closely aligned with the national security state as chair of the Defense Innovation Board, which consults for the Pentagon on the military’s application of artificial intelligence.
Schmidt also happens to be a proponent of a “smart” energy grid, which he says will “modernize the electric grid to make it look more like the Internet.” Such a model would not only benefit tech companies like Google which make their money buying and selling data, but the U.S. national security state, whose partnerships with big tech companies increase the capacity of its surveillance apparatus.
The Senate version of the Green New Deal calls for the construction of “smart” power grids almost exactly like those Schmidt imagined. Klein and other high-profile Green New Deal proponents have neglected to mention that this seeming benign component of the well-intentioned plan could represent a giant step on the way to the “high tech dystopia” of Silicon Valley barons and their national security state partners.
In May 2018, Klein became the Gloria Steinem Endowed Chair in Media, Culture and Feminist Studies at Rutgers University. The position was created “following a three-year, $3 million campaign…including a dozen foundations.” Among the “early and path breaking contributors,” according to Rutgers, was the Ford Foundation.
Contributions also poured in for the endowment from tycoons like Sheryl Sandberg, the billionaire chief operating officer of Facebook and advocate of corporate “Lean In” feminism; and Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood mogul who was sentenced this March to 23 years in prison for first degree criminal sexual assault. According to Rutgers, Weinstein provided “a gift of $100,000 in honor of his late mother, who shared Gloria Steinem’s hopes for female equality.”
I had hoped to have a conversation with Klein, a former colleague at the Nation Institute, about her reflexive opposition to a documentary that advanced many of the same arguments that appeared in her past writings. Was the exclusive focus on carbon emissions by professional climate warriors not a blinkered approach that ignored the environmental damage inherent in producing still-unproven renewable technology? Did “cleantech” tycoons not have a vested interest in advancing a global transition to the renewable products their companies manufactured? And when she had clearly articulated the problems with billionaire-backed Big Green advocacy, why had Klein cast her lot with a political network that seemed to epitomize it?
My emails were met with an auto-reply informing me Klein was “off grid,” and referring me to her personal assistant.
According to Fox, high-profile climate warriors like McKibben and Klein had no interest in speaking to me about their opposition to the film because “it’s like four months ago, man, everybody’s moved on.”
Seeing green in Biden
By August, members of the professional climate advocacy network that saw its interests threatened by “Planet of the Humans” was preparing for a much more elaborate on-screen production that promised new opportunities.
In the weeks ahead of the Democratic National Convention, climate justice organizations like the Sunrise Movement 501 c-4 which emerged in the shadow of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential run and condemned former Vice President Joseph Biden as a tool of the establishment suddenly changed their tune.
Flush with dark money from Democratic Party-aligned billionaires, Sunrise Movement co-founder Varshini Prakash stated on July 14 – the day Biden released his clean energy plan: “It’s no secret that we’ve been critical of Vice President’s Biden’s plans and commitments in the past. Today, he’s responded to many of those criticisms: dramatically increasing the scale and urgency of investments… Our movement, alongside environmental justice communities and frontline workers, has taught Joe Biden to talk the talk.”
While it brands itself as a grassroots movement that has organized anti-establishment stunts putting centrist figures like Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein on the spot, the Sunrise Movement was incubated with a grant from the Sierra Club, the Mike Bloomberg-backed juggernaut of Big Green organizing. Today, offices of the two organizations are located a floor apart in the same building in downtown Washington DC.
Sunrise Movement's PAC took $500,000 from one of the largest dark money groups in the country—the Democracy Alliance funded Sixteen Thirty Fund.
Sixteen Thirty spent $11.5 Million in June bankrolling pro-Biden Super PACs like Priorities USA.https://t.co/VlVX4ZjuCi pic.twitter.com/sV5mYcXTrd
— Robbie Jaeger 🔎 (@RobletoFire) August 20, 2020
Ahead of the DNC, the Biden campaign introduced a $2 trillion plan pledge to invest heavily in renewable technology to achieve “a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035.” The plan promised to erect 500 million solar panels in the next five years alongside 60,000 new wind turbines.
With the demand for solar plummeting due to the coronavirus pandemic, the prospect of gigantic government subsidies was music to the ears of the “cleantech” tycoons who sponsor Democratic Party-aligned climate advocacy organizations.
Many of these green millionaires and billionaires had feasted at the trough of Obama’s stimulus package, which was directly responsible for powering the rise of America’s solar industry. After promising upon his inauguration to invest $150 billion in “a new green energy business sector,” Obama doled out an eye-popping $4.9 billion in subsidies to Tesla’s Elon Musk and a $1.2 billion loan guarantee for Tom Dinwoodie’s SunPower US to construct the California Valley Solar Ranch. In June 2019, an “avian incident” caused a fire at the SunPower Solar Ranch project, impacting over 1200 acres and knocking out 84% of generating capacity for several weeks.
Bureau of Land Management approved both Gemini and Yellow Pine Solar Projects in Southern Nevada. In total, this will damage over 10,000 acres of habitat for Threatened Desert Tortoise. Most major environmental organizations are not opposing this. Solar panels work on rooftops. pic.twitter.com/6QFx2Y3iP4
— Basin & Range Watch (@BasinRange) September 6, 2020
“Planet of the Humans” presented viewers with the disturbing story of the Ivanpah solar plant, a signature initiative in Obama’s green energy plan which was co-owned by Google. Gifted with $1.6 billion in loan guarantees and $600 million in federal tax credits, Ivanpah was built on 5.6 square miles of pristine public land close to California’s Mojave National Preserve. In its first year, the massive plant produced less than half its of its planned energy goal while burning over 6000 birds to death.
Because of the intermittency inherent to solar power, the gargantuan energy project has had to burn massive amounts of natural gas to keep the system primed when the sun is not shining. Despite its dependence on fossil fuel, Ivanpah still qualifies under state rules as a renewable plant.
“The bottom line is the public didn’t expect this project to consume this much natural gas,” David Lamfrom, California desert manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, told the local Press-Enterprise. “We did not have full knowledge that this was what we were signing up for.”
Even after the Obama administration poured billions of dollars into solar projects, solar energy output increased between 2008 and 2016 by just .88% as a total of American energy production.
Meanwhile, across the country, many new wind projects remain stalled due to community concerns about land destruction. In the home state of Green New Deal advocate Sen. Bernie Sanders, the only remaining wind project was canceled this January.
For raising questions about the efficacy and environmental cost of renewable projects like these, and proposing an explicitly anti-capitalist solution to the corporate destruction of the planet, the makers of “Planet of the Humans” were steamrolled by a network of professional climate activists, billionaire investors and industry insiders.
Now, with the Biden campaign promising a new flood of renewable subsidies and tax breaks under the auspices of a “clean” energy plan, the public remains in the dark about what it is signing up for. Even if the ambitious agenda fails to deliver any substantial environmental good, it promises a growing class of green investors another opportunity to do well.