Review of Planet of the Humans: What They Get Right and the Environmentalists Get Wrong

Solar panels on a roof in California.

Solar panels on a roof in California. PHOTOGRAPHER: JOSEPH DESANTIS/GETTY IMAGES

Planet of the Humans has stirred the resentment of many a climate crusader. Yesterday, the chair of the Sierra Club California Energy and Climate Committee instructed committee members (I am one) not to “watch or promote” Planet of the Humans. Today, climate scientists called for the film’s suppression. Enticed by such parental warnings, like an aroused teenager, I just had to watch it.

The film, produced by left-wing film idol Michael Moore, appears to expose and debunk current environmental initiatives for “100% renewable cities” in the United States. Sierra Club activists view the film as undermining climate action on Earth Day. But as the creator of Community Choice Aggregation, which accounts for 67 of 71 U.S. cities that have actually achieved 100% renewable electricity as of 2020, I feel compelled to speak up.

There is some truth to this film, hidden behind a multitude of glaring falsehoods. It is important to explore what the film gets right. As climate activists in the era of climate disruption, we must be clear about what our carbon reduction polices are actually going to achieve, as we push local communities around the world to implement Green New Deal programs, Paris Agreement targets, climate mobilizations, and renewable energy initiatives. Let us not get caught up, after all, in lies created not by environmentalists, but by utilities and governments that have propagated them. They are not our lies, and therefore we need not keep them, but renounce them when clearer, bolder, more concerted actions are required to meet the United Nations ten year horizon for “worldwide energy transformation to avert irreversible ecological damage to the planet.”

The main message of Planet of the Humans is that renewable energy and electric vehicles and other technologies cannot stop climate change, but merely introduce new forms of pollution and environmental destruction. The film’s sense of hopelessness is mesmerizing. Reviewing the progress of renewable energy in recent years, film director Jeff Gibbs sniffs out contradictions and presents them in a kind of cascading epiphany of juvenile disillusionment. Wind farms’ intermittency requires massive natural gas power plants. Solar farms destroy the desert. Lithium ion batteries involve new forms of sea-bed mining for rare earth metals. Each solution to climate change creates a new problem, to the extent that it merely repowers the same economy, and the same civil society. Conclusion: humanity is destructive.

Yet, between these layers of accusation lie some very, very important and salient truths.  Planet of the Humans presents harsh realities about our world, mixing up cause and effect, technology and policy. We must unpack these conflations.

In doing so, we find dominant neoliberal currents, often unconscious, at the heart of the environmental movement that profoundly undermine its impactfulness. By continuing to gloss them over in the era of Trump, mainstream environmental organizations are in fact sowing the seeds of counterrevolution. I know this, because I come up against it every day in the very green energy movements I have started, led and in some cases lost to neoliberals who don’t even know they were neoliberals, whose approach to greenhouse gas reduction is to promote the technological fixes and market solutions that are the idols of capitalism, presenting the illusion that solving climate crisis is as simple as a new line of products to consume.

Gibbs and Moore’s critiques are real, but they oversimplify the problem they describe as an existential crisis with no exit. This delivers them into the pessimistic catch-basin of “overpopulation” theory: we simply have to die to solve climate change. This leathery insight is indeed the conclusion of Planet of the Humans.

However, if you look at infrared satellite images of global greenhouse gas emissions, you will quickly observe physical sources do not correspond to high population areas, but to modern economies: that is, machines. Automobiles, power plants and heating fuels cause climate change, not people. Let us look at China as an example. Before it was “opened” by the Clinton Administration to investment from the West, it had very low carbon emissions. In just a couple of decades, its industrial modernization has made it the epicenter of climate catastrophe. Constant driving, overconsumption, and parasitic capitalism have caused climate change. Therefore, to stop climate change, we must alter modernity, not blame people or wallow in misanthropy. Specifically, we must remove the growth imperative from energy. To do this, a climate mobilization strategy must wean itself from neoliberal dependency upon incumbent energy corporations and financiers who require consumption growth in their business models in order to profit from its development.

Oddly, Planet of the Humans reproduces the fictions of neoliberal environmentalism, failing to get to the truth by reifying technology as the problem. This is much as the environmental movement has reified technology as the solution. We must understand that the failures in renewable energy result from policy, regulation, and market design, not technology. By merely focusing on the unwanted attributes of the technological manufacture of solar panels, electric vehicles and wind farms, the film makers betray a naivety about the real reason we are failing.

Meanwhile, environmentalists criticize Planet of the Humans with a similar naivety, citing the film’s “lies” and “attacks” on what they consider to be promising progress. Where their critique fails is in seeing any progress made as close to remotely adequate relative to the scale of the climate crisis, and the hyper-speed by which we must attack it.

Planet of the Humans states that the 100% clean energy movement led by Sierra Club with a $80M donation by Michael Bloomberg has created a renewable front for natural gas. This would seem to imply a nefarious conspiracy, but in fact it merely reflects the state of things, to which Sierra Club and other leading climate warriors have wearily adapted themselves: a state-sanctioned system of salutary fictions.  Because environmentalist leaders, facing limited political options, blur the lines between what is real, and what is symbolic with respect to “clean” energy, they leave themselves open to charges of falsehood.

Indeed, the renewable energy industry is guilty of the propagation of convenient fictions. Since the 1990’s, renewable energy policy has remained inside a neoliberal envelope, widely adopted by state governments and environmental champions of such policies. These policies are the holy grail of renewable energy in 2020, and they include: Renewable Energy Certificates, Carbon Credits, Greening the Grid, Net Energy Metering, and Feed-in Tariffs. Together, these fictions are a startup strategy to begin something new, not an end game strategy to transform energy.

The first fiction is embracing Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) as real, when they are not. The 100% renewable movement is certainly guilty of this, because it does not distinguish between physical and symbolic actions. A Renewable Energy Certificate is a legal invention, not energy: yet the legal invention authorizes its purchaser to call it renewable energy. This is confusing because it is untrue. REC state laws in the most pro-renewables states allow a seller of coal-fired power to claim that his product is 100% renewable, because he purchases RECs from out-of-state wind farms such as in Texas. This is referred to as “mitigation” under state laws throughout the United States and blurred into legal definitions of “green power.” This thinking follows a logic that the environmental movement has been trained to accept, from day one of electric industry restructuring in the early 1990’s – a market logic. RECs are a financial, not a physical, transaction and so no, we are not building renewable energy, and yes, the power plants generating the power you are purchasing as 100% renewable are in fact coal-fired. The rationale is that the RECs we have purchased will create an “incentive” upstream in the market to become greener.

The fiction of Carbon Credits is that laws allow corporations causing massive amounts of carbon pollution to claim they are 100% carbon neutral by purchasing them. Again, the same claim is made that the purchase of such credits sends an “incentive” to the market to reduce carbon.

The use of “incentives” pervades renewable energy and carbon policy, and profoundly undermines the ability of people to be able to differentiate between the real and the unreal. Today, the environmentalist establishment is guilty of propagating unreal policies in order to galvanize public support of oversimplified, financialized, superficial paths to carbon reduction. Given the mounting urgency of bringing about dramatic carbon reductions to avoid passing the threshold of being able to avert climate catastrophe, movements for climate mobilization must take notice of decades-old incentive schemes that were never designed to do anything but stimulate infant green industries, not physically transform and decarbonize the energy system.

A third fiction is the notion that we can green the grid. The effect of this approach is the equivalent to pissing into the ocean, a growing ocean, of global demand. Adding wind farms and solar farms to the grid is caught in a permanent dilution where, as Planet of the Humans points out, grids require solar farms and wind farms that generate power 20-30% of the time backfill with gas plants to generate 70-80% of the time. This gives the lie to “economies of scale.” As long as renewable energy is not local, meaning sited at the location of use, and indeed smaller, this intermittency will continue to require significant fossil fuel in tandem, and – as the film rightly points out – natural gas is not clean energy: quite the contrary, it is as harmful to the climate as coal.

This brings us to the final, least understood fiction of all. Virtually all on-grid solar systems in the world today are wired, used and paid for on the same fictional principle as RECs, Carbon Credits and the green grid: not to reduce the need for grid power in a building, but to sell power back to the grid. Net Energy Metering (NEM) and Feed-in Tariffs (FIT) are guilty of deliberately avoiding reductions in grid energy demand, and in maximizing energy transactions and grid use, rather than reducing demand and grid use. NEM and FIT render the carbon benefits of solar superficial, and drive up the need for more grid investment, resulting in more fossil fuel use.

These failings of renewable energy are not the result of solar or wind technology and its waste: but of how they are designed, how owned, and controlled. Planet of the Humans makes the fatal mistake of correctly identifying some of the cracks in the edifice of carbon reduction, but widely misses the mark of causality. Their insistence on a kind of sentimental asceticism, for example that solar panel manufacturing requires energy and metals, is a silly, millimeter-deep insight. That windmills are made of steel and concrete is an utterly foolish objection, reflecting an absence of perspective or proportionality, and an eco-Manichean view of all economic activity as dirty and evil. It is critical to parse the fact from the fiction here in order to avoid the existentialist, misanthropic malaise into which this film, in the end, settles, while also agreeing that the alarm raised – that conventional, incrementalist solutions are not adequate – is certainly heard. Planet of the Humans’ successful sniffing out of ironies concealed behind legal platitudes is limited by a resignation and pessimism of the death instinct that is antithetical to our survival and sustainability. We must navigate through the Valley of Subtleties that distinguish hypocrisy from irony.

Turning away from technological fetishism, negative or positive, we must turn to politics. Why do all of these neoliberal policies have in common the quality of changing individual human behavior (choosing green) without changing the system (actually decarbonizing)? Because deals were made, and “necessary illusions” endorsed. The energy industry, and state governments under their undue influence adopting renewable energy laws, created them to work that way. Electric utilities did not, and do not, want their profits reduced, their revenue requirements changed, and their business models threatened. State mandates can force consumers to pay money toward a good cause, but not force utilities to reduce corporate profits. So it was therefore arranged to measure progress in (“other people’s”) dollars spent rather than carbon cut. It is a classic study in making progress while not rocking the proverbial boat: incrementalism hidden in a message of moral sacrifice.

The good news is that movements are currently underway to change all of these things, but these are not technological movements. They are not led by billionaire geniuses, big foundations nor even most of the “big” environmental NGOs, but by municipal governments and the activists who support them. Importantly, the centralization of renewable energy development, the obsession with maximizing transactions rather than demand reduction (the growth imperative) and its ineffectiveness as a carbon reduction strategy, are valid insights that mainstream environmental leaders and their campaign messages continue to miss.

Decentralization is a critical pathway, with major movement underway across the nation and world, that the film also simply fails to acknowledge at all, as if it didn’t exist. In fact, the community energy movement is underway, led by a different breed of environmentalists. Local installation, pairing local generation with local use, with local investment, neighbor-level sharing and cooperatives, and interoperable use and storage of onsite energy, present widely replicable, proven strategies to actually, physically, and enduringly slash carbon emissions.  In fact, of the 100% renewable US cities today, many of them, known as Community Choice Aggregations, are taking just this approach.

The film’s snapshot of green energy is a little old, but so is the propaganda of mainstream environmentalists now (idiotically) calling for Planet of the Humans to be censored from the internet. Community energy programs are focusing on deployments of renewable energy technology to not purchase Renewable Energy Certificates, build green megaprojects or implement Net Energy Metering programs, but to finance and build new local renewable, demand-reducing facilities in the urban core. They are physically building renewable energy, microgrids, urban heat loops, and energy efficiency automation in a way that reduces grid demand rather than merely selling back power to the grid. Not only that: they are focusing on climate equity, customer ownership and sharing, and local job creation, so that the majority, not the select few, can participate in and benefit economically from local renewable energy. These movements, which represent the cutting edge of climate action, are finding ways not merely to add green power to a brown grid, but to physically reduce the need for fossil fuel combustion, and to displace demand for heating and transportation fuels.

None of this is on the radar of Moore’s film, but neither is it clearly distinguished in the minds of mainstream environmental groups that promote 100% clean energy cities.  Environmentalists and lawmakers need to learn to get real about carbon reduction if we are to meet the urgent 2030 deadline recently set by the United Nations. We need to get out of startup mode and into endgame mode, that means a radical physical transformation in three years, not ten, to even come anywhere close to reaching the UN targets by 2030. We need clearer paths to radical decarbonization that overcome the glaring contradictions caused by bogus strategies to green the grid, sell renewable energy and carbon credits, and net meter solar. This is a shift from greening to weaning ourselves from the grid: from additionality to subtractionality of carbon, from carbon taxes and fees to energy equity.  Planet of the Humans may be wrong on the details, but environmental activists would be remiss to ignore its message and maintain the useless fictions of neoliberal environmental policy in the era of climate crisis. In the final analysis, this film is a needed call to arms for the environmental movement to embrace an End Game scenario for climate action, effective immediately. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.


Paul Fenn is the author of CCA 3.0: Achieving Greenhouse Gas Reduction (2020), co-director of the Local Green New Deal (, president of Local Power LLC ( and co-author of Enlightenment in an Age of Destruction (2018). He lives in Massachusetts.


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Our opportunity to end housing poverty

To fix Canada’s affordable housing crisis, we must take out the profit motive, say experts. Can the massive scale of the COVID-19 emergency response shake us out of complacency?

llustration by Maura Doyle

Sometimes it takes one crisis to bring another into the light.

By the end of March, in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic, all of Canada was in a state of emergency and self-quarantine. Thousands of businesses shut down, sending hundreds of thousands of workers home, with or without pay, indefinitely. In one week alone, a million people applied for employment insurance. Canadians with mortgages were struggling to secure deferred payments from the banks. And while some provinces had temporarily banned rental evictions, none had offered to pick up rent payments for those who had lost their income.

How were people supposed to live in these conditions for more than a few weeks? How were they going to afford their rent? A CCPA report in March by political economist Ricardo Tranjan found that of the 3.4 million households who depend on employment or self-employment income to pay their rent, more than 40% have less than one month’s worth of income saved. And of that group, nearly a quarter only have enough savings to last them a week in the event that they lose their income.

Tranjan’s report called on the federal government to provide immediate relief for low-income households through measures like increased rental subsidies, exempting unemployed low-income households from paying rent, or offering a goods and services tax supplement to low-income and unemployed renters. In the short term, these and other immediate actions would put money in the pockets of everyone struggling to pay the bills in a period of rising unemployment and prolonged quarantine.

But the sad truth is, Canada’s housing affordability crisis has been 30 years in the making. In a nation where housing needs drastically outstrip availability in most cities, and where the private sector is unwilling or unable to build more truly affordable units, could the COVID-19 pandemic offer a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to embrace new policies and new partnerships with the non-profit housing sector? Could we not use this moment to fix Canada’s housing crisis for good times and bad?


In January, Ottawa became the first Canadian city to declare a housing and homelessness emergency. In the past two years, average rental prices in the city have risen by 13.5% while vacancy rates are stuck around a relatively low 1.8%. (For comparison, Victoria and Halifax had vacancy rates of 1% in 2019 while in Calgary and Edmonton they were 3.7% and 4.9%.) An average-priced bachelor apartment now goes for $933 a month while provincial disability payments for shelter are stuck at $497 a month. The emergency motion, spearheaded by a group of five Ottawa city councillors, has put a spotlight on these numbers, but the situation it describes will be familiar to many other cities.

Nationally, between 2006 and 2016, the number of actually affordable units on the market (renting below $750 a month) declined by 830,000, according to data from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) Rental Market Survey and the 2011 National Household Survey. In a 2017 paper, Steve Pomeroy, a senior housing policy consultant, noted that new additions to Canada’s rental stock over that same period were typically priced at 140% of the average market rent and therefore did not contribute to the affordable housing supply.

Existing stock is also disappearing fast. Landlords use tactics like personal-use evictions, above-guideline rent increases, “renovictions” (where tenants are removed to upgrade a unit that becomes unaffordable to them when the renovation is finished), and will neglect to repair or maintain units to get rid of current tenants so they can relist the unit at a higher rent. These and other tactics help some landlords get around provincial rent increase guidelines, but they are not the primary driver of average rental price increases. There are simply not enough affordable rental units to go around.

What is core housing need?

Core housing need happens when:

  • major repairs are required and residents don’t have the means to move to a good unit in their community;
  • there are not enough bedrooms for the residents, and they don’t have the means to move;
  • the current home costs more than the residents can afford, and they do not have the means to make a move or find an available affordable home in their community.

Source: Understanding core housing need, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation

A 2019 study by David Macdonald for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, titled Unaccommodating: Rental Wages in Canada, put the affordability crisis into a context everyone can understand. Macdonald set out to determine the minimum hourly wage a person would have to make in order to comfortably afford to rent (using no more than 30% of their income) a one- or two-bedroom apartment in nearly 800 neighbourhoods within Canada’s major cities. The answer: $22.40 an hour for a two-bedroom apartment and just over $20 an hour for an average one-bedroom unit.

These “rental wages” are at least $5 an hour more than the highest provincial minimum wage in Canada ($15 in Alberta). In most Canadian cities, including Canada’s largest metropolitan areas of Toronto and Vancouver, Macdonald found there are no neighbourhoods where it is possible to afford a one- or two-bedroom unit on a single minimum wage, and even people earning much more than that will struggle to find a home they can afford.

Not only is there a woefully inadequate supply of affordable rental stock, but what little stock is available is eroding at alarming rates. CMHC data from 2011 and 2016 show that for every new affordable unit constructed in Ottawa, seven are lost to demolition, reconstruction or raised rents. Slowing and offsetting this erosion will be key to solving Ottawa’s housing affordability crisis and meeting recent federal targets, in the National Housing Strategy, for reducing chronic homelessness and renter housing needs by 50%.


As you might expect, these targets are easier to set than they are to meet, especially with existing affordable housing frameworks and plans at the local and provincial levels. That’s why Ottawa’s downtown city councillors went looking for new ideas as part of their housing emergency motion.

Based on his work at the Centre for Urban Research and Education, they commissioned Pomeroy to produce an in-depth analysis of Ottawa’s 10-year housing and homelessness plan and to suggest new targets and actions the City could take to get back on track. If there is an underlying message to Pomeroy’s study, it is that we cannot rely on the private sector to build all the affordable units we need.

“The private sector is not going to get us out of our housing emergency,” said Ottawa-Centre Councilor Catherine McKenney when I spoke to her in March. “When we talk about affordable housing, supportive housing, social housing, we can’t look at a profit margin. We have to look at a health, social service margin. We have to make sure people are well taken care of and once you put profit into that you will lose that.”

Not only must cities figure out ways to prevent the erosion of existing housing stock—“so that we aren’t losing that affordable stock as property owners and landlords renovate and push out tenants,” said McKenney—but also how to drastically increase the construction of new affordable rental units, preferably by public or non-profit actors and in combination with provincial and federal rental assistance programs, so that people can afford to pay for their homes.

Though Ottawa council is discussing new rental replacement policies and inclusionary zoning rules for affordable units (more on these below), the trick to achieving a more sustainable housing sector, according to Pomeroy, will be to make it easier for non-profits to compete with private developers. That could be done by encouraging and supporting (with financing) non-profit actors to bid on and win contracts to construct and manage mixed-income communities.

We can compare the breakeven rents—the rent needed to cover operating costs, mortgage payments and return on equity—of private builds versus non-profit builds to show why this makes sense. According to a 2019 study prepared by Coriolis Consulting, which outlines strategies for facilitating affordable rental construction in Vancouver, the breakeven rate on private one-bedrooms is between $600 and $1,000 more per unit, depending on the type of unit, than a similar unit built as a non-profit. And of course it would be: no profit, no extra costs to renters or the city.

However, as Pomeroy told me in March, for non-profits to build and maintain affordable housing, they need land, financing and rent supplements. He pointed to Vancouver’s Supportive Housing Strategy as an example of how it could work. In 2007, the City of Vancouver purchased one and leased 11 City-owned sites to non-profit housing sponsors for 60 years, at nominal prepaid rents, for the supply of supportive housing to people who require social supports, such as mental health care or substance abuse counselling, on site.

“That way,” Pomeroy said, “the City continues to own the land, but the non-profits get to lease it for a buck instead of paying full price.”

Once those sites were leased to the non-profits, Vancouver was able to set up a land trust and transfer those properties so they could be held in perpetuity as affordable housing. It is the land trust aspect of the Vancouver plan that McKenney said she will push in Ottawa, where the City has recently identified 18 parcels of land deemed suitable for mixed-income developments.

McKenney’s housing emergency motion is asking council to look at setting up a land trust to hold those lands for non-profit housing developers. But the discussions are moving slowly and there is a risk that private developers will purchase the lands before a trust can be established.

“We’ve seen it happen before where lands have been identified for non-profit and then have been sold by the City,” she told me. “There is absolutely no reason to think that it wouldn’t happen again.”

Building new developments on unused land is important for increasing affordable stock, but it is a very costly thing for non-profits to do. Building takes time and does not stop the erosion of existing affordable rental stock through raised rents. Helping non-profits acquire existing moderate-rent properties so the rents cannot be raised is one way to preserve existing affordable stock.

“What we can do is we can enable the non-profits to behave like private capital funds and real estate investment trusts,” Pomeroy said, suggesting that the way to do so is through an acquisition fund.

The problem is, current federal programs, through the National Housing Strategy, aren’t configured to enable acquisition—they focus on creating new supply and retrofitting existing social housing. And even if these programs did fund acquisition, it takes time to access government funding. When existing properties come on the market, they can be sold within 30 days, making it easy for wealthy private developers to snap them up.

“It’s very, very difficult for the non-profits to compete with that,” Pomeroy said. “We need to…create an intermediate step, some kind of an acquisition fund that could help the non-profits go and buy that property.”

Pomeroy is working on a concept called a revolving loan fund. It would encourage social impact investors and foundations to invest in a fund that would help provide the non-profit housing sector with the capital needed to buy properties. The City of Toronto simply used its own funds to help small non-profits buy existing rooming houses, but that money was given away as a grant.

“When you give it away as a grant, you can only spend it once,” said Pomeroy. “In a revolving loan fund, you can keep spending that money over and over again.”

With Pomeroy’s setup, when a building comes on the market, non-profits could then borrow from the revolving loan fund to supplement their bank loan, and in a few years the fund would get its money back with a modest return. That money could then be spent on another building, and the returns on that building then allow the acquisition of yet another property.

“For all the reasons we know now about the erosion issues and the commodification and the financialization of housing, giving the assets to private developers is not going to preserve affordability in the long run,” he said.


Though policies like inclusionary zoning and rent controlled for income incent private developers to include moderately lower-rent units (at or slightly below market rents) in their developments, these units are not actually affordable in most cases. Rental support subsidies and housing allowances for low-income renters can help bring costs down. But with an estimated 2.4 million Canadian households experiencing core housing need in 2020, according to Macdonald’s assessment, many middle-income households also struggle to find rentals for reasonable prices.

In Ottawa, for example, most new developments rent at up to 180% the market price. Non-profits provide much lower rent-geared-to-income housing. This leaves a gap in the intermediate housing market that could be filled by non-profits—as long as they can find a way to make it cost-effective.

Source: The Rent is Due Soon: Financial Insecurity and COVID-19, Ricardo Tranjan, CCPA, March 2020.

Building and maintaining affordable housing is incredibly difficult for non-profits because deeply affordable units don’t generate enough rent to operate very well, said Pomeroy. “You can’t get the funding to make the program work with 100% really-low-income-targeted [units].”

The way to get around this constraint is to incorporate some units at intermediate rents, from $1,400 to $1,500 a month. This ensures the non-profit builder is stronger financially and at the same time provides housing for middle-income individuals who exist within that intermediate gap—unable to afford 180% market rent, but not in need of deeply affordable housing.

There are considerable spinoff benefits to this model that make it more attractive than status quo inclusionary zoning. Having high- and low-income tenants living in the same community helps create a sense of interconnectedness and merges the worlds of people who typically live in very different neighbourhoods, for example. McKenney said this is especially beneficial for children because they all get exposed to the same opportunities—opportunities not always available in the more isolated Ottawa Community Housing neighbourhoods. “We all need to grow up together,” she said.

On top of the financial hurdles to a larger non-profit role in affordable housing management and creation, there are the bureaucratic barriers. Currently, as soon as a call for applications goes out, every non-profit in the city puts precious time and money into creating a proposal only to have it turned down because there are eight other organizations applying for the same project. For non-profits with limited staff and resources, $50,000 per application is a significant loss.

Pomeroy said a better system could involve asking for expressions of interest instead of putting out a full request for proposals to begin with. Interested groups could then be evaluated according to their ability to develop and manage the project, and then be put on a list for when opportunities arise. Eliminating this competition between non-profits not only saves them time, energy and money, but also helps ensure they are well-equipped to take on the development.


For many housing experts, however, nonprofits are the second-best option, and under current funding conditions not a very good one at that. In early April I spoke to Shauna Mackinnon, associate professor and chair of urban and inner-city studies at the University of Winnipeg and former director of the CCPA-Manitoba, who told me public housing is the most effective way to provide deeply affordable housing to as many people as possible, but there is poor public perception of these programs.

“The public model has been far from perfect, but that’s not because its public—it’s because we’ve starved it,” she said. There have not been any significant new additions to public housing stock in decades and what little stock exists is often in poor repair and typically goes to people in most desperate need. This feeds into the notion of public housing as ghettos, she said.

“The only reason why people get ghettoized in public housing is because there’s not enough public housing. If we had more public housing you would have more variety of people, maybe with low income, but a greater variety of people, not just the most destitute with the most complex lives.”

Nonprofits providing deeply affordable rent-geared-to-income housing require a government subsidy to be able to provide that affordability and still cover their operating costs. For many non-profits these subsidies come from bilateral agreements involving the federal and provincial governments that were signed 35 to 50 years ago and are in many cases about to expire.

According to Sarah Cooper, assistant professor in the Department of City Planning at the University of Manitoba and a CCPA-Manitoba research associate, governments are in no mood today to renew those subsidies, based on a misplaced belief that with mortgages paid off, the nonprofits will be able to maintain the affordable housing on their own. In reality, without those government subsidies many nonprofits have to price some units at market rent or convert to mixed-income communities to make ends meet, which results in the loss of invaluable rent-geared-to-income units, Cooper told me.

Another, more fundamental problem with relying on nonprofits, according to MacKinnon, is their relative lack of transparency and accountability compared to government-run public housing. Nonprofits may or may not be democratically run; some will want to “honour the spirit of housing that is rent geared to income, but they may not, and they may not even actually have any choice because they need to survive as well, so without deep government subsidy they may need to set rents at the market rate.”

Seen from this perspective, the federal and provincial downloading of housing responsibilities to the nonprofit sector is a contributing factor to the affordable housing crisis, not a reality housing advocates need to grudgingly work within. “Their (governments) goal is to basically get it out of their hair and let somebody else deal with it,” MacKinnon said.


Shortly into the COVID-19 crisis, the federal government asked banks to provide some mortgage relief to struggling households; by April, more than 600,000 homeowners had filed applications. Meanwhile, rental relief has been mixed across the country.

Admittedly, homelessness and housing poverty is a more complex problem involving multiple levels of government. But as we throw away the standard policy playbook to deal with the coronavirus’ fallout, and find hundreds of billions of dollars to support struggling businesses and workers, has there ever been a better moment to come together, with some new and some old ideas, to fix Canada’s decades-long affordable housing crisis?

There are good options out there already that Ottawa and other cities can adopt, now and with federal and provincial support, to offset the erosion of affordable housing stock. According to Pomeroy, Ottawa is $22 million short (for 2020-21) of being able to meet its goal of reducing core housing need by 50% and eliminate chronic homelessness by 2024. That amount is an insignificant fraction of what the federal government has put aside so far in emergency benefits programs and tax deferrals.

“Less than 1% of all federal program expenditures are allocated to housing. And if housing is a basic human need, a basic necessity, a human right, then we should be putting more resources to addressing it,” said Pomeroy, adding that if everyone from big city mayors to advocacy groups collectively ran the same message, federal funding increases would follow.

“If anything positive can come from this it will be people understanding that we’re going to get out of this thing because of public investments, because the government is spending a tonne of money right now,” said MacKinnon. “That’s what we need people to start seeing, because its only public pressure that’s going to push us in a different direction…. The reality is we don’t have enough supply that’s low cost for people. And the best way to do that is through the public service.”

As the pandemic continues to unfold, more Canadians will see the disastrous effects of this long-term housing crisis firsthand. The federal government, working with the provinces, territories and municipalities, has a perfect opportunity to fund and prioritize affordable housing, so that future economic shocks are easier to absorb for everyone. SOURCE

Natasha Bulowski is apprenticing at the Monitor from Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication, where she is completing a degree in journalism and human rights.

As a ‘green stimulus’, Pakistan sets virus-idled to work planting trees

The effort shows how funds to help families during the pandemic could also help prepare for the next big threat: climate change

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SLAMABAD, April 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – When construction worker Abdul Rahman lost his job to Pakistan’s coronavirus lockdown, his choices looked stark: resort to begging on the streets or let his family go hungry.

But the government has now given him a better option: Join tens of thousands of other out-of-work labourers in planting billions of trees across the country to deal with climate change threats.

Since Pakistan locked down starting March 23 to try to stem the spread of COVID-19, unemployed day labourers have been given new jobs as “jungle workers”, planting saplings as part of the country’s 10 Billion Tree Tsunami programme.

Such “green stimulus” efforts are an example of how funds that aim to help families and keep the economy running during pandemic shutdowns could also help nations prepare for the next big threat: climate change.

“Due to coronavirus, all the cities have shut down and there is no work. Most of us daily wagers couldn’t earn a living,” Rahman, a resident of Rawalpindi district in Punjab province, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

He now makes 500 rupees ($3) per day planting trees – about half of what he might have made on a good day, but enough to get by.

“All of us now have a way of earning daily wages again to feed our families,” he said.

The ambitious five-year tree-planting programme, which Prime Minister Imran Khan launched in 2018, aims to counter the rising temperatures, flooding, droughts and other extreme weather in the country that scientists link to climate change.


The Global Climate Risk Index 2020, issued by think tank Germanwatch, ranked Pakistan fifth on a list of countries most affected by planetary heating over the last two decades – even though the South Asian nation contributes only a fraction of global greenhouse gases.

As the coronavirus pandemic struck Pakistan, the 10 Billion Trees campaign initially was halted as part of social distancing orders put in place to slow the spread of the virus, which has infected over 13,900 people in Pakistan, according to a Reuters tally.

But earlier this month, the prime minister granted an exemption to allow the forestry agency to restart the programme and create more than 63,600 jobs, according to government officials.

While much of the country is still observing stay-at-home orders, local police and district authorities have been told trucks carrying trees should be allowed to travel and villagers permitted to leave their homes to work with the project.

A recent assessment by the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics found that, due to the lockdown, up to 19 million people could be laid off, almost 70% of them in the Punjab province.

Abdul Muqeet Khan, chief conservator of forests for Rawalpindi district, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the planting project is in “full swing”.

Much of the work is happening on 15,000 acres (6,000 hectares) of land near the capital Islamabad, he said, as well as on other tracts of state-owned forest land around the country.

This year the programme is employing triple the number of workers it did in its first year, said Malik Amin Aslam, climate change advisor to the prime minister.

Many of the new jobs are being created in rural areas, he said, with a focus on hiring women and unemployed daily workers – mainly young people – who were migrating home from locked-down cities.

The work, which pays between 500 rupees and 800 rupees per day, includes setting up nurseries, planting saplings, and serving as forest protection guards or forest firefighters, he said.

All the workers have been told to wear masks and maintain the mandated two metres (six feet) of social distance between them, he added.

“This tragic crisis provided an opportunity and we grabbed it,” Aslam told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.

“Nurturing nature has come to the economic rescue of thousands of people.” MORE

Amid Shutdowns, Youth Climate Activists Are Writing the Curriculum for a Just Economic Recovery

Students across generations are flocking to online crash courses on movement building and the Green New Deal.

n any given weekday before the coronavirus pandemic hit, Michelle Cohen could be found in her Los Angeles office advising students on how to apply for an apprenticeship, or which classes they need to take before earning a high school equivalency diploma. But when public schools in the district shifted to online learning in March, Cohen, who has been an educator for more than 20 years, decided to embrace a new role as a student, in a class led by two instructors who were decades younger than her.

Cohen, who is 53, felt a little uncomfortable at first. Some of the other students in the Zoom classroom were clad in matching pajama sets, sitting knee-to-knee on the floor with siblings, with twin beds and movie posters behind them. “Am I a weirdo?” she asked herself, thinking she could be her classmates’ mother, even grandmother. Eventually, in a breakout room, Cohen was relieved to find that plenty of other adults were in the class, some of whom were older than her.

Sunrise School, as it’s called, is an online training program the youth-led climate activist organization the Sunrise Movement pulled together as soon as it became clear that students would be stuck at home for the spring semester. The group has three levels of online learning experiences designed to train thousands of new leaders in how to push elected officials to pass a Green New Deal.

Cohen enrolled in “The Green New Deal & Coronavirus Crash Course,” an intro class, and showed up every day at 6 p.m. for the four sessions. Amid California’s shelter-in-place order, it felt good to see the same group of people every night, dialing in from across the U.S. and Canada. Her teachers, Genai Lewis and Simon Metcalf, both in their mid-20s, explained what the class would cover with a set of minimalist slides splashed with text and borders in the yellow, black, and white customary of the Sunrise Movement’s T-shirts and protest banners.

Students were asked to analyze a black-and-white photo of a bread line, and to list some of the programs that emerged from the Great Depression, such as Social Security and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Metcalf went on to highlight some of the parallels between the economic fallout of the 1930s and that unfolding in 2020, including unemployment rates between 25% and 30%. The Green New Deal has the potential to jumpstart the economy through green infrastructure projects that employ people on a similar scale as The New Deal, Metcalf explained, though it will take massive political pressure if it is to be an equitable suite of policies. “There was a lot of racism in the original New Deal,” he says, pointing to how the Federal Housing Authority pioneered redlining.

The class dove into the legislative process, too, Cohen recalls. “They taught me about what an ‘appetizer bill’ is,” she says, referring to how programs that rose out of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first 100 days in office in 1933, known as the First New Deal, were far less progressive than those introduced as part of the Second New Deal in 1935 and 1936. “You can’t throw everything you want into the first bill,” Cohen sums up.

An Education in Activism Online

The Sunrise Movement isn’t the only youth-led climate group bringing lectures, homework, and pop quizzes to the screens and smartphones we’re all glued to. Fridays For Future, the youth climate action group founded by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, has hosted regular Friday digital strikes and webinars featuring the likes of activist and award-winning writer Naomi Klein. And the BIPOC-led youth activist group Zero Hour has put out podcasts focused on a new theme each week aiming to call attention to the root causes of the climate crisis.

The lessons these groups are creating appear to be in high demand. According to Aru Shiney-Ajay, the Sunrise Movement’s training director, the group expected about 600 students for the first session of the crash course Cohen completed in March. As it turned out, 3,500 people signed up. At the time of this writing, 10,000 people have completed a Sunrise School course.

Digital organizing has also served as an outlet for young activists who are antsy and anxious at home. Yolian Ogbu is a 20-year-old political science major and part of Zero Hour’s operations team. Amid the lockdown in Denton, Texas, Ogbu says, focusing on school has become nearly impossible. “I’m sitting here doing essays thinking about my parents that have to go to work every day, because they’re considered essential, and not get paid hardly anything to put their lives on the line,” she says. Her mother works as a nurse, and her father is a truck driver.

What Ogbu does have brain space and energy for, she says, is jumping on Slack or Zoom to connect with other organizers. As a result of collaborations with Zero Hour members across the country, the internet is exploding with webinars, Tik-Tok videos, Facebook Live events, Instagram infographics, and podcasts that tackle themes such as environmental racism and patriarchy. “We like to make content that is easily digestible,” she says. Making it entertaining helps, too. “As a Black, immigrant college student who is first generation, we look at our traumas through a lens of humor.”

On a recent Zero Hour webinar, for example, 20-year-old co-host Sam Arechiga took a question from an anonymous participant on how colonialism has contributed to the climate crisis. Arechiga boiled down her mini-lecture into one core concept: “Capitalism has tried to alienate us from nature and… anyone who disagrees can … fight me,” she said, laughing. The presentation Arechiga co-led broke down definitions of “missionary colonialism” versus “settler colonialism.” Co-host Ethan Wright, also 20, pointed out how the education system has been colonized too: English is the primary mode of instruction, for example, which has contributed to the loss of first languages for migrant and Indigenous students.

Much like Sunrise School, Zero Hour webinars have attracted a diverse audience. Thirty-five-year-old Rebecca Ersek dialed into the colonialism webinar from Delaware. Ersek is new to activism. She joined a climate strike in September, which was her first protest. Now that she’s stuck at home from her job at an industrial pump company, she’s logged into as many Zero Hour webinars as her schedule allows. “I never had any classes about climate change, let alone the various structures of oppression of the systems we live in and how it’s used to uphold the power of the elite few,” she said in a Facebook message. She thinks the format of the presentations has been effective, too: the sharp colors, the layout, and how much ground the young co-facilitators cover in the course of an hour. “I have so much more to learn, and making [the webinars] accessible to everyone the way Zero Hour does is sacred work,” she wrote.

Doing the Work While Staying Apart

Difficult conversations have taken place in these spaces, on topics that don’t traditionally arise in the halls of an algebra or AP biology class. During a Sunrise School session in April, younger participants mentioned the impression that older people don’t care about climate change because they won’t live to see the worst of it. This sparked a flurry of frustrated comments from older participants, some of whom implored younger people to stop with the stereotypes. “I really dislike the ‘OK boomer’ meme; I think it’s hurtful and misleading,” wrote one participant, prompting a conversation about the importance of building an intergenerational movement.

In the Zero Hour webinar on colonialism, one participant asked whether they were personally complicit in climate breakdown because they worked on Wall Street, a job they had worked hard to earn. Arechiga didn’t skip a beat. “Yes,” she said. Instead of seeing other people as obstacles that we need to “beat” to be successful, we need to shift our mentality, she explained. “We have to question the work that we put into this wealth.” She then gave participants a reading list on the topic, which included an article on the three pillars of white supremacy; Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth; and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

For Ersek, the budding activist, the political education she’s gotten from Zero Hour has shaken her up. “Seeing the work these young folks are doing is so inspiring that I cannot just keep on with business as usual,” she wrote. Within the year, she has plans to leave her job and move from Delaware to Minnesota, where she’ll join efforts to fight Line 3, an oil pipeline rerouted to transport oil from Alberta to the western tip of Lake Superior. Cohen, too, has gotten more involved with Sunrise; she now plans to organize climate-concerned teachers in her union to show up for direct actions aimed at pressuring lawmakers to pass a Green New Deal.

Since Ogbu has been stuck at home, in addition to her work with Zero Hour, she has helped organize a rent strike in her town, supported her mother in securing hazard pay, and rallied support for a general strike on May 1 to demand health care and economic security for everyone who lives in the U.S. “Organizing is intertwined with our survival as a people, and that can’t take a back seat,” she says. “I finally feel like that is being heard more across a bigger platform.” SOURCE

LEANNA FIRST-ARAI is an educator and writer intent on bringing awareness to the connections between climate breakdown and economic & racial injustice.

Will Civilization’s Response to COVID-19 Lead to a More Sustainable, Equitable World?

What better time to shift our thinking and actions away from a hyperconsumptive, inequality-widening, environmentally-detrimental era than the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.

Having been shaken to our collective core by the COVID19 pandemic, can we muster the will to make major changes in how we rebuild our systems, to truly transform how we function as a society for the betterment of Earth and her inhabitants? What cause is more just, fair, and wise? And what time is better to shift our thinking away from a hyperconsumptive, inequality-widening, environmentally-detrimental era in which we find ourselves – the Anthropocene – than the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the 22nd of April 2020?

A proposition has been coalescing in my mind for years, but drew strength from recent essays by notable thinkers, which I’ll briefly mention for context.

Humanizing Capitalism

Meghan Kallman pleads that “Crises require a radical form of solidarity.” as she questions whether a capitalist system can address the looming threats of climate change, and more importantly prioritize social relationships above the search for wealth. Her perspectives on how these relationships germinate best at the community level are encouraging.

Darren Walker summarizes the August 2019 statement emanating from 181 CEOs of the Business Roundtable:  “…leading the way toward a more equitable, humane, and democratic economic system…” (because in the U.S.) “…the three richest Americans collectively own about as much as the bottom half of the population combined…” This group is attempting to redefine the purpose of a corporation, committing to “…lead[ing] their companies for the benefit of all stakeholders – customers, employees, suppliers, communities, and shareholders.”

Nate Hagens writes that COVID-19 “exposes economic, cultural, environmental fallacies” of our existence, suggesting we all become more compassionate in our work, play, and interactions. I applaud his many suggestions for individual action.

Reallocating Resources

Perhaps the strongest stimulus for clarifying my thoughts is Paul Erhlich’s recent essay linking the current pandemic to “planetary reckoning”, where proposes a path forward. He briefly addresses how we might get off the “perpetual growth” trajectory, while searching for solutions in reallocated military budgets.

These four, forward-looking thinkers, along with hundreds more, have outlined pathways forward. One can read daily about amazing individuals and groups applying innovative actions to the wicked problems we face. To list only a few organizations making a difference:  Mayo Clinic, Direct Relief, Girls Who Code, The Nature Conservancy, Water Utility Climate Alliance, Pew Charitable Trusts …

To implement transformational changes, we need to constructively alter the hyperconsumptive system operating in the U.S., and other prosperous nations, by making major structural changes in our government and our economy to benefit our society. Unfortunately, many individuals, corporations, and nations rely on economic indicators focused solely on measures of growth as a barometer on society’s well-being, which feeds the collective, consumptive dragon. Precious few reimagine a global economy guided by principles of sustainability, equity, and ecology along with appropriate metrics to measure performance. What I propose here, are a few ways to change the missions of our institutions to have more sane, adaptive, and sustainable roles, with an immediate focus on one primary change, reallocating the military’s organization and spending. Of all the many possible choices, this one might be the most palatable although it will Military capabilities, of which there are many (recent examples include their 2017 prediction of a novel influenza virus, and their preparatory work for protecting military bases from threats of climate change), managed by a democratically-elected government, could be transformed into a series of “Response Corps”. The staggering monetary and human resources expended in military budgets (+/- $1B/yr) could be shifted to focus more on urgent and future humanitarian and environmental needs – particularly on events overwhelming local entities – such as broadly-based emergencies and contingencies (natural disasters, epidemics or epizootics, structural inequalities, and environmental catastrophes).

People in the military are valued members of society. They have families, needs, and dreams. Their jobs are to serve their fellow citizens, embracing tasks often outside the capability of the average person, unless similarly trained and directed. Fighting offensively or defensively to defeat an enemy with destructive intent, might be what comes to mind. What if defense of our nation and her allies was one of, but not the primary mission of these “soldiers”? Better yet, let’s broaden what “defense” of the nation means for the Department of Defense and for us.

Precedents do exist. The National Guard is called upon to assist the citizenry in times of need, such as riots, but more commonly these days for – floods, hurricanes, wildfires – all of which are tied in part to shifts away from climate “norms”. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers applies their expertise to managing rivers, bays, and harbors, and to build structures needed by the fighting force (bridges, encampments, roads). The U.S. Coast Guard does exactly that – guard the coast – enforcing the laws and regulations governing access to and use of coastal waters, but they also assist commercial and recreational boaters. These branches of government are fairly well prepared to make immediate responses to emergencies and disasters, perhaps less well prepared for pandemics.

So how can we expand upon their respective missions? Let’s look for options by considering two examples. Near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, a high concentration of U.S. Navy ships and facilities coexists with the urban center of Hampton Roads, Virginia. They are equally threatened by accelerating sea level rise and extreme storm surges. The Army Corps’ expertise in managing harbors and rivers is highly relevant here, but they could become more collaborative. I know actions against such coastal threats are occurring, but I can only assume close coordination among entities is taking place – is it? Concurrently, the megadrought of the arid Southwest is affecting urban centers, rural agriculture, and expansive military bases 2,000 miles to the west. Here, the military should be at the forefront of developing renewable energy sources (solar and wind) and conserving water resources in this region, both for their own use and to justify their occupancy of extensive public lands. I can imagine joint ventures on military lands between private manufacturers of solar arrays and wind generators and public utilities. Is this happening?

If service to geographically-dispersed, urgent needs became the missions of tailored “Response Corps”, I for one would be more supportive of allocating public funds for those tasks. Funding quite a few less costly weapon systems and directing those limited public funds toward humanitarian and environmental crises might resonate widely through the populace. What is possible?

Preparing for climate change and threats to infrastructure are long-term security concerns of the Department of Defense, but these should be raised to higher and more collaborative priorities in the military’s portfolio. Consistent collaboration among pertinent stakeholders is key to successful international, national, and regional coordination when addressing difficult issues. Let’s review one example of how to successfully organize more effective public-private partnerships. For over half a century, an annual assessment of migratory waterfowl populations has occurred for four “flyways” (Atlantic, Central, Mountain, Pacific) across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Although primary activities revolve around setting hunting seasons and bag limits, the overall intent is to insure the long-term conservation of these birds. Councils comprised of experts from national, provincial, and state resource agencies, along with relevant non-profit organizations, conduct these assessments from spring through summer then negotiate final decisions for the fall harvest. This is a massive, science-based undertaking with a strong record of success year after year. Could it be a template for future collaborations designed to build resilient capacities into our food, water, energy, and social systems?

We need to pay as much attention to conserving and restoring the connectivity of the natural infrastructure (agricultural landscapes, river corridors, working waterfronts, land corridors through diverse ecosystems) as we do for the built infrastructure (regional electrical grids, water systems, roadways). For example:

      • if we are smarter about restoring brownfields and depauperate urban neighborhoods (create a new Urban Corps with architectural and agricultural expertise),
      • if we organize public-private partnerships to repair mistakes of our past transportation and energy activities (push for collaboration among the Army Corps, Federal Highway Administration, Department of Energy),
      • if we conserve coastal habitats and mitigate storm damage (create a new Conservation Corps, working in collaboration with the Fish and Wildlife Service, Army Corps, Coast Guard),
      • if we adapt existing military-associated units to prepare for and respond to widespread medical emergencies and regional natural disasters (National Guard, FEMA),
      • if we create several well-trained Response Corps for food security, cybersecurity, and children’s health and safety,

then we can create a more coherent whole for society.

We need sustainable strategies and actions to promote resilience in all spheres of our lives. To accomplish transformative shifts in priorities, we need input from scientists and technicians, engineers and contractors, doctors and nurses, agriculturists and urban planners, ethicists and spiritualists, economists and financial managers, diplomats and politicians, and beyond. We want innovative and pragmatic voices at the table. These are the “troops” we need to rally – soon.

As we emerge from conquering this threatening pandemic, let us embrace our heightened sense of community and reinvent our lives, sustainably and equitably. Perhaps we can begin by reimagining the “defense” of our nation, its lands and waters, and its people, by adapting missions and creating corps with the capabilities and preparedness of the military. With awareness of our intentions, and management of our actions, we can find and follow multiple pathways to creating, conserving, and restoring healthy, livable communities. As Wendell Berry, the renown American poet and environmentalist, wrote, “Earth is what we all have in common.SOURCE

Robert P. Brooks is Professor Emeritus in Geography and Ecology, and Director Emeritus of Riparia at the Pennsylvania State University. His work spans the realm of wetlands and aquatic ecosystems, and he continues to work with an array of institutions, agencies, corporations, utilities, citizen groups, and individuals to address natural resource issues, deliver information, and solve environmental problems.


False Solutions to Climate Change: Part 1, Electricity

Teaser photo credit: Georg Slickers, selbst fotografiert / taken by myself, Heizkraftwerk Mitte (combined heat and power power plant), in front the river Spree, Berlin-Mitte, Germany

It’s become increasingly clear that climate change is not only real but beginning to bite. Now that much of the population is finally feeling the urgency—and during a time when COVID19  has much of our frenetic commerce on hold, giving us a space for thinking and discussion–what can we do to protect the only planet we’ve got? Unfortunately a good many of the solutions on offer seem designed to quiet the increasing concern, the impetus to do something, without challenging the status quo.

Can we get real solutions and still maintain economic growth, population growth, and the growth of inequality? Are we entitled to an ever-rising standard of living? I believe the answer is no; we need some profound transformations if we are to leave our grandchildren a planet that resembles the one we grew up on, rather than a dystopian Hell world.  This is the basic theme of the controversial Michael Moore produced film Planet of the Humans. I see that film as seriously flawed, but agree with its basic message—that it’s time for humanity to grow up and accept limits, get over what I call human exceptionalism, or androtheism—the notion that man is God.

A veritable cornucopia of false solutions is being pushed these days, not only by corporations and think tanks but by the UN’s IPCC, the international body responsible for research and action on climate.  We could have made a gentle transition if we had begun when we first became aware of this problem decades ago, but for various reasons we did not. There is no time left for barking up one wrong tree after another; no time to waste in false solutions. Hence this series pointing out the fallacies behind such proposals as electrifying everything, carbon trading, geoengineering or switching to “gas—the clean energy fuel!”

I’ve divided the issue into sectors: electricity generation, transportation, agriculture, buildings, and then there are two sections on false solutions that aren’t part of an energy sector—geoengineering schemes, and some other policy options. Finally, we look at real solutions. I am not an expert on anything except maybe gardening, so my hope is to spur discussion.

Part 1: Electricity

Many discussions about solutions to climate change focus on switching from coal, oil and gas to solar, wind, and hydropower…maybe geothermal. But the generation of electricity is only about 20% of energy use. So even if we made a complete switch to those renewable energy systems, we would still also need transformations in transportation, agriculture, buildings, and the materials sector. We’ll go into each of those in separate essays, but we do need to note that the solution usually proffered for transportation is to electrify cars and perhaps trucks; some claim we could even electrify small planes. But then we’d need to generate even more renewable electricity.

Putting that aside, is it possible to switch all of our current generating facilities, now running on fossil fuels or nuclear power, to clean sources? We have to take into account that a sizable part of the human population still lacks any access to electricity, and most people feel that simple justice requires allowing them to increase their energy use to some decent minimum. Thus we need to replace maybe 125% of today’s generation capacity, to maintain current usage levels while adding this impoverished sector.Right away we must deal with the notion that we must have endless economic growth; that any time in which a nation’s GDP has not grown is a bad year and something must be done; that a generation which does not have a higher standard of living than its parents has been ripped off. I’d like to just dispense with the eternal growth notion as being obviously impossible—as Kenneth Boulding said, “anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.” Yet to question it is considered radical; no politician dares to call for a steady state economy.

But even if we put aside the demands of mad economists and fearful politicians and call for the simple replacement of all of today’s generating facilities with renewable energy stations, with no growth and without adding more for electrifying transportation—is that possible? There are a number of problems. First of all, the one most talked about: the intermittency of solar and wind energy. If we assume that we must, at all costs, have available to us at all times as much electricity as we want, then we must build a renewable system with several times its nameplate capacity, so that there is power stored somewhere to make up for a place and time with no wind and cloudy skies. Storage options have improved considerably in recent years, but not enough to overcome this problem.

Before we look into the issues with the huge buildout of solar panels, windmills and batteries that a complete “Unplug/Replug” solution would entail, we must dispense, at long last, with the notion that we can solve the problem of carbon emissions from fossil fuels with…a fossil fuel. No, natural gas is not a “bridge to a renewable energy future”…it’s no longer cheaper to build new gas plants than the wind and solar plants that are supposed to be on the other side of the bridge, and there is plenty of evidence that when you consider all the methane leaks from gas, all along the supply chain from the well to the furnace, it is no better than coal in climate terms. Howarth and Ingraffea have done several studies on this question. And Oil Change International came out with a report suggesting that even if the leakage problem were solved, it makes no sense to build new gas plants.

Nuclear power is another sticky ball of wax, with many people clinging to it as a solution. It is much better than fossil fuels in climate terms. But no one has ever come up with an acceptable solution to the problem of safe disposal of radioactive waste. And nuclear power plants are subject to horrific accidents; potentially they could also create attractive targets for terrorists. And the supply of uranium is limited, and mining it is harmful locally. Some talk about new generation nukes that might not have these problems but there are none of these magical plants yet operating, and we need solutions now. The time it takes to commission and construct a nuclear power plant, and the expense, are more reasons to discard this idea. Further, nuclear power is not “dispatchable,” meaning you can’t quickly gear it up and down to complement intermittent solar and wind.

Another false solution is to go ahead and burn coal or gas but capture and sequester the carbon dioxide emissions. The problems here are that it’s more expensive, it’s unproven at scale, and this equipment makes the plant so much less efficient that you need to burn approximately 30% more coal to generate the same power—and you then have to deliver the captured CO2 to the site you hope will sequester it more or less forever. It would be a lot cheaper just to switch to renewables—and their fuel source is not going to run out.

However, it seems doubtful that we can just build enough solar panels, windmills, batteries, and high voltage power lines to replace today’s fossil fuel plants, even ignoring the proposed replacement of internal combustion cars with electric ones, and the growth demanded by mad economists. To begin with, production of solar panels, and the steel and other components  of windmills takes a great deal of energy; since only a small part of our grid is renewable now, the energy for this major construction binge must come from fossil fuels. Won’t this surge of emissions push us right over the line into climate catastrophe?

Let me dispense with the claim that wind or solar energy take more energy to construct than they’ll ever deliver. This is not true. But the massive buildout that would be required if we attempted to replace all of our current fossil fuel infrastructure with renewables is dangerous when we are already teetering on the precipice of massive climate feedbacks that could spiral out of control.

There are arguments that replacing the energy-dense fossil fuels with renewables would require an enormous amount of land. Then there is the problem of acquiring materials necessary to windmills (neodymium) and batteries (cobalt, lithium) and other parts (copper). Some of these materials are found primarily in a few places in the world; it’s speculated, for example, that the major lithium fields in Bolivia might have something to do with the recent coup. Cobalt comes just about entirely from the misnamed Democratic Republic of Congo—where it’s mined under horrific conditions, often by children. Thus, environmental and human rights abuses in the underdeveloped world may be paying for the perpetuation of a high-tech, energy-intensive lifestyle in the overdeveloped world.

Let us be very clear. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t build solar and wind power plants. In fact, we should be stepping up production. We have to be realistic about it, though. Attempting to keep up the current wasteful level of energy use and consumption (the current level in the “first world” that is) has unacceptable costs. We need to increase efficiency where we can, but we also need to face up to the end of a way of life which has never been very satisfying, and accept a lower impact. For example, we can choose not to wash clothes or use a lot of other power at times when there has been no sun or wind, living within ecological limits in harmony with the weather, rather than insisting that as humans we are entitled to ride above any limits. Consider–every generation in human history somehow lived without any electricity, until a mere century ago. It’s time for us to grow up, accept limits, and make plans that take everyone’s well-being into account.



I want to grow healthy food for you, here is what’s stopping me

Garlic on farm truck

I was recently asked what motivates us to raise poultry and grow fruits and vegetables on our small, family farm in Iowa. Aside from our love for growing green things and caring for animals, I realized that my answer could be boiled down to the simple idea that we care about the well-being of the people in our communities and the environment that surrounds us.

My spouse, Tammy, and I founded the Genuine Faux Farm in 2004 with the idea that we would produce healthy food for the local markets.

Farming is difficult, and there are numerous challenges that come with the job. But, we are willing to face the natural risk that one (or all) of weather, pests, weeds and diseases may cause problems.  We are fine with ‘signing up’ to wind our way through the maze that is marketing, and we will even accept that we must make adjustments for a changing climate.

However, the one thing that has threatened our survival as a farm the most was something we did not consider when we started – off target applications of herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides.

Chemical misapplications – food growers lose

In 2012, a spray plane flew over a neighboring soybean field, applying a combination of insecticides and fungicides in the early evening on a Friday.  I was outside checking on the poultry and taking a few photos for record keeping when the plane roared directly overhead.  I felt drops of liquid as it passed by, and I realized we were about to experience our worst fear for our farm.

Plane spraying pesticides

The plane took multiple passes over half of the farm, failing to turn off the spray on each pass.  The spray landed on our turkey and hen flocks.  The high tunnel, our most productive field, and a native area we treasured as pollinator habitat were in the flight path.

To make a long story less long, we navigated the process of reporting the event to the Iowa Pesticide Bureau and our organic certifier.  We secured testing to determine if our vegetable crops would be safe for consumption.  They were not, so we destroyed all of the crops in the spray zone. We moved the poultry out of the spray zone and opted not to sell eggs for three months, destroying those as well.  I sought medical attention for breathing problems in the days that followed and noticed that I was getting sunburned easily.  Both symptoms were listed as possible acute reactions for exposure to two of the chemicals.

This off-target application (and other less serious drift events since that time) have encouraged me to think hard about this problem. I have come to a few conclusions.

This is about food safety

The vast majority of herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides listed for use on row crops are not intended for fruits and vegetables grown for direct human consumption. Fresh produce is not considered safe if there are detectable amounts of these chemicals over a certain threshold level.  For those chemicals that might be rated for fresh produce there is a ‘set-back’ period, during which time the product is not considered safe. Unfortunately, drift from row crops is usually not timed to match the set-back period prior to anticipated harvest of the food crop.

This puts the food grower into an untenable position. If the grower opts to sell the product anyway, and someone becomes ill, it is up to the grower to deal with the liability that might follow. Most farms, like ours, are concerned about the well-being of their customers and they would not consider this first alternative. Meanwhile, the significant monetary cost and delays in test results means growers aren’t likely to get results in time to sell the crop, even if it is negative.

For most farmers, the only real choice that can be made is to destroy the crop.

This is about worker safety

Small-scale and diversified farms often rely on farm workers to accomplish the tasks necessary to raise the products they sell. Our farm tends to hire seasonal employees who are out of high school or college for the summer months. If the weather is ‘nice enough’ to spray, then it is highly probable that we will be outside with our crew performing farm tasks.

Farms like ours care about their workers’ health. We recognize that these are the sons and daughters of people in our communities. If there is a chemical application nearby and the wind is heading our way, we pull our workers out of the field. If we are lucky, we can move them to another location on the farm. If not, the work simply does not get done. It does not make sense that one business should halt operation at the whim of another.

But, again, the only real choice is to protect our people.

This is about environmental impact and the future of growing food

Our farm relies heavily on the services nature provides. We consider our pollinators to be an important workforce that needs to be paid with appropriate habitat and food sources. Our crops do best in healthy soils with a diverse microbiome to support germination and proper growth.

The continued over-use and off-target applications of pesticides are negatively impacting the environment in which we grow your food.  We have noticed spotty germination of many of our direct-seeded crops that cannot be attributed to the seed or natural causes, but are consistent with herbicide residual effects. We have observed inhibited plant growth in our peppers, tomatoes and squash, indicating the likelihood of dicamba drift damage.

It seems that our only choice is to stop growing.

We still want to grow food for our community

Despite everything, we still intend to raise poultry and produce for people in our surrounding communities. But, our stamina is not what it once was. Farms like ours need help if they are to survive. Part of the help can come in the form of changes to our policies surrounding the application and use of pesticides.

So, what can we do? Here are five suggestions:

  1. Make it easier for farmers to test for pesticides on food crops.

  2. Provide tools for efficient reporting of drift events.

  3. Get pesticide applicators to carry more of the responsibility for communication with neighbors.

  4. Increase penalties to levels that serve as a disincentive for improper pesticide application.

  5. Encourage the EPA to raise the bar for pesticides that can be approved for use.

  6. Build a future where farmers are not reliant on chemical-intensive agriculture.

ROB FAUX, Apr 30, 2020

A Bomb in the Center of the Climate Movement’: Michael Moore Damages Our Most Important Goal

It hurts to be personally attacked in a movie. It hurts more to see a movement divided

Jeff Chiu/AP/Shutterstock; Craig Lassig/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

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

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

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


But it didn’t. Perhaps because everyone’s at home with not much to do, lots of people watched it — millions by some counts. And I began to hear from them. Here’s an email that arrived first thing Earth Day morning: “Happy Dead Earth Day. Time’s up Bill. You have been outed for fraud. What a MASSIVE disappointment you are. Sell out. Hypocrite beyond imagination. Biomass bullshit seller. Forest destroyer. How is it possible you have led all of us down the same death trap road of false hope? The YOUTH! How dare you! Shame on you!” More followed, to say the least. (If you’re wondering whether it hurts to get this kind of email, the answer is yes. In a time of a pandemic, it’s hard to feel too much self-pity, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to read someone accusing you of betraying your own life’s work.)

Basically, Moore and his colleagues have made a film attacking renewable energy as a sham and arguing that the environmental movement is just a tool of corporations trying to make money off green energy. “One of the most dangerous things right now is the illusion that alternative technologies, like wind and solar, are somehow different from fossil fuels,” Ozzie Zehner, one of the film’s producers, tells the camera. When visiting a solar facility, he insists: “You use more fossil fuels to do this than you’re getting benefit from it. You would have been better off just burning the fossil fuels.”

That’s not true, not in the least — the time it takes for a solar panel to pay back the energy used to build it is well under four years. Since it lasts three decades, it means 90 percent of the power it produces is pollution-free, compared with zero percent of the power from burning fossil fuels. It turns out that pretty much everything else about the movie was wrong — there have been at least 24 debunkings, many of them painfully rigorous; as one scientist wrote in a particularly scathing takedown, “Planet of the Humans is deeply useless. Watch anything else.” Moore’s fellow filmmaker Josh Fox, in an epic unraveling of the film’s endless lies, got in one of the best shots: “Releasing this on the eve of Earth Day’s 50th anniversary is like Bernie Sanders endorsing Donald Trump while chugging hydroxychloroquine.”


Here’s long-time solar activist (and, oh yeah, the guy who wrote “Heart of Gold“) Neil Young: “The amount of damage this film tries to create (succeeding in the VERY short term) will ultimately bring light to the real facts, which are turning up everywhere in response to Michael Moore’s new erroneous and headline grabbing TV publicity tour of misinformation. A very damaging film to the human struggle for a better way of living, Moore’s film completely destroys whatever reputation he has earned so far.”

But enough about the future of humanity. Let’s talk about me, since I got to be the stand-in for “corporate environmentalism” for much of the film. Cherry-picking a few clips culled from the approximately ten zillion interviews, speeches, and panels I’ve engaged in these past decades, the filmmaker made two basic points. One, that I was a big proponent of biomass energy — that is, burning trees to generate power. Two, that I was a key part of “green capitalism,” trying somehow to profit from selling people on the false promise of solar and wind power.

The first has at least a kernel of — not truth, but history. Almost two decades ago, wonderful students at the rural Vermont college where I teach proposed that the oil-burning heat plant be replaced with one that burned woodchips. I thought it was a good idea, and when it finally came to pass in 2009, I spoke at its inauguration. This was not a weird idea — at the time, most environmentalists thought likewise, because as new trees grow back in place of the ones that have been cut, they will soak up the carbon released in the burning. “At that point I would have done the same,” Bill Moomaw, who is one of the most eminent researchers in the field, put it. “Because we hadn’t done the math yet.” But as scientists did begin to do the math, a different truth emerged: Burning trees put a puff of carbon into air now, which is when the climate system is breaking. That this carbon may be sucked up a generation hence is therefore not much help. And as that science emerged, I changed my mind, becoming an outspoken opponent of biomass. (Something else happened too: the efficiency of solar and wind power soared, meaning there was ever less need to burn anything. The film’s attacks on renewable energy are antique, dating from a decade ago, when a solar panel cost 10 times what it does today; engineers have since done their job, making renewable energy the cheapest way to generate power on our planet.)


As for the second charge, it’s simply a lie — indeed, it’s the kind of breathtaking black-is-white lie that’s come to characterize our public life at least since Vietnam veteran John Kerry was accused by the right wing of committing treason. I have never taken a penny from green energy companies or mutual funds or anyone else with a role in these fights. I’ve never been paid by environmental groups either, not even, which I founded and which I’ve given all I have to give. I’ve written books and given endless talks challenging the prevailing ideas about economic growth, and I’ve run campaigns designed entirely to cut consumption.

Let me speak as plainly as I know how. When it comes to me, it’s not that Planet of the Humans overstates the case, or gets it partly wrong, or opens an argument worth having: it is a sewer. I’ll finish with just the smallest example: In the credits, it defensively claims that I began opposing biomass only last year, in response to news of this film. In fact, as we wrote the filmmakers on numerous occasions, I’ve been on the record about the topic for years. Here, for instance, is a piece from 2016 with the not very subtle title “Burning Trees for Electricity Is a Bad Idea.” Please read it. When you do, you will see that the filmmakers didn’t just engage in bad journalism (though they surely did), they acted in bad faith. They didn’t just behave dishonestly (though they surely did), they behaved dishonorably. I’m aware that in our current salty era those words may sound mild, but in my lexicon they are the strongest possible epithets.

A reasonable question: Given that the film has been so thoroughly debunked, can it really cause problems?

I’ve spent the past three decades, ever since I wrote The End of Nature at the age of 28, deeply committed to realism: no fantasy, no spin, no wish will help us deal with the basic molecular structure of carbon dioxide. That commitment to reality has to carry over into every part of one’s life. So, realistically, most of the millions of people who watch this film will not read the careful debunkings. Most of them will assume, in the way we all do when we watch something, that there must be something there, it must be half true anyway. (That’s why propaganda is effective). To give one more small example from my email, here’s a note I received the other day:


Stop killing trees you lying murderer.  

Forests are life.  you are killing us all.  

You can change your stance and turn back the tide of destruction you unleashed… or perhaps just go throw yourself in a fire and go down as one of the worst humans to ever exist.  

Straight up evil. 

When I wrote back (and I always write back, as politely as I know how), explaining what I’ve explained in this essay, the writer’s reply was: “I have read your dribble and am glad someone has finally called you out for the puppet you are.”

I don’t think most people are that mean-spirited (or maybe I just hope not) and of course dozens of friends within the climate movement wrote to express their solidarity and love. But I have no doubt that many of the people who’ve seen the film are, at the least, disheartened. Here’s what one hard-working climate activist wrote me from Montana: “The problem is, this movie is all over the place and is already causing divisions and conflicts in climate action groups that I’m involved in — it’s like they detonated a bomb in the center of the climate action movement.” Which I’m sure is true (and I’m sure it’s why the film has been so well-received at Breitbart and every other climate-denier operation on the planet).

Which may well mean that for now — maybe for a long time — my work will be at least somewhat compromised and less effective, because my work is mostly about trying to build that movement, to make it larger and more unified. Yes, there are days (and more of them than I would have expected) when it’s about going to jail, but mostly it’s been a long, long process of reaching out and talking to groups and people — helping them raise consciousness (and sometimes helping them raise money). I’ve spent a very large percentage of my life in high school auditoriums and at Rotary lunches; I’ve traveled to every corner of the world, and in recent years, as the technology improved, I’ve traveled too by low-carbon Skype and Zoom. (Pandemic communications is old-school to me; for some reason I now forget, my invaluable colleague Vanessa Arcara assembled a list of the virtual talks I gave in one stretch of 2015-16, which will give you a sense of what my days are like). But if those visits and talks end up igniting suspicion and controversy, then they’re obviously less useful. I want to help important organizing, not disrupt it.


I’m used to attacks, of course. The oil industry has been after me for decades, and some of their tactics have been far worse than Moore’s — the period when they assigned videographers to literally follow me whenever I set out the door was another low point in my life, but I didn’t complain until it seemed like they were doing the same to my daughter. I’ve gotten used to an endless and creative series of death threats — each one jolts you for a moment, but clearly, since I’m still here, most of them are not serious. And again, I’ve only complained once, when they were bandying about my home address and particular methods of execution on well-trafficked websites. But those kind of attacks don’t confuse and divide environmentalists; if anything, they do the opposite. They’re a punch in the nose, which turns out to be far less damaging than a stab in the back.

And I think this leads to the larger point, about what’s useful for movements and what isn’t.

I’m going to begin by boasting for a moment, if only to make myself feel a little better: Here’s what I’d like people to recall from my work these past years, as opposed to the notion that I am a forest-raping sellout. See if you can figure out what every item on this short list has in common.

      • My role in helping found and build an actual climate movement. I decided at a certain point that we weren’t in an argument over global warming (we’d won that), but that we were in a fight. And the other side — the fossil fuel industry — was so powerful they were going to win unless we built some power of our own. Hence my decision to go beyond writing and to try to learn how to organize. In 2007, with my seven original undergraduate collaborators, we formed Step It Up and found people to organize 1,500 simultaneous demonstrations across the U.S.; two years later, at the start of, the numbers were 5,200 rallies in 181 countries.
      • My role in helping nationalize the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline, and in the process lay the seedbed for much of the ‘keep it in the ground’ work that has led to challenges of fossil fuel infrastructure around the world.
      • My role in helping launch the divestment fight, with a piece of writing and with the Do the Math campaign around the U.S. and then Europe and the antipodes. (Here’s the movie from that; I think it’s better than Moore’s). We’re currently at $14 trillion in endowments and portfolios that have divested.
      • My role in helping solidify and unify the newer fight against the banks, asset managers, and insurance companies that fund the fossil fuel movement — the effort that is fighting pitched battles right now with Chase Bank, Liberty Mutual, and BlackRock.

The thing that unites these four things is the word “helping.” So many others have fought just as hard. If I started listing names I literally would never stop; the pleasure has been in the teamwork and collaboration.


And that’s the point: Movements only really work if they grow, if they build. If they move. And that’s almost always an additive process. The trick, I think, is figuring out how to make it possible for more people to join in. When we started, we gave out the logo to anyone. It was like a potluck supper; if you organized a little demonstration in your town, you were a part. (One of the early protests we were proudest of involved exactly one woman: an Iranian in a headscarf who worked her way through half a dozen army checkpoints to hold up a sign). The Keystone fight was well underway when we came on board — indigenous groups and Midwest ranchers had been fighting hard — but we helped to create ways to let anyone anywhere join in, framing it as a fight about climate change as well as land. Divestment, similarly: not everyone has a coal mine in their backyard, but everyone’s connected through a school or a church or a pension to a pot of money. Banks may be the best example: Chase has tens of millions of credit cards out there. Or, to take the example of the movie, biomass: Thank heaven for campaigners like Danna Smith and Mary Booth and Rachel Smolker, who built a movement to help explain why this was a bad idea. It worked for me — I changed my mind, which is what you want movements to do.

You can, in other words, change the zeitgeist if you get enough people engaged — if they both see the crisis and feel like they have a way in.

But that’s precisely what’s undercut when people operate as Moore has with his film. The entirely predictable effect is to build cynicism, indeed a kind of nihilism. It’s to drive down turnout — not just in elections, but in citizenship generally. If you tell a bunch of lies about groups and leaders and as a result people don’t trust them, who benefits?

To be clear, I doubt that was Moore’s goal. I think his goal was to build his brand a little more, as an edgy “truth teller” who will take on “establishments.” (That he has, over time, become a millionaire carnival barker who punches down, not up — well, that’s what brand management is for). But the actual effect in the real world is entirely predictable. That’s why Breitbart loves the movie. That’s why the tar-sands guys in Alberta are chortling. “People are going ga-ga over it,” Margareta Dovgal, a researcher with the pro-industry Canadian group Resource Works, told reporters. The message they’re taking from it is “we’re going to need fossil fuels for a long time to come.”


Actually, we won’t. We’ve dropped the price of sun and wind 90 percent in the last decade (since the days when Moore, et al. were apparently collecting their data). As Stanford professor Marc Jacobson has made clear, we could get much of the way there in relatively short and affordable order, by building out panels and turbines, by making our lives more efficient, by consuming less and differently. But that would require breaking the political power of the fossil fuel industry, which in turn would require a big movement, which in turn would require coming together, not splitting apart.

It’s that kind of movement we’ve been trying to build for a long time. I remember its first real gathering in force in the U.S., with tens of thousands of us standing on the Mall in Washington on a bitter February day in 2013 to demand an end to Keystone and other climate action. “All I’ve ever wanted to see was a movement of people to stop climate change,” I told the crowd. “And now I’ve seen it.”

We did an immense amount of work to get to that moment, helping will a movement into being. But from that moment on, for me it’s been mostly gravy — the great pleasure of watching the movement grow and then explode. Watching the kids who had built college divestment campaigns graduate to form the Sunrise Movement and launch the Green New Deal. Watching Extinction Rebellion start to shake whole cities. Watching the emergence of the climate strikers — and getting to know Greta Thunberg and many of the 10,000 others like her across the world. In each case, I’ve tried to help a little, largely just by amplifying their voices and urging others to pay attention.

I remember very well the night that same autumn after an overflow talk in Providence when my daughter, then a sophomore at Brown, said something typically wise to me: “I think you should probably be less famous in the years ahead.” I knew what she meant even as she said it, because of course I’d already sensed a bit of it myself. It wasn’t that she thought I was a bad leader — it was that we needed to build a movement that was less attached to leaders in general (and probably white male ones in particular) if we were going to attain the kind of power we needed.


And so, even then I began consciously backing off, not in my work but in my willingness to dominate the space. I stepped down as board chair at, and really devoted myself to introducing people to new leaders from dozens of groups. So many of those leaders come from frontline communities, indigenous communities — from the people already paying an enormous price for the warming they did so little to cause. Their voices are breaking through, and thank heaven: If you follow my twitter feed, you’ll see that the most common word, after “heatwave”, is “thanks,” offered to whoever is doing something useful and good. If you get the chance to read the (free) New Yorker climate newsletter I started earlier this year, you’ll see the key feature is called Passing the Mic: So far I’ve interviewed Nicole Poindexter, Jerome Foster II, Mary Heglar, Ellen Dorsey, Thea Sebastian, Virginia Hanusik, Tara Houska, Vann R. Newkirk II, and Christiana Figueres; this week Jane Kleeb; next week Alice Arena, helping lead the fight against a new gas pipeline across Massachusetts.

I think that one thing that defines those movements is their adversaries — in this case the fossil fuel industry above all. And I think the thing that weakens those movements is when they start trying to identify adversaries within their ranks. Much has been made over the years about the way that progressives eat their own, about circular firing squads and the like. I think there’s truth to it: there’s a collection of showmen like Moore who enjoy attracting attention to themselves by endlessly picking fights. They’re generally not people who actually try to organize, to build power, to bring people together. That’s the real, and difficult, work — not purity tests or calling people out, but calling them in. At least, that’s how it seems to me: The battle to slow down global warming in the short time that physics allots us requires ever bigger movements.

It’s been a great privilege to get to help build those movements. And if I worry that my effectiveness has been compromised, it’s not a huge worry, precisely because there are now so many others doing this work — generations and generations of people who have grown up in this fight. I think, more or less, we’re all headed in the right direction, that people are getting the basic message right: conserve energy; replace coal and gas and oil with wind and sun; break the political power of the fossil fuel industry; demand just transitions for workers; build a world that reduces ruinous inequality; and protect natural systems, both because they’re glorious and so they can continue to soak up carbon. I don’t know if we’re going to get this done in time — sometimes I kick myself for taking too long to figure out we needed to start building movements. But I know our chances are much improved if we do it together.


Thanks so much to all who fight for all that matters. On we go.