May 4, 2020

What Would We Do If There Was No One to Blame?

Bill Mckibben, Planet of the Humans, and the power we gain when we stop seeking villains
By Tim Hjersted /
What Would We Do If There Was No One to Blame?
Bill McKibben left, Michael Moore right.

Do you think Bill McKibben is a terrible person? If you've seen how he was portrayed in Planet Of The Humans, you might think so.

Now before I go further, I've learned that people can only hear you if they've first felt heard, so let me offer this:

It was personally disappointing to learn that Bill McKibben didn't officially oppose biomass until 2016 - only 4 years ago. This scathing review of Biomass was published in 2012 by the highly respected Post Carbon Institute. Surely Bill is familiar with their work? Either way, he's supposed to be one of the people that knows better (or sooner). He's supposed to be someone who can offer guidance to folks that don't have time to research all this stuff 24/7. That's disappointing and there's no getting around that.

However, this is where I'd like people to put down their pitchforks and do a little self-reflection.

After Planet Of The Humans came out, I witnessed a vast outpouring of anger and even hate directed towards the people targeted in the film. Bill, especially, seemed to be taking the brunt of people's ire. I've heard multiple people call Bill a monster. A sellout. Evil. It's getting intense out there, folks.

But the intensity of judgment reveals something important: Profound heartache. Profound grief. Profound anger - from witnessing the ongoing destruction of the planet. 

For many, this is what is going on under the surface. Blame is only what we see on top, and while it would be easy to judge the people who judge Bill and others so harshly, wiser are those who can see and speak to the feelings beneath the judgments. This holds true for us as well, as surely, we have our judgments of other people, too.

What's the pain underneath?

We need to ask this question because the anger and grief so many of us are experiencing about our collective situation is warranted, and to really move forward, into positive action, we need to tend to these feelings in healing, honest, vulnerable and healthy ways.

To do this, we should gently point out (or remind ourselves when we forget) that directing our anger towards any handful of people (when dealing with problems of this scale) is always going to be tragically misplaced.

I say "tragically" because blaming individuals actually distract us from the root of our problems. We can feel confident about this because no individual can accomplish very much without help. No individual can chop down a whole forest or blow up a mountaintop for the sake of "progress" by themselves. It takes a story (like the story of capitalism, or the story of 'sustainable development'), which is believed by many, many people, to accomplish the true feats of planetary destruction we see today. So the problem truly can't be pinned on any individual or group of individuals. Our problem is the story.

The problem is also the systems and structures (such as corporate law) which drive people to choose profit over everything else. Even if the top 100 CEOs of the top 100 corporations which are responsible for 70% of all greenhouse gas emissions suddenly had a change of heart, they would likely be voted out by shareholders and replaced by someone who will put profits first. Until there is a movement to change the corporate charters of these corporations to legally mandate a triple bottom line, shareholders can legally fire any CEO that violates the profit imperative. 

On top of that, for every individual who might be part of the ruling class, there are a million people beneath them wanting to take their place. That's a "story" problem and a "systems" problem, and blaming Bill McKibben or anyone else in the environmental movement for failing to overcome these massive challenges doesn't illuminate these concerns; it obscures them.

I think most of us know this is true, intellectually. So it begs the question: why is blaming Bill or others so tempting? 

But think about this on just a personal level.

When you're mad at someone in your family, for instance, instead of sitting with the feelings of anger and grief, and saying, "wow, what you said really hurt me," who hasn't switched to blame or judgment as a way to get relief?

"It's all your fault!"
"If it wasn't for them, none of this would have happened!"

Blaming others helps us get relief. It helps us discharge the discomfort and pain we experience when we watch images of trees being cut down, mountaintops being blown up, and orangutans dying. But not only that, all of our memories of suffering we've seen in the past - and the film is saying, "Here, you want to know why everything is f---ed? It's because the leaders in our own movement have betrayed us."

The film doesn't focus on the thousands of corporations that seek profit over all else. The film also doesn't focus on the thousands of non-mainstream environmental groups, many of which have been critiquing growth and green capitalism for decades. No, the film identifies this tiny sliver of the entire environmental movement, the most visible and mainstream part of it, as if they represent the entire movement, and says, "Here! This is why we haven't already fixed everything! It's because of this handful of leaders at the top! If it wasn't for them!"

Now, don't get me wrong. Green capitalist co-opting of environmental groups is a serious problemThis has been a critique within the environmental movement for a long time. But this isn't the root of our problem - no more than "a few bad cops" explains the systemic failures of the police, or "a few bad politicians" explains the systemic failures of our government or a "few bad CEOs" explains the systemic failures of our corporate economic system. 

So it's sad that Jeff Gibbs, the director of Planet Of The Humans, has made a film that motivates viewers to blame a sliver of environmental groups for our problems, when philosophically, he doesn't even agree with this. In an interview with The Hill, he stated "We don't attack environmental leaders. We need our environmental leaders, but we are in the wrong story."

The wrong story? Yes. I couldn't agree more.

That's why blaming Bill, or anyone else, isn't going to challenge the status quo like we think it might. In my view, blaming individuals perpetuates the status quo, and keeps us stuck in the wrong story, where "evil" itself can be conquered if only we identify and root out the "bad apples." 

Dehumanizing anyone, to me, is part of the old story, and intentionally or not, that is what Planet Of The Humans has promoted, as evidenced by the countless comments on the internet identifying Bill and others as 1-dimensional villains. 

I have to ask: at what point are we going to get off this endless blame and shame treadmill and question this mode of thinking? 

It's true, we can change the names of the good guys and the villains every year, but I believe the act of seeing the world through this narrow prism of praise and blame, of good people vs evil people, is the true "enemy" within ourselves we should decide to vanquish.

We need another way of seeing.

Actively cultivating compassion, to me, is the answer. But first, we have to sit with our anger and our grief. We shouldn't try to escape these uncomfortable feelings. We should take good care of these feelings, the way a parent comforts a crying child.

Ultimately, Bill McKibben isn't responsible for the mess we're in. No single individual is. He may have made some strategic mistakes in his decades-long effort to help our movement, but he's also done some tremendous good

No person is entirely good or bad.

So please, everyone. This is my call and plea to humanity:


Hold people in their fullness.


When it comes to Bill, this means acknowledging his mistakes, but it also means acknowledging the tireless and positive contributions he's made to the movement. Bill and 350 have made major contributions to the movement to get banks, universities and others to divest from fossil fuels - 14 trillion dollars and counting. The same goes for Noam Chomsky, Bernie Sanders, Amy Goodman, and numerous activists within our movements. The same goes for friends and activists in our communities who think differently than we do.

We should acknowledge all sides of a person, see people in their fullness, and not discard anyone.

That's how we'd like to be treated, is it not?

Because you want some real, vulnerable, humble truth? I didn't know about the serious flaws with biomass until I saw this film. And I'm betting millions of people didn't know it until they saw the film either. Let's be humble about that and offer folks a bit of the grace we hope people will give us.

The Sierra ClubThe Nature Conservancy, the WWF, Al Gore and dozens of other mainstream groups and figureheads rightly deserve an honest critique. There's also value in constructive, good-faith critiques of Bill McKibben and 350 (which don't conflate differences in strategy as evidence of malice), but we would be wise to not use "blaming others" as an escape from our own feelings or failings.

Have you heard of spiritual bypass? It's when we use spirituality to avoid or suppress the very real and difficult parts of our human existence.  Directing all our ire at political and environmental leaders, likewise, could be considered a form of personal-responsibility bypass.

When it's all someone else's fault, we don't have to ask ourselves, "What about me?" 

Let me be clear though: I'm not saying we should stop blaming others and blame ourselves instead. I'm asking all of us to move beyond the paradigm of blame altogether.

What if there was no one to blame? What would we do then? 


An Alternative to Blame

Putting our faith in a handful of leaders - expecting them to solve these massive problems while millions spectate, hoping for the best, then blaming them when they come up short - has been part of our problem for a long time.

If #PlanetoftheHumans gets people to lose faith in our leaders saving us, that's probably a good thing. They never were as long as millions of people thought other people have it under control. Expecting a handful of people to carry the weight of the world's problems on their shoulders - when this weight can only realistically be carried by millions, if not billions - is the height of folly. 

If the world is going to be saved (as a thriving habitat for humans and millions of other species), it's going to be because millions of people decided to become leaders in their own local communities, not because of what a handful of politicians or prominent activists did or did not do. Going forward, this has to be our new mantra: #NotThemUs

We all need to become leaders. We're in this together and there is no "they" that's going to save us. 

If you want hope, realize the benefits of developing what psychology calls an "internal locus of control" vs the disempowering "external locus of control."

Yes, we can find fault in others for plenty of things, but the more personal responsibility we can take for a situation, the more power we have. 

Whether it's our intimate partner or the leader of a big organization, when it's "all their fault," we actively disempower ourselves and give away our own agency. 

Sure, your partner and Bill McKibben may genuinely be at fault for some things, but when you focus on that, you stop asking the right question: What power do I have to change the situation?

We always, always have personal agency. While we can't change what other people do, we always have the power to choose how to respond.

The power to choose how we want to respond to the world outside of ourselves is always within ourselves. Never forget that.


Tim Hjersted is the co-founder and director of Films For Action, a people-powered library for changing the world.

Films For Action was formed by a few friends from Lawrence, Kansas in 2006 in response to a fundamental critique of our highly consolidated, for-profit media system. We believe a healthy media ecosystem is essential to a healthy democracy.

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