Editor’s Note: Lest this piece may be misunderstood, it’s worth nothing that this publication believes a good takedown can be an incredibly important tool in the climate crisis fight. But takedowns should be nuanced, fact-checked and offer helpful, hopeful alternatives. Planet of the Humans does neither. Yes clean energy is plagued by many issues. Does that mean we should write off the industry? Are we as an audience incapable of acknowledging the problems of green technology while still supporting the move away from fossil fuels?
On the eve of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day this year, Michael Moore, the filmmaker well-known for his provocative documentaries, dropped the full version of Planet of the Humans for free online, a new documentary that essentially takes down renewable energy. The film’s main thesis being that we are on the verge of global extinction due to climate change, and that we have been sold a capitalist renewable energy lie by a number of corporate and billionaire environmental groups who have lost their way. I’m with Moore when it comes to scrutinising money and power – we must look deeper into the alleged alliance between huge funders and big green organisations. But what solutions does he provide to this conundrum we’re in? Nothing, other than population control. And throwing in baseless accusations about the hopelessness of clean energy – accusations that conservative climate denialists will no doubt love – will only work to exacerbate the ecological emergency we live in today.
In some ways, it was no surprise that Moore decided to drop the Jeff Gibbs-directed movie (on which Moore also serves as executive producer) Planet of the Humans right before the world’s largest annual environmental celebration – especially this year, which marked the half-century milestone of the event and coincided with the historic oil collapse induced by the global pandemic. Moore is known for controversy, and every documentary he has ever made unleashes a strong reaction.
Moore’s new documentary, written, directed and narrated by Bill Gibbs, takes a stab at renewable energy, specifically wind, solar and biomass. Other alternative energy technologies such as hydro or nuclear are left unexplored. In fact, a more accurate description of the film would be that it denigrates the industry, positioning it as almost no better than the dirty fossil fuel complex. It paints large environmental organisations as no different to multinational corporates that are backed by billionaires who have been responsible for much of the damage we have done to the planet.
But the renewable message is not the overarching theme – the crux of Planet of the Humans is that humanity on its current trajectory will go extinct because of the climate crisis and with renewables written off as no better than fossil fuels, we’re never going to overcome the climate crisis no matter how hard we try, essentially. This is where Moore, Gibbs et al and I part ways: such a line of reasoning is arguably unhelpful, and worse, potentially downright dangerous. Below, we takedown their takedown.
Wind and solar energy are basically no better than fossil fuels
Sure, wind and solar have some serious drawbacks, the two biggest being 1) intermittency i.e. they are not consistent sources of energy, no wind or no sun = no energy. This is news to no one in green energy; and 2) storage: in order for wind and solar to offer continuous energy, the energy harvested needs to be stored. The problem is batteries are expensive, don’t last long and require non-green materials. Other accusations thrown out in the film: Wind turbines cause damage to the environments they are installed it. Solar panels themselves are made with components that require unethical mining in Africa and fossil fuels themselves. Wind and solar plants are powered by fossil fuels and require more oil/gas than they save.
This part of the film is rushed and binary. Sure, solar and wind have their issues. But to suggest that they are totally useless is irresponsible and lacking in rigorous fact-checking. According to Eric Wesoff of solar trade publication PV Magazine, the movie’s portrayal of solar innovation is simply inaccurate. “Although the film was released in 2020, the solar industry it examines, whether through incompetence or venality, is somewhere back in 2009,” Wesoff explains, adding that it “ignores the plunging cost of solar and its steadily increasing price advantage over coal and natural gas – as well as the similar trajectory of battery storage.”
As of last year, solar energy is already cheaper than electricity supplied by the coal-fired national grid in hundreds of cities across China. That’s another issue with the film: it use examples from the United States and then makes sweeping generalisation about these technologies on the global whole. There is much data to suggest that wind and solar are extremely effective and cost efficient in many parts of Asia, for example.
Green groups are in bed with Big Business
Gibbs is at his best when uncovering the nefarious links between billionaires and green groups, corporates and clean energy. Sierra Club and Bill McKibben’s 350.org get a serious and perhaps deserved beating (make sure to read McKibben’s response to the film here). There is no arguing with the fact the corporates now fund Earth Day, banks sell green bonds that are backed by less than green energy technologies. Other green influencers that are included in the takedown? Elon Musk, Michael Bloomberg and Al Gore. All are presented as misleading their audiences about the green energy they support.
As someone who believes that we must always question power, I agree with Moore that we need to take a deeper examination of the authenticity and commitment that any large group has to their proclaimed altruistic goals, including environmental organisations and especially if they are backed by big corporations and funders.
There are indeed conflicts that need to be explored between huge financiers of large green groups who have made their billions through the most polluting industries today. He points to the ultra-right Tea Party-funding Koch brothers (who have also funnelled huge amounts of money into the climate denial machine) as large investors in the clean energy movement, for instance. We should absolutely rigorously interrogate the supply chains of renewable energy.
Earlier this year, we questioned whether Bloomberg’s new sustainability-focused media brand Bloomberg Green can truly hold climate culprits to task if it is financed by big polluters such as Amazon and Tiffany & Co.
So when Gibbs spotlights Mike Bloomberg, who sees natural gas as a “bridge” alternative fuel towards cleaner energy (which scientists have repeatedly reiterated it is not), as the biggest single donor to the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” initiative, which shut down over 300 coal facilities in the United States, I believe that these questions are warranted and legitimate, and we must continue to ask them.
Most people don’t realize natural gas is the most popular green energy
The basic argument here is about Germany. Apparently the country touts its green energy lead, heavily implying it is mostly solar and wind, when in reality it’s mostly natural gas, a problematic energy source that many green energy punters would agree is not green at all. Again, data being misinterpreted to their advantage is hardly news and this is a topic that deserves proper exploration rather than one quick fire scene with no context.
Biomass energy is not green at all
The last third of the film is devoted to the takedown of biomass energy with horrifying footage of acre upon acre of trees being razed to the ground to turn into woodchips, which are burned in coal-powered mega furnaces that cause air pollution whilst killing biodiversity. Of all the takedowns in the film, this one has the most teeth. In fact, an entire movie about the dirty reality of the biomass energy industry would be welcome, especially given that it’s a topic that gets almost no attention. My bet? Most of the mass public are unaware of this form of energy completely. But again, where is the nuance? We spoke about the film with a renewable energy consultant and his first question was: what trees? His point: Not all biomass energy is dirty, and not all plants are burning virgin forests.
The answer to our problems is curbing overpopulation
Towards the end of the film, Moore doesn’t offer any solutions to the climate emergency except one – that we must reduce the population and consumption. “Less must be the new more…If we get ourselves under control, all things are possible,” he says. Ok sure? But who and how? Who will decide who gets to have kids and who doesn’t? Do all countries get the same allowance? The answers to these questions can lead us down dangerous ethical roads. And as a humanist pointed out to me: procreating is a fundamental human biological urge. If we take that away, there will be unintended and dangerous consequences. But even this pessimistic solution the film contradicts in its final footage, suggesting that we probably won’t be able to control global heating.
We deserve better than this
Even if we give the filmmakers the benefit of doubt – journalist Emily Atkin wrote earlier this week that she has “no reason at present to believe Moore and director Jeff Gibbs argued in bad faith” – Planet of the Humans, a “gotcha” style documentary that presents all its arguments as binary, will only serve to exacerbate our environmental crisis, rather than offer hope that we can solve it. One of my biggest gripes with Michael Moore is the way he essentially condescends to his audience, refusing to offer nuance and layered arguments. This film is no different.
Planet of the Humans makes strong claims that have dangerous consequences – ones that can propel us deeper into the climate crisis than we already are.
“Everywhere I encountered green energy, it wasn’t what it seemed. It was enough to make my head explode,” said Gibbs during the movie as he described the inefficiencies and costliness of clean energy. However, in a recent study published in Nature Communications earlier in February this year, scientists acknowledged that climate solutions such as a global clean energy revolution would be extremely expensive – but said that delaying it would only bring about additional costs.
Making comments that allege that green energy is on par with fossil fuels will only fall into the hands of right-wing voices that are dedicated to shut down real science, sow disarray within the green movement and cause confusion amongst the masses to encourage widespread climate denial. Breitbart, the American far-right opinion paper that publishes conspiracy theories and false headlines that include “Scientists Prove Man-Made Global Warming Is A Hoax”, has already taken a liking to Planet of the Humans.
The 100-minute documentary ridicules the few hopes we have left to sustain life on earth, yet offers zero answers (or even potential answers) to the greatest and most urgent threat that humanity and the planet faces today. (Where is the rest of the green industry? What about plant-based diets? And moving away from overconsumption? What about the circular economy?) Even worse, it might even work to help scatter the seeds of the very movement that is helping accelerate our destruction of the earth.
Lead image courtesy of Planet of the Humans.