Watching the reaction of the left, and especially the environmental left, to Michael Moore’s new film Planet of the Humans has been fascinating. In case you haven’t seen it yet, the film illustrates some of the problems with renewable energy—wind, solar, and biomass specifically—and exposes the corporate funding and conflicts of interest in many big-name organizations that back these technologies. The film is not perfect, of course—what film ever is? But the angry responses to the film are far from perfect, too, and, for the most part, are revealing in what those responding choose to find wrong with the film and focus on in response.
First, a metaphor
Before I get to these criticisms of the film and respond to them in turn, I’d like to begin with a metaphor. Imagine a giant oil tanker ship. Because it is so large, and has so much inertia, this tanker ship requires a distance of two to three miles to change course. Changing course requires planning, energy, and effort from everyone on board. Once the ship is full steam ahead on its new heading, you don’t want to have to change course again for a good long while.
The global industrial economy is a giant oil tanker ship. Like an oil tanker, this economy is utterly dependent on fossil fuels. Changing the course of the global economy requires a massive effort on the part of just about everyone on the planet. It’s not something you want to do very often, because it requires so much time, effort, and energy to do so.
Everything about the industrial economy, depends on a steady supply of fossil fuels–all the infrastructure, buildings, most of our jobs, transportation, food, gadgets, furniture, clothes, medical gear, almost everything single thing we touch in a day. Everything in our modern life depends on oil, coal, and gas to one degree or another. So when fans of renewable energy talk about transitioning to “100% renewables” to run the economy, we are talking about a major change of course. We better be damned sure that the course we’re changing to is a safe one, a good one, because when we’re done changing course from fossil fuels to renewables, we’re not going to want to do another change of course for a very long time to come.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the criticisms being lobbed at Planet of the Humans and see if they make sense.
One critic wrote “… you would never recommend this film to anyone. You’d be carrying water for the fossil fuels if you did so.” Others have written about how the film is a betrayal to the environmental movement, and to those who have worked so hard to raise awareness of the climate crisis.
The film’s director, Jeff Gibbs, asks in the movie “could we (the left) have a religion we’re unaware of?”, implying that our slavish adherence to the mantra that renewable energy is “clean”, “green”, and “good” is as unassailable as any religious canon. It certainly seems so, to read some of the responses to the film.
In a letter written by Josh Fox, director of Gasland, and signed by activists and climate scientists, the implication is that because the film dares to question this “green energy is good” mantra, that makes the film anti-science. But isn’t science about questioning? Isn’t science about being willing to observe what is actually happening and have an open mind about the implications of what we observe?
Is the “clean energy” environmentalism of today so insecure that it cannot withstand a little scrutiny? And, to bring us back to the economy-as-tanker-ship metaphor, isn’t a little self-reflection and investigation worthwhile when we are talking about a course correction of such magnitude in its implications for the future of all life on this planet?
The accusations of betrayal, and the obvious hurt feelings on behalf of the green celebrities in the film (Bill McKibben, Al Gore, Van Jones, and others) feel a little bit “thou doth protest too much”-ish, and make me wonder, is it really that these critics honestly believe these technologies will “save the Earth,” or is it that they’ve put their or their gurus reputations on the line, and they can’t turn back now? And are they interested in saving the Earth? Or is it humanity and the economy they want to save? Because sometimes it seems like modern day environmentalists have forgotten that no amount of new technology, no matter how “clean” and “green” it appears to be, will save the natural world. The natural world doesn’t need technology. What it needs is for us to stop destroying it.
Many critics focused on a few numbers mentioned in the film, and how inaccurate they are. For instance, the film reports on solar PV panels that are rated at 8% efficiency, and many critics have mentioned that solar panels have rapidly increased efficiency and the 8% number is over a decade old. So how efficient are solar panels now, in 2020? Between 15% and 20% efficient. In other words, still pretty darn inefficient.
The thing is, the point of the film is not whether solar panels are 8% efficient or 20% efficient. The point is that solar panels do not magically appear out of thin air to turn energy from the sun into energy we can use. Solar panels are “high tech” and require a whole long list of resources to make including silica sand that’s refined into silicon using extreme heat requiring massive amounts of energy, wood chips (from, you know, trees), “bluegreen” metallurgical coal from Kentucky, hydrochloric acid, silver, copper, boron, phosphorus, cadmium, and lead, among others. I notice that when the critics focus on how wrong and outdated that 8% number is, what they are really doing is trying to get us to forget about the ugly and polluting mining and refining processes required to make the components of solar panels, as well as the manufacturing, installation, and—at end of life—waste disposal processes associated with solar.
While most of us think of the solar panels we see on rooftops when we think of solar energy, most solar panels are installed in giant solar farms, and most of those in wilderness areas, deserts, agricultural areas, or even on top of lakes.
The most efficient and profitable way to generate electricity from solar and wind is for a utility to build a giant solar or wind farm and hook it up to the grid. Here in the United States, solar and wind farms are proliferating in the desert, with its vast open spaces and abundant sunshine and wind. The film shows how desert areas are cleared in preparation for solar farms with “bush hog” machines that chow down and chew up anything and everything in their path, including centuries old yucca trees, and incredibly fragile desert soils called cryptobiotic crusts that can be damaged simply by walking on them, soils that support incredible explosions of wildflowers after a good spring rain, and provide habitat to endangered desert tortoise and a plethora of other flora and fauna. One climate scientist tweeted (in a tweet that has now been deleted) that of course we should build solar farms out in the desert because it’s “just sand out there anyway.”
I could write stories about the mining, refining and manufacturing required to make wind turbines. I could write about how there is currently no way to recycle the materials in wind turbine blades, which are made out of composite polymer (plastic) materials, so they are being buried in the ground where they will continue to pollute the Earth for millennia, or chopped up into small bits and incorporated into other composite materials, where they will continue to pollute the Earth for millennia. I could write about how old solar panels are often classified as hazardous waste because of the toxic impurities embedded in the glass and despite efforts to recycle the materials, most solar panels end up in landfills. I could write about how while some critics claim we’ve solved the intermittency problems with solar and wind described in the film, the way we’ve solved those problems is by building large battery farms, requiring copper, gold, lead, and zinc as well as lithium, and how mining for these materials is destroying habitats and contaminating ground water all around the world, along with the subsistence farming and indigenous communities whose homes have been stolen from them. Or about the pumped hydro storage solution to energy storage, which has all the same disastrous impacts of the another renewable energy many are so fond of—dams—killing rivers and canyons, degrading water quality, and threatening wildlife wherever they are built.
But I won’t because those details aren’t important. Focusing on these details—whether solar panels are 8% efficient or 20% efficient, or whether wind turbines are better installed in the desert or the ocean, or whether renewables have increased energy generation by this many gigawatts or that many gigawatts—is just a distraction from what really matters, which is this: is any of this going to “save the environment”?
If you are entirely focused on CO2 emissions, you might think so. Climate activists like to say that solar and wind are “emissions free”, because the electricity they generate is from the sun and wind and at the point of generation, no CO2 is emitted. When the film points out the fossil fuels used to make solar panels and wind turbines, critics shout loudly that that’s not fair. It’s not entirely clear why that criticism isn’t fair, because it is unlikely that the high energy requirements for the components of solar panels and wind turbines will be supplied by anything other than fossil fuels for quite some time to come, if ever (despite the “experiments” in making silicon and steel without coal that one acquaintance on Facebook told me about). If you’ve taken a look at any of the massive machines that are used to dig the raw materials for these technologies out of the ground recently, you too will be as skeptical as I am about how soon we will be able to mine and refine these materials with “100% renewables.”
And even if that were somehow to happen, it is not enough. Because even if we were somehow able to mine copper, gold, silver, lithium, iron ore, and all the other materials required for these technologies with “clean energy”, there’s still the mines themselves. Raw materials are usually strip mined. Just search “strip mining” to get a sense of what this does to the land. It should shock you. If it doesn’t, then, well… I don’t know what to say. Soon, we will begin mining the ocean bottom for these materials, and, again, if that doesn’t shock you we probably should just talk about the weather.
Being an environmentalist used to be about protecting life, the land, and the oceans from the ravages of industrialism. Somehow, somewhere along the way, environmentalism was stolen from those of us who were proud to call ourselves such. Now, that word conjures technologies like solar panels and wind turbines. Heck, even being pro-nuclear energy is “environmental” now, because nuclear energy is, like solar and wind, considered “emissions free”. Environmentalism has been coopted into serving industrialism under the guise of “clean” energy, and when a film like Planet of the Humans has the audacity to point this out, the new environmentalists—those that have gone along with that coopting—are furious. Kicking and screaming, they shake their fists, and yell about all the ways the film got it wrong, all while completely missing the point of the film: that green industrialism is still industrialism, and industrialism of any kind does not help the land, it does not help the oceans, and it does not help life on this planet.
Another criticism of the film is that it unfairly attacks the environmental movement’s leaders. The main complaint seems to be around the clips showing Bill McKibben’s support of the biomass industry, even though McKibben has since walked back his support of biomass. The thing is, McKibben, and other environmental leaders did support biomass for a while, and that support contributed to the development of what is now a large industry that is rapidly taking both slash and whole trees from the South East and North West United States, and North West Canada, turning this wood into pellets, and shipping it to the UK and elsewhere around the world to burn in power plants. It’s all well and good that McKibben has changed his mind about biomass, but it’s a little too late now. The EU has decided that burning wood is “carbon neutral”, a loophole that allows European countries to not count the CO2 emissions from burning wood towards their emissions budgets, even though burning wood emits more CO2 than coal, and even though there is little to no regulation in place to ensure that the trees cut for biomass are ever replaced.
Worse, this thinking by environmentalists like Bill McKibben reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes a healthy forest. Thinking that you can cut down trees, and replant them without harming forest health is just plain wrong. A healthy thriving forest is created over many generations of trees, the flora and fauna that live with those trees, and the deep and wide mycelium networks that connect it all together. A healthy thriving forest needs old trees and young trees, dead trees and saplings, trees of many varieties, and the occasional (naturally caused) fire to clear things out and spur new growth. A forest is a complex living being that no industrial plantation of one fast growing species of tree designed for quick turnaround to make wood pellets will ever achieve. And, yet these policy makers who don’t count the CO2 from burning trees keep telling us, “We must save our forests.”
Where is the outrage from the critics yelling about the “unfair attacks” on the people profiled in the film, when it comes to the EU and the IPCC going along with the fiction that biomass will help solve our climate crisis? Wouldn’t that be a better use of these critics’ outrage if forests really mattered to them?
Missing the point
One reviewer wrote “At the heart of Planet of the Humans is the basic premise that humans cannot continue a path of infinite “growth” on a finite planet. That much is indisputable. But what does it mean? Does it mean that all industrialization is bad?”
Yes. That is what it means. All industrialism is bad.
Another reviewer writes that the director is waxing metaphysically about the root causes of the environmental crisis when he goes “on about hubris, and the denial of death” and about how “that’s all true” but “beside the point”.
Actually, that is the point. We are attempting to change the course of the massive tanker ship that is our global economy from one industrial course to another, precisely because we are afraid of death. As human animals, we know that our lives depend on water, food, and shelter, and we will fight to protect what provides us with water, food, and shelter because our lives depend on it. We used to understand that Mother Nature provided us with these gifts, but we modern humans have long forgotten that, because now we perceive that it is the system—the global economy and industrial civilization—that provides what we need to survive. Water comes from a tap, most likely hooked up to a well or municipal water system, pumped into our homes with electricity generated by coal, gas, and perhaps a little bit of hydro, nuclear, solar, wind, or biomass. Our food comes from the grocery store, shipped in diesel-powered boats and trucks from all over the world, and originating in fields doused with chemicals made from fossil fuels, and sown and harvested by massive machines powered by fossil fuels. Our shelter is made of concrete and wood and chemicals and plastics, none of which would be possible today without massive amounts of fossil fuels. We are dependent on the system, and are no longer capable of understanding that all that “stuff”—the water, the food, the shelter—still, ultimately, comes from nature. And so, we will defend to the death the industrial system that provides for us, even if we have to convince ourselves that it’s “green” and “clean” and “renewable” in order to justify that defense.
Choosing the right course
If I could speak to these critics, I might ask them: are you absolutely sure that changing the course of that big tanker ship of an economy from fossil fuels to renewables is a good long term plan?
And if they are, and we somehow manage to do it—to build all that stuff without destroying what’s left of the world—what will we do with that newly-powered economy? Will we use that energy to continue to grow population, concrete, roads, and plastic? Will we drive our electric vehicles with their metals, plastics, and tires on roads to jobs in steel and concrete buildings where we build theme parks and computers and gadgets and software that runs on yet more computers? Will the 2 or 3 billion new people in the world want software running on computers, and gadgets, and to go to theme parks too? And how will we grow enough food for 8 or 11 billion people in this new world of renewables when most of the food industry relies on massive amounts of fossil fuels for fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and processing, and solar and wind development threaten to destroy as much land as the expansion of urban sprawl, oil, gas, coal, and mining combined?
I have many questions. When I’ve asked those questions, people respond that 8 billion of us can’t go back to subsistence living, farming, living off the land. I’m told that is a fantasy. Is it really any more of a fantasy than 8 billion of us somehow continuing life as we know it on solar, wind, hydro, biomass, nuclear and geothermal?
But “renewables are not as bad as fossil fuels” they say. Are you sure? What happens when we’ve run out of the easily accessible copper in places people don’t care about and the copper mine comes to your community? Will you still believe it then?
We know we can’t keep steaming ahead on our current course—that course is headed for the rocks. On that we can all (well, most of us) agree, even those of us who dare to criticize green technology.
Are we absolutely sure that changing course to a path powered by renewables is preferable? We’d better be absolutely sure. We won’t get another opportunity to change course again, because if we’re wrong about the new course—if there are rocks hidden just below the high tide line, or there’s a storm brewing on the horizon in that direction—we are unlikely to be able to avoid the devastating consequences of making the wrong choice. Humanity is a mere 0.01% of all life but has destroyed 83% of wild mammals and half of plants, along with most of the big fish in the ocean in the blink of an eye. We have very little time left, and shifting to a new course that we are not absolutely sure is really and truly better could be a disaster.
The people who say that we can’t all go back to subsistence living say that because while they can imagine life as we know it now powered by some magical new green and clean energy source, they can’t seem to envision an endpoint if we try a different course, one that requires massive reductions in the energy we use, and massive changes in how we live our lives. And because these critics can’t imagine it, they say it’s impossible.
But their vision of a magical world powered by renewables is impossible too. They don’t want to admit it, but if you dig into what’s actually involved in building a world from solar, wind, biomass, hydro, geothermal, and nuclear energy, you quickly run into the same limits we have discovered with fossil fuels: that digging materials out of the ground to make the stuff of our modern lives and destroying the land in the process is not a viable plan over the long term.
There’s a fog bank in every direction. No one knows what’s really out there, no matter which course we choose, although we have some pretty good ideas about some of the terrain based on where we’ve been before. The one direction we have failed to consider is the one that is best for the natural communities of the world—the one where we all agree to tighten our belts, start throwing pieces of the oil tanker over the side of the ship, and begin to ration the oil that’s left in the hold. No, we don’t know what lies ahead on this course either, but it’s the one and only course that does less damage, not more, to the life that sustains us here on the one and only planet we call home. Isn’t it worth a shot? Wouldn’t all that energy and effort and time we’re spending considering every other potential course be better spent on the one course we know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, will help the land and the oceans and the life on this planet most?
All the critics say, “yes of course we must reduce”. The problem is that no one is actually, seriously, trying to figure that out. For proof of this, simply look at this chart:
That should tell you everything you need to know.
By focusing on building more ways to generate more energy, we are simply continuing the path of the curve on that chart in the direction it’s currently headed: up. That is absolutely the wrong direction to be going in, and that is the point of the film Planet of the Humans.
Josh Fox, in his open letter to Michael Moore, signed by activists and climate scientists and renewable energy developers, writes that the film is “dangerous, misleading, and destructive to decades of progress on environmental policy, science and engineering,” and demands an apology.
I rather think that is it all of us who should be apologizing to every non-human being on this planet.