By Milton W. Cole
Planet of the Humans is a controversial film that has received significant attention, in large part because its executive producer is Michael Moore, an iconoclastic film-maker and prominent leftist commentator. The film (temporarily available free on YouTube) is critical, indeed damning, of the environmental movement and especially its focus on climate change and the need for alternative renewable energy sources. The central question addressed by the film is this: does humankind really benefit from increased reliance on technologies that capture and exploit solar energy, wind energy and biomass energy?
The film’s general attitude about this theme is implicit in an early question asked skeptically by Jeff Gibbs, the film’s narrator: “Is it possible for machines made by industrialization to save us from industrialization?” Later in the film comes his answer “Everywhere I’ve investigated green energy, it isn’t what it seems.” That is to say, green energy is not really environmentally friendly. This criticism is first exemplified in questions posed to a GM representative, who is introducing the Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid car that runs on an electric charge for about 50 miles, after which it runs on gasoline. Gibbs challenges the GM rep by noting that the electric energy comes from a nearby fossil fuel-powered plant, implying that this car isn’t really employing green energy. This kind of challenge to conventional wisdom about green energy is an old story for those who endorse the building and buying of such cars. My response is simply this: life cycle analyses1 reveal clearly that the net carbon dioxide emissions from that car and similar hybrids (including all emissions associated with both the car’s production and the electricity’s production) are about one-half of the average emissions from a conventional gas- or diesel-sourced car. Indeed, the emissions from all-electric cars are even smaller- about one-third of a conventional car’s emissions. Why is this film misleading the viewer concerning the Volt’s value? Because its creators have an agenda that does not let critical thinking stand in its way.
One particularly irritating aspect of this film is the repeated insinuation that environmentalists are incompetent, ignorant and/or dishonest. Gibbs says at one point “It’s mind boggling that we are spending billions on green energy and [yet] it isn’t replacing fossil fuels….. Are we avoiding looking too closely because we don’t want to know the answer?” Later in the film, Ozzie Zehner (a co-producer of the film and author of a book Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism) says “You use more fossil fuels to do this [create green energy] then what have you gained? It would have been better to not pretend”.
At one point in the film, Gibbs interviews various environmentalists at a green energy rally, questioning them specifically about the burning of trees and other sources of biomass. Most of those interviewed are noncommittal concerning that specific source of energy since the burning can destroy biomass, including forests, and of course these actions produce carbon emissions. But one individual present at the rally directly challenges this form of energy. About her, Gibbs says “I found only one environmental leader willing to reject biomass and biofuels, Vandana Shia….Her honesty is refreshing. What are they [the others] hiding? What if they made some kind of deal and are leading us all off a cliff?….The only reason we’ve been forced by the story that climate change plus renewables means we’re saved is because billionaires, bankers and corporations profit from it.”
These words reveal the agenda of the film’s creators. Throughout the film, a lesson is preached- the environmental movement has been hijacked by rich capitalists. Among those depicted are several billionaires who are active contributors to the environmental movement, including Richard Branson and Michael Bloomberg. Also criticized in the film are leading environmental organizations, including 350.org, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Nature Conservancy and the Sierra Club. They are criticized because they’re funded in part by many businesses, including fossil fuel companies and philanthropic organizations which derived their money from businessmen. Connections between individual environmentalists and business are implicitly condemned. For example, Bill McKibben, a founder of 350.org, is asked about that organization’s financial support from business. He declares that he doesn’t know about specific sources; the viewer might interpret this response as either dishonest or indifferent to a potential problem. In our view, this representation is irresponsible and inaccurate; McKibben is a leading, impassioned advocate of environmental causes.
The film draws emotional responses by showing the clearing of deserts and forests in order to build fields of wind turbines and solar panels. These actions are presented as sources of particular concern, especially since the film claims that the plants being constructed are not really advantageous in the long run. These allegations are accompanied by seriously out of date information about the costs and benefits of these energy sources2. Watching the destruction of a forested area to produce a solar energy plant, one environmental engineer says “I’d never work with scum like this”! To show this is very misleading, insofar as this future plant represents, in my view, a valuable contribution to solving the climate crisis.
Since the film criticizes both environmentalists and what they advocate, one might ask what Moore, Gibbs and Zehner prefer that we do? Their answer is somehow to work towards the goal of limiting the growth of both population and consumption. There is, of course, no doubt that rapid growth contributes significantly to the harm being done to our environment. However, these factors are difficult, if not impossible, for us to control. What right do we, living in prosperous regions of the planet, have to tell those in the developing world not to follow our wasteful example?
In our view, this film has done a terrible disservice to the environmental movement. If we didn’t know better, we might assume that it was funded by the Koch brothers. But here’s the scary part: folks who are new to these problems might well be convinced by the film that environmentalists are not actually serving the putative goals of the environmental movement. Here are two examples of reactions of intelligent, environmentally concerned individuals, from whom one of us learned about the film. One said of the film in an email “I’ve found it both shocking and plausible!” The other said “His [Moore’s] argument that big money usurped the movement I found believable because I watch greed erode most systems.” These reactions of concerned viewers reveal the dangerous challenge created in this film by well-meaning, but irresponsible, people like Michael Moore.
1 See M. Miotti, G. J. Supran, E. J. Kim and J. E. Trancik, Personal Vehicles Evaluated against Climate Change Mitigation Targets, Environmental Science & Technology, published online September 27, 2016; DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.6b00177.
2 Michaja Pehl, Anders Arvesen, Florian Humpenöder, Alexander Popp, Edgar G. Hertwich and Gunnar Luderer, Understanding future emissions from low-carbon power systems by integration of life-cycle assessment and integrated energy modelling, Nature Energy, 2, 939-945 (2017)