Planet of the humans ... big pictures and small minds
Updated: Jun 16
Putting Michael Moore's name on a documentary guarantees it will get an audience. And Jeff Gibbs's documentary Planet of the Humans, is being promoted with "Michael Moore presents...". This is getting him an audience of millions, but also some serious flak. I've loved some of Moore's films, they are brilliant entertainment with a serious intent. But would I cite anything in a Michael Moore film as fact; accurate in every detail? Not without checking. There is no peer review of documentaries, no editorial filtering. A good Michael Moore film is like a good piece of fiction; it makes you think, challenges pre-conceptions, raises important issues and makes the bad guys squirm. Does he cherry pick? Of course. Is he guilty of confirmation bias? Absolutely.
So I approached Gibb's doco in much the same way I approached a Moore doc. Being a numbers person, I noticed plenty of mistakes, but did they undermine the message? What exactly was the message?
Was it that that renewables aren't all they are cracked up to be? Was it that we are screwed because we have this huge existential problem because we have far too many people with far too much wealth and power? Was it that while things are not hopeless, we are making matters worse by getting vast corporate powers with questionable ethics involved in the solution? Or was it all of the above.
But there was no alternative action plan.
Gibbs was being true to the Moore recipe; poke fun, make some serious points in an entertaining fashion. But what about the hard work of planning real solutions to vast problems? That's not what film makers do. They don't solve tough problems; they aren't engineers, they aren't scientists, they are entertainers. Engineering is hard and loaded with boring details. Gibbs' film is fun, even when it's serious. And if the wood burning, PM2.5 polluter and meat apologist Bill McKibben felt a little heat, then that's a good thing.
It's always easy to rip into any technology and Gibbs was well assisted by Ozzie Zehner (author of Green Illusions). They showed the deceptive narrative of renewable mythology pretty well. The high point of the film isn't in the transcript, its a visual montage starting at about 37:00 minutes ... showing the industrial processes behind renewable energy. It's absolutely essential that people understand that renewable technologies are filthy, dangerous and eco-destructive. Once that is accepted, then we can all engage in some rational decision making about choosing minimally destructive pathways to rapid decarbonisation. Let's stop pretending that solar panels, wind farms, batteries and big dams are made by happy artisans using ethically sourced, animal friendly, chemical free materials. Most cobalt really does come from mines in the DRC and the children really are involved and it sucks.
Mistakes and history
Some of the mistakes that have annoyed people are because those critics are reading what is clearly Gibbs' personal history of growing doubt about the sanctity of renewables and whipping him for not putting together the equivalent of a scientific review paper on the current state of renewable technologies. I remember being enamoured by electric vehicles and then seriously disappointed when I realised that they might just have pushed the pollution issue back to the power plant instead of eliminating it. I'd be embarrassed to admit how long it took me to realise that!
When I did eventually think a little harder about the problem, it was a revelation; just as it obviously was for Gibbs. In coal powered Australia, EVs are not very clean at all. But seeing as I live in the state with the largest percentage of clean electricity, they are better here than over the border. The truth is that measuring impact of electric vehicles is depressingly complex. Nothing is as simple as just measuring the emissions at the time pipe! That truth is untouched by critics getting anal over the details about the energy mix in this or that part of the planet.
The strong points Gibbs made were frequently of this nature. Similarly, Zehner is absolutely right in saying that all of the resources needed to harvest the wind and the sun aren't renewable; they are just like any other resource. Was he wrong to imply that they take more energy to make than they deliver? Of course, but the fact remains that their EROEI is pretty damn low.
Critics of the film tend to talk about mistakes without actually detailing them and go on to make their own similar mistakes during the process. Consider Leah C Stokes, an Assistant Professor of Political Science, she remarks:
Early in the film, Gibbs goes to see an electric vehicle demonstration. He concludes they are dirty because they probably run on coal. Except it’s not true.
Except that it is. Here's a breakdown of US electricity by source.
As you can see, US electricity is mostly from fossil fuels, which makes EVs dirty; unless you live close to a nuclear plant, then your EV will be cleaner. Are EV's, on average, as dirty as oil fuelled vehicles? That's not really very important. Being better than oil isn't much of an aspiration! What's relevant is whether they are as clean as we need them to be? The answer to that is no. And not just because of the electricity, but also the batteries.
Below is an image that summarises EV life cycle emissions from a 2018 study. As you can see, the best results are in nuclear powered France, not Germany where the nuclear plants have been prematurely closed. But the life-cycle emissions embodied in batteries are massive. They equal the embodied emissions of the entire rest of the car. This isn't surprising when you consider that an 85 kWh weighs in at 540 kilograms.
Blogger Ben Wehrman makes similar mistakes; slamming Gibbs but making similar mistakes. He agrees with Gibbs that renewable advocates shouldn't tell lies just to get a cheer from the crowd, but then he tells his own.
According to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), wind and solar are both on track to decimate natural gas in new generating capacity over the next three years: (Wind, 26,167 MW; Solar, 22,593 MW; Natural Gas, 21,822 MW).
The weasel word here that makes Wehrman's claim so misleading is that little word "new".
Have a look at the chart of US electricity above. Does it look like solar and wind are challenging fossil fuels in electricity production in the US? The biggest source of clean electricity in the US is nuclear. And who is trying to shut nuclear down? Many of the critics of Gibbs film. And probably Gibbs and Moore as well.
The environmental movement has needed some kind of wake up call for decades. Many have tried, but perhaps Gibbs will succeed. The defensive "how dare you criticise us" spirit of the attacks sends a message.
The environment movement will fail to drive the size of the change that is required if they remain implicitly anti-science. They have shown this bias consistently ... by both ignoring the impact of animal agriculture and land use change on the climate as well as being totally deranged in their opposition to nuclear power and, in particular, nuclear waste. How can anybody (like McKibben) with a wood stove possibly point the finger at nuclear on its safety record or its waste? It's bizarre.
Science is a job-lot, you can't just ignore the stuff that suits you: GM crops won't give you two heads. Vaccines are bloody amazing. Homeopathy doesn't work. You don't need to eat animal products. Wood stoves are a serious health hazard. The so called nuclear waste problem was solved decades ago. Nuclear power is safe and efficient, and could be incredibly cheap if the environment movement got out of the way and supported a total reformation of the regulatory system. For details, spend a month trawling through the Thorcon Library.