Planet of the Humans, a weak documentary on sustainable energy

American filmmaker Michael Moore published the documentary Planet of the Humans on 21 April 2020 (Earth Day). I publish a lot on energy transition and a number of people was curious about my opinion on the film. 

In reaction to quite some traffic from Australia and the US, a translation of my rebuttal originally published in Dutch. 

Falsehoods and fallacies

While you probably have more time to waste than ever and Planet of the Humans is free to watch, I don’t recommend watching the movie. The documentary is extremely disappointing.

Source: XKCD

I would prefer to ignore this film. Unfortunately, experience with shock docs on energy is that climate skeptics and other contrarians spread bullshit like viruses. This increases the chance that people with a more pleasant attitude to life and society will also be exposed to the fallacies in the film. 

And indeed, with practically everything that I published last week, someone felt compelled to bring up this film. Often undoubtedly sincere, probably also often to provoke pointless shadow boxing.

Especially now that I have seen the film, I know I will struggle to withstand taking part in pointless discussions on this pointless film. So to make life easier, here are my main findings. Notes in brown are points which bothered me most, notes in red are obvious lies which the filmmakers nevertheless use to get to far-stretched conclusions. 

Section 1. ‘Renewable energy is not sustainable’.

The film starts with an introduction to climate and the origin story of director Jeff Gibbs. In early childhood, the filmmaker sabotaged a bulldozer that would cut down a forest. Since then, he has always been involved in environmental and climate affairs. Now, however, he is starting to doubt the known solutions. Notes:

  • False example (7:00). At a festival ‘powered by the sun’, Gibbs finds out that the organization is cranking up diesel generators. Ha, caught! Either Gibbs made this film for people who like to laugh at hippies, or Gibbs estimates that part of his audience doesn’t understand that solar panels only provide energy when the sun shines.
  • Disinformation (18:30). A man with a cap claims (without rebuttal) that coal-fired power stations emit more CO2 as more wind turbines are connected to the grid. This is nonsense. When wind powers turbines, fossil power plants turn down their output, use less fuel and thus emit less CO2. 
  • ‘Authorities’ that back Gibbs (22:00). Gibbs puts forward a sociologist, an anthropologist and two writers, who happen to fully support Gibbs’s view that “technological fixes” don’t help combat climate change. Zero evidence is provided.
  • Disinformation (25:30). Ozzie Zehner, author of ‘Green Illusions’ (and producer of this documentary), describes how coal is used in the production of solar panels. He concludes that solar panels do not replace fossil energy sources. This is nonsense. The ‘energy payback time’ of solar panels is great.
  • False suggestion (26:00). Zehner shows some newly built gas plants and claims that the electricity production from all recently closed coal plants in the US has been taken over by new gas plants. In fact, the market share of fossil energy (coal + natural gas) in US electricity production decreased by ± 6 percentage points between 2010 and 2018. The share of renewable electricity increased by ± 6 percentage points in the same period.
  • Hate-mongering (36.00). After another series of half-truths and whole falsehoods from Zehner, Gibbs reveals that the brothers David and Charles Koch (oil billionaires everyone loves to hate ) make good money on energy transition. This revelation is immediately followed by accelerated montage of mining, child labor, tree cutting and fossil energy use for wind and solar parks and electric cars. This borders on demagogy.

Section 2. ‘Not technological fixes are the problem, we are’. 

After drawing the erroneous conclusion that wind turbines, solar panels and electric cars offer no solution to climate change, Gibbs zooms out to address the ‘real problem’. The industrial society that strives for growth, needs the idea of ​​renewable energy as an argument for not having to change our way of life. Notes: 

  • ‘Authorities’ that back Gibbs (46:00). The experts from minute 22 return to back Gibbs in his claim that population growth coupled with increasing prosperity is the real culprit. A man with a beanie in the introduction had already suggested that. This segment again lacks other expert opinions, as well as evidence. Furthermore, with the falsehoods presented in the film this far, it is irresponsible to point to population growth. Dangerous assumptions are one step away. 
  • Sustainable is a religion (49:00). In conversation with a social psychologist, Gibbs comes to the ‘conclusion’ that our belief in renewable energy just adds to a long line of ‘dangerous religious actions’ through which humanity has endeavored to deal with inevitable mortality. This doesn’t make any sense but it probably serves to make Gibbs sound interesting. 

Section 3. ‘Biomass is a pact with the devil’

After the trust in sustainable energy has been framed as dangerously religious, Gibbs continues with shocking images and claims on biomass. Clever, biomass is the most shadowy segment in the spectrum of all conceivable renewable energy. Here, actual scandals in terms of CO2 accounting and local air pollution can be highlighted. Notes:

  • One-sided story (53:00). An activist claims that ‘whole trees’ disappear in a biomass-fired power plant. Unfortunately, not everything that looks like a whole tree is suitable for production of furniture, homes or toys. Just as the most beautiful apples go to the supermarket and less beautiful apples to juice manufacturers, forestry also has its b-choice. Sustainable does biomass exist, suggesting that it doesn’t is false.
  • Suggestive story (60:00). With a series of fragments, Gibbs creates the image that almost all environmental organizations are huge fans of biomass, as the main alternative for coal. Those who’ve experienced just a bit of the long standing debate on biomass know that this is certainly not the case. Well-known environmental organisations globally fight against biomass. Rather too much than too little . 
  • False nuance (67:00). Gibbs lists many environmentalists who give evasive answers when Gibbs asks them on their position on biomass. Not surprising, given the many nuances around this field, a quick and ready answer should be more suspect than not being able to present such an answer on the spot.

Section 4. ‘Rich crooks deceive the world’

After falsely accusing all forms of renewable energy and the environmental movement as a whole, Gibbs continues to suggest environmental organisations are largely funded by ‘bad’ companies and billionaires. Notes:

  • Suggestive story (80:00). Gibbs lists cash flows to environmental organisations, accompanied by statements from environmental activists that seem to fit the donors interests. Seem, because Gibbs again fails to deliver any evidence.

In summary. Lots of hand waving, no substance

The energy sector is a multi-billion dollar business. Converting the current fossil energy sector into a CO2-neutral industry is a multi-billion dollar business. Fortunately, established parties with a fossil history are finally starting to join in. 

Good/bad intentions?

It is practically inevitable that there will be dodgy types hunting for subsidies. Scandals have been uncovered and more will be uncovered.

That does not mean, as Moore, Gibbs and Zehner conclude, that renewable energy is a false solution that distracts us from the real problem. It is Moore, Gibbs and Zehner who distract us from reality. Whether the gentlemen did present these ‘alternative facts’ with good or with bad intentions, is anyone’s guess. Either way, the effect will be substantial. Within 5 days of publication, the film has already been viewed 3 million times. This sadly is going to create a lot of senseless fuss. 

Update May 1, 2020: This article has caused quite a stir. The most frequently asked question (in neat to absolutely not so neat variants) is whether I was really unable to mention anything nice about this documentary. My initial answer to this is that any positive or legitimate points are irrelevant in light of the disinformation described above. A film that is so clearly constructed to incite anger with false information does not deserve constructive feedback.

Logically, I regularly received the follow-up question whether I do not at al see the disadvantages of the energy transition described in this film. Of course I see those disadvantages. It is also true, of course, that there are entities that abuse this situation. These seemingly fair points have been so falsely enlarged by Gibbs and Zehner that indeed I am unable to point to justified, let alone positive takeaways. 

Source: Michael Moore, via Youtube / Imagecredit: Michael Moore, via Youtube

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