film

Why Planet of the Humans is not worth your time

I wasn’t going to bother with Planet of the Humans, the new documentary that’s generating a lot of heat at the moment. It didn’t sound very good. But a couple of people asked what I thought of it, and so I watched it over the weekend. I’ll be honest: it’s not worth your time and if you haven’t seen it yet, don’t bother.

If you’ve seen the movie too and want to know what I think of it, here are some observations.

Let’s begin at the beginning. Within a few minutes of the start the laconic narrator goes along to a launch of the Chevy Volt. Immediately the alarm bells ring – the Chevy Volt isn’t even made any more. It made its debut at motor shows in 2008. He’s not about to use the Chevy Volt to assess the promise of electric cars is he? Not Tesla or the Nissan Leaf, or BYD’s electric buses?

But that’s exactly what happens. This is like saying that Star Wars has been ruined by this new character called Jar Jar Binks. The director, Jeff Gibbs, must be aware of all the developments in electric vehicles since, and he has chosen to feature a 12 year old example because it makes things look bad. That’s deeply cynical, and it doesn’t reflect reality in 2020.

Minutes later we go on a tour of a solar farm where the guide says “the efficiency of these panels is just under 8%.” I pause and rewind, just to make sure I heard correctly – surely he said 18. No, he definitely said 8. Wow. “If you happen to be NASA” he goes on, “they have very efficient panels. But we can’t afford those at about a million dollars per square inch.” Again, this is just bizarre. I don’t even know where you’d go to get panels that terrible. 1999?

I’m not NASA. I have mid-range South Korean QCell panels on my roof, and they get 19%. Who is this guy who got such bad advice that he ended up with less than 8% efficient panels? And how is this being presented as representative of solar’s potential?

This is within the first 20 minutes of the film, two staggeringly disingenuous examples. The director has to know that 8% efficiency isn’t standard, and that things have happened since the Chevy Volt. So there’s no other conclusion to draw: this is simply not a trustworthy film.

Michael Moore, who’s a producer here, trades on ‘gotcha’ moments where people unwittingly show what they really think. The film, which has none of Moore’s humour, aims for this kind of thing and misses. We see the Tesla Gigafactory that Elon Musk said would run on 100% renewable energy – but look, it’s got a grid wire going into it. So what? Did Musk say it would run off grid? That’s not the same thing. Or we see pictures of broken wind turbines and sad commentary saying that solar and wind “only last a few decades”. Is it supposed to last forever? Gas turbines also have to be replaced at around the same rate.

The film is at its worst when it gets personal. It goes after Al Gore, which is another strange step back in time. And it targets Bill McKibben in some very unfair ways, including the accusation that he is a shill for corporations because he suggests investing in renewable energy. You can read McKibben’s response to the film here.

The film makes some valid points about the limits to growth, and the need to recognise that the transition to a sustainable future isn’t a direct swap from fossil fuels to renewable energy. But it seems to be convinced that nobody ever says this, and this brave documentary maker is the only one speaking the truth. That’s nonsense, and the film ignores a decade of developments in the environmental movement. Where is the rising number of net zero targets? Where’s community energy or the Wellbeing economy? Where are the last ten years of the degrowth movement? Where’s Extinction Rebellion and the school strikes? None of this is mentioned.

Perhaps this lack of perspective is due to the fact that the film barely steps outside of the United States. There are blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos from Germany and Brazil, both of them negative. Otherwise it ignores millions of positive stories happening all around the world. I can understand how things look bleak in Trump’s America. But don’t extrapolate from one country’s situation and write off the whole energy transition. Don’t say ‘we humans’ are destroying the planet as if everybody lives like Americans. And don’t call your film Planet of the Humans if you’re not going to look at responses outside of your own country.

Having dumped on the environmental movement, green energy, and corporate engagement with sustainability, the film has nothing to put in its place. There are no solutions, and the film ends with footage of a orangutan struggling to survive in a logged forest. Thanks for nothing Jeff Gibbs.

I don’t like to be harsh, but this isn’t just a bad film, it’s toxically bad. Its good points are lost in the misinformation, exaggeration, and oddly out-dated objections. It provides fuel for enemies of environmentalism while offering nothing constructive to those trying to make a difference. The film-makers have been congratulating themselves on starting a debate, but you only have to read the comments below the Youtube video to see who they have served here. If Gibbs is serious when he says he’s trying to help, Planet of the Humans is a monumental own goal.

31 comments

  1. I think your suggestion that viewing Michael Moore’s film (viewed on YouTube by over seven million people: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zk11vI-7czE) is a waste of time is mistaken. As you might expect from that stable (it’s directed and presented by Moore’s long-time collaborator, Jeff Gibbs), it’s well made and interesting – as well as upsetting. I agree it’s misleading (and lazy) to ignore the current generation of solar and wind generators and EVs; therefore its suggestion that these are no more able to reduce greenhouse gases than fossil fuels may be incorrect – a debateable point. But, re renewables, that doesn’t detract from its main target – biomass/biofuels – which, as Bill McKibben has belatedly come to realise, do far more harm than good. As Gibbs notes, Al Gore’s business partner, David Blood, ‘turns forests into profits’.

    But the principle point of the film is that wind and solar power, biomass and biofuels, EVs and batteries are neither clean nor green: wind/solar/biofuels need inordinate amounts of space and all rely on scarce and often toxic resources. They’re destroying the environment. The horrific clip of small boys forced to dig out cobalt in the Congo is as heart-breaking as the orangutan sequence at the film’s conclusion. And the bulldozer grubbing up a 500-year old yucca plant is dreadful. It’s a message introduced by the film’s reference to Rachel Carson, an early founder of the modern environmental movement who was appalled by the damage being done by the widespread use of chemicals. As Gibbs says at the end of the film: ‘We must take control of the environmental movement and of our future from the billionaires and their permanent war on planet earth … it’s not the carbon dioxide molecule that’s destroying the planet, it’s us’.

    OK – perhaps the film muddles that message. But that’s not true of this much shorter talk by Michael Shellenberger: https://www.ted.com/talks/michael_shellenberger_why_renewables_can_t_save_the_planet/transcript. His question, which I think Moore and Gibbs are also asking, is this:

    ‘In the effort to try to save the climate, are we destroying the environment?’

    1. I think Shellenberger’s talk also muddles messages significantly – at least with hindsight. Wind and solar don’t make electricity expensive. And it doesn’t have to be true that they are bad for wildlife – Westmill wind and solar farm, where I’ve done a lot of work, is a very good counter-example. You also need fair comparisons: how is coal and oil extraction/transportation for wildlife, for example? Just because people go about it badly, doesn’t make these approaches intrinsically bad. As with everything, we need to proceed with careful consideration of unexpected consequences.
      So overall, we need to be very careful of muddying messages.Be very careful that our statements don’t cast doubt on the things that (done well) are our best hope of safeguarding our future. Point out pitfalls by all means, but take care to suitably caveat so people can’t take the wrong impression.

      1. Thanks for your interesting reply. Two points – you say:

        ‘Wind and solar don’t make electricity expensive.’

        Are you sure? This Shellenberger article strongly indicates otherwise: https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelshellenberger/2018/04/23/if-solar-and-wind-are-so-cheap-why-are-they-making-electricity-more-expensive/#3facb2631dc6. Where do you think he’s got it wrong?

        ‘… it doesn’t have to be true that they are bad for wildlife’

        I take your word for it that that’s true of Westmill. Well done. But suppose the Westmill site were grossed up so as to supply electric power to the whole of the UK (homes, shops, offices, factories, transportation systems, etc.). Do you really think the resulting impossibly vast area (including land to accommodate whatever solutions were used to solve the intermittency problem) could be developed without impacting UK wildlife? And then there are the scarce and toxic resources that would have to be acquired from other countries – that would surely damage wildlife (and local people) however well ‘people go about it’?

  2. In line with my earlier plea for proper balance, please don’t just assert things in emotive language like ‘impossibly vast’ unless you have justification. I thought David Mackay and Chris Goodall addressed these and other issues pretty well in ‘Without Hot Air’, ‘The Switch’, ‘What we need to do now’ etc. We also need to recognise that any way forward will have challenging down-sides – but ‘business as usual’ is set to destroy most of what we have now (and I know that’s emotive, but I do have justification..). Can you outline a positive way forward, not just sow doubts about strategies that are inevitably flawed at present, but have potential (as we learn to improve) to be better than any alternatives?
    Also, I’m sorry that I don’t have time to research this properly, but the Shellenberger article you quote (2 years old!) doesn’t seem to chime with latest analyses across the board – for example this one which is also in Forbes:
    http://www.forbes.com/sites/energyinnovation/2020/01/21/renewable-energy-prices-hit-record-lows-how-can-utilities-benefit-from-unstoppable-solar-and-wind/#12423ce22c84
    This may also be a selective quote – although it seems very much more in line with lots of other analyses. But what’s needed for a *positively helpful* discussion is a balanced, nuanced review.

    1. marcusasdf:

      David Mackay provides my justification for what you term ‘emotive language’. First watch this 2012 talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/david_mackay_a_reality_check_on_renewables/transcript. An extract:

      ‘… whatever mix of those renewables you’re using, if you want to power the UK on them, you’re going to need to cover something like 20 percent or 25 percent of the country with those renewables.’

      Then there’s his discussion in 2016 with Mark Lynas shortly before he (Mackay) died: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/03/idea-of-renewables-powering-uk-is-an-appalling-delusion-david-mackay. In it he argues that ‘solar, wind and biomass energy would require too much land, huge battery back-ups and cost too much to be a viable option for the UK’ – describing the idea as an ‘appalling delusion’.

      In view of these comments, my description of the area in the UK required for 100% renewables as ‘impossibly vast’ doesn’t seem unreasonable – or emotive.

      As for electricity prices, this chart (September 2019) shows that, for both households and businesses, Germany and Denmark – despite substantial investment in renewables – are among the most expensive in the world: https://www.globalpetrolprices.com/electricity_prices/. (And see my comment to Jeremy on the same issue.)

  3. I don’t agree that the film is well made, that’s part of the problem. The makers have failed to do the most basic fact-checking. I agree that they’re broadly right about biomass, but even that point is bungled because they talk about biomass as one big category. They don’t mention that biomass doesn’t have to mean burning virgin wood. See the very succesful sugar cane post-harvest waste electricity plants in places like Angola, Mauritius, India or Brazil. There’s good and bad biomass. Even where I think he has a legitimate point, Gibbs still demonstrates a very poor grasp of the issues.

    On Shellenberger, his article doesn’t consider inflation or tax, two pretty major factors. “Denmark and Germany have the first and second most expensive electricity in Europe” says Shellenberger, saying this is due to their renewable energy build out.

    Follow the link that he provides to back that up, and you get a comparison of energy prices across Europe that says “Residential electricity rates are taxed at an average of 37%. These values vary greatly from one country to another, with rates as high as 67% in Denmark and 55% in Germany.”
    https://1-stromvergleich.com/electricity-prices-europe/

    So either Shellenberger hasn’t read the report he cites, or chose to ignore tax in order to make his usual pro-nuclear arguments.

    1. Jeremy:

      We’ll have to disagree about whether or not the film is well made. And, as I said in my initial response, its failure to use current data about renewables is misleading.

      But this does not falsify the film’s key point: that wind and solar power, biomass and biofuels, EVs and batteries are neither clean nor green: wind/solar/biofuels need inordinate amounts of space and all rely on scarce and often toxic resources. And they’re seriously destructive of the natural environment: wildlife habitats, rare and endangered species, huge areas of forest and desert. It’s that message that makes the film worth seeing – even if you disagree with it or consider these problems to be an unfortunately necessary evil.

      Re electricity prices, your drawing attention to the tax issue is interesting. But the limited information that’s made available refers to taxation of residential electricity. However the data I just provided to marcusasdf (it’s a pity he/she doesn’t use his/her real name) shows that Germany’s and Denmark’s prices for businesses are also amongst the worst in the world. That may or may not be relevant – any thoughts?

      1. A documentary that gets basic facts wrong is a badly made film. I suspect it may be why the film has been posted on YouTube, whereas Gibbs/Moore films have had a full release in the past.

        The argument that renewable energy is neither clean nor green depends on how you want to define those very vague terms. Clean as in zero impact on the environment? Clearly impossible. Clean relative to coal or gas? Massively so. The film doesn’t allow any kind of contrast, and one experts actually says we’d be better off using fossil fuels in the first place – a categorically false statement.

        I don’t really have any thoughts about energy taxes in Germany and Denmark, but I’d suggest Shellenberger’s analysis is imcomplete without it.

        1. Jeremy:

          Editing, camerawork, direction etc. determine whether or not a filmed documentary is well made. That isn’t changed by a failure to use some current data. As I said before, we’ll have to disagree about that.

          As the film demonstrates, wind and solar power, biomass and biofuels, EVs and batteries are seriously destructive of the natural environment – epitomised for me by the dreadful sequences of small boys digging up cobalt and a bulldozer grubbing up a 500-year old yucca plant. Rachel Carson warned about humanity’s determination to cause such damage nearly 60 years ago. That’s the film’s key message. And that’s why it’s worth watching.

          1. The film states, through one of its ‘experts’, that they are so damaging that we would be better off using fossil fuels. That’s outright false on so many levels.

          2. ‘we would be better off using fossil fuels’

            That’s the opinion of one interviewee. It’s not the message of the film. And it’s certainly not a reason for advising people that watching the film is a waste of time.

          3. It goes unchallenged, and thus it’s the message that’s been taken away by many viewers – see the comments on YouTube. It’s why the film has had so much praise from the enemies of renewable energy.

          4. I’ve read a lot of those comments – although there are over 61,000! And I saw little, if any, evidence that that message had been taken away by many viewers

          5. ‘People can look for themselves.’

            Good plan. For interest I just now went to the comments, scrolled down until I got bored and couldn’t find one commentator who said that we would be better off using fossil fuels. In contrast several noted that renewables are seriously destructive of the natural environment. That’s the message that – despite its faults – makes the film worth watching.

          6. Thanks for the link Simon. In particular I agree with the review’s closing comment:

            it starts a conversation we need to have, and it’s a film that deserves to be seen.’

            Exactly.

          7. Robin, I just think it could have been done better. There are others saying similar things but since it included some out of data info and other flaws people will focus on that instead.

          8. Yes Simon, it could have been done better. As I said in my initial comment here, its use of out-of-date information was lazy. And it gave furious members of the environmental establishment, discomforted by its central message that renewable energy is neither clean nor green, a legitimate reason to attack it – even to try to have it withdrawn.

            Paradoxically however, that may have afforded the film greater publicity.

          9. … many of the film’s central points are actually lies.

            Hmm… So you don’t think that biomass and biofuels do more harm than good? That wind, solar and biofuels need inordinate amounts of space? That wind, solar, EVs and batteries rely on scarce and toxic resources that commonly leaving environment-damaging waste when mined? And that all therefore are seriously destructive of the natural environment – wildlife habitats, rare and endangered species and huge areas of forest and desert?

            Interesting.

          10. Robin Guenier I actually went and watched it and overall thumbs up. Yes it needs a lot of caveats, should have had updates and yes there have been developments but he isn’t the only one who has come out and said the Green NGO’s have been co-opted by corporations which Jeremy doesn’t adequately deal with. Its a conversation starter and I for one will be pushing them to take the next step

  4. Robin if you are concerned about the true economics of renewables, I’d highly recommend signing up to Chris Goodall’s Carbon Commentary blog https://www.carboncommentary.com/. Chris is an economist by training, and I like his analyses of economic and political alongside technical factors. If you haven’t read it yet, his book ‘What we need to do now’ would be very helpful to study. And if you want to quiz him, he’s inviting people to join in a discussion on ‘how the UK can get to zero carbon’ at Skeptics in the Pub: https://www.twitch.tv/sitp.

    I think it’s right to be concerned about economics, and also about impacts of massive scale up on natural environments and societies.I could see various ways to address these issues even with strategies featuring wind and solar, and it would be good to discuss this. But it’s vital to draw our information and arguments from a better balanced range of sources than just polemicists like Moore, or even Shellenberger (whose Environmental Progress foundation seems worryingly single-issue in its exclusive promotion of Nuclear). I note also that other Eco-Modernists like Nordhaus and Lynas seem much more wary of POTH.

    Marcus

    1. Marcus:

      Thanks for the interesting information and links.

      I think first I should explain that my sole reason for commenting on this thread was to point out that I think Jeremy was wrong to advise his readers that watching Moore’s film is a waste of time. I don’t think there’s much doubt that renewables are damaging the natural environment and it seems to me that getting people to understand and think about this can only be a good thing. And that’s exactly what Moore’s film, for all its faults, does. And getting people (including Jeremy’s readers) to face up to, think about and discuss this may for example be a potential route to finding a solution.

      Contributing to that is all I was hoping to achieve.

      A note on my background: I’m a lawyer with a particular interest in international law, the interpretation of agreements and treaties and in international climate politics. I’ve been following relevant developments since 2007 and have read extensively about how nations’ positions on the environment and climate change have developed since the 1960s. I have extensive experience of international negotiation – including in China and India. I believe I can make an informed contribution in these areas. I am neither a scientist nor an economist and don’t feel competent to contribute much to these disciplines.

      However, that shouldn’t, I suggest, prevent me from pointing out errors that I think scientists and economists have made regarding matters with which I’m familiar. For example, the first sentence of Chris Goodall’s blog article entitled ‘The road to ‘Net Zero’ (February 26, 2020) reads as follows:

      ‘Belatedly, the world has realised it has to eliminate greenhouse gases within a few decades.’

      I don’t think that’s correct: the countries where scientists, the media, academia and leading politicians are concerned about the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on the climate are essentially all in Western Europe, North America and Australasia. Most of the world (the source of 75 percent of emissions and comprising 84% of humanity) either doesn’t care or doesn’t see the issue as a priority. (I’d be happy to expand on that if you’re interested – but it’s hardly relevant to this thread.)

      I hope this may help to explain my position.

      Robin

  5. Hi Robin, thanks for your explanation and background, which is also very interesting. I do believe in open and even challenging discussion, though I think it should also take care to be fair and constructive in intent. But what I’ve seen of your debating across a variety of online forums actually worries me. I fear that proceeding in that manner is not going to serve humanity at all well.

    1. Well, Marcus, that’s all most interesting. I agree completely that in discussion it’s necessary ‘to be fair and constructive in intent’. Yet here you are indicating that my method of debating (apparently neither fair nor constructive) ‘is not going to serve humanity at all well’. That’s a fearsome charge – especially when it comes from someone who, quite properly, objects to assertion without justification. So please explain – with some evidence.

      I really look forward to your response.

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