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.