Thomas Robert Malthus (18th-century English economist) wrote that the power of the population is infinitely greater than the earth’s power to produce subsistence for men. He argued that an exponentially increasing human population would eventually outweigh the planet’s finite resources.
The words of Malthus echo throughout the documentary Planet of the Humans, a Michael Moore-produced documentary. Jeff Gibbs, a long-time Moore associate, directed this video, which is a polemic against renewable energy. It claims that Earth simply has too many people.
The film generated a lot of controversy. It was criticized by scientists and environmentalists for its approach and seized on by climate skeptics to support their views. Michael Moore, who has an executive producer credit for the film, has claimed that the film is meant to warn about corporate America’s involvement in the environmental movement.
Many who watched the film didn’t take that message home. The film was supported by corporate fossil fuel-backed groups like the libertarian Heartland Institute. Far-right political blog Breitbart, backed both by Trump backer Robert Mercer and climate skeptic Robert Mercer has claimed that the film shows that renewable energy is more polluting then fossil fuels. Planet of the Humans is not a cut from corporate America. It has been made into a weapon by the super-rich and big oil.
To understand the commotion, I watched Planet of the Humans. You can also watch it on YouTube. This is a wild ride.
It is obvious that Gibbs was involved in the production of the film. He produced Moore’s award-winning documentary films Bowling for Columbine, and Fahrenheit 911. Gibbs is the director, narrator, and editor of the film with a small crew. In a monologue, Gibbs lists his environmental accomplishments and describes himself as a “tree hugger” who has a history of environmental activism. He also describes himself as a documentarian who focuses on biodiversity loss.
Around seven minutes in, Gibbs has his first “gotcha” moment as he visits Vermont’s solar power festival. Although the festival’s organizers claim it is powered 100% by solar energy, it becomes clear that the festival’s solar panels aren’t producing enough power to keep it on. Gibbs grabs staff members who are busy connecting to the mains supply in order to keep the main stage afloat. We are told that solar power cannot be relied upon to keep the lights on and the PA running.
Gibbs mumbles, “Maybe next-time things will go better.”
Gibbs engages in the baseload power fallacy right away. This argument states that conventional energy generation (fossil fuels and nuclear power) is required to produce electricity due to intermittent renewable energy sources like wind and sun.
The film shows Barack Obama’s 2008 victory and highlights the fact that $100 billion was invested by Obama in green energy development. Gibbs explains that this is when Richard Branson, Goldman Sachs and other investors made it possible to invest in green energy development.
Invested in renewable energy projects. Moore claims that this is the first sign of the film’s main theme. It is that corporate power holds a large stake, which is bad.
Gibbs attends the Lansing press conference for the 2010 release the Chevy Volt, an electrical car. Gibbs gets another chance when he convinces the Chevy representative that the demonstration car is being powered by the mains. The mains in Lansing, Michigan in 2010, were 95% coal-fired generation. Moore-style, the footage looks choppy and cut up so that the speakers appear dishonest and evasive. However, they don’t say anything remotely dishonest. Today, just 23% of America’s electricity comes from coal. In 2010, America had 45%. It’s not surprising that Lansing, MI was heavily dependent on coal in 2010.
This is a problem with Planet of the Humansspan: A lot of the data and footage presented date back to a time when the industry was very different. Gibbs’ arguments are not valid as the sector has changed at a rapid pace since 2010.
Gibbs walks down the street to see a solar project producing 64,000 kilowatts per year enough to power 10 homes. This footage shows that solar power is an inefficient, expensive boondoggle and in 2010 solar power was still inefficient and costly . Despite being far more efficient than their predecessors, the technology has improved over the years. In many cases, renewables are cheaper than fossil fuels.
It’s not important that Gibbs debunks wind power. He visits a Michigan onshore wind farm and is informed that wind turbines can be large and heavy and that they require large amounts of concrete to pour the base.
Gibbs asks, “Is it possible for machines made by industrial civilizations to save us from industrial civilisation?”
We leave that question unanswered and return to Vermont where residents visit a 21-turbine construction. Gibbs is shocked to hear that the turbines will last for 20 years. He then asks the assembled whether the project is “mountaintop extraction for wind instead of coal,” which both he and others agree are equally terrible.
Gibbs says that some workers are passing by on a pickup truck. Gibbs then adds, “I think they’re going to ask us for our move.” Instead, a worker responds with a cheerful “hello.”
Another local expounds on inefficiency of wind power. He claims that “cycling up and down” creates a larger carbon footprint than if it is run straight. He says that you need to have that power. This is a variation of the baseload power error and a second fallacy central to the film’s premise. It states that renewable energy generates the same amount as fossil fuel generation. It is simply not true. Even an older meta-analysis of windfarms studies, done back in 2010, when turbines were much less efficient, showed that the average turbine produces 20 times as much energy as it needs to produce. According to new research from Denmark, modern onshore turbines may have a longer life span than initially thought. They could last up to 35 years.
Gibbs states that green energy was not what it appeared to be everywhere he went.
Next, he delved into hydrogen technology. A hydrogen salesman admitted that most of the hydrogen was being produced from oil and natural gas at the time. Gibbs either doesn’t know or is unwilling to discuss the virtually limitless potential for green hydrogen from 100% renewable resources, which is being launched worldwide with plans for 100+ megawatt facilities in many countries.
Gibbs reveals that he was reading about an elephant dung-powered zoo at this point. He laments, “But it turned out that the elephants couldn’t produce enough manure for the heating of the elephant barn.”
Gibbs targets ethanol, which is used in automotive fuels to reduce emissions –an innovation widely considered a temporary measure as the long-term phase out of the internal combustion engine moves slowly forward.
He then goes on to cite Richard York, whose 2012 study looked at the displacement effect of renewables versus fossil fuels, finding that “each unit of electricity generated by non-fossil-fuel sources displaced less than one-tenth of a unit of fossil-fuel-generated electricity.” The eight year old study concluded that “suppressing the use of fossil fuel will require changes other than simply technical ones such as expanding non-fossil-fuel energy production.”
That argument was valid eight years ago. With coal and crude both in decline, and renewables in large countries producing more power than any other source combined, the displacement argument doesn’t just seem old .
Next up on Gibbs’ list is green tech generally. Ozzie Zehner, a science writer and one of the film’s producers, joins Gibbs to describe the production process of solar panels. Gibbs claims that the use of coal and mined silicon in the production solar panels shows that it is not possible to replace coal or other fossil fuel span>
This is a fallacy that has many implications, especially in relation to the production of solar panel panels. Zehner assumes that solar PV cell production arc furnaces will always be powered with coal, which is a strange assumption considering electric arc furnaces are in large part of the world.
Solar cells emit the same amount of carbon as coal, but that claim is false. A study of the return on solar PV facilities showed that even older systems can cover their costs and reduce the associated emissions in less than two years. Even if coal is used in panel production, this is no longer a problem. The greenhouse gas emissions from the production of panels are negated within a very short time.
Next, Gibbs takes aim at the U.S. effort to replace coal-burning plants with natural gas, which was spearheaded by groups like the Sierra Club. The use of natural gas, which is also a fossil fuel has likely led to an increase the atmospheric methane.
Gibbs assumes natural gas is just as harmful as coal. He completely neglects to mention that natural gas, although a hydrocarbon produces 50%-60% less CO2than coal and significantly less particulate polluting. In most developed countries, natural gas is considered a “bridgefuel” that can be used until the elimination of hydrocarbons.
Gibbs returns to baseload power fallacy variations, with a few industry insiders promoting the outdated logic. You’ll find few industry insiders who believe intermittency is a hindrance to low-carbon transition in 2020. Carbon Tracker says that variability is a problem to be managed and not an insoluble obstacle.
Gibbs then shares his knowledge about power storage. He says that he found less than a tenth of one per cent of the battery storage needed when he looked it up. They start to lose their value in a few years and will need to be replaced within a few years.
He is likely referring to lithium-ion batteries. These are only one of many large-scale solutions for energy storage. There are many other viable, sustainable, and scalable options, including pump hydro, gravity and cryogenic as well as saltwater, air, kinetic and kinetic storage. Graphene has the potential to make conventional batteries much more efficient. The amount of energy storage in advanced economies is increasing rapidly. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, global energy storage will grow by 40% annually until 2025. Smaller, decentralized storage facilities, however, will help balance electricity demand across all networks.
Gibbs and Zehner now move on to large solar thermal arrays. They visit a California parabolic trough array. Zehner points out that the sun rises in the morning using natural gas. It takes a lot energy and materials to create a variety renewable energy technology, according to Zehner. He says, “We are basically being fed a lie.”
Gibbs points out that the Koch brothers, a billionaire family that is “the evildoers,” have companies that produce components for solar arrays. Zehner asserts that the funny thing about criticizing solar plants like these is that you are accused of working for Koch brothers. This is a variation of the guilt-by-association fallacy. If bad people are involved, then the thing being considered must also be bad.
The screen then plays a lengthy montage of industrial process to dramatic music. The screen then flashes words with interesting facts such as “Concrete is the third leading cause for CO2 emissions.” Also, names of metals are displayed. Probably because chemical names can be scary. The message is clear: “industry, it’s really bad, folks span>
Gibbs then examines water availability, fisheries and agricultural production to support his Malthusian view that the planet cannot sustain such large numbers of people. Gibbs’ interviewees say that “population growth continues to the herd of elephants” Another expert said that “I don’t think we’re going to find any way out of this one… without some sort of major death in population, there’s no turning back.” This is a frightening realization, Gibbs claims, which is a somewhat obscure figure.
Gibbs’ solution is not clear. It is interesting to see self-confessed socialists like Moore subscribe to such an idea. Malthusianism was a central conceit of both eugenicists as well as the far right throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Michael Shermer, a science writer, has pointed out that Malthus ideas have inspired a lot bad policy. This includes the 19th century Poor Law Amendment in England and the 1927 Supreme Court decision that “undesirable citizens” should be sterilized.
Paul Ehrlich was also inspired by Malthus’s 1968 book The Population Bomb. This book laid the groundwork for many of the world’s problems at the feet of overpopulation. Malthus’s work inspired Ehrlich to write his 1968 book The Population Bomb, which argued that overpopulation is the root of many of the world’s problems.
These realizations are important, but it is also important to remember that the overpopulation argument could be a fallacy. Those who study population growth regularly point out that peoples in the developed world are actually decreasing. The rapid growth of population is now the preserve only of the developing world, especially Africa. This brings us back to Ehrlich’s truly disturbing suggestions. These details are not covered by Gibbs.
Gibbs turns a fallacious argument into a rhetorical ploy. “Why are bankers and industrialists only focused on narrow solutions to green technology?” he inquires. The short answer is that they don’t. Green tech may be able to solve some of our needs but policymakers and environmental specialists insist that sustainability is more dependent on changing human behaviour. This includes eating differently, sourcing local produce, and refurbishing and reusing old objects.
Gibbs persists with his thesis. He suggests that green energy could be considered a religion, a belief system meant to alleviate our fear of death.
He visits Burlington, Vermont to see a biomass plant that can burn 30 cords of wood.
If the plant was running for 24 hours, it would produce about 1.3 million gallons of wood per hour. Gibbs found an issue with which many environmentalists can agree: The viability of biomass fuel as a “green” source of energy is at best controversial. Even though the biomass produces lots of carbon, it is still able to produce a lot of greenhouse gases. In many countries, there are no regulations for biomass. To increase efficiency, polluting materials are often burned together with biomass.
Gibbs speaks to residents living near the biomass plant, who complain about the sooty smoke. To raise the temperature of the fires, vehicle tires are also burned with wood biomass. Students at Michigan State University protest a contract for renewable energy with a company that runs biomass plants. Gibbs then attacks Bill McKibben, an environmentalist, for advocating biomass. This is odd considering McKibben has vocally and clearly opposed the proliferation biomass.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) then shows us a bar chart that indicates that biofuels account for almost 70% of all global renewable energy generation. This claim, which was made in 2020, is quite perplexing. Those who are familiar with statistics will know that in 2019 put the global share for renewable energy from biofuels around 8%.
Moving on to biofuel financing, we discuss the supposed complicity by McKibben and investment manager David Blood. He claims that they are preaching green energy for no other reason than the profit motive. Al Gore’s 2006 film A Convenient Truth was merely an advertisement campaign to promote biomass investment to finance and big business. Gibbs states that environmentalists no longer resist the profit motive but are collaborating with them. “The merging of environmentalism with capitalism is now complete.”
Gibbs continues to focus on Bill McKibben’s 350.org organization for taking money from large donors like The Rockerfeller Foundation. This implies that 350.org is doing something nefarious though the viewer is free to imagine what it might be. Gibbs doesn’t consider the alternative to big finance investing in renewables in opposition to McKibben’s 350.org. He does not even consider the possibility that the banks would stay away from renewables and continue investing in fossil fuels. Gibbs does not believe that this would be a better outcome. We don’t know.
Gibbs has completely ignored a key feature of renewable energy, which can demolish the notion that renewables are just a corporate cash grab. This is centralization energy supply and provision. It is a characteristic of low-carbon energy systems. System with more sources of generation and storage can be distributed more than traditional systems that are dependent on large, nuclear-powered, fossil-fueled stations. Experts such as Carlo Vezzoli argue that distributed renewable energy systems are more sustainable than the dominant centralised and nuclear-powered systems. They are also less likely to be able to dominate a distributed system like they would a system dominated by large power plants.
Gibbs wraps up the film by addressing Malthus morosely, saying: “There is an escape from this: We humans must accept that infinite growth is suicide on a finite world.” But what does that mean? He continues: “We must seize control of our environment and our future from billionaires and their permanent warfare on planet Earth” though no tips are available. He adds, “Less must not be the newer more.” “Instead climate change, it’s time to at last accept that it is not the carbon dioxide molecule that’s destroying the planet it’s us,” the film concludes with a gritty, heartbreaking montage of environmental destruction accompanied by emotive musical accompaniment.
The renewable energy industry should be inspected in depth and with consistent inquiry, just like any other industry. To ensure that the sector is accountable and to verify that their claims are true, it is important to ask hard questions of its promoters. Humanity needs to believe that it can do the right thing for the right reasons. It is crucial to question its proponents and build trust in order to inform policy.
However, that scrutiny and those investigations must be thorough. They must be done from an informed and current position. As long as you don’t use outdated arguments and vague attacks as serious inquiry, it is possible for genuinely evil-faith causes to use such work as a cudgel, as Jeff Gibbs, his comrades, and others are discovering. Moore and Gibbs’ film is also pessimistic, as they identify the problems, but do not offer any solutions. The film offers no way out or forward, and the unspoken message is “What’s the point?”
Which case is it?