A still from Planet of the Humans, which has provoked a furious reaction. Photograph: Erik Pedersen/Handout
Academy Award®-winning filmmaker Michael Moore has just released a new documentary, Planet of the Humans. The film can be seen now free on YouTube takes a harsh look at how the environmental movement has lost its way by promoting renewable energy, including biomass, solar panels and windmills, as the solution to our environmental emergencies despite their unsustainable reliance on forests, ores and fossil energy to produce them. The film attempts to raise awareness of the futility of relying on techno-fixes and band-aids championed as the “environmental movement” in the midst of a human-caused extinction event. Earth Overshoot’s mission is to make ecological limits central to all personal and public decision-making through education and advocacy. Earth Overshoot builds upon the key messages in 8 Billion Angels, a documentary feature film produced by Terry Spahr about overpopulation as the upstream cause of our environmental emergencies. Earth Overshoot: Ardmore PA. Tel: 610-420-5989
Blog from the Overpopulation Project – by Philip Cafaro and Jane O’Sullivan
Planet of the Humans: New Film Shakes Up a Complacent Environmental Movement
Overpopulation Research Project ecological footprint, Environmental movement April 28, 2020 3 Minutes
A full-length feature film from Michael Moore and long-time collaborator Jeff Gibbs, first screened last year, has just been released for free viewing on YouTube, garnering over 3 million views in less than a week. While flawed in several ways, it nevertheless makes a valuable contribution to the public discourse on environmentalism. It is essential viewing for serious environmentalists.
Planet of the Humans’ main thesis is that modern environmentalism is a failure. It’s a plausible thesis, according to the recent scientific literature on climate change and biodiversity loss. Greenhouse gas emissions are increasing, the planet is getting hotter, and extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and more dangerous. The Earth has lost 50% to 60% of its wild vertebrate numbers in just the past 50 years, with most species declining in numbers, many drastically. Whatever your views on the way forward environmentally, we can probably all agree that the status quo isn’t working and that we need more frank public discussion of these matters. Kudos to Gibbs and Moore for spurring such discussions.
Critics of the film have noted inaccuracies and outdated information in its treatment of renewable energy. The film arguably gets the importance of quickly transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy drastically wrong. But many environmentalists err in the other direction by inflating the benefits of this transition and more importantly, by failing to fit it into a larger context of limiting overall human demands on nature.
Fact check – reg Alvarez
Greg is AWEA’s Deputy Director, External Communications and editor for Into the Wind, He has a Master’s degree in Global Environmental Policy.
Unfortunately, and somewhat strangely, the filmmakers chose to focus much of their attention erroneously critiquing a leading climate solution—renewable energy.
The reality is wind and solar today are already avoiding substantial amounts of carbon emissions, and the potential to cut even more CO2 emissions is enormous. Today wind avoids 42 million cars’ worth of carbon pollution a year, and that number will steadily grow as wind’s near-record pipeline of projects in development comes online. The book Drawdown is a comprehensive examination of 100 different solutions to climate change, with input from more than 100 of the world’s foremost climate researchers. It finds onshore wind power is the second most effective way to reduce emissions, and offshore wind ranks 22nd on the list
Let’s set the record straight on where this film gets it wrong. See this article for an in-depth look at the film’s problematic portrayal of solar power.
A misunderstanding of the power system
No electricity source runs 100 percent of the time, including coal, gas, and nuclear plants in addition to wind and solar. Conventional power plants need to go offline for maintenance or other unexpected reasons. In Texas, coal piles flooded during Hurricane Harvey and become frozen during cold spells, rendering coal plants inoperable. In fact, during Polar Vortex weather events in 2019 and 2014, and the Bomb Cyclone event in 2018, conventional power plants experienced widespread failures because of the extreme cold.
Grid operators have decades of experience managing these changes in supply and demand, and it’s proven that sudden, unexpected outages at large conventional power plants are more costly and difficult to manage than the gradual, predictable changes in wind and solar output. Because of the balancing efforts grid operators undertake, it’s simply untrue that fossil fuel reserves run around the clock for when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine, as the documentary falsely claims.
Along these lines, the documentary attacks Apple, the Tesla Gigafactory and others for claiming they run on renewable energy. However, the film again misunderstands how the power system works. The electricity grid can be thought of like an ATM. When a corporate buyer of wind energy says it’s buying enough wind to power a data center for example, that doesn’t necessarily mean the electricity generated by a wind farm feeds directly into the data center.
Say you deposit $20 in the ATM near your office. A short time later, you withdraw it from the ATM near your house. You now have a different bill than the one you deposited, but that’s irrelevant; you still have $20. This aspect of the banking system is analogous to how the electric power system works: it aggregates all sources of electricity supply and demand over a large geographic area, allowing one to add wind energy in one area and use an equivalent amount of electricity somewhere else on the grid.
Wrong on carbon footprints and lifecycle impacts
At several points in the documentary, filmmakers criticize the materials used to build wind turbines and solar panels and claim that emissions generated to build renewable energy projects are greater than the carbon reduction benefits the projects will create. This is simply false.
The average wind project repays its carbon footprint in less than six months and generates zero carbon electricity for the remainder of its 20 to 30 year lifespan. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory reviewed all published research on this topic and concluded that wind energy’s carbon footprint is a fraction of all fossil fuels’ and even lower than nuclear and most other renewable energy sources. Every study by utilities, independent power system operators, and government entities has found those pollution reductions are as large or larger than expected. Wind turbines are primarily made of steel and concrete, as the documentary notes, but so is nearly every man-made structure in modern society. Cars, buildings, sidewalks, and countless other structures, not to mention conventional power plants, are also constructed using steel and concrete. Nor do U.S. wind turbines use significant amounts of rare earth materials as the film portrays—over 95 percent of the U.S. wind turbine fleet uses gearboxes rather than direct drive machines, which means rare earths are not used.
Wind and Solar’s impact on fossil fuel use
The film’s claim that wind and solar energy is “not replacing fossil fuels” is patently false. While 13,703 megawatts (MW) of coal-fired capacity was retired in 2019, more wind power capacity was added to the grid than any other generation technology. Together, wind and solar represent 62 percent of capacity added in 2019. Furthermore, wind energy provided 7.2 percent of the nation’s electricity in 2019, up from a 6.5 percent share in 2018. At the same time electricity generated from coal dropped 15 percent from 2018 levels, continuing its decline in the U.S. electricity market. Wind energy’s share of U.S. electricity generation has more than tripled since 2010 when wind accounted for 2.3 percent of total generation. Iowa and Kansas, for example, now both generate over 40 percent of their electricity using wind, and in both states wind is the largest electricity source.
Contemporary mainstream environmentalism has degenerated into advocacy of technological solutions to climate change, narrowly understood as a matter of efficient resource use. Environmentalism needs to return to a comprehensive critique of human overpopulation, overconsumption, and overdevelopment—and become a movement aimed at creating societies with fewer people, more protected areas, and economies that support limited numbers of people comfortably rather than ever more people in luxury.
If the public comments on YouTube are an accurate indication, many viewers of Planet of the Humans agree with its criticisms of environmental leaders’ cosiness with big business and the movement’s over-reliance on technological fixes to deal with our environmental problems. But many of them also wonder: if technology won’t save us, what will? Unfortunately, as critics have noted, the film is short on solutions. It quotes Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute (“There are too many human beings using too much, too fast”) and Nina Jablonski, an anthropologist at Penn State University (“Population growth continues to be, not the elephant, the herd of elephants in the room”). But it chooses not to wade into the realm of policy proposals to tame economic and demographic growth—a missed opportunity in our opinion (see TOP’s comprehensive policy suggestions here).
(Article contd) Being a Michael Moore film, Planet of the Humans has a general anti-capitalist vibe. It is certainly a concern, if the same deep pockets that are thwarting climate action are controlling the clean energy transition. But do the film’s producers fall for the temptation to paint any link with big-money as disingenuous profiteering under cover of environmental activism? If the Koch brothers, evidently major backers of climate denialism, have quietly cornered the market for wind turbine parts, does this make all wind energy advocates co-conspirators?
This is what we are encouraged to believe, when Planet of the Humans takes a hatchet to various “villains.” But among these, climate activist Bill McKibben has written one of the most trenchant criticisms ever published on the foolishness of the endless growth economy. Jeremy Grantham, dismissed as a “timber investment billionaire,” has done more than most to bring to the climate response the depth that this film advocates, through both philanthropy and advocacy, including scathing criticism of capitalism and insistence on addressing human population growth.
Cheap shots at these people can only undermine the film’s intent. And with its grim tone and paucity of positive suggestions, it can be misinterpreted as a counsel of despair (just scroll through those YouTube comments to see plenty of examples). It could be hard for viewers who are not already intimate with a full range of potential climate change responses to know whether we should do anything at all, given that whatever we’re likely to do might profit some underhanded capitalist.
In sum, the film isn’t perfect. But it raises important issues. If you haven’t done so already, we urge you to see Planet of the Humans and decide for yourself what it gets wrong and right.
Review: Planet of the Humans – by Richard Heinberg, Resilience, 4-28-20.
A few days ago, Emily Atkin posted a reaction to Michael Moore’s latest film, Planet of the Humans (directed and narrated by Jeff Gibbs), in which she began by admitting that she hadn’t seen the film yet. When writers take that approach, you know there’s already blood in the water. (She has since watched the film and written an actual review. Full disclosure: I’m in the film, included as one of the “good guys.” But I don’t intend to let that fact distort my comments in this review.)
The film is controversial because it makes two big claims: first, that renewable energy is a sham; second, that big environmental organizations—by promoting solar and wind power—have sold their souls to billionaire investors.
I feel fairly confident commenting on the first of these claims, regarding renewable energy, having spent a year working with David Fridley of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to assess the prospects for a complete transition to solar and wind power.
We found that the transition to renewables is going far too slowly to make much of a difference during the crucial next couple of decades, and would be gobsmackingly expensive if we were to try replacing all fossil fuel use with solar and wind. We also found, as the film underscores again and again, that the intermittency of sunshine and wind is a real problem—one that can only be solved with energy storage (batteries, pumped hydro, or compressed air, all of which are costly in money and energy terms); or with source redundancy (building way more generation capacity than you’re likely to need at any one time, and connecting far-flung generators on a super-grid).
Or demand management (which entails adapting our behavior to using energy only when it’s available). All three strategies involve trade-offs. In the energy world, there is no free lunch. The ways we use energy today are mostly adapted to the unique characteristics of fossil fuels, so a full transition to renewables will require the replacement of an extraordinary amount of infrastructure in our food system, manufacturing, building heating, the construction industry, and on and on. Altogether, the only realistic way to make the transition in industrial countries like the US is to begin reducing overall energy usage substantially, eventually running the economy on a quarter, a fifth, or even a tenth of current energy.
Is it true that mainstream enviros have oversold renewables? Yes. They have portrayed the transition away from fossil fuels as mostly a political problem; the implication in many of their communications is that, if we somehow come up with the money and the political will, we can replace oil with solar and continue living much as we do today, though with a clear climate conscience. That’s an illusion that deserves shattering.
But the film does make some silly mistakes. Gibbs claims that a solar panel will generate less energy than it took to build the panel. That’s a misleading claim. Many teams of researchers have addressed the question of energy return on energy invested for solar power, and even the most pessimistic results (with which I mostly agree) say that the technology can yield a marginal energy gain. Much of that gain goes away if we have to “pay” for the energy investment entailed in providing batteries or redundant capacity. Wind power generally has a better energy payback than solar, but the location of turbines matters a great deal and ideal sites are limited in number. Assessing solar and wind power calls for complicated energy accounting, but the film reduces that complexity to a blanket, binary dismissal.
The film is low on nuance, but our global climate and energy dilemma is all shades of gray. Gibbs seems to say that renewables are a complete waste of time. I would say, they are best seen as a marginal transitional strategy for industrial societies. Given climate change and the fact that fossil fuels are depleting, finite resources, it appears that if we want to maintain any sort of electrical energy infrastructure in the future, it will have to be powered by renewables—hydro, wind, or solar. As many studies have confirmed, the nuclear power industry has little realistic prospect of revival. The future will be renewable; there simply isn’t any other option. What is very much in question, however, is the kind of society renewable energy can support.
The fact is that we’ve already bet our entire future on electricity and electronics. Communications and information processing and storage have all been digitized. That means that if the grid goes down, we’ve lost civilization altogether. I don’t think we can maintain global grids at current scale without fossil fuels, but I can envision the possibility of a process of triage whereby, as population and resource consumption shrink, the digital world does as well, until it’s small enough to be powered by renewable electricity that can be generated with minimal and acceptable environmental damage.
I agree with Gibbs, however, that renewables are realistically incapable of maintaining our current levels of energy usage, especially in rich countries like the US. Transitioning to electric cars may be a useful small-scale and short-term strategy for reducing oil consumption (I drive one myself), but limits to lithium and other raw materials used in building e-cars mean we really need to think about how to get rid of personal cars altogether.
Mainstream enviros will hate this movie because it exposes some of their real failings. By focusing on techno-fixes, they have side-lined nearly all discussion of overpopulation and overconsumption. Maybe that’s understandable as a marketing strategy, but it’s a mistake to let marketing consultants sort truth from fiction for us.
During recent decades, the big environmental orgs wearied of telling their followers to reduce, reuse, and recycle. They came to see that global problems like climate change require systemic solutions that, in turn, require massive investment and governmental planning and oversight. But the reality is, we need both high-level systemic change and widespread individual behavior change. That’s one of the lessons of the coronavirus pandemic: “flattening the curve” demands both central planning and leadership, and individual sacrifice.
Planet of the Humans paints environmental organizations and leaders with a broad and accusatory brush. One target is Jeremy Grantham, a billionaire investment analyst who created the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment in 1997. Grantham was already a mega-rich investor before he “got religion” on environmental issues. I’ve had several face-to-face meetings with him (full disclosure: the Grantham Foundation has provided modest funding to Post Carbon Institute, where I work) and it’s clear that he cares deeply about overpopulation and overconsumption, and he understands that economic growth is killing the planet. He’s scared for his children and grandchildren, and he genuinely wants to use whatever wealth and influence he has to change the world. To imply, as the film does, that he merely sees green tech as an investment strategy is a poorly aimed cheap shot. Bill McKibben, who is skewered even more savagely, also deserves better; he has replied to the film here.
Finally, the film leaves viewers with no sense of hope for the future. I understand why Gibbs made that choice. Too often, “hopium” is simply a drug we use to numb ourselves to the horrific reality of our situation and its causes—in which we are all complicit.
Yet we need a sense of human agency. In the face of the pandemic, many of us are reduced to sitting at home sewing facemasks; but it’s better than sitting on our hands, The same goes for climate change: figuring out how to eat lower on the food chain, or how to get by without a car, or how to reduce home energy usage by half, or growing a garden might seem like trivial responses to such an overwhelming crisis, but they get us moving together in the right direction.
For all the reasons I’ve mentioned, Planet of the Humans is not the last word on our human predicament. But it starts a conversation we need to have, and it’s a film that deserves to be seen.
Lorna Salzman. Ted Trainer said renewable energy cannot sustain the industrial growth society years ago. Since then many credible scientists have reached the same conclusion. But long before all of these were The Limits to Growth (Club of Rome) and Blueprint for Survival (The ecologist), both published in 1972. No one listened. Now people are upset because Jeff Gibbs and Michael Moore are saying it.and proving it. And even “good liberals” and environmentalists are upset. The message and the proof are evident whether you see the film or not. Can anyone seriously believe that wholesale destruction of forests to feed either the chopstick industry or the biomass industry is a good thing? Or that ravaging the amazing desert for biofuel is good? Does anyone believe that overpopulation does not exist or that it will cease at some unspecified time in the future? LS
Science had produced critical disciplined findings that indicated the impossibility of unlimited growth on a finite planet. What was disturbing at that time and today was the reluctance of the general public to actually understand what was going on in front of their faces. Jeff Gibbs and Michael Moore’s new film Planet of the Humans is now in the cross hairs of denialists who would deny they are denialists. On the right there is glee at the exposure of the environmental groups and leaders, to the tune of “I told you so…their fixation on climate change and renewable energy is absurd”. On the left, there is no explicit denial; instead, the refrain is: we can solve this problem if we tax the rich and support socialism.
“Radical change is both necessary and inevitable because the present increases in human numbers and per capita consumption, by disrupting ecosystems and depleting resources, are undermining the very foundations of survival”.”
“It is commonly overlooked that …the population will contain to increase for many years even after fertility has fallen to the replacement level. As the Population Council has pointed out: ‘If replacement is achieved in the developed world by 2000 and in the developing world by 2040, then the world’s population will stabilize at nearly 15.5 billion about a century hence, or well over four times the present size”.
“Indefinite growth of whatever type cannot be sustained by finite resources. This is the nub of the environmental predicament. LS: nota bene: the Gibbs/Moore film only deals with ENERGY production. It does not touch on the issue of natural resources that are needed to sustain not just the renewable energy sector through construction of solar farms and wind turbines, but the mineral and plant resources that are needed to construct machinery, build roads, feed people, etc).
Even today many environmental activists and liberals are unaware of not just these studies but of SCIENCE itself and the constraints on all living things. Equally disturbing is that they do not understand the connections between political conflicts, habitat destruction, capitalism, food supply and social justice. They think that history started yesterday. They have no understanding of how individuals of all species, and their societies, rely on the integrity of natural systems and natural resources. They have completely adopted the myth that human capabilities and technology can solve any problem. They are of course wrong.
Both our education system and media have failed us badly, and deliberately. A prosperous stable society needs to defend and protect what has made it prosperous and stable. This is at the root of attacks from left and right on the Gibbs/Moore film. Are there errors in some of the things said in the film? Very possible but it doesn’t change the reality of what is shown in the film: the destruction of natural resources, species and ecosystems. And it doesn’t matter whether these are being destroyed with good intentions and expectations of renewable energy, or with making more profits for corporations and investors. Nature does not concern herself with equity or social justice.
The final shot in the film will horrify you to your roots. I cant get it out of my mind, nor the knowledge that it is only one of many similar execrations. It should stand as the symbol of everything gone wrong in human society. LS
A Planet of 3 Billion, Christopher Tucker book deftly illustrates humanity’s march across the planet, overwhelming the earth and its capacity to absorb our impact. Tucker postulates that a planet of 3 billion homo-sapiens may keep us within those boundaries and allow us and other species to flourish indefinitely. Tucker’s background cover a wide range of disciplines from geography, to technology, national intelligence and security. Using statistics, graphs and maps, he details humanity’s path of destruction revealing that our emergencies are not limited to one symptom but are far more profound.
Tucker describes the magnitude and complexity of this crisis in one natural system, the ocean: The ecological devastation that modern industrialized humanity has unleashed on the world’s oceans is nearing the farcical. Some 100 million sharks killed each year for fins to put in soup. Whales hunted to the brink of extinction, under government subsidy, for their meat, though it is largely disliked. Five continent size garbage gyres unleashed on the wildlife and food chains of our high seas. Hundreds of hypoxic low oxygen “dead zones” that are growing every year. Massive reef die-offs due to changing ocean temperatures and acidification. Invasive ocean species being transported inadvertently around the world, causing billions of dollars in devastation. And biogeochemical pressures being put on the very phytoplankton that generates some 80% of Earth’s oxygen.
He gets to the heart of the problem succinctly: “The more humans there are on the planet, the more of the planet must be industrialized.” The one point I felt could have more fully explored is the role energy played and continues to play in humanity’s explosive growth. While the author points to industrialization as the main driver of explosive growth both in our levels of consumption and in our numbers, this process could only have occurred with an abundance of inexpensive, highly dense and portable energy. The concentrated fossil energy we discovered underground harnessed rivers, lakes and mountains, extracting resources generating waste to an extent that would have been impossible otherwise.
Today, renewable energy is the “cure of the day” for a public looking for a relatively quick and painless fix to climate change and other environmental degradation exacerbated by our addiction to fossil fuels. Tucker’s book offers much that will disappoint those fantasies.
And for those people who blame consumption and not population as the source of our planet’s problems, “A Planet of 3 Billion” offers a thorough and balanced response explaining how 8 billion people, no matter how gently we try to live, will ever be able to fully achieve sustainability. The sooner we acknowledge everything has a limit, including our own species, the less suffering there will be for all life on this planet. (Terry Sphar)
And From Elizabeth May: