The new Jeff Gibbs and Michael Moore documentary on the business of environment has been mired in controversy ever since it was released on YoutTube for free viewing on 21 April, 2020. First, for its contentious views on “green” technologies that landed it in trouble with several environmentalists, and now for alleged censorship in YouTube’s decision to remove the film from the platform. Carbon Copy’s Aniruddha Bhattacharjee dives into the documentary film and separates the grain from the chaff.
Planet of the Humans is a commentary on the way we produce energy and its environmental impact. However, its portrayal of renewables seems to be deliberately skewed. The narrator, Jeff Gibbs, starts by establishing his environmental credentials. He tells the audience how he was a staunch believer in the “green movement”, and how the unbridled burning of gasoline had polluted the air so much in the 1950s that you couldn’t even see the sun.
Yet, over time his conviction faded. He highlights two reasons.
The inadequacy of renewable energy
The film shows top management from General Motors grinning from ear to ear at the launch of the Chevrolet Volt (a gasoline-electric hybrid car), but looking sheepish when admitting that the power for electric cars would largely come from coal. Local authorities in Lansing, Michigan, also insinuate — while standing amongst a field of solar panels — that the idea of using only solar to power all of the US is, for the lack of a better phrase, rather optimistic.
The film then spends time interviewing Ozzie Zehner, who’s a Visiting Scholar at Northwestern University (Illinois) and the author of Green Illusions – The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism. His argument is that it’s a “dangerous illusion” to believe that solar and wind are different from fossil fuels, and he points to how the silicon used in solar cells comes from melting together quartz and coal. The film’s crew follows him as he points to the several natural gas plants built to replace coal plants. Some of them are to backup renewable capacity.
None of this is false, but to use Zehner’s phrase of “what they don’t tell you about”, the films stops short of saying that renewables are still a fledgling technology. Zehner’s smirks and jibes are expertly placed, but they don’t take away from the fact that solar and wind power have only burst into limelight in the last 10 years or so. On the other hand, coal plants have been around since before the 1900s and any improvement in their power output today is in tiny fractions. What works for them is that they can run 24X7 because they’re able to stockpile the fuel.
However, no one can predict how far renewables will progress over the next century. The film fails to showcase that despite solar cell efficiencies being at around 20% today, new substrates could even double the figure. And then there’s the magic of materials. Solar cells do NOT have to rely on silicon. Organic solar cells are reaching efficiencies of 25%, and perovskites have made impressive progress. Not even Zehner would bet against the possibilities.
Similarly, plastics, carbon fibre and composites could solve the problem of corrosion in wind turbines and their 20-year, “nanosecond” lifetimes. Energy storage is getting better too as new battery chemistries with higher energy densities come to light. Electric cars can already run for up to 500km on a single charge — pretty much at par with gasoline — and breakthroughs such as sodium ion batteries could gradually eliminate the need to mine lithium, cobalt and graphite.
Worse, Planet of the Humans glosses over the tremendous potential of using the millions of tonnes of recyclable material we generate each year to build solar and wind farms. And just because they are backed up by fossil fuel plants today does not imply that renewables will never mature into independence.
Most importantly, all else being equal, solar, wind and electric vehicles are undoubtedly cleaner because of their zero operational emissions. The way they are put together at the moment absolutely has a significant carbon footprint, but unlike with fossil fuels, this does not have to be true forever.
Moreover, the surge in global interest in renewables is not just from capitalists and environmentalists looking to cash in. You couldn’t build a coal or nuclear plant to power a remote off-grid community but solar makes it possible. You can’t put natural gas plants on a rooftop or over rivers and canals but with solar you can.
Renewables are also responsible for an overwhelming percentage of energy jobs today, despite the film’s feeble attempt at discrediting their employment potential. It doesn’t talk about the jobs that workers from the failing coal industry could tap into if they were re-trained to work for clean energy.
And utilities are embracing the switch as well, because renewables make good financial sense. Their costs have fallen to where they are now cheaper than coal in all major markets, not just because of efficiencies of scale, but because the “fuel” for solar, wind, geothermal and even tidal power is perennial and free. No amount of flooding the market with fossil fuels will beat that.
Yet, these basic truths are swept under the rug because they would take away from the film’s dismissive study of renewables.
The environmental impact of renewable energy
The film hits the nail on the head on the most important point: our consumption of resources is spiraling out of control. We’re taking out more from the planet than it can replenish in our lifetimes, so it’s not long before we run out. Not only does that apply to fossil fuels, but also to biomass plants.
Gibbs rightly points to the euphemism of calling trees “wood chips”, and does a good job of showing how these plants are feeding off of virgin forests. That they are branded as renewable power sources is wrong. Clips of Bill McKibben and the Sierra Club being caught off guard on their double standards are eye-opening.
Planet of the Humans also includes disturbing footage of ancient desert plants being pulverized to make way for solar farms in the Mojave desert and of land being cleared in a forest in Vermont for wind turbines. Causing further destruction in the name of clean energy is not justified.
Yet, the film does not call out the environmental impact of the fossil fuel industry in equal measure, nor does it touch upon the fact that Big Oil is licking its chops, waiting to go drill in the Arctic. The recent oil spill in northern Russia is a reminder of what’s coming.
And of course, financiers smell big money in renewables. But commoditizing a trend is what drives capitalism. Investors and governments are equally guilty of bankrolling fossil fuel exploration in protected reserves with disdain towards local opposition. That the prices of oil are kept artificially high through open manipulation — despite it being critical to the prices of even basic goods and services — does no favours to capitalism either.
The film could have addressed the shortcomings of clean energy by saying that it is not “fully green yet”, but it doesn’t. It’s also only partially correct in saying that ‘CO2 is not the problem, humans are’. The greenhouse effect is scientific fact, so pumping gigatonnes of the gas into the atmosphere every year will destabilize climate systems.
A missed opportunity
Planet of the Humans may or may not have been well-meaning. It highlights the perils of perpetual growth, but it’s not the final word on energy. In acting responsibly, the human race needs to rein itself in, but also must clean up the way it generates power. And for that, renewables that aim for zero carbon footprint are absolutely the way to go.