May 7, 2020

The Important Debate Planet of the Humans Misses

Instead of lambasting yesteryear’s renewable energy, the movie could have taken up current, more relevant questions.
By Kate Aronoff /
The Important Debate Planet of the Humans Misses

Planet of the Humans—the Michael Moore–backed documentary about the alleged folly of green energy—is a mess. Since its April 21 release, numerous expert critics have detailed the film’s use of outdated and cherry-picked information. The climate movement and clean energy sector that director Jeff Gibbs and producer-protagonist Ozzie Zehner criticize in the film, outraged environmentalists have pointed out, doesn’t remotely resemble today’s reality.

Author Bill McKibben, whom Gibbs bizarrely fixates on as an exemplar of corporate environmentalism, has repeatedly rebutted the film’s ad hominem attacks and pessimistic take on environmental activism: Several of the decaying wind turbines and abandoned solar panels criticized in the film no longer exist, in some cases long since replaced by new and higher-functioning renewables. Problems of intermittency and efficiency with solar power, which the film cites as proof of solar technology’s failure, have been vastly improved through years of dedicated research, political scientist Leah Stokes noted for Vox, while the film, she added, says almost nothing about fossil fuel companies’ malfeasance. “Renewable energy is still so new, so fast-changing that the facts about renewable energy are not universally known,” filmmaker Josh Fox wrote aptly in The Nation. “We still have far to go in teaching people the basics of renewable energy. And the film trades on this widespread ignorance in appalling and deceitful ways.”

These criticisms are all, of course, correct. But much as a broken clock is right twice a day, there’s a tiny kernel of truth buried deep under the mountains of outdated disinformation in Planet of the Humans. There are real, thorny questions about our low-carbon future that deserve to be debated in public: questions about public land use, the supply chains that the renewable energy industry depends on, climate crisis profiteering, and more. Gibbs offers no guide to addressing any of these. Instead, parroting climate deniers’ insistence that renewables are as bad as fossil fuels, the film poisons the well for any kind of constructive debate.

Gibbs spends most of his film crafting a series of straw men out of long-spoiled bales. He spends a great deal of time on biomass energy, for example, to argue that renewables are wasteful and counterproductive. But biomass today supplies less than 2 percent of power in the United States and hasn’t been a favored solution of the environmental groups Gibbs skewers for years; both McKibben and the Sierra Club (another one of the film’s targets) have criticized it—a fact McKibben raised with Gibbs months before the film’s release to no avail. In its attack on solar energy, the film tours a type of large-scale, last-generation solar facility in Southern California that will never be built again and focuses on a set of panels that are orders of magnitude less efficient than today’s panels. It cites details on electric cars’ alleged emissions footprint that are no longer true. And the movements that have shaped the climate conversation in the last decade—indigenous-led fights against Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipelines, Climate Strikes, the Green New Deal—go mostly unmentioned.

One legitimate concern the film could have focused on is how utility companies and private developers deploy large-scale renewables on federal land. That’s an issue environmental groups—like those the film attacks as being too credulous on renewable energy—have in fact repeatedly raised. While renewable energy development is stymied by dark-money spending at least as much as—if not more than—local resistance, renewables do need to attend to issues of public participation in what gets built, how renewable infrastructure is designed, and who benefits from that development. Such concerns over democratic input and environmental impact assessments shouldn’t be laughed off as wingnuttery from either a moral or a practical standpointespecially given that renewables need to expand rapidly if we’re to meet urgent emissions targets. Yet by gathering all his gripes about low-carbon energy into a single, shoddily researched product, Gibbs makes it easier for green energy advocates to dismiss any and all concerns as the work of propaganda artists or crackpots. 

Similarly, human rights campaigners and eco-socialists have long worried about the conditions under which minerals used in solar panels and electric vehicles are extracted. Procuring lithium and other metals ethically and sustainably will be vital in coming years as the solar industry expands. Gibbs’s film sloppily insists renewables are bad and will always be bad, making it harder to have a good-faith conversation about how the components of the energy transition are procured. 

In the end, many of the film’s problems stem from its inability to perceive a crucial distinction—one environmentalists can miss, too—between renewables advocates and the renewables industry. Gibbs targets a so-called “green energy movement” that doesn’t exist. A number of people and movements currently favor expanding green energy, whether through measures like renewable portfolio standards and campaigns to shutter coal-fired power plants, or as part of more comprehensive approaches like the Green New Deal, to move away from fossil fuels entirely. Separate from those favoring green energy is the renewables sector itself—now a $1.5 trillion industry that operates a lot like any other industry. Its goal is to make a profit, with competing firms looking to sell their products to as many people as possible and return value to investors and shareholders. It cuts corners, bust unions, and violates labor law. In that, the people making money from clean energy and ugly, continent-spanning supply chains are not wholly unlike those who produce cell phones and laptops. They lobby lawmakers. Many of them struck a bargain with Congress to support lifting the crude oil export ban in 2015 in exchange for a temporary tax-credit extension. While the levels of regulatory capture and political spending they engage in pale in comparison to the fossil fuel industry, these are first and foremost for-profit firms, not tree-hugging do-gooders. Climate advocates should pay more attention to how this industry works and stop giving it a free pass for bad behavior: Too often, discussions of 100 percent renewable energy neglect questions of power and ownership, all but assuming that a new class of green entrepreneurs will step in to take the place of today’s fossil fuel magnates. Alas, this is not the kind of nuanced lesson viewers will glean watching Gibbs’s ham-fisted explanation of how energy and electric cars worked a decade ago.

Given executive producer Moore’s longtime interest in automakers’ malpractice, the snippet on electric vehicles in Planet of the Humans might have been a chance to skewer the auto industry for using EV production as an excuse to outsource jobs, one of the grievances presented by workers in a recent United Auto Workers strike. Gibbs, as director, might have included interviews with union autoworkers who are pushing to retool their factories to participate in the energy transition. Who benefits from clean energy, and on whose terms will it scale up? Where do workers fit in? How will they be treated and protected? Instead of asking these questions, Gibbs meditates on his cherry-picked, out-of-date factoids, reporting with glee that GM salespeople presenting the Chevrolet Volt in 2010 plugged their car into a grid that still ran on fossil fuels. “Is it possible,” he asks, “for machines made by industrial civilization to save us from industrial civilization?” It’s an approach more at home in a freshman dorm room than a film with the backing of one of America’s most prominent documentarians.

Since Moore’s 1989 debut with Roger & Me, his films have punched up with humor at automakers, gun manufacturers, health care companies, and the Bush administration. Lacking both Moore’s charisma and his grasp of political economy, Gibbs replaces Moore’s concern for the lives and well-being of working people with his own concern for a planet he believes would be better off with far fewer of those people. Humanity, in Planet of the Humans, is the enemy, and any attempts to salvage its future are fair game for ridicule as the work of either profiteering liars or misdirected rubes. The film’s turn toward population control isn’t just nihilistic but nasty and has an ugly history in environmentalism. Protecting the trees has almost always come with a judgment about which kind and color of humans they need protection from. Early conservationists sought to preserve white bloodlines and the California redwoods alike, evicting indigenous Americans from land they had stewarded for centuries to make room for white settlers’ romanticism. For people like the late John Tanton—a Sierra Club activist and founder of influential xenophobic groups like NumbersUSA—immigrants were an invasive species to be eradicated so that earth’s natural beauty could thrive. That Gibbs interviews almost no people of color or people from the global south and talks mostly to men, in his 90-plus minutes of screen time, makes these similarities particularly tough to ignore. Gibbs does not appear to be a white nationalist himself, but his film echoes their approach.

Planet of the Humans paints the green energy future in black and white. Reality, of course, will fall somewhere between Gibbs’s Malthusian nihilism and the shiny private tech utopias imagined by profit-seeking clean energy developers. A feature-length documentary about renewables made by an avowed environmentalist in 2020 could arm the public with information to work toward a better place along that spectrum, helping movements and policymakers alike ensure that the benefits of the energy transition are shared broadly. Gibbs doesn’t have such critical democratic engagement in mind. He mainly seems to want his audience to be as hopelessly gloomy as he is. 


Kate Aronoff is a staff writer at The New Republic

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