Planet of the Humans – A Review…. 😜😜😜😜😜
Alan Journet, Co-facilitator,
Southern Oregon Climate Action Now, May 4, 2020
Cutely named after the decades old iconic movie series ‘Planet of the Apes,’ the Jeff Gibbs / Michael Moore offering, ‘Planet of the Humans’ is also aptly so named since much of its content is almost as outdated.
After being asked many times for my opinions on this video, and reading several scathing reviews, I finally broke down and watched it, feeling that before commenting seriously, I should at least do this. It turns out that this was basically unnecessary since the scathing reviews really tell the story.
It appears that the producers have bitten off substantially more than they can competently chew in the length of a standard publicly marketed movie (running time under two hours). As a result, there is little time to address any one item in sufficient detail that nuances can be discussed adequately- even if they would have wanted to do so, which isn’t clear. A particularly good example of this is the discussion of biomass/biofuels (see below).
My first words as the movie ended were “There’s nothing new here!” The reasonable concerns about overpopulation, over-consumption and limits to growth expressed in the video, along with the justified critique of biomass are not new, especially to anyone who has spent any time exploring or advocating on the issues. Even the criticisms of the Green movement have been done before but better than the uncorroborated “Gottcha!” moments employed here.
One justifiable criticism waged by many reviews is the film’s use of vastly outdated clips and information. This is reminiscent of the standard science denier trick of presenting graphs that stop 20 years or so before the publication or release of the product. This tactic is undertaken when subsequent data – available at the time – refute the claims being made. It is a fraudulent technique, and it is employed in ‘Planet of the Humans’ extensively. Thus, writer/narrator Jeff Gibbs uses clips and data from some decade ago to make his case against solar and wind energy. For example, he includes a solar installer arguing that the energy efficiency (effectiveness of transforming incoming solar radiation into electricity) of the solar panels being installed, a value which is unexplained, is an appalling 8%. This is compared negatively with the efficiency of fossil fuel, as though that is relevant. However, the key question concerns the greenhouse gas emissions efficiency. When this topic is raised, the film offers merely somewhat lame anecdotes about the energy and materials used in the manufacture of the renewable energy items but never provides data or reports the full life cycle assessment of these values. Furthermore, the segment dates from ten years ago when solar panels cost ten times what they cost today and panel efficiency was half what it is today. Relevant progress is totally ignored
The segment criticizing electric vehicles presented the introduction of the Chevy Volt was also substantially uninformed and outdated; the Volt was introduced in 2010. The brief anecdote (and Gottcha moment) about electricity for the vehicle being provided from the grid created the impression that electric vehicles are no better than gasoline-powered vehicles because the grid is powered by coal-fired utilities and the EV requires batteries. This was dishonest! Complete life-cycle (cradle to grave) assessments of hybrids and fully electric vehicles reveal that their greenhouse gas emissions costs are much lower than conventional vehicles. This is because the electric engine is vastly more efficient than the internal combustion engine regardless of the source of the electricity.
It appears that the producers are only interested in anecdotes and are unaware that complete life-cycle analyses are either available or germane. This is potentially the inevitable consequences of producers who focus on the story rather than the science.
In terms of the benefits of green energy, anyone who thought that green / renewable energy would provide totally free benign energy allowing us to continue business as usual was already missing half the argument. Those of us in the climate / environmental arena have long argued the basic ecological principle that there is no such thing as a free lunch; a free benign energy source doesn’t exist. Solar arrays consume resources in their construction, take up space, and potentially compromise wildlife habitat. The same is true for wind turbines. This is why we focus considerable attention on the need for energy conservation and improved energy use efficiency (issues not considered in the video). We understand that when considering energy alternatives, our goal will be to employ the least objectionable option, and then encourage reduced energy use to minimize the impact.
Implicit in the thesis of the video is the false claim that the environmental or the climate movement have consistently overlooked, or failed to address certain issues. Regrettably for the movie’s thesis, these claims are totally false.
The themes that fall into this category, and which represent rational concerns that we long have shared, are as follows:
Overpopulation, Consumption and Infinite Economic Growth:
Those spending time in the environmental / climate arena are familiar with Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book – ‘The Population Bomb’ and the influential 1972 ‘Limits to Growth’ written by Donella and Dennis Meadows with others. Concerns about population have been prevalent in environmental discussions for decades. The problem is taking a simplistic approach to the issue, as this film does. As ecologists will confirm, the impact of any population of organisms on its environment is a function of two factors: (1) what each individual does, and (2) how many of them are doing it. If we focus on just one factor, we are missing at least half the impact. Those who focus just on population are omitting the reality that the impact of each (for example) Indonesian or Bangla Deshi is about 1/60th that of an American. Thus, population in those developing nations is nowhere near the problem that population is in the U.S. Those of us who focus on population, are in danger of turning the issue into one of ‘us vs them’ with the blame falling on ‘them’ for being too numerous. This verges on racism. See the SOCAN position statement 16.
The difference between ‘us and them’ is that our impact per capita is far greater. The reason for this difference is our obscene over-consumption. But, the intersection between these issues arises when we acknowledge social justice and recognize that all humans on the planet have legitimate aspirations to enjoy the lifestyle of the developed world. Our responsibility, then is to assist developing nations to achieve meaningful advances without passing through the cowboy phase of resource exploitation and environmental degradation through which we have passed and are still passing.
Anyone who pauses for a moment and reflects on reality must acknowledge that we live on a finite planet, with finite resources, and a finite capacity to process our waste. This is where ‘The Limits of Growth’ was pointing and what proponents of a steady-state or sustainable economy argue we should seek to achieve. There certainly seems to be a tendency for politicians to operate under the illusion that these limits do not apply – largely because the population as a whole has been convinced by conventional (non-reflective) economists that such is the case. However, I submit, it is not true that the environmental movement has ignored this reality
This discussion comprised an unfortunate lumping of a vast array of energy sources though overall presented a position with which environmental and climate activists now agree: these energy sources are not green. But there are nuances that the film simply ignores in its drive towards simplistic and simple-minded proselytization.
On first examination, there seems some good arguments for biomass burning. The first nuance is that the carbon dioxide emitted when we burn vegetation is carbon dioxide trapped from our current atmosphere, not from the atmosphere several hundred million years ago. Thus, it constitutes returning to the atmosphere what the vegetation recently captured. And then, once biological succession returns and the vegetation grows back, carbon dioxide is again captured from the atmosphere. Unfortunately, when we ‘do the math’ we find that the rate at which trees grow means the carbon dioxide emitted from burning trees will not be recaptured for decades, while the time constraint under which we now know we are operating is that we need to reduce emissions and atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations rapidly.
The second nuance is that we always need to examine alternatives before we make decisions regarding whether environmentally an idea is good or not. In the case of biomass (tree) burning, a case can be made that currently we burn the slash piles that result from timber harvesting or forest thinning activities. This releases carbon dioxide immediately into the atmosphere. On the other hand, the argument is made, if we use that slash to power a generating plant, we gain the energy benefit, while the carbon dioxide is going where it would have gone rapidly anyway. We must accept, however, that this concept is fraught with hazard in that if a generating plant runs out of slash, it will start to compete for standing timber, and that transporting the slash to a generating plant itself results in emissions. To understand an issue sufficient to make a rational decision, it is necessary to gather more than just easy simple anecdotes.
In terms of biofuel, the blanket opposition must be nuanced with detailed assessment of the life cycle emissions and other consequences of a proposal. Thus, there seems little doubt the corn ethanol is a boondoggle dreamt up to support corn farmers which may be energetically worthless and simultaneously negatively impacts our food supply. Meanwhile, ethanol from switchgrass, which does not affect the food chain, may have merit.
It is regrettable, but typical, that while the film criticizes Bill McKibben for endorsing biomass over a decade ago, it does not acknowledge that he has long since disavowed support for biomass.
Much of the video reminds me of science deniers who discover the two million years of glacial / interglacial events impacting our climate and announce these to the world. Presumably they expect the newly informed climate scientists to stop in their tracks and proclaim: “Jeez! We never thought of that!”
Probably the most disappointing element in the video is its tendency towards basing persuasion on unsubstantiated claims and emotive videography rather than evidence and data. Of course, this is the strength of video, but – in the wrong hands, as seems to be the case here – it can also be the weakness. Regrettably, we know that emotion-laden and visually gripping images (i.e. a story) are more persuasive to many than are data, evidence, and science. ‘Planet of the Humans’ certainly cashes in on this human frailty. But the weakness is that this approach leaves the viewer without any sound basis or evidence to take away from the video to support the arguments it makes. Too often the conclusions are based on talking heads and the all-too frequent Gottcha moment offered by a ‘peak behind the scenes’ without any subtlety or counter-argument being explored.
The failure to offer those attacked an opportunity to respond is particularly true for the criticisms of green organizations. I agree with some of these criticisms – the Sierra Club’s Coal to Clean campaign for example – because I have been involved in them and know their weaknesses. However, the failure of the video to seek responses from green organization staff besides the taped and obviously seriously edited gottcha moments was a huge flaw. In its failure too seek responses from those involved to the charges embedded in the video, ‘Planet of the Humans’ presented a break from the standard quality we have come to expect from Michael Moore where those under siege in his videos are offered an opportunity to rebut the claims. Here, none of this balance is evident.
Some individuals discover a new reality, narcissistically think they are the first to discover it, and immediately feel compelled to share their discovery with everyone, expecting the world to be stunned by their new revelation. When the world yawns, their ego is forced to assert that the problem is a world living in denial rather than their naïve assumption of discovery. Rather than be removed (i.e. censored) from the You-tube array of offerings Planet of the Humans deserves simply to be ignored; it just isn’t worth the nearly two hours of viewing time.
Apparently, some ten years or so ago, Jeff Gibbs stumbled upon what he thought would be a revelatory idea, and started filming. Further exploration of the topic over the intervening years should have convinced him that the revelation he thought he was about to deliver upon the world was wrong. Apparently, integrity lost out, updated evidence did not impinge on his commitment. By buying into and promoting this outdated nonsense, Michael Moore has done his credibility and the reputation he gained from many years of excellent documentary production more damage than he could have imagined.
The film closes with the encouraging suggestion that: “The path to change is through awareness; we can create transformation.” This despite having offered no ideas about what that transformation might be.
Probably the most unfortunate aspect of the movie is that it creates the impression there is nothing we can do to address the climate crisis. This is unfortunate for two reasons: (1) because the evidence suggest the technology is available to resolve the problem, and (2) because even if the probability of righting our planetary ship is low – taking the option of throwing our hands up in despair will lead to the inevitable outcome that it is too late. It is also unfortunate that the film better serves the campaign of science denial and business as usual than supporting efforts to seek a different path.