This year marked 50 years since the first Earth Day when 20 millions went to the streets to protest a lack of environmental protection in the country. We’ve come a long way since 1970 with regards to environmental protection and pollution control, but we’re an even bigger distance away from where we need to be to live sustainably.
Documentary-maker, Michael Moore, decided that this momentous day in the climate movement would be an ideal time to release his latest project, ‘Planet of the Humans‘. According to iMDb, Planet of the Humans “takes a harsh look at how the environmental movement has lost the battle through well-meaning but disastrous choices.”
I don’t believe at any point this the case. It points out the flaws of wind and solar, most of which I think people are well aware of, the disaster that is biomass, which is rightfully criticised in good detail, and the greenwashing that is a prevalent in big business as they try to sound a lot more environmentally-friendly than they really are. However, the documentary never looks at the science of the climate emergency and the damage fossil fuels have done up to this point.
Because of all of that, it will probably come as no surprise that many on the political right and some of the more prominent climate science deniers have jumped on this documentary as if it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Those denying the existence of the climate emergency feel that this documentary completely backs up their arguments that they’ve been trying to make in recent years. Claiming to be an environmentalist, I very much doubt that this was Moore or Gibbs’ goal for the documentary but certainly has been a result.
There have been calls for this documentary to be removed from YouTube – for a time it was – but I’m not sure that’s necessary given that there are a few slightly solid arguments in there. What it does need however is some clarification of the inaccuracies and mischaracterisations that are almost rampant throughout the documentary.
Some Initial Issues
Sitting through all 100 minutes of the documentary was a bit of a rollercoaster between cautious agreement and sheer disbelief. I found the work on biomass interesting and of great value (as I’ll briefly discuss later) but that was about it. The rest of it just seemed to be a renewable energy and green group pile-on with very little use of facts to back any claim up, topped off with a highlight reel of ‘gotcha’ moments that would be every climate deniers dream.
For a bit of context, this documentary took 10 years to produce. Filming appears to have started in 2010 – when the Chevrolet Volt was first released. Judging on the final clips used towards the end of the documentary, 2015, or possibly even 2016, was the end of filming. Given how far things have moved on in this rapidly advancing world you might have thought facts would be updated, corrections would have been made and any renewable energy myths that have been quashed in that time included, even if this was done in the credits.
Unfortunately that isn’t the case. Whether Moore or Gibbs were going for the shock-and-awe approach where they suddenly believe they’re the first to discover that renewable energy is the silver bullet nobody has ever promised that it is, or something else entirely, facts and up-to-date information have taken a back seat.
Given that the overpopulation question reared it’s ugly a head on a couple of occasions, it would have been nice to hear from a number of scientists of different backgrounds as opposed to entirely white people. I’m not saying that to push some sort of diversity agenda, but one of the smartest things that anyone said during the entire documentary came from Vandana Shiva towards the end of the 350.org event Gibbs visited and she was the only person of colour (other than Van Jones).
Speaking of the 350.org event, the ‘gotcha’ kind of journalism Gibbs went for caught a lot of the more prominent figures off guard when it came to discussing the biomass issue. However, rather than attempt to contact and interview any of them of clarification of their comments there was no opportunity to properly answer those questions.
The Climate Emergency Still Exists
One thing the documentary barely, if at all, touched upon was the science behind the climate emergency. There was an introduction to one of the producers, Jeff Gibbs, and his environmentalist background but it quickly jumped into the renewable energy-bashing that remained the theme for the majority of the documentary. At one point, rather shockingly in fact, the documentary claims that we may as well just return to using fossil fuels than attempt to ‘play pretend’ and transition away from their use. In the final stages of the documentary, Gibbs does say that we do need to change although his meaning about what that change is appears very vague.
‘You use more fossil fuels to do this [make renewable energy technology] than the benefit you’re getting from it. You would have been better off burning the fossil fuels in the first place rather than play pretend’ – Jeff Gibbs
With that, it’s no surprise that climate deniers are huge fans of the documentary. Two environmentalists tearing apart the most common renewable energy sources flaw by flaw and making it look like these sources are no better than what they are to replace is one of the biggest inaccuracies throughout the documentary – there is more than enough research and proof of that. Just a 5-minute overview or some kind of clarification that discussed the science that shows renewables are cleaner than renewables could have solved that entire problem.
That Old Population Argument
Population has increased exponentially in the last 200 years. In 1800, the global population hit 1 billion. Now, we’re at 7.77 billion and will likely hit 8 before 2025.
There were a number of scientists briefly interviewed in the documentary who discussed overpopulation, with one or two mentioning overconsumption, as the thing they most fear with the climate emergency. Overconsumption is a huge issue, and out of the two is the one we should be looking to tackle first. However, that suggests that we, in the Western world, have to change our ways and that requires action from ourselves. Instead, we want to discuss overpopulation because that’s nothing to do with us.
My issue with the overpopulation argument is that we turn to blaming the poorest people in the world for problems caused by the Western world. We’re the ones that are over-consuming the worlds resources, wasting food on an enormous scale and striving to live these commodity-rich free lifestyles that we see on TV all the time – it’s not the family of 8 living in Uganda on less than $2 per day. It’s nothing more than a deflection away from the large-scale changes that we need to make to our lifestyles.
I mean, if we really want to go down that route, we already know how to slow down birth rate; countries all over the Western world have done that with some even having negative population growth rates. It doesn’t take a ‘one-child policy’ like the one China began enforcing in 1979, or a dangerous sterilisation programme that took place in India in the mid 1970s. Instead, we made education accessible for everyone, we gave women the right to vote, earn a liveable wage and build a career, and we provided everyone access to family planning services that gave people a choice. I could go further into the exploitation of the less developed countries by the Western world and the debt we continue to hold over them but I’d be getting wildly off topic…
All I’m saying is that we need to be looking at our overconsumption first.
Biomass is Problematic
If this had been the basis for the entire documentary, then it would not have received as much criticism as it has. I commend Michael Moore and Jeff Gibbs on exposing the shortcomings of the biomass industry; if we’re gutting down entire forests and burning tyre chips to sustain a heat great enough to burn wet wood then it should never be categorised as sustainable or able to call itself renewable.
I don’t think you’d find a single environmentalist that would disagree with that. In the majority of reviews I’ve read, they actually commend Moore on exposing the disaster that is the biomass industry in the USA and around the world. We’re at a time when we need to be planting more trees to absorb the excessive amount of carbon dioxide that is in our atmosphere, not cutting them down.
Unfortunately, it’s almost everything around the biomass feature that is problematic. And if you’re looking for documentaries that criticise the biomass industry there are much better ones out there.
We’re in a Transition, not at our Final Goal
I don’t think any environmentalist is lost on the fact that solar panels and batteries require rare earth metals, or that electric cars get their electricity from a fossil fuel-dominant power grid. We haven’t yet found the perfect solution that will solve all our problems – that probably doesn’t exist – but we’re undoubtedly moving to better alternatives than the fossil fuels we currently use.
I’m not sure what Michael Moore was going for with this documentary. It would have been great as an anti-biomass energy documentary, but that’s where they should have left it. Instead, it feels as if it’s going to be hijacked by the climate deniers of the world as an argument to not transition to renewables and even cleaner methods of energy generation. Old footage, huge inaccuracies and no clear message throughout the documentary is shame considering the quality of Moore’s usual documentaries.
Planet of the Humans promised so much, yet delivered so little.
If you do want to watch the documentary, a link to the YouTube video is here (whilst it is still available).
If you wanted to read any more reviews of fact-checks, you can do that here too.