“The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man,” wrote the 18th century English economist Thomas Robert Malthus, who argued that an exponentially growing human population would end up being too large to be fed by the planet’s finite resources.
Malthus’s words echo throughout the runtime of the new Michael Moore-produced documentary Planet of the Humans. This video polemic against the renewable energy industry, written and directed by long-time Moore associate Jeff Gibbs, contends that the Earth has simply too many people.
The film has generated no small amount of controversy, being lambasted by environmentalists and scientists for its approach, and being seized upon by climate skeptics as vindication of their views. Michael Moore, who holds an executive producer credit on the film, has defended the film, saying it is intended to be a warning about the involvement of corporate America in the environmental movement.
But that isn’t the message taken home by many who have watched it. Corporate fossil fuel-backed groups such as the libertarian Heartland Institute have boosted the film, and far-right politics blog Breitbart, backed by Trump backer and climate skeptic Robert Mercer, has said the film shows renewable energy is more polluting than fossil fuels. Far from taking a chunk out of corporate America, Planet of the Humans has been turned into a cudgel by big oil and the super rich.
In an attempt to understand all the furor, I watched Planet of the Humans and made the following, copious notes. If you so choose, you too can watch it on YouTube. But buckle up, because this is quite a ride.
From the outset it is clear that the film was a labor of love for Gibbs, who produced Moore’s award-winning documentaries Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11. Gibbs directs, narrates and edits the film, alongside a minimal crew. He begins the film by listing his environmental bona fides, describing himself in a monotone as a “tree hugger” with a history of environmental activism, and as a documentarian with a focus on biodiversity loss.
At around seven minutes into the film, Gibbs delivers his first “gotcha” moment when he visits a solar power festival in Vermont. The organizers say the festival is powered by 100% solar energy, but as it begins to rain, it’s clear there’s a problem: the solar panels aren’t generating enough juice to keep the power on. Gibbs pounces on members of staff who are busy hooking up to the mains supply to keep the main stage running; solar power, we are shown, can’t be relied on to keep the lights on and the PA powered up.
“Maybe next time things would go better,” Gibbs drawls.
Right off the bat, Gibbs is indulging in an argument called the baseload power fallacy, which says that conventional energy generation—fossil fuels or nuclear power—is required to produce electricity because some renewable energy sources, such as wind and sun, are intermittent.
This argument has for decades been deployed by renewable energy opponents who don’t understand how modern power grids work. Energy systems today are increasingly decentralized, with diverse energy sources generating power, and an increasing array of ways to store that energy in times of surplus. And as grids decentralize still further, the need for large, centralized, fossil or nuclear-fueled plants decreases. Yet Gibbs returns to this outdated argument repeatedly throughout the film.
The film cuts to Barack Obama’s 2008 election victory, noting that the Obama administration put $100 billion into green energy development. Gibbs says that’s when investors such as Richard Branson and banks like Goldman Sachs GSBD began investing in renewable energy projects. This is the first indication of what Moore, for his part, claims is the film’s central theme: that corporate power has a large stake in renewable energy, which is bad.
Gibbs attends a press conference in Lansing, Michigan, for the 2010 release of the now-discontinued Chevy Volt, an electric car. Gibbs claims another gotcha moment when he gets the Chevy representative to admit that the demonstration car is being charged from the mains, which in Lansing in 2010 were based on 95% coal fired generation. In signature Moore style, the footage is choppy, cut up to make the speakers look as though they are being dishonest and evasive, though they say nothing remotely dishonest or evasive. In 2010, 45% of America’s electricity supply came from coal; today, that figure stands at just over 23%. It is no surprise that in 2010, Lansing, MI, was largely reliant on coal.
This highlights another issue with Planet of the Humans: a great deal of the data presented, and indeed the footage, date to a time when the energy industry looked a lot different. The sector has evolved at breakneck pace since 2010; Gibbs’ arguments have not.
Gibbs goes down the street to look at a solar project that is producing 64,000 kilowatt hours a year—enough to meet the energy requirements of just 10 homes. Here the message is that solar power is an expensive, inefficient boondoggle—and indeed, in 2010, when the footage was taken, solar power was inefficient and expensive. Ten years later, through new developments in the field and in production, solar photovoltaic panels are massively more efficient, and far cheaper. Renewables are already, in many cases, cheaper than fossil fuels.
But never mind that: it is now time for Gibbs to debunk wind power. He visits an onshore wind farm project in Michigan where he is told that wind turbines are large and heavy, and require a large amount of concrete to be poured for the base.
“Is it possible,” Gibbs muses, “for machines made by industrial civilization to save us from industrial civilization?”
That question unanswered, we return to Vermont, where local residents are visiting a 21-turbine build. Told that the turbines would have a lifespan of 20 years, Gibbs gasps in disbelief. He asks those assembled the leading question of whether the project is “mountaintop removal for wind instead of coal,” two things that those present agree are equally bad.
At this point, some site workers pass by in a pickup; Gibbs mutters “I think they’re going to ask us to move.” A worker instead responds with a cheery “hello.”
Another of the locals expounds on the inefficiency of wind power, claiming that “cycling up” and “cycling down” wind turbines creates a bigger carbon footprint “than if you just ran it straight.” “Let’s just say the wind stopped for an hour, right now. You’ve got to have that power,” he says. This is a variant of the baseload power fallacy, plus a further fallacy, central to the film’s premise, that renewable energy generation generates the same amount of emissions as fossil fuel generation. This simply isn’t true: even an old meta-analysis of studies on windfarms, produced back in 2010 when turbines were far less efficient than they are now, found that an average turbine generates 20 times more energy than it takes to produce. New research from Denmark indicates modern onshore turbines could have a far longer lifespan than originally anticipated—up to 35 years on average.
“Everywhere I encountered green energy, it wasn’t what it seemed,” Gibbs says.
He next lays into hydrogen technology, getting a hydrogen car salesman to admit that, at the time of filming, most hydrogen was being sourced from natural gas and oil. Gibbs is either unaware of—or unwilling to talk about—the practically limitless potential of green hydrogen from 100% renewable sources, which is being rolled out worldwide, with 100+ megawatt facilities planned in many countries.
At this point, in one of the odder moments in the film, Gibbs says he read about a zoo that was said to be powered on elephant dung. “But it turned out the elephants didn’t even produce enough manure to heat the elephant barn,” he laments.
Gibbs takes aim at ethanol, which is added to automotive fuels to cut emissions—an innovation widely viewed as a stopgap measure while the long process of phasing out the internal combustion engine rolls slowly forward.
He then goes on to cite Richard York, whose 2012 study looked at the displacement effect of renewables versus fossil fuels, finding that “each unit of electricity generated by non-fossil-fuel sources displaced less than one-tenth of a unit of fossil-fuel-generated electricity.” The eight year old study concluded that “suppressing the use of fossil fuel will require changes other than simply technical ones such as expanding non-fossil-fuel energy production.”
Eight years ago, that argument held some water. Now, with coal and oil in collapse, and renewables in many large countries generating more power than all other sources put together, the displacement argument isn’t just quaint—it is entirely outmoded.
Next on Gibbs’ hit list is green tech in general. He brings on science writer Ozzie Zehner—one of the film’s producers—to describe the production of solar panels. The use of mined silicon and coal in the production of solar panels, Gibbs claims, shows “it is an illusion that renewables were replacing coal or any fossil fuel.”
There are several fallacies at play here, most especially regarding the production of solar panels. Most obviously, Zehner makes the assumption that the arc furnaces used to produce solar PV cells will always be powered by coal—an odd claim to make, when electric arc furnaces have taken over in many parts of the world.
The claim that solar cells produce the same quantity of emissions as coal is simply untrue. An analysis of the return on solar PV facilities has shown that even older systems cover their own costs and the related emissions within two years. Even when coal is used in their production, which nowadays is not a given, the greenhouse gas contribution of the production of a panel is negated in a short space of time.
Gibbs next takes aim at the effort, spearheaded in the U.S. by such groups as Sierra Club, to replace coal plants with natural gas. Natural gas, also a fossil fuel, is certainly a poor choice from a climate perspective, and has probably led to an increase in atmospheric methane levels.
But Gibbs infers that natural gas is equally as harmful as coal; he entirely neglects to explain that natural gas, though a hydrocarbon, produces 50% to 60% less CO2 than coal, and massively less particulate pollution. As such, in most developed economies natural gas is considered a “bridge fuel” to be deployed until hydrocarbons are phased out.
Gibbs then returns to variations on the baseload power fallacy, with a smattering of “industry insiders” touting the antiquated logic. In 2020, you’ll be hard pressed to find a reputable industry insider who considers intermittency an impediment to the low-carbon transition. In the words of Carbon Tracker, “variability is simply an issue to be managed, not an insoluble impediment.”
Gibbs then dishes out what he knows about power storage. “When I looked up how much battery storage there is,” he says, “it was less than one tenth of one percent of what’s needed. In a couple of years they begin to degrade, and need to be replaced a few years later.”
Here he is presumably referring to lithium ion batteries, which are just one of many large scale solutions to energy storage currently available. Far more interesting, sustainable and scalable options are pump hydro, gravity, cryogenic, saltwater, air and kinetic storage, to name a few. And that is to say nothing of the potential of graphene, which will make conventional batteries massively more efficient. Energy storage in advanced economies is growing rapidly. The International Renewable Energy Agency forecasts that global energy storage will increase by 40% every year until 2025, while smaller, decentralized storage facilities will balance electricity demand across networks.
Gibbs and Zehner move onto large solar thermal arrays, visiting a parabolic trough array in California. Zehner notes that natural gas is used to get the solar tower powered up in the morning. He further notes that it takes a lot of energy and materials, including rare earth metals, to build a variety of renewable energy technology. “We’re basically just being fed a lie,” he says.
Gibbs notes that the billionaire Koch brothers, “the evildoers,” own companies that make components for solar arrays. “The funny part is that when you criticize solar plants like this you’re accused of working for the Koch brothers,” Zehner claims. This is a variant of the guilt by association fallacy: if bad people are involved in it, the thing under consideration must also be bad.
We then get a long montage of industrial processes set to dramatic music. Words flash up on the screen with interesting facts, such as “Concrete: third leading cause of CO2 emissions.” Names of metals are also displayed, presumably because chemical names are scary. The intended message is clear: “industry: it’s real bad, folks.”
Gibbs then looks at fisheries, agricultural and water availability to back up his Malthusian stance that the planet is not able to sustain such a large human population. “Population growth continues to be the herd of elephants in the room,” one of Gibbs’ interviewees says. Another expert says “I don’t think we’re going to find a way out of this one … without seeing some sort of major die off in population, there’s no turning back.” The result of our rapidly expanding population, Gibbs says, is “a total human impact 100 times greater than only 200 years ago,” a somewhat nebulous figure that the filmmaker says is “the most terrifying realization I have ever had.”
What Gibbs’ solution to this is is left unsaid. But it is curious to hear self-professed socialists such as Moore subscribing to such a notion. Throughout the 19th century and right up to the present, Malthusianism has been a core conceit of eugenicists and the far right. As science writer Michael Shermer has noted, Malthus’s ideas have inspired a lot of bad policy, from England’s 19th century Poor Law Amendment, to the 1927 Supreme Court ruling that “undesirable” citizens should be sterilized.
Malthus’s work also inspired Paul Ehrlich to write his 1968 book The Population Bomb, which laid many of the world’s ills at the door of overpopulation. Unlike Malthus, Ehrlich suggested some extreme methods for reducing populations, including advocating the starving of countries which did not limit their populations, laying the groundwork for what we would today recognize as “ecofascism.” Ecofascists, according to Bron Taylor in his Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, advocate sacrificing human lives for the “organic whole of nature.” It is not a great leap to suggest that Gibb’s contention, that the world’s ills stem from overpopulation, aligns closely with that of Ehrlich’s.
While absorbing these realizations, it’s important to note that the core contention of overpopulation could itself be a fallacy: those who study population growth consistently make the point that across the developed world, populations are actually declining. Rapid population growth is now the preserve of developing countries, particularly in Africa, taking us back to the truly sinister suggestions of Ehrlich. But Gibbs doesn’t discuss these details.
From a fallacious argument Gibbs rolls into a rhetorical ploy: “Why are bankers, industrialists and environmental leaders only focused on the narrow solution of green technology?” he asks. Short answer: they are not. While green tech can offer us solutions to some needs, policymakers and environmental experts consistently stress that sustainability is much more dependent on changing social practices and human behaviour, from rewilding habitats, to eating differently and sourcing local produce and materials, to refurbishing and reusing existing objects.
Nevertheless, Gibbs perseveres with his thesis: he suggests that green energy is a religion; a belief system intended to assuage our fear of death.
He goes to Burlington, Vermont, to look at a biomass plant that burns 30 cords of
wood per hour, which I estimate would fill a little over one Olympic-sized swimming pool if the plant ran for 24 hours straight. Here, Gibbs has found a complaint with which many environmentalists agree: the viability of biomass as a “green” fuel source is, at best, controversial. Biomass produces a lot of emissions, even when the carbon produced is recaptured in new tree growth, and in many jurisdictions, regulations governing biomass are weak. Polluting materials are often burnt along with biomass to boost efficiency.
Gibbs interviews people who live near the biomass plant who complain that smoke from the plant is polluting the local community with black soot. Vehicle tires are burned along with the wood biomass to raise the temperature of the fires. We then hear from students at Michigan State University who are protesting their school’s supposedly renewable energy contract with a company that operates biomass plants. Gibbs then takes aim at environmentalist Bill McKibben for his advocacy of biomass—which is strange, given that McKibben has clearly and vocally opposed the proliferation of biomass.
We are then shown a bar chart which indicates that biofuels make up almost 70% of global renewable energy generation, citing the International Energy Agency (IEA). From a film released in 2020, this claim is downright perplexing. Those familiar with the statistics know that in 2019, the IEA put the global share of renewable energy from biofuels at around 8% of the total.
We move onto biofuel financing, discussing the supposed complicity of McKibben, as well as investment manager David Blood and Al Gore, who he claims are evangelizing for green energy for no reason more noble than the profit motive. He also infers that Al Gore’s 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth was little more than an advertising campaign to sell biomass investment to big business and finance. “Environmentalists are no longer resisting those with the profit motive, but collaborating with them,” Gibbs says. “The merger of environmentalism and capitalism is now complete.”
Gibbs continues to single out Bill McKibben’s organization 350.org for taking money from big donors such as The Rockerfeller Foundation, the implication being that 350.org is doing something nefarious with that cash—though what that might be is left to the viewer’s imagination. Perhaps more importantly, in his opposition to the involvement of big finance in renewables, at no point does Gibbs consider the alternative, in which the banks stay out of renewables and continue pumping investment into fossil fuels. Would that produce a preferable outcome, as far as Gibbs is concerned? We aren’t told.
And that brings us to a more significant inherent feature of the renewable energy movement, entirely ignored by Gibbs, which has the power to demolish the argument that renewables are simply a corporate cash grab. This is that decentralization of energy supply and provision is a property of low-carbon energy systems. Systems with more diverse sources of generation and storage are, by their very nature, more widely distributed than conventional systems that rely on large fossil-fueled or nuclear-powered stations. Distributed renewable energy systems are therefore, experts such as Carlo Vezzoli argue, “environmentally, socioethically and economically sustainable compared with the dominant centralised and non-renewable energy generation systems.” The evil corporations against which Moore and Gibbs rail are unlikely to find it as easy to exert dominance over a distributed system as they would, say, over one dominated by a scattering of massive power plants.
Wrapping up the film, Gibbs returns to Malthus, intoning morosely: “There is a way out of this: we humans must accept that infinite growth on a finite planet is suicide. We must accept that our human presence is already far beyond sustainability, and all that that implies”—though what that implies isn’t addressed. He goes on: “We must take control of our environmental movement and our future, from billionaires and their permanent war on planet Earth”—though no tips on how to achieve this are forthcoming. “Less must be the new more,” he adds. “Instead of climate change, we must at long last accept that it’s not the carbon dioxide molecule destroying the planet —it’s us.” The film ends with a gritty, harrowing montage of environmental destruction, accompanied by emotive music.
Like any industry, the renewable energy sector should be probed consistently and in detail. Hard questions should be asked of its proponents to ensure accountability and to determine that what they are offering lives up to the not-inconsiderable hype. More than ever, humanity needs to believe it is able to do the right things for the right reasons, and subjecting those things and those reasons to scrutiny can help to build trust and inform policy.
But that scrutiny and those investigations need to be thorough; they must be carried out from a position that is well-informed and current. Packaging vague, ill-informed attacks and outdated arguments as serious inquiry enables such work to be used as a cudgel by genuinely bad-faith, nefarious causes—as Jeff Gibbs and his allies are now finding. At the same time, by identifying what they see as problems but failing to offer any proposals to address them, Gibbs and Moore’s film rings pessimistic and hollow. Without offering any way forward or out, the unspoken message of the film is: “what’s the point?”
In which case, what was the point of making the film?