“How long do you think we humans have? What if we go way, way, way too far? How would we know that it’s our time to go?”
This 2019 documentary directed by Jeff Gibbs, with Michael Moore tagging along as its executive producer presents the consequences of the takeover of the environmental movement by capitalists. With Moore’s name added to the film and its upload on youtube through his channel for free streaming, it now has over ten million views. This increased visibility put them on a pedestal they might not have anticipated. The responses ranged from the backlash by mainstream environmental groups and leaders, led by American filmmaker Josh Fox, to the far right, appropriating the film’s argument against renewable energy technologies to declare the environmental concerns of liberal politics a hoax.
The film explores the causes that have led to no decrease in our fossil fuel consumption despite the awareness of its harmful effects for over six decades. The director-cum-narrator follows the green energy movement in America, one that has exponentially grown in the past few decades but hasn’t led to any subsequent improvement in the environmental conditions. He uncovers the many crucial reasons for its failure so far, central to which is the capitalist worldview- the hamartia of human condition.
Corporations Co-Opting The Green Movement
The film begins with the idea of humans having taken over the planet and their subsequent lack of self restraint. This lack is magnified in the tendencies nurtured under a capitalist economy. Hence, when Obama rolled out nearly a 100 million dollar stimulus package for green energy in 2009, alliances between activists and businessmen were quick to form. From Al Gore, former presidential candidate, to investors like Vinod Khosla, father of the clean tech revolution, all joined in. Green stimulus money revived the economy in parts of the country but its goals started becoming vague. It only aimed to increase production and develop new technologies, greenwashing their environmental impact. The reduced dependence on conventional energy sources did not seem to reduce our net fossil fuel consumption. Because the corporations essentially went on to design infrastructures that increase our dependence on energy. The irony that the developed nations have only increased in their energy consumption goes on to show that alternative energy corporations only expanded the market for energy use, with green tech designed to only sustain our way of life in the face of an environmental crisis.
Jeremy Grantham, a billionaire investor, provides an essential self criticism assessing the reasons for the inability of capitalist and mainstream economics to make reformative use of green energy sources. “A corporation’s responsibility is to maximize profits, not to waste money attempting to guess how to save the planet,” he states. The motive to maximise profit reigns over factors like loss of natural capital, resource depletion and other long term losses. Watch Jeremy Grantham’s ‘Race of Our Lives’ Speech
The Renewables are not Our Sole Saviors
Why is it so important to cut down on our energy needs when renewables are clearly an endless source of energy?
The movie analyses how both solar and wind, completely green in their usage, however require massive amounts of resources in their production. The rare earth metals like silicon, cobalt, graphite and silver used in producing solar panels and the high cost of building wind farms, both of which last only for a few decades at best, end up having major environmental impact. The efficiency of affordable solar panels is a little over 8%, the film claims. Moreover, the intermittency of these sources, the fact that the sun and the wind are not available at all times, requires a constant power backup from other sources. With battery backup having a large carbon footprint, we can’t be fully dependent on solar and wind to sustain our current way of life and reduce environmental impact at the same time.
The movie follows the setting up of the Ivanpah solar thermal plant in the California desert, world’s biggest solar power plant back in 2014. This plant gets started on natural gas every morning before the sun rises. It has filed carbon offset and acid rain permits. Built completely on fossil fuel infrastructure, it destroys the desert ecosystem of that patch of land that they think is justifiably a dead zone. And after all that went into it, the fact remains that, “the sun is renewable but the solar arrays are not” as Ozzie Zehner, one of the producers of the film, points out about glass, aluminium and other rare earth metals that went into building the facility.
A chilling statistical analysis is that of Germany, where a significant increase of about 80% in wind and solar did not see a reduction in fossil fuel use as it still remains Europe’s largest consumer of coal. We might have overestimated the capacity of wind and solar to get us out of a climate crisis. Lifecycle Analysis and Net Energy Analysis can provide a more realistic assessment of it. However, no source of energy is currently free from the burden of environmental damage. The switch to renewable energy is inevitable, but to think that it will sustain a lifestyle with the use of energy still adapted to the unique characteristics of fossil fuels is only going to be environmentally destructive. Author of Our Renewable Future, Richard Heinberg’s Review of Planet of the Humans proposes replacement of most of our infrastructure to tackle the issues raised in the film. “The future will be renewable; there simply isn’t any other option. What is very much in question, however, is the kind of society renewable energy can support,” he writes.
Biofuel Industry: Corporate Cynicism at its Extreme
The unsustainability of large scale biomass production is well established within the environmental community and the film’s critique of the same has been largely accepted. This least controversial bit of the film however reveals the worst side of profit driven motives that are behind many such green energy endeavours. Gibbs calls it the “replacement of the fuel damaging the planet with the biofuel that requires the consumption of the living planet.” He follows Richard Branson’s investment in biofuel to be used as jet fuel leading to the surge of investors interested in converting wood reserves into airplane fuel. Vinod Khosla produces the supposedly clean gasoline with no downsides using wood chips. Brazil’s vast resources of sugarcane becomes the new hub for investors to make ethanol out of, clashing further with the rights of indegenious land. “Is there anything too terrible to qualify as green energy?” The biofuel industry in its obsession to go green makes use of animal fat, algae and seaweed only to endanger all these natural habitats.
Over the past years, Bill McKibben and the likes have stepped back from their support of biomass projects. The devastating ecological impacts of sudden commercialisation of resources and capitalist exploitation functioning under the garb of environmental concerns could very well be observed through the trajectory of the biomass industry’s rise and fall.
Backlash: The Burden of Self-Criticism
In the post truth worth of information dump, no presentation of facts is free from ideology. The movie’s motivation to be critical of its own activism lacked the distance that measures pros and cons objectively. This led to loaded negative criticism of environmental leaders and investors, like Bill McKibben and Jeremy Grantham, while blanketing over their positives.
The factual discrepancies in blanket statements, that conclude we might have been better off directly burning fossil fuels instead of developing renewable energy infrastructures using it, ignore the complexities of energy accounting that cannot be reduced to such a binary. The ideological connotation of the imagery invoked, further accompanied by sombre music, also serves to present a radical notion against renewables altogether.
The lack of elaboration in proposed solutions in the film that mostly looming is despair about the human creed has been disappointing for many. But its effect on the people is not quite the same. Science doesn’t persuade quite as well as emotions do, which seem to be genuine on the part of the filmmakers. It is not technically true that we don’t have a way out of this but things don’t look quite as optimistic too. The environmental discourse, from the global summits to environment friendly startups all tend to rest, more or less, on the hope of a prophetic technological fix born out of our self preservation instincts at the face of apocalyptic urgency. Making hefty promises like net zero emissions without policy interventions or elaborating on the roadmap to get there are merely distractions sustaining our way of life without having to face the anxiety of collective death or enduring the collective blame.
Even though sacrifice is not a very good sell, the film eventually persists on the message of reducing consumption. The nihilistic despair of losing trust in humans to think beyond profit motive and calling forth its own doom is what the film ends with, stating, “infinite growth on a finite planet it suicide.”
The controversies have since sparked a conversation that Films For Action’s Statement on Planet of the Humans covers very well using a ton of resources, calling it an exercise in media literacy. The film confronts and challenges the green energy movement in ways that further enrich it. Movies are generally made for quick consumption, but the controversies surrounding this movie have led to a larger engagement that is essential to develop a conscience that questions the confidence in techno-fixes and sees beyond the consumerist will nurtured under capitalism, forcing us to look for systematic solutions to power down our civilization by designing models that thrive on drastically low energy consumption levels to deal with the urgency of the environmental crisis in the here and now.
Reviews & Response:
The full scope of Brightsource Energy’s Ivanpah solar project, a solar thermal electric generating facility in the Mojave Desert, US. Image courtesy of BrightSource Energy, Inc.
Gibbs, Jeff, director. Planet of the Humans. YouTube, uploaded by Michael Moore, 21 Apr. 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zk11vI-7czE&feature=youtu.be&t=10