My review of “Planet of the Humans” – A Michael Moore documentary that does some things well and others really badly but is true to the Michael Moore legacy

Like every interested interested environmental observer, I carved out some time to finally watch “Planet of the Humans” by Jeff Gibbs (executive producer Michael Moore) and having watched it I came out with mixed feelings. The best description I can come up with is that, in my mind, it seems like two completely different documentaries shown sequentially. The first is a really problematic one on wind and solar energy (with a bit on population) and the second is an absolutely devastating critique of biomass/biofuels that reveals a lot of previously hidden ties between high-profile activists and the biomass/biofuels industry.

As a former academic, I predict this documentary will become a “must-view” for any advanced environmental studies class. But the viewing will need to be followed by a careful deconstruction of the work. Because while, contrary to the claims of its critics, the documentary doesn’t outright lie; it doesn’t tell the whole truth either. I have yet to see a critique that can point out more than a handful of true factual errors, which in a two hour film is something. Instead, the film treads a careful line of presenting examples, that aren’t really typical, but implying (without saying this outright) that they are typical. But then again isn’t that pretty much what defines a Michael Moore documentary?

If we are going to highlight complaints, then you have to start by discussing the whole “Chevy Volt” section. My social media feed is filled with reviews and blogs claiming that the Chevy Volt section is out-of-date and misrepresents current conditions. I disagree. That section of the documentary is Mr. Gibbs demonstrating his bona fides as an environmental journalist. He doesn’t pretend this section is current, rather he makes it absolutely clear that it is from the past.

What that portion of the film demonstrates is when others were mindlessly fawning over new technology he was asking informed and important questions. Is an electric car really green if it relies on coal power for its electricity? How much power does that array really produce? Is this concert really running off solar?

That entire section of the documentary was clearly represented as being in the past and so the fact that the Lansing solar array was an old one should not be unexpected. Again-and-again this introductory section shows him asking the insightful question when others were blissfully reporting pablum. For critics to complain that these historical clips somehow misrepresent the current status of technology completely misses the point of that part of the film.

In my opinion the problem with “Planet of the Human” is when it finishes its introduction and transitions to its initial anti-wind and solar phase (from about 18 minutes to about 50 minutes). That section is simply a mess. This is the part of the film the critics can really sink their teeth into because the documentary does a bait-and-switch.

In the anti-solar section the research concentrates on two solar facilities: Ivanpah and the SEGs. The thing the documentary fails to mention is that these aren’t your typical solar PV facilities they are solar thermal and concentrated solar projects. By concentrating on Ivanpah and the early SEGs the producers made a very deliberate choice: to look at the worst of the worst. When Ozzie Zehner says bad things about Ivanpah being not green, he is absolutely correct. It is heavily assisted by natural gas and as such really isn’t all that green. But if you condemned the auto industry solely because of the Ford Pinto then you would miss all the successes as well.

The reality is that any number of well-researched life cycle analyses demonstrate conclusively that solar PV installations can quickly make up the carbon debt generated in their production and produce effective, if intermittent, electricity. Moreover, the vast majority of solar facilities are solar PV and therefore most of the critiques presented do not apply. Yes, the panels do rely on scarce resources and are hard (and often extremely expensive) to recycle and building them in deserts harms the environment, but the life cycle analyses don’t lie. Solar PV is a a valuable source of low-carbon electricity as part of an integrated grid.

The arguments about wind are equally weak. Yes wind is intermittent and yes wind turbines typically are sited in locations that have lots of wind. But all energy generation has trade-offs and the life cycle analyses support wind turbines as well. Modern wind, like modern PV solar, makes absolute sense in a well-designed renewable energy mix.

As for that small section about population control at the 45 minute mark? I’m not sure what he was trying to achieve,but it was painful to watch old, privileged white folk talk about how we need to control population.

I admit, by about the 52 minute mark I was almost ready to pack it in and then the entire film turned around for me.

The next 45 minutes was an incredibly compelling story about the expansion and growth of the biomass industry and the luminaries of the Green movement who have facilitated its growth.

I have written a lot about biofuels since my first post on the topic in 2014 and unlike the solar/wind section of the documentary, almost every fact presented in this section was on point and consistent with my understanding and research.

What I didn’t know was all the extra stuff about all the high-profile environmental luminaries who have been funding, and getting funding from biofuels. The second half of the documentary more than made up for the first half. It was compelling and told a story that I thought I knew but didn’t know well enough.

I can understand why a lot of environmentalists are upset at this documentary because it really pulls back the curtain and what it shows is not pretty. Admittedly, I am going to guess that it cherry-picked a lot, but it is hard to cherry-pick if you don’t have a lot of plump, ripe cherries on the tree.

To conclude, I would suggest that not only does “Planet of the Humans” leave its viewership split, it also leaves me split. The section about wind and solar really annoyed and frustrated me and the section on biomass really informed me. I can see why a lot of high-profile activists would want it hidden from view but that very reason is why it shouldn’t be hidden. As I noted, I’m certain it will be mandatory viewing in Environmental Studies classes next year but it could benefit from a thorough re-editing and trim.

To summarize: this is a pretty much what you expect from a Michael Moore documentary. It does not tell the whole story, all the time, but it has enough of a basis in fact to be worth the watch. It will absolutely split its audience. A lot of people will absolutely hate it and a lot will absolutely love it. Once again, this is exactly how every Michael Moore documentary is received. The only difference this time is the progressive left is getting hit by the blows not the right.

Author’s Note:

An earlier version of this blog referred to another blog that had criticized the film while presenting information I recognized to be incorrect. I contacted that blog owner and he corrected his blog. Given that change the section of this article no longer remained relevant so was removed.

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10 Responses to My review of “Planet of the Humans” – A Michael Moore documentary that does some things well and others really badly but is true to the Michael Moore legacy

  1. Mark says:

    Hi, I’ve been following your blogs with interest over the past year and I’ve used some of your posts with my students.
    I was thinking of using Moore’s film along with several critical reviews to introduce the topic to my students.
    One point that practically no review has adequately addressed is the idea of intermittent energy produced by solar and wind and how to overcome this in an environmentally sustainable manner. I still haven’t seen any compelling argument: it appears this point still remains the Achilles heal of wind/solar power. I’d like your view on this particular point. Could you help? Is this really as huge a problem as it appears to be?
    Thank you.

    Like

  2. Fred B. says:

    Hello,
    You did not talk about the nuclear energy issue. The documentary basically says that nuclear energy is the greenest energy and is preferable to fossil, wind, solar and biomass, and even hydro. This is basically what Bill Gates also says. A blog on that would be very interesting.

    Like

  3. rogercaiazza says:

    I usually agree with your major arguments but in this instance have to disagree with your defense of wind and solar as a viable alternative. The post focused on only one issue with those resources, intermittency, and claimed that life cycle analyses support the value of the technologies. The overlooked problem is that for a true comparison at high levels of renewable penetration you need to incorporate the life cycles of energy storage needed to make their low-carbon electricity part of the grid. As long as energy storage is dependent upon rare earth metals (e.g., lithium and cobalt) the total life cycle and, more importantly, environmental impacts are unacceptable to me.

    Wind and solar are also diffuse. The documentary pointed out the area needed to provide power for just one city. When you consider the space needed to power a state, like New York’s insane Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act requires, the number of solar panels and wind turbines is staggering. It baffles me that people who scream about habitat fragmentation when a cell phone tower or a pipeline is proposed are not denouncing the coming tide of these projects. Adding the direct avian cumulative impacts, I do not believe wind energy is acceptable.

    There is a third implementation issue that constitutes the third strike in my opinion. Because wind and solar are diffuse the transmission grid is a critical component. Traditional sources of electric power generation use spinning turbines that provide inherent transmission grid ancillary services, particularly frequency control and loss compensation that wind and solar do not. These services can be provided by adding technology but to get the true integration cost the added cost and additional life cycle impacts need to be included.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Jeff S. says:

    A well-written assessment of the film.

    These are my thoughts, mostly in response to the comments you’ve published so far:

    The film seems to say that green energy production doesn’t work today, therefore it will never work. You can quible that the film doesn’t go about it honestly, but nevertheless, that’s what it seems to be saying. And it’s true that renewables might never work, but if history is any guide, it’s quite possible that they will.

    100 years or so ago when the automobile was first being mass produced, people pointed out that there was no suitable surface on which to drive them. The roads were dirt roads suitable for horses, not cars, and therefore cars would never amount to anything more than a rich man’s toy. A similar story could be told about airplanes. In the beginning, they were barely able to keep themselves aloft, and frequently killed their pilots. But things improved. That’s no guarantee that current “green” technologies will undergo a similar improvement, but the urge, the desire, the want, — and most importantly, the market — is there. Although the market brings out solutions, it also brings out the snake oil salesmen. (Hello biomass.)

    If fossil fuel use wasn’t so problematic, we’d only have to deal with the environmental consequences of its production, not of its use. But fossil fuel use as an energy source, if left unchecked, will almost surely lead to the downfall of our civilization as it becomes overwhelmed by the consequences of dealing with a 2 or 3 degree rise in global average temperature and the side-effects of that rise.

    The energy intensity of renewables is lower than that of fossil fuel. Fracking and oil sands mining aside, fossil fuels are relatively cheap and easy to produce. They’re also easy to refine and distribute, and are extremely convenient to use. You get a lot of bang for your buck. It’s too bad we have to turn away from them.

    Which brings up another point that the film seems to make: Fossil fuels have made it easy for us to live beyond our means, which we do with careless abandon. Switching to green energy isn’t going to change that lifestyle choice. We’ll still want to live as if Earth is four times its size, but with renewables we’d be limited to fewer Earths. Good times ahead!

    Like

    • Chester Draws says:

      But fossil fuel use as an energy source, if left unchecked, will almost surely lead to the downfall of our civilization as it becomes overwhelmed by the consequences of dealing with a 2 or 3 degree rise in global average temperature and the side-effects of that rise.

      Even the IPCC don’t believe that. What you recommend is destroying our civilisation to “save” it.

      Removing fossil fuels in the short term will lead to hunger and want. That is a bonus to some Greens, but most of us can do without that particular future.

      Fossil fuels have made it easy for us to live beyond our means, which we do with careless abandon.

      The reverse. Fossil fuel extraction makes trivial impacts on the surface of the earth. Our use of them has enabled us to live far better that how we would have lived, and in that sense is completely sustainable. Fossil fuel heavy cultures are the nicest ones to live in. The world’s poor want it — they don’t see Europe and think how despoiled it is compared to their homelands.

      The living “beyond our means” meme implies that we are creating a debt by doing so. But if we move to non-fossil fuel tomorrow there will be no debt to be paid. Fossil fuels are not evil, and have not yet created any debt on the environment that plants won’t eat.

      If you want to persuade people that we need to move away from fossil fuels, stopping pretending that they are inherently bad is a first step. Demonising them just makes the Greens look like the hair-shirt fanatics that too many of them are.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Chester Draws says:

    Modern wind, like modern PV solar, makes absolute sense in a well-designed renewable energy mix.

    Well, yes. But the key word there is “mix”.

    New Zealand has unsubsidised wind farms. We can do this because 1) parts of the country are very windy and 2) we have largely hydroelectric, so can turn it off and save that energy for later. It makes sense for us to have a large wind component. I’m all for it. I’m not for countries with little wind subsidising windmills when they have a coal based generating system, like Australia is currently doing — at massive expense, and destabilising their grid to boot.

    Likewise it makes sense for dry sunny countries near the equator to go into solar. But it makes no sense for Germany, which most needs power in the dark winter, to go all in on solar.

    The Greens don’t want a mix of what is efficient and useful. They mostly want 100% renewables regardless of any economic sense. They want dark countries to have solar and still countries to have wind power.

    That means pointing out all the inefficiencies and the wastage. That it is not “free” power. And that generating lots of “green” jobs is not a good thing, as it means it will cost the consumer lots of money. (Green jobs that are much touted, but never turn up, of course.)

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Pingback: Planet of the Humans—Is This the Best They’ve Got? | Climate Scepticism

  7. Mark Miller says:

    A few years back a rather detailed look at what went wrong with KiOR was published that you may find of interest-

    http://www.biofuelsdigest.com/bdigest/2016/09/18/kior-the-inside-true-story-of-a-company-gone-wrong-part-4-the-year-of-living-disingenuously/

    I am bit surprised that the film didn’t have time to look into the demise of Crescent Dunes as it would be nice to know if the mothballed project was due to the inherent limitations of a tower of babel design (ie Ivanpah) or was the failure(s) in the energy storage part of the system…. (ie the inability to contain the molten salts, etc).

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