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 My social media feed is filled with reviews and blogs claiming that the Chevy Volt section is out-of-date and misrepresents current conditions.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.
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.