On Earth Day, April 22, 2020, filmmaker and producer Michael Moore (Roger & Me, Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11 etc.) released a new movie called Planet of the Humans for free viewing on YouTube and other streaming platforms. With a week, the film gained over 4 million views, a statistic even Netflix would envy.
I first heard about the film through some very critical comments by prominent climate change activists and environmentalists on Twitter. Former Green Party of Canada leader and longstanding Member of Parliament Elizabeth May first called it a “garbage film” and then wrote a review, labeling it “dreadful, ill-informed, [and] unhelpful.”
Acclaimed climate scientist/author and favourite target of right-wing trolls Michael E. Mann tweeted, “Michael Moore is now promoting the very same agenda of climate inaction that is being pursued by the fossil fuel-beholden Trump administration and Vladimir Putin.” Mann also retweeted Tim Guinee’s observation that “’Breitbart News’ is promoting Michael Moore’s new film [example]. That tells you about everything you need to know about this factually inept pile of offal disguised as a documentary.”
Bill McKibben of 350.org, the subject of one of the film’s sharpest attacks, wrote a detailed response to it in which he said, “I am used to ceaseless harassment and attack from the fossil fuel industry, and I’ve done my best to ignore a lifetime of death threats from right-wing extremists. It does hurt more to be attacked by others who think of themselves as environmentalists… I don’t understand the reasoning behind these particular attacks; when I first heard rumors of them last summer I wrote the producer and director to set the record straight, and never heard back from them. That seems like bad journalism, and bad faith.”
So what is this movie that seems to have aligned a famous leftist filmmaker with the alt-right and climate denialists, and earned countless accusations of betrayal by climate change activists? If you haven’t seen it, by all means watch it, but I’d recommend also reading some of the many rebuttals available online, some of which I’ve linked here. For a list of more, check out this helpful disclaimer page, posted by one of the film’s (now apologetic) distributors, or this growing collection of reviews.
In its YouTube description, Planet of the Humans claims to be “the wake-up call to the reality we are afraid to face: that in the midst of a human-caused extinction event, the environmental movement’s answer is to push for techno-fixes and band-aids.” It begins with the premise that people at the forefront of the mainstream environmental movement are in the pocket of giant corporations and billionaires looking to cash in on the green energy revolution, that green energy on the whole is a scam, and that well-meaning environmentalists have been deceived into thinking that replacing fossil fuel energy sources with clean, renewable energy sources will solve all of society’s problems.
If these points sound at all familiar, it may be because they are essentially talking points “from climate denier blogs from 2012,” climate and clean energy communicator Ketan Joshi wrote in a tweet introducing his detailed review. Joshi’s analysis is in agreement with most of the critiques I’ve read: that the information presented in the film is extremely outdated, cherry-picked, and from a very limited, first-world-white-guy perspective.
Even one of the expert white guys interviewed in the film, Richard Heinberg, has posted a tepid critique that points out many of the film’s errors.
The problem with the film, as I see it, is not that its main premise is entirely flawed. It is foolish for mainstream environmental organizations to get into bed with big-time capitalists, especially if it means sacrificing their principles. (For instance, it shocked me to learn that the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign promoted biomass — clearing and burning green trees — and natural gas as clean alternatives to coal, which they most definitely are not — but the issue is more complex and nuanced than portrayed in the film, and biomass as a fuel source is now widely discredited by most environmental groups.)
It’s also unrealistic to suggest that the present state of advanced industrial capitalistic civilization can be maintained as is just by switching to 100% renewable energy sources instead of fossil fuels. (The film doesn’t address the nuclear question at all.) This point is a constant refrain of right-wing commentators. The problem here is that no environmental organization or prominent climate activist that I know of is making this suggestion. On the contrary, while making the transition away from fossil fuels is central to addressing the urgent need to curtail carbon dioxide emissions and reduce the probability of runaway climate change devastation, every credible voice on the subject recognizes that the vision for a net-zero-carbon future involves much more than switching energy sources. The Green New Deal, the Green Party of Canada’s Mission: Possible, and other activist-driven policy proposals all emphasize that we must reduce our overall consumption, make industrial society much more energy efficient while reducing carbon emissions to net zero, and put people before profits.
But the biggest issue I and others have with the film is that with regards to the efficiency, effectiveness, and environmental impact of solar and wind power, it is dead wrong. Most of the footage on this subject appears to be eight to twelve years old. As Joshi says, this is “an absolute eternity” in the renewable energy industry. His review addresses this subject in considerable detail. The point the filmmakers stress most emphatically and repeatedly, that wind and solar power generate more carbon dioxide over their life cycle than fossil fuels to generate the same amount of power, is demonstrably false. See the graph below, from a survey of peer-reviewed studies published by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the U.S. The data shows “that life cycle greenhouse gas emissions from solar, wind, and nuclear technologies are considerably lower and less variable than emissions from technologies powered by combustion-based natural gas and coal.” This is the exact opposite of the contention regarding green energy made in the film.
On the point regarding the efficiency and effectiveness of renewable energy, again, the film is laughably inaccurate, as Dale the Solar Nerd outlines in detail in his review. The solar panels shown in Lansing near the beginning of the film are a thin-film model, said to have a very low efficiency of 8%. As Dale says, “First of all, the vast majority of solar panels that are deployed are crystalline silicon — not thin-film — and have an efficiency anywhere between 16 and 22%. Crystalline silicon panels (which don’t have toxic heavy metals like cadmium) have around 95% market share according to the Fraunhofer Institute. Thin-film panels, the kind in the Lansing array, are only 5% of the market.” Solar panels also last much longer than the film suggests: 20 to 30 years and rising.
The movie really starts to go off the rails when, after dismissing the possibility that renewable energy can save industrial civilization (as if this is the goal of the environmental movement en masse), it seems to land on the extremely outdated and racist notion of population control as the unfortunate but necessary alternative. In his closing monologue, Gibbs says, “We must at long last accept that it’s not the carbon dioxide molecule destroying the planet, it’s us. It’s not one thing, but everything we humans are doing. A human-caused apocalypse.” If he’s saying what he seems to be saying, that there are simply too many of us, he is ignoring both the tremendous reduction in world population growth over the last fifty years, and the fact that countries with the fastest population growth rates also tend to have the lowest carbon emissions per capita.
Maybe Gibbs and Moore just went after the wrong targets, as Leah C. Stokes suggests in her excellent summary of issues with the film. “If the corporate capture of the environmental movement is the problem, it’s puzzling why the film has almost nothing to say about corporations themselves. You know, the fossil fuel companies and electric utilities that lied about climate science for 30 years? The climate denial campaign is not mentioned.” Not only that, but the film ignores the recent work of young activists who are leading the charge to create a truly transformative movement that is generating a huge amount of enthusiasm, but also needs support, not ill-informed attacks by should-be allies on major platforms.
“Perhaps the most insulting thing,” says Stokes, “Is that this film comes at a time when the youth climate movement is finally gaining momentum. Young women like Greta Thunberg and Varshini Prakash have helped climate change break into the mainstream. Rather than bolster the work of the Sunrise Movement, Fridays for Future, or Zero Hour, it undermines these activists’ achievements by sowing confusion and doubt.”
If you want to find hope for the future, look to the work of the groups linked in the previous paragraph. You won’t find it in this film.
Doug Cleverley — Barrie, Ontario, Canada — April 29, 2020