The documentary film Planet of the Humans, by Michael Moore, Jeff Gibbs, and Ozzie Zehner, which used to be available free on Youtube, has attracted over eight million views, but also some very serious criticism.
The film makers identify as environmentalists, and they recognise the seriousness of global warming and destruction of forests. But they disagree passionately with mainstream environmentalists about renewables, including solar energy.
Critics have generally focused on specific problems with the data provided in the film, for instance its reliance on obsolete figures about performance of solar panels, and on statements it makes about population.
They have paid less attention to its generalised negativity about technology.
That is a nettle that has yet to be grasped; although Stavros Stamatoukos, a European energy efficiency specialist, has begun the nettle-grasping in a tweet that points to “technophobic narratives” in the film.
Story, imagery, music
Planet of the Humans is romantic, in the sense that it appeals to the emotions…
It tells a story with heroes, villains and victims, seekers of truth, dealers in illusion, clear-sighted scholars. There is plenty of dramatic imagery, plenty of stirring music.
It’s a well-produced film. Which doesn’t prove it’s right about the big picture.
Two big claims
The film puts forward two big claims about solar energy and other renewables:
- That it is futile and dangerous to look for technological solutions to environmental problems.
- That solar technology is actually another form of fossil fuel technology — an inferior, disguised form.
Let’s look at these points one by one.
First, the claim that it’s futile and dangerous to look for technological solutions to environmental problems…
This claim is expressed by the anthropologist Nina Jablonski, who tells Jeff Gibbs:
“Seeking technological fixes one after another is simply going to lead us to another level of catastrophe” ¹
It’s a thread that runs through the film’s section about electric vehicles, wind turbines, solar panels, and biofuels. According to the filmmakers, none of these offers a solution to the current environmental crisis.
After the film was released and the criticisms started, Ozzie Zehner said that it “really doesn’t matter” if they ignored recent data about performance of solar panels. He mentioned a couple of reasons why it doesn’t matter: fossil fuels are used in the manufacture of solar devices, and solar devices are “technological solutions”².
We’ll return in a moment to the topic of how solar panels are made. But first let’s look at the accusation that they are “technological solutions”.
Yes they are. But are “technological solutions” always a bad idea?
Consider the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer — an international agreement to phase out use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in fridges and spray-cans, replacing them with other compounds that don’t attack ozone.
That was an example of planned technology change, carried out to address an environmental problem caused by existing technology — in short, a “technological solution”.
And it worked. Recent work by NASA shows that the ozone layer of Earth’s atmosphere, which was deteriorating before the Protocol came into force, is slowly recovering today.
The fact that one very serious environmental problem was relieved by an internationally agreed technological change does not prove that all environmental problems can be solved in exactly the same way.
But to speak in general terms against “technological solutions” is to deny even the possibility that newer technologies might be better environmental choices than older technologies.
This fits the Oxford definition of technophobia: “Fear, dislike, or avoidance of new technology.”
Quartz and coal
Next, let’s look at the claim that solar technology is actually a disguised form of fossil fuel technology.
There is a dramatic scene in Planet of the Humans where Jeff Gibbs, who presents himself as an environmentalist eager for knowledge, visits the office of Ozzie Zehner, presented as a clear-sighted scholar.
Ozzie Zehner places a piece of quartz and two lumps of coal on top of his desk, and tells Jeff Gibbs that these are the raw materials used to obtain silicon for solar cells³.
After mentioning other metals and materials in solar devices, Zehner says to Gibbs:
“[…] it takes an incredible amount of energy to mine and process all of the materials that go into building something like this. You use more fossil fuels to do this than you’re getting benefit from it. You would have been better off just burning the fossil fuels in the first place, instead of playing pretend.” ⁴
What’s true here, and what isn’t?
It’s true that solar cells (like computers) contain the element silicon (Si). It is also true that this element is extracted from its compound, silicon dioxide (SiO₂), by a process involving coal. The coal play two roles, firstly as a heat source and secondly as a reducing agent — that is, it removes the oxygen from the SiO₂.
It’s possible in principle to extract silicon in other ways. Coal is certainly not the only heat source known to science, nor is coal the only reducing agent which can work with silicon dioxide. Magnesium is another reducing agent which researchers have published results about. Still, reduction with coal is the way silicon is typically produced today.
The fact remains that solar panels use light as their energy source. They convert light energy into electrical energy via the photovoltaic effect, which was discovered by Alexandre Becquerel in 1839, and has been researched extensively since then. Which is why the carbon footprint of solar panels is a small fraction of the carbon footprint of generators powered by coal or gas.
Use of coal to make silicon for the panels isn’t “playing pretend”. It’s using one energy source to access another, quite different source.
It is comparable to using a bow drill to get heat energy from friction, in order to start a wood fire which produces much more heat energy — something people have done since prehistoric times. Or using the muscle-power of draft horses to transport coal to a steam train.
That’s something which was routinely done in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It didn’t mean that energy from steam was a disguised form of energy from horses.
Wood stoves forgotten
Planet of the Humans sometimes makes valid points, for instance questioning the use of slow-growing plants as a supposedly renewable biofuel.
But even on this point, the narrative has at least one serious weakness. It fails to discuss household wood stoves, surely one of the widespread forms of biofuel use around the world.
Doesn’t burning wood in a home stove have the same immediate consequences as burning wood in a power station — less trees, more CO₂?
Compared to solar-powered electrical devices, the household hearth is older, more familiar, perhaps more romantic. But does that mean it’s the best thing to use for cooking and heating today?
(1) Planet of the Humans, 23:33 to 23:40
(2) Michael Moore in a live discussion with Extinction Rebellion co-founder Clare Farrell, 53:48
(3) Planet of the Humans, 24:54 to 25:50
(4) Planet of the Humans, 32:25 to 33:02