Produced by Michael Moore, who has an impressive record with documentaries, and directed by 'environmentalist' Jeff Gibbs, the documentary was expected to deliver much. Sadly, it disappoints.
Less than two weeks after its free release on video sharing platform Youtube, the documentary, Planet of the Humans, has racked up close to 6 million views. Those numbers are owed in large part to the reputation of the man behind the film Michael Moore. This time, through Director Jeff Gibbs, the documentary takes a long (one hour and 40 minutes) and hard look at renewable energy and its supposed ‘failings’. Solar, biomass and other ‘renewable’ options have been put under the lens, and come out looking poorer for it. But it is really accurate?
Planet of the Humans had a lot going for it. A critical issue for our times, the broader issue of climate change, and the role of big business in it. In Award Winning producer, Michael Moore, known for his impressive work in the past on the gun culture of United States (Bowling for Columbine) , or its healthcare system (Sicko), besides awarded work on the presidency of George Bush(Fahrenheit 9/11) and now, Donald Trump (Fahrenheit 11/9), it had someone who has made documentaries a viable commercial proposition. So why then does it fail, in our view? One obvious issue is the director, ‘environmentalist’ Jeff Gibbs, who, judging by the tone and facts represented in the documentary is seemingly frozen in the time when realisation hit him that the movement is possibly a sham. Somewhere in 2010 it seems.
While one could nitpick over many things, some of the most obvious blunders deserve highlighting. The lifetime age of solar panels, the efficiency of panels, the share of wind energy in the energy mix, the role of Biomass as a ‘renewable’ energy, or even the share of renewable energy in the German power mix, is frankly, so outdated that it almost kills the whole purpose of the exercise. The director clearly has a serious distaste for the politics and approach of key personalities of the green movement in the US, from Bill Mckibben to Al Gore, to organisations linked to them like 350.org, Sierra Club and more. That, plus its focus on the US market or region, clearly ends up making the film miss many other momentous, and one might argue, more important progress made outside the US. While we hold no brief for the many claims and objectives of these gentlemen, and these organisations, Planet of the Humans would have looked very different , if made from say, an Asian perspective.
Like the fact that solar efficiency of 20 percent and more is a given today ( and not 8 percent as the documentary says), as is a life cycle of 20 years( not 10 years in the documentary) and above for them. Or the fact that storage has made giant strides, and is on its way to becoming mainstream within this decade. Or the massive gains made by offshore wind, which remains relevant for developed economies as yet, due to cost issues vis a vis developing markets. All of these in fact, make a very strong case against the accepted wisdom on the long term need for fossil fuel based power generation, to maintain baseload stability.
In fact, fossil fuels, the whole giant foundation that renewable energy seeks to shrink if not remove, virtually get a free pass in the damage they cause to the environment, with almost all the attention focused on the damage caused by the new energy options that call themselves renewable. Nuclear gets barely a mention, perhaps because so many people are conflicted about its role in the energy future.
Even Electric Vehicles, which have just started to hit their stride globally, are targeted for depending on energy that ultimately comes from fossil fuels. By showcasing a place in the US where 95% of he grid is coal powered. The reality is, today you will be hard pressed to find any grid that has such a high dependence on coal. The documentary ignores Hydro power or pump storage completely, despite their high share in renewable energy, especially in Brazil and other major economies like India.
Even the repeated examples of firms who are using renewable power, being connected to the grid nevertheless is showcased as an example of double standards or worse. When all it is, is actually a case of having a backup to renewables, or even for exporting power to the grid. Both pragmatic decisions for any firm today.
So is the documentary a complete hit job? Not really. The solar and wind industry will do well to, and probably already do, to focus much more on making their own sector much more sustainable than it is today. That means higher investments , and focus on recycling of materials, to a stage where over 80 percent can be recycled by 2025. Even as energy efficiency improves all the time.
The issues raised around ethanol production, and the use of Biomass are indeed relevant, and deserve a much closer look than they have got so far. It is also an issue that has impacted Brazil in particular, and now, the US and European markets far more. We would probably agree that diverting farmland to produce only biofuels is counter productive and definitely not sustainable. Especially with a global population that is still growing. A population that, the documentary stops just short of blaming as the root cause of all evil finally, even as it quotes an ‘expert’ saying that nothing short of a sudden, sharp drop in world population can turn back the clock.
The documentary, while under no obligation to offer solutions, goes beyond population as the single biggest culprit, blaming the consumption driven economy as the single biggest ‘problem’ to solve. Besides a serious distaste for billionaires. The last bit might just get it some precious support, and the numbers to claim success. But to expect anything else from this effort of Michael Moore, would be asking for too much. For the global green movement, that might come as a bitter sweet feeling. For this is one time that Moore won;t be able to move the needle of public opinion at all, and risks being branded a sell out himself to fossil industry interests.
The film also highlights just how much more there is to the renewable energy industry, than the US. Experts in the one international market used to support its contentions, Germany, must be squirming in discomfort from the outright misleading data that is trotted about on that country. The data is dated, with misleading stats on the share of renewable energy to the German energy mix, to make a case for the failure of renewable energy. By a multiple of 15 or more actually. Or in effect, numbers from 2005 possibly.
Perhaps the greatest validation for the future of renewable energy has come from democracies like India. Here, Solar and wind energy have emerged only once they jumped through major hurdles of cost effectiveness and sustainability, the issues the documentary highlights. Some of the biggest movements have happened since 2014, a period the documentary seems to miss completely, other than its single minded focus on American billionaires and their profiting from ‘clean energy’. Biomass in India is stuck for the same reason, as unlike the US, local appreciation for forest resources is far higher in India. And so far, our billionnaires have stayed away from lecturing us on the way forward, leaving the tough job largely to a government, which has to win elections somewhere every few months. But that doesn’t mean all is well of course. Just that Planet of The Humans is not where we would advise you to look, if you want to look for answers, or a case against renewable energy.