Imagine you have just wrapped up another Earth Day celebration at your church (online only this year) and as long time chair of the Creation Care committee, you reflect on all the accomplishments: banning Styrofoam coffee cups and plastic bottles; mandating locally sourced and sustainably farmed organic food at all hospitality events; convincing your pastor to offer sermons and “climate blessings” provided by the mother church’s Social Justice office.
But the crowning achievement, the green feather in your cap, is that bank of solar panels installed on the roof of the church. Yes, there was some push back on the $200,000 cost by those who pointed out that as a Midwest church it’s often too cloudy to generate much electricity and in winter the panels would be covered by snow. Others carped that the money might be better spent on updating Sunday School materials or expanding the food bank. But you got it through.
Then a progressive friend on a church Zoom conference asks if anyone’s seen “Michael Moore Presents – Planet of the Humans,” the new documentary on green energy released on the eve of Earth Day. It’s available free on YouTube. Everyone is excited and puts it on their pandemic watch list.
You settle in that evening and watch. About half way through, you hit “pause.” You don’t know whether to conclude that you’ve been had by the massive scam known as renewable energy, or should you go online and sign a petition demanding Moore take down his film. But too late! More than 5 million people have already seen it as of May 1.
“Planet of the Humans” follows writer, director and producer Jeff Gibbs around the country asking necessary but difficult questions about the claims made for green energy (unfounded for the most part) and puts his questions to some of the industry’s most prominent proponents (charlatans and hucksters too often). Turns out that green energy isn’t much different than the fossil fuel energy we already rely on. What’s more, the manufacturing processes and materials used for renewable technologies are intensely dependent on fossil fuels and processes like open pit mining.
“It was becoming clear that what we have been calling green, renewable energy and industrial civilization are one and the same,” Gibbs concludes. “Desperate measures not to save the planet, but to save our way of life.”
From the top, is must be said: “Planet of the Humans” is not a paean to capitalism (this is a Michael Moore production after all) nor does it contemplate anything other than an apocalyptic environmental crisis. It also has a strong Malthusian panic expressed throughout.
The film begins with a series of street interviews that pose the question “How much longer does the human race have?” The answers are all over the place, from “infinity” to billions of years to hardly a handful of years. One young woman believes humanity will survive because “we’re kind of like cockroaches on the planet.”
In other words, humans are just another species, and our time may be up. Ever wondered what would happen if a certain species took over an entire planet and flipped the script on humanity? The title of the documentary is inspired by the 1968 film “Planet of the Apes,” where an astronaut crew crash-lands on a planet where intelligent talking apes oppress and enslave them.
Gibbs establishes his green activist bona fides early in the documentary by talking about his work as an environmental journalist, and more personally, his back-to-the-land lifestyle as a young man in the wilds of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Yes, his cabin was wired with solar panels and heated with a wood stove.
Gibbs visits a solar festival with a music stage powered by “100 percent solar energy.” When he pokes behind the scenes, during a rainfall, he finds that the solar panels are being packed up and power switched over to a back up biofuel generator. That proved inadequate so the organizers simply plugged into the local grid. Late in the documentary, Gibbs visits another music fest touted as fully powered by solar energy. Not so fast. A bemused festival worker behind the scenes reveals that the solar array set up for the event generated enough juice to power a toaster.
Solar, like wind power, is at the mercy of the elements. It has an “intermittency” problem and for stability often requires backup from conventional power generating sources. If, as we’ve been hearing from spokespeople for the Green New Deal, we want to move to a future of 100 percent carbon-free energy sources, we’ll need a lot of battery storage. Batteries have a short lifecycle and a massive manufacturing carbon footprint. This has been obvious to anyone who wanted to take a closer look at green energy.
We’ve been hearing about the promise of a green energy future and a green energy jobs boom at least since the Obama administration and a $100 billion stimulus package. Remember all of those “shovel ready projects”? Former Vice President Al Gore makes several appearances in “Planet of the Humans” and you get the impression that every green energy project he’s engaged in is for making a quick buck at taxpayer expense. In one interview clip, Al Gore and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson are being interviewed. “Is Al Gore a prophet?” asks the interviewer. “How do you spell prophet?” Branson quips. A hearty laugh is had all around.
They’re not the only ones getting a good going over in “Planet of the Humans.” Venture capitalists, billionaire donors like Michael Bloomberg, major banks, environmental groups like the Sierra Club, activists like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (“It’s free energy forever.”) all get their close ups. The insufferable Bill McKibben, whose 350.org has been scolding America about its fossil fuel profligacy for years, comes off looking like America’s biggest green phony.
Corporate greenwashing is everywhere in this documentary. At a press conference in Lansing, Michigan, to introduce General Motor’s Chevy Volt, a company official is nonplussed by a reporter’s question about where the energy is coming from to charge the electric vehicle. Answer: Lansing’s power grid, 95 percent fueled by coal.
But it’s not just fuel, it’s also materials and the energy needed to manufacture green vehicles. Electric vehicles like the Volt and the Tesla Materials require energy sucking aluminum, lithium for batteries, and graphite. Not to mention that buyers of these vehicles (average household income for the Tesla S: $153,313) have historically been heavily subsidized by state and federal governments.
Gibbs then visits a Lansing solar array where, hilariously, a woman representing the Sierra Club seems incapable of believing that the football field sized array is only powerful enough to power 10 homes annually. To power the entire city of Lansing for a year, she’s told, you’d need a solar array that is 3 miles by 5 miles. On sunny days, of course. In short, Lansing can’t go off the grid.
Wind farms get a close look. Gibbs visits one construction site in northern Michigan where workers are erecting a 482-foot windmill. It’s built with 800 yards of concrete, 140 tons of steel, and 36,000-pound turbine blades made of fiberglass and balsam. In total, the tower will weigh 800,000 pounds. Not exactly what you’d call treading lightly on the Earth. But Gibbs also discovers that environmental activists are unhappy with windmills in their back yard, especially when they contemplate what construction sites do to mountain tops. Estimated life cycle: about 20-25 years for the average wind turbine.
Particularly damning are scenes where Gibbs travels to solar energy sites with Ozzie Zehner, a green energy researcherand one of the producers of the documentary. He explains that solar panels are not actually made from sand (another convenient fiction) but mined quartz. Solar facilities could not exist without fossil fuel infrastructure.
Energy companies that shut down coal plants and replace them with solar generating projects (more greenwashing) often need natural gas plants to replace the lost generating capacity. Natural gas (thank you fracking) is actually increasing fossil fuel use in the United States. Solar plants make good TV visuals but they are largely window dressing for energy company claims that they are moving to renewables.
Zehner visits the desert site of the Ivanpah solar complex near the California-Nevada border. At its launch, it was touted by then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as converting the apparent emptiness of a desert into productive use. “I see miles and miles of a gold mine,” he crowed. But Zehner explains that Ivanpah, which uses an array of mirrors to capture solar energy, has to burn natural gas for “hours” to start up every morning. At this point, the documentary introduces the devil “themselves” – the Koch brothers (it is after all a Michael Moore production) whose companies were involved in the construction of Ivanpah. “The funny part is that when you criticize solar plants like this you’re accused of working for the Koch brothers,” Zehner says. “The idiocy in all of this.”
It turns out, deserts are not dead but solar installations might be. Construction of desert solar arrays causes huge environmental damage, including the destruction of Joshua trees that can live up to 150 years. Gibbs and Zehner visit Dagget, California, to inspect an early solar facility. It’s now a “dead zone” — an empty waste covered with drifting sand. It would have made more sense to continue burning fossil fuels rather than go through the solar sham.
“We’re basically just being fed a lie,” Zehner concludes.
Then there’s “biomass,” a euphemism for “cut down forest, burn trees.” Not exactly “carbon neutral.” These plants, now distributed all over the world, are gas-burning operations consuming timber and wood chips. One of the more outrageous scenes takes place in L’Anse, Michigan, in the Upper Peninsula. A “biomass” plant situated in this town of 2,000 people on Lake Superior is burning – are you ready for this? — scrap tires and creosote- and PCP-treated railroad ties. A local woman fighting the plant talks about how, in the winter, the soot from the plant blackens the snow near schools and a senior housing project. She says the plant got an $11.5 million renewable energy grant.
But caught between exposing renewable energy projects for the blatant con game that they are, and all those people scurrying around the planet like cockroaches, “Planet of the Humans” fails to come up with a reasonable way forward. Still, for those who haven’t been paying attention, it’s an entertaining and educational primer on the hype and phoniness and lies behind so much of the green energy project.
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