In this critical review, Elisabeth Robson reacts to the newly released environmental documentary Planet of the Humans. The film explains why technology won’t save us and leads viewers to question the industrial paradigm.
Liberals have been quick to attack the film, mistaking it for a pro-fossil or pro-nuclear fuel argument, and recognizing that critiquing “green” energy undermines the morality of their entire ideological project of “sustainable modern development.” The far-right has attempted to co-opt the message as well. Both are predictable and profoundly mistaken responses. See the end of this review for a few point-by-point rebuttals of these misrepresentations.
Our choice is not between “green” energy and fossil fuels. That is a false binary. We must choose between industrial destruction—including both ‘renewables’ and fossil fuels—and creating a biocentric future. We need revolutionary transformation of society, not superficial changes to the energy sources of empire. Planet of the Humans is not without flaws. No piece of media is. But it contributes critically to a movement too long dominated by cornucopian, anthropogenic industrial energy advocates.
Planet of the Humans: Why Technology Won’t Save Us
By Elisabeth Robson
Green energy is a false solution. That’s a nice way of putting it.
But green energy is the god of the left. And heaven forbid anyone from the left point out any of the pesky problems with this god. We expect that from people on the right; but the left? And now one of the left’s progressive heroes has gone and broken the rules and actually published an entire 1 hour and 40 minutes of documentary trashing this god. Needless to say, the backlash took less than 24 hours to begin.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
The documentary film is Planet of the Humans. The film is narrated and directed by Jeff Gibbs, and executive produced by Michael Moore. It stars renewable energy generation technologies wind and solar, along with biomass, and with, of course, the obligatory supporting role appearance from electric vehicles.
Jeff channels Michael well. He is not afraid to look behind the curtain to see the man, or rather the fossil fuels, running the show, or to ask the uncomfortable questions. “Well, that’s awkward,” I find myself saying several times throughout the film.
We begin, appropriately enough, with a reminder of the first Earth Day, 50 years ago today as I write this now. That first Earth Day inspired the filmmaker to become an environmental journalist, and he went through a phase, as many of us have done, wishing and hoping so hard that green energy will help us kick our addiction to fossil fuels and save the planet, that he actually believed it for a while.
Wind and solar.
He soon discovers the intermittency problem: you can’t generate energy from solar panels when the sun isn’t shining, or from wind turbines when the wind isn’t blowing. Well, yes, that is a well known problem. He then discovers that fossil fuel powered energy plants must be running at the ready to fill in the gaps when the wind dies and it rains or the sun sets for the evening, and of course you can’t just stop and start fossil fuel powered energy plants on a whim. What about batteries he asks? Yes, but… they degrade quickly and require a lot of resources to make. How about the resources to make the wind and solar panels? Right, that’s a problem too.
And the land where wind and solar is installed? Oh, yes, the vast tracts of land torn up for wind and solar is yet another problem. But it’s just desert right? “Just desert”… sure, if you think centuries old cactus and Joshua trees, wildflowers that color the hills red, yellow, and purple after spring rains, and lizard and tortoise and eagle and wolf habitat is “just desert.”
Gibbs looks at electric vehicles, trotted out by car companies as proof of their green credentials, but of course if wind and solar aren’t powering the grid, then all you’ve done to power the EVs is move the gas from the gas tank to the power plant. Unfortunately, the car company executive put on the spot did not seem to know much about the power grid, only about how much PR she was getting from the press about the EV she’s announcing.
Next, we meet biomass. Compared to wind and solar this is a low(er) tech solution to powering the world, which we might initially think is better–along with Bill McKibben who is shown proudly touting the benefits of chopping up trees into bits and burning them in power plants–but it turns out that no, we can’t cut down all the trees on the planet to power our lifestyles without some, you know, downsides. We see the fossil fuel powered-machines killing beautiful old trees, and the smoke and CO2 rising from the stacks while hearing about how biomass is “carbon neutral,” from people who obviously don’t understand the difference between trees, and a healthy, thriving forest. We meet the community members subjected to biomass plants that are burning, along with trees, old tires and creosote-soaked railroad ties.
And all along the way, Jeff and his sidekick Ozzie Zehner, author of Green Illusions and co-producer of the film, ask the uncomfortable questions of the celebrities of the left: Van Jones, Bill McKibben, various big wigs at the Sierra Club, along with plenty of clips showing Al Gore at his hypocritical finest, touting capitalism and the profit he will be making personally if only we would invest more money in renewable technologies.
The only conclusion the viewer can draw by the end of the film is the inescapable fact, that no one on the left wants to admit: there is no get out of jail free card. There never was, and there never will be. As long as we try to tech, mine, build, and burn our way out of this mess, we will only make the problem worse.
Why technology won’t save us
While the film, Planet of The Humans focuses almost entirely on the problems of wind, solar, and biomass, and the corporate culture of profit surrounding these industries, we also understand that the filmmaker gets it–as in, the big picture. That it’s not just about climate change, air pollution, water pollution, or even corporate greed. It’s that even if we managed to miraculously replace all the grid energy and liquid fuels we use with so-called renewable sources of energy, it wouldn’t solve the fundamental issues at the heart of all these problems: that it is our industrial civilization and the relentless push for endless growth that is killing the planet. The film makers do not raise this point explicitly, but it is there for all to see if only we care to look. Just like these problems with renewables have been there all along, no matter how hard we try to ignore the fact that solar panels and wind turbines require massive amounts of metals mined out of the ground, ground that was once someone’s home, and is now destroyed; and no matter how hard we try to ignore that biomass is just a euphemism for dead trees, trees the same so-called environmentalists who invest in biomass energy plants tell us we must save in order to sequester CO2 and protect biodiversity.
The hypocrisy is stunning, as it always has been. We are all guilty of it to some degree–I know I am–but at least I can say that I’m trying to learn more, to keep an open but critical mind, and to spend the time to look more deeply at these issues. I’ve learned to not just take on faith the words of the corporate-backed and often fossil fuel-supported organizations mentioned in this film who tell me we can solve everything–have our cake and eat it too–if we just have enough green energy.
A reviewer from The Guardian wrote in response to the film:
“Most chillingly of all, Gibbs at one stage of the film appears to suggest that there is no cure for any of this, that, just as humans are mortal, so the species itself is staring its own mortality in the face. But he appears to back away from that view by the end, saying merely that things need to change. But what things and how?
It’s not at all clear.”
Yes, this film makes the case that things need to change. What things? Everything. How? By shutting down the entire industrial machine.
The film never explicitly condemns industrial civilization as the root of our problems. However, as I said above, it is there to see for anyone who is paying attention. I might wish it had been stated explicitly and directly, but this message is hard to miss. The point of the film is that everything about how we live on this planet needs to change, and deluding ourselves about how we can continue life as we know it powered by green energy is not just a waste of time; it is criminal. Only by acknowledging this truth can we put aside the fantasy of green energy and begin to formulate real solutions. And yes, the real solutions mean shutting down the entire industrial machine. Not just fossil fuels, but everything: all the mining, the logging, the industrial fishing, the industrial agriculture… everything. It’s all got to change.
The lesson, and the moral of the story, is that we (humans) will be entirely to blame for our own demise, when it comes, if we continue down the path of using massive amounts of energy–no matter how that energy is generated–to expand our ecocidal footprint on this planet.
I hold my breath as the end of the film approaches. Will this film, like so many others, try to end on an optimistic note? The green god of the left requires optimism to end all his religious services, don’t you know.
No. This film, unlike so many others, manages to avoid the tragedy of ending with delusional optimism. We see instead the tragedy of rainforests decimated, rainforests that orangutans call home. The tragedy of lives lost to human greed and cruelty; the desperation, sadness, and confusion written all over the faces of those beautiful beings who remind us so much of ourselves.
It is the perfect, heart-wrenching ending to this film: we understand, without any words being spoken, that green energy, along with the many other horrors of our industrial civilization, is killing us and all life on this beautiful planet we call home.
To join the resistance and help end industrial civilization, check out https://deepgreenresistance.org/.
Commons Criticisms of the Film and Responses
False Critique #1: The film uses inaccurate information, for example about CSP (Concentrated Solar Power)
Critic: “It is stated correctly in the movie that the Ivanpah concentrated solar power (CSP) plant in California requires a natural gas power source to start it up every morning. Other CSP plants do not, however. And newer CSP designs, like the one operating at Crescent Dunes solar plant in Nevada since 2009, use molten salt to store enough of the sun’s heat to keep the generators running all night long.”
Robson: Most CSPs here in the USA have been an utter failure, including Crescent Dunes, which seems to be shut down now. The plant never managed to achieve its expected monthly output, and was entirely shut down for 8 months of its short life because of a leak in the molten salt thermal storage tank.
In addition, CSP plants are incredibly destructive to the land where they are installed. Typically the land is cleared of all life, like you see in the movie… which means habitat and homes lost for countless beings who lived on that land previously. When wildlife people try to relocate the desert tortoises that often live in these locations, not many survive. They fence off the land so the tortoises can’t get back in. And birds that fly through the hottest part of the light as it’s collected can sometimes burn to death.
I wonder if all that infrastructure is still sitting there, trashing up the desert? Certainly the soil and life they destroyed putting it up will take a very very long time to recover even if the infrastructure is eventually removed.
And none of this changes the fact that it requires metals and materials and fuel to build and maintain these things, that they are very low density sources of energy, and incredibly inefficient, consist of toxic waste at the end of their life spans, are designed to power the grid and our lifestyles that depend on the grid, which is unsustainable over the long term.
Laura Cunningham, Wildlife Biologist (comment from Facebook): Ten years ago I fought to save Ivanpah Valley and stop that monstrous solar power tower. This movie is accurate–the Sierra Club supported building the utility-scale solar project on the wildflower fields, translocating the desert tortoises, and ignoring my Chemehuevi elder friends who said every plant in the desert there is medicinal or edible. Ivanpah means “White clay water” in Paiute-Chemehuevi. I watched them bulldoze an ancient trail and archaeology. More giant solar projects are planned in the desert this year, this needs to stop.
False Critique #2: The film unfairly attacks certain figures
Critic: “It is hugely disingenuous, and frankly misleading, to hide in the credits at the end of a movie the fact that two of the leading organizations being damned in the movie for their support of biomass as a “green” energy source (350.org and Sierra Club) do not, in fact, support biomass any more. Bill McKibben deserves an apology for being misrepresented in this film …”
Robson: I feel the film maker gave Bill McKibben ample opportunity to refute his prior support of biomass *on film*. The film shows proof that Bill once did support it, whole-heartedly. Since the film came out McKibben has written this to say that while he used to support biomass, he no longer does: https://350.org/response-planet-of-the-humans-documentary/
Sierra Club has a page on biomass, where they state: “We believe that biomass projects can be sustainable, but that many biomass projects are not.”
Both 350.org and Sierra Club, and Bill McKibben personally, do whole-heartedly support “renewables,” including wind and solar.
350.org‘s main mission is “A fast & just transition to 100% renewable energy for all”, and their primary focus is climate change. The number one item on Sierra Club’s “issues” page is “Climate & Energy”, and speaking for the Sierra Club, ED Michael Brune said: “The booming clean energy economy is helping people create a better future for themselves and their families while, at the same time, helping to tackle the climate crisis that threatens our collective future. Workers see new job opportunities, communities see thriving local economies, and the American people see the inevitable transition from fossil fuels to clean energy.”
It is good that 350.org and Sierra Club and Bill McKibben have improved their stances on biomass; and certainly these organizations do some good work. But their support for “clean energy” will perpetuate our unsustainable lifestyles, and, as the film points out, is likely tied to corporate investment in these and related technologies, as well as the mining, extraction, refining, batteries, grids, etc. technologies that go with them.
Also, a personal note: I think using the word “biomass” to refer to trees, or plants, or whatever life form it refers to, is a horrific way to look at the natural world. It’s like using the word “resources” instead of trees, water, fish, etc. It turns real living beings into objects, and is a huge part of the problem.
False Critique #3: The film endorses problematic ideas of population control
Critic: “Like many environmental documentaries, “Planet of Humans” endorses debunked Malthusian ideas that the world is running out of energy. ‘We have to have our ability to consume reigned in,’ says a well-coiffed environmental leader. ‘Without some major die-off of the human population there is no turning back,’ says a scientist.”
I do not recall anyone in the movie advocating for one-child policies, or any other draconian population policies. I personally felt like the population issue was a relatively minor point in the film compared to the points about solar, wind, and biomass. [Population is discussed for a few minutes during the 100 minute film].
It is very clear that 8 billion humans would not exist without massive amounts of fossil fuels. I don’t think many would argue with that at this point (and if you have a cogent argument, I’d like to see it). In addition, several studies have recently shown that we humans have transformed a large proportion of the Earth in modern times. We have reduced wilderness areas to almost nothing, and wildlife to almost nothing.
So yeah, population is a problem. I thought the film did a fairly good job of raising it as an issue without being particularly “Malthusian” about it (in the pejorative sense that word is used today).
Elisabeth Robson is a radical feminist and a part of DGR.