Michael Moore and Jeff Gibbs teamed up to produce a piercing, controversial, gut punching documentary titled Planet of the Humans. Partly as a result of the global closure of theaters, and partly as a result of wanting to make an impact on the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day, they released their film for free on Youtube.
It’s worth watching. I watched it once straight through and have enjoyed spending additional hours reviewing and clipping key highlights.
Like many Moore films, this one has a cast of white-hatted scientists and activists opposing black-hatted billionaires, bankers, corporate leaders and politicians. In what may be upsetting to some, this film’s black-hatted group includes the leaders of numerous major environmental groups including the Sierra Club, 350.org, and Riverkeepers.
Michael Brune of the Sierra Club, Al Gore, and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. from Riverkeepers are all shown as being willing recipients of contributions, donations and outright payments from billionaires including Michael Bloomberg, Richard Branson, Jeremy Grantham, and the Koch Brothers, corporations like Archer Daniels Midland, and investment banks like Blackrock and Goldman Sachs.
Planet of the Humans includes flashy footage with dramatic music that illustrates the inescapably negative environmental impact of moving massive quantities of material.
By implication, it also highlights the huge sums of money involved in the process of moving more material faster and farther. One component of the money churning process includes the inevitable need to replace machinery and infrastructure after its useful life is over.
What we know that ain’t so
The narrator seems genuinely shocked to learn that much of what he has been taught about alternative energy isn’t true. Wind, solar and biomass aren’t successfully replacing fossil fuels or reducing human environmental footprints.
Instead, they are dependent on fossil fuel-derived materials and fossil fuel powered machinery. Wind turbines and their towers are massive and have lifetimes measured in small numbers of decades. Solar panels covering vast quantities of land produce an inadequate amount of power, especially on cloudy days and during winter months.
Even solar thermal energy plants like Ivanpah promise much more than they deliver. The mirrors are failing, and the power conversion system needs to routinely burn a large quantity of natural gas in order to keep systems warm and ready to run once the sun comes up.
Physically large collecting systems for diffuse power sources require massive material inputs, and they don’t least very long. When they no longer function, the areas that were scraped clean to house the equipment are virtually unusable wasteland that no longer supports much life.
Biomass and biofuels receive special animosity
A substantial portion of the film is spent documenting the ways that burning biomass for electricity isn’t sustainable or carbon-neutral despite all of the messaging to the contrary.
These scenes also document the forest industry’s generally successful efforts to influence perceptions of their industry. Often, those efforts have included creative carbon accounting as well as targeted contributions to non-profit groups willing to accept money in return for greenwashing.
Those influence efforts include lobbying for subsidy programs or for redefining terms to qualify for already existing subsidy programs.
The film credits Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, for helping to encourage a wave of interest among college students and administrators for converting on-campus coal furnaces to biomass burning furnaces.
The evidence supporting this thesis is straight from the horse’s mouth in the form of video clips of McKibben speaking at Vermont’s Middlebury College in 2009. He lauds the opening of the the college’s new wood chip-burning boiler.
McKibben: What powers a learning community? As of this afternoon, the easy answer to that is wood chips. It’s incredibly beautiful. To stand over there and see that big bunker full of wood chips. You can put any kind of wood in, you know oak, willow, whatever you want. Almost anything that burns we can toss it in there if we can chip it down to the right size.
McKibben has taken offense at the way Planet of the Humans portrays him and his organization. He claims that his position on biomass burning has changed dramatically in the decade since he lauded his college’s wood chip-burning furnace. That change happened as soon “as more scientists studied the consequences of large-scale biomass burning”.
But that defense is weak, especially considering a different scene in the movie where Gibbs gives McKibben ample opportunity to state his current position on biomass.
Gibbs: I’d like to see us come out against any burning of trees for clean energy.
McKibben: Alright, go ahead and do it. Although I confess I stoke my wood stove almost every night of the winter, so I’m not really the right person to ask.
Gibbs: But that doesn’t mean it’s green energy for power plants.
McKibben: I don’t know. That’s not what today is about.Dialog from “Planet of the Humans” time stamp 1:08:20
Emphasis on human prosperity and population as part of problem
Between scenes depicting both environmental devastation and the financial flows that enable established infrastructure and materials interests to continue doing what they do best, Gibbs talks with scientists and activists to find out if there are any solutions.
Almost unanimously, those interviewed experts suggest that humans are the root of the problem. They emphasize how our numbers have expanded almost geometrically since we began exploiting fossil fuels. They also decry our collective and individual desires for mobility and material goods.
It’s easy to get the impression that since renewables have issues that are similar to those that handicap fossil fuels, the only path available is reducing both populations and standards of living.
Though I may be guilty of seeing what I want to see, I caught a brief flash indicating that the filmmakers might be hoping for a more optimistic sequel.
An alternative with a uniquely useful set of attributes
As a nuclear fission expert and enthusiast, I could not help wondering when Gibbs and Moore were going to address my favorite fossil fuel alternative.
Finally, an hour and 22 minutes into the hour and 40 minute movie, nuclear energy made a 6 sec cameo appearance.
But immediately after noting that GE produces both nuclear energy and wind turbines, the documentary moves on to show a GE spokesperson extolling the virtues of converting biomass – especially seaweed – into liquid fuel.
A critical viewer might wonder why a corporation with a seven decade-long history of selling nuclear energy systems is more interested in talking about its interest in biofuels than in marketing advanced developments in nuclear energy.
As shown in the film, corporations, billionaires and banks that have successfully educated customers about the virtues of wind, solar or biomass have ignored nuclear energy. None of the interviewed activists or scientists mentioned a desire to consider using nuclear as an alternative to both fossil fuels and the more heavily popularized renewables.
Perhaps it is because nuclear fission, using elemental fuels that contain several million times as much energy as a similar mass of fossil fuels or biomass, changes everything.
What’s so different about fission?
Fission doesn’t depend on a massive infrastructure of ships, pipelines or railcars. Its conversion equipment is rarely exposed to the weather and its shielding and external hazards protection enables structures, systems and components that last many decades.
Fission provides a virtually unlimited source of power to enable humanity to flourish while gradually shrinking our environmental footprint.
Aside: Commodity businesses like energy don’t like anyone to know that accessible supplies are virtually unlimited. That knowledge doesn’t support high prices. End aside.
Fission isn’t wildly popular, especially among people and corporations that have prospered by moving vast quantities of extracted or harvested material rapidly through supply lines that span the globe.
Nuclear fission power also isn’t popular among nihilistic scholars who consider Albert Camus to be an inspiring visionary.
People in the “peak oil” wing of Malthusian thinking almost purposely ignore fission. They forget that M. King Hubbert’s 1956 paper titled “Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels” was the seminal paper that inspired their worried projections.
That paper included a virtually ignored pair of graphs that should have been the source of incredible optimism among thinking people. But some studiously avoid any and all causes for optimism, especially when it comes to respect, growth and development of their fellow human beings.
At least one other reviewer for Planet of the Humans thought about nuclear energy while watching a film that barely mentions it. Here is a quote from Peter Bradshaw’s piece in The Guardian about the film.
I found myself thinking of Robert Stone’s controversial 2013 documentary Pandora’s Promise, which made a revisionist case for nuclear power: a clean energy source that (allegedly) has cleaned up its act on safety and really can provide for our wholesale energy needs without contributing to climate change, in a way that “renewables” can’t.
Gibbs doesn’t mention nuclear and – a little lamely, perhaps – has no clear lesson or moral, other than the need to take a fiercely critical look at the environmental establishment. Well, it’s always valuable to re-examine a sacred cow.“Planet of the Humans review – contrarian eco-doc from the Michael Moore stable” by Peter Bradshaw, published April 22, 2020 by The Guardian
Gibbs’s single mention of nuclear was apparently so brief that Bradshaw missed it.
I believe the film offers two clear choices, one overt and one that is barely visible.
1. We can continue on our present path of depending on massive extractive industries. That path will end – whether we like it or not – with either reduced prosperity, reduced human population, or both.
2. We can reject the lessons we have been carefully taught by people with vested interests and develop a truly different kind of power source. Nuclear fission is here and available, but rich and powerful interests see it as a serious threat that must be fought, ignored or both.
But fission opposition backers are billionaires and we aren’t.
As far as I know, there isn’t a single Atomic Insights reader that has to worry about having millions or billions of dollars worth of existing capital that will lose most of its value in a fission-powered world.
We can see a much brighter future ahead.
Update: (April 26, 2020 at 06:00 am) It seems that I was wrong about the possibility that Gibbs and his colleagues might have purposely left out nuclear because they want to introduce it in a sequel as a better path forward. Commenters like Meredith were right, Michael Moore, Jeff Gibbs and Ozzie Zehner, the creators of Planet of the Humans, simply don’t like humans and the well-powered society that we have created.
Here’s the proof.
In case you don’t want to take the time to watch, here is a summary of the individually expressed positions on nuclear energy.
Moore has been fighting nuclear energy since the 1970s and calls it “madness”.
Zehner became worried about nuclear energy as a result of his research into issues related to slurry tanks at Hanford. He believes it is almost impossible to separate weapons development from atomic energy development. He also believes nuclear power plants are enormously expensive because of the amount of material required to build the plants. He also believes that building and running the plants requires the efforts of “an enormous number of PhD scientists.” He states there is a significant, unattributed carbon and energy footprint associated with the education system required to produce those scientists and engineers.
Gibbs is worried about the use of concrete and steel in nuclear power plants, the environmental impacts of uranium mining, thorium hype, micro plastics, pollution at Mount Everest, whaling, fish and soil depletion, and pollution in Antarctica produced by the small contingent of scientists there. (I realize that most of that list has nothing to do with nuclear energy, but Gibbs groups them all together in his antinuclear rant.) End Update.