Planet of the Humans is a deeply frustrating work: for it is both seminal and deeply problematic. Its foes have missed or tried to drown out the seminal importance it potentially has or had. Its fans have missed or tried to paper over its profound flaws. In this review we explore the fundamental insights it offers as well as illuminate — as the film sadly does not — a path for the constructive use of renewable energy going forward. A path that is rather more limited and specific than most of those who are excoriating the film would like to believe.
Defeatism and Despair
Let’s start by exploring a few of the most vehemently expressed criticisms about this film. First, the accusation of sloppy journalism, including the use of out-of-date information as if it were still current.
Footage in the film of eco-hero Bill McKibben’s deeply-unfortunate and unwise bioenergy-advocacy pre-2016 takes no account of his campaign efforts since that date, to raise awareness and halt this ecologically-devastating industry. McKibben has been walking a tightrope with industry since the inception of 350.org‘s Divestment Campaign. On the one hand it’s a campaign designed to close the fossil fuel industry down by redirecting big finance away from this sector; on the other hand, industry investment in renewables is essential to ‘meet’ the intended reducing energy share from fossil fuels. Success with the former demands success with the latter: 350.org provided the stick, government subsidies, the necessary carrot.
Tragically, large-scale bioenergy (the recipient, utterly unjustifiably, of the largest share of subsidies) — or rather, the forests it has devastated — has been the sacrificial lamb, correctly exposed by Jeff Gibbs, the film’s director, as a renewable in nothing but name. Here in the UK, we subsidise the largest biomass burner on the planet – Drax in Yorkshire – which utilises pellets from biodiverse swamp forest in the Carolinas (biofuelwatch.org.uk/axedrax-campaign), shipped 4000km, and, crazily, zero-rated for emissions under old but legally binding rules!
Since 2016, McKibben has spoken out strongly against bioenergy. An inclusion of this would have offered more balanced and accurate journalism. (We’ll come back to the point about the attempt to meet our society’s energy demand through renewables toward the end of this piece.)
The use in the film of ten-year-old footage describing photovoltaics (PV) in its infancy, with an alleged negative energy return on energy investment (EROEI), is misleading compared to the high-efficiency PV used today, which return a healthy energy dividend. (Ketan Joshi has devastatingly criticised this aspect of the film.) That said, even efficient PV faces the issues of (to name just the main ones) energy-demanding silicon extraction, intermittency (leading to heavy storage requirements or building in of a lot of expensive redundancy), and limited lifespan; concerns which should inform the intended scale of use.
But the documentary wrongly leaves no hope. Gibbs rightly exposes the dependency of most wind and solar on fossil fuels, not only for construction but also as back up against intermittency. A transition to renewables, it then might appear, runs us over the same cliff as fossil fuels.
The film’s conclusion, that over-‘production’/over-consumption (and, to a lesser extent, over-population) are the real drivers, is unassailable, and it’s mostly true to say that both mainstream environmental groups and political think tanks have shied away from expressing this fundamental truth, preferring to focus on the ‘positive’ message of renewables. This is a critical point. However, as already noted above, miraculous breakthroughs in efficiencies have been achieved in the last decade. Both solar PV and wind energy are now approaching an order of magnitude of higher efficiencies, and/or declining resource demand.
Moreover, whilst quite rightly calling out the complicit nature of some of the largest environmental groups with corporate rule and false hopes, the film, by implication, tars all environmental groups with the same brush. This is crude and quite unjustified.
A useful rule of thumb is that small radical/bottom-up environmental groups spring up (largely unfunded) in the gaps created by the non-systemic responses of the big players. For example, if mainstream environmental groups were truthful about the seriousness of the warming impact from aviation, there would have been no Plane Stupid (a radical grass roots response to aviation expansion), which forced large NGOs to take it seriously; no Extinction Rebellion (civil society’s mass radical response to the collective disregard of the science on dangerous anthropogenic climate change and on ecosystem-destruction); and no Biofuelwatch (again, a radical grass roots response to the promotion of bioenergy as a renewable, by nearly all the mainstream NGOs), to name just three of literally thousands of radical grassroots groups responding to environmental and social justice issues globally.
In the final part of the film, the filmmakers repeatedly assert that “The takeover of the environmental movement by capitalism is now complete.” This is a travesty, a dangerous defeatist slap in the face. It is absolutely senseless to tar radical grass-roots groups with the same brush as the Nature Conservancy or the World Wildlife Fund.
The seeming failure of both the renewables industry and the half-century old environmental movement to make any meaningful headway in safeguarding the earth leads Gibbs to the film’s concluding position of sheer hopelessness. This is a viewpoint which we don’t share.
Michael Moore (the film’s executive producer) maybe – is – a genius of simple and powerful comic political messaging. But, on this evidence, he is also a heartbreaking genius of staggering over-simplification. For (t)his film is heartbreakingly and dangerously over-simplified.
Those most resistant to fundamental change are having a field day. We can’t recall a time when the Heartland Institute — the US’s foremost lobby group promoting fossil fuel interests — has weighed in on behalf of the earth, yet now joins the bandwagon of fellow climate deniers calling to ‘ditch renewables’ to protect the environment! That alone should tip us off to something of the deeper usefulness of renewables, beyond their very concerning co-option by fossil fuel interests, rightly exposed in the film.
What gives us hope is what is missing from the film. Paul Hawken coined the term ‘the blessed unrest’ to describe the huge movement of individuals, communities, radical groups, and free-thinking, unfettered NGOs and think tanks, who drive systemic change from a grassroots level in society. Such change, often integrated at the level of local communities, becomes life-changing and represents a significant counter-current to the nihilistic societal position of ‘business as usual’. This blessed unrest reflects more accurately the fuller expression of human awareness at this time.
Our own reluctant view is that, even so, civilisation is clearly at present on a trajectory to collapse, primarily due to the likely near-term failure of key life support systems and of human systems that depend upon them (notably, the food-supply system), and that this process appears already to be underway. There hasn’t been enough honesty about this in the environmental movement to date, nowhere near enough. The film is right to suggest that far too often it’s been assumed that green tech (plus depoliticised individual action) can somehow save us.
It is going to take a vast, rapid, widespread transformation in systems and mindsets to prevent collapse. The post-Coronavirus reset is almost certainly our last chance to do this (and there are already worrying signs that that last chance is being missed), for these reset-opportunities don’t come along every year nor even every decade.
A Managed ‘Energy Descent’
Our only remaining choice is whether we carry on business as usual and face catastrophic societal breakdown, (from sustained food shortages and/or energy outages, for example), or whether we consciously effect an energy descent in parallel with the rapid expansion of local food production. It’s a choice between remaining naively optimistic (i.e. unconscious) while the economic and energy mirages just about hold together for a while longer, or using this last window of opportunity to effect a transition which creates some genuine long-term resilience.
Renewables, and particularly micro-renewables such as roof-top solar combined with community-scale wind turbines (‘appropriate technology’ rather than megatech), can bring energy security to the local level where social responsibility and vitality is greatest. Add to this the complementary role of each — wind is frequently at its strongest when solar is at its weakest — and peaks and troughs in energy availability can generally be predicted. Matching demand to availability will then need to be met by creative social adaptation to intermittency, e.g. adjusting use of electrical appliances to match availability. In this way redundancy — energy-intensive infrastructure back up (excluding pumped hydro and similarly effective means of storage of renewably-generated energy)* — can be reduced to a minimum.
Combine these three changes; re-focusing on efficient micro- and community-scale renewables, social adaptation to intermittency, and significantly reducing the need for energy redundancy. Now add a fourth component, the social imperative for demand reduction at scale, and we have the beginnings of a framework for a meaningful re-direction of society’s response to both the climate crisis, and future energy security.
The consciousness that will be required to meet and create these changes will likely lead to much more open discussion about population growth, and we may well see for instance a voluntary societal shift towards much fewer and smaller families in the next generation or indeed sooner, to provide more space for nature (and for each other). Concerns about severe resource shortages going forward, as well as cultural acceptance of the need for a socially responsible and humane descent from our overshoot civilisation, will be core components of this consciousness.
This is what is missing from the film: a sense of how genuine renewables could work to power a successor human civilisation. But nota bene: They will only work at a far smaller scale than is being fantasised at present. The human future will be one of huge energy-descent. Either because we have managed to effect that transition more or less voluntarily. Or because (and tragically this is far more likely) society will have collapsed.
Too many of the critiques of Planet of the Humans reek of an unwillingness to acknowledge this point. The critiques are in some cases so aerated and shrill, in our view, because a sacred cow is being attacked: the idea that we can green our existing economy. The truth is that we cannot. A major energy-descent is non-negotiable.
Thus neither Planet of the Humans nor its ferocious critics have got it right. Proper renewables almost certainlycan power a civilisation. Only not one which looks anything much like our current civilisation. Any attempt to power our civilisation by renewables would result in failure – and in ecosystemic devastation along the way.