EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been updated to include additional links.
For all of you who thought 2020 couldn’t get any weirder, here comes Planet of the Humans, the latest film from Michael Moore (who produced and is doing the bulk of promotion for it), directed by Jeff Gibbs. The film dropped April 21 as a YouTube freebie—presumably as an early gift for Earth Day.
Like many of Moore’s fans, I thought, “Cool, how timely!” Trump is in the White House ripping every environmental law to shreds, rolling back dozens of environmental rules, trashing the Paris Agreement, denying climate change, and opening up millions of acres for fracking. We need a movie on this complex and dramatic moment.
In the past 10 years, despite Trump (and the not-so-environmentally-friendly Obama administration), the environmental movement has become a formidable, organized, paradigm-shifting game changer. The achievements have been stunning: The codification and structuring of the Green New Deal, the Fossil Free movement championed by Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein, which has led to universities, pension funds, and foundations to commit to divesting trillions of dollars from fossil fuels, huge advances in renewable energy efficiency, the proliferation of 100 percent renewable energy plans put forward by Stanford University Professor Mark Jacobson and others, a burgeoning youth movement inspired by Fridays for Future and Greta Thunberg; the remarkable successes of the anti-fracking movement—which finally reached the mainstream, espoused by progressives like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez but also by moderates like Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg. And the incredible civil disobedience uprising at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline. What a decade for the environmental movement! Those achievements deserve celebration on film.
But after watching Planet of the Humans for about 10 minutes, I wanted to turn it off. Instead, I took notes.
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Because the film is so dangerous, so wildly off-track and full of misinformation, fossil fuel industry taking points, and unfounded, wacky statements you could be forgiven for thinking it was created by Breitbart News or Steve Bannon and not the erstwhile bastion of progressive bombast that is Michael Moore. (As if to prove that the world is upside down, when world-renowned author and climate scientist Michael Mann, Naomi Klein, and I came out with a sign-on letter protesting the film’s inaccuracies and falsehoods, Breitbart actually piped up in defense of Michael Moore!) What’s wrong with Planet of the Humans? To begin with, the film utterly ignores the new emboldened environmental movement. Even more baffling, it totally ignores Trump.
Instead, it directs its attack on renewable energy and on the basic premise of all climate action and modern environmentalism: that humanity must end our addiction to fossil fuels. The film even attacks and tries to demonize Bill McKibben, one of the most selfless and influential fighters for the climate over three decades.
With his latest film, Michael Moore has become the new darling of Breitbart and the frackers. Meanwhile, the rest of us find ourselves once again mired in the false debates of a decade ago.
Planet of the Humans repeats a simple contrarian—and nonsensical—premise: Renewable energy doesn’t work.
I realize that sounds insane. Renewable energy—solar and wind, the most important energy innovations of this (or any) century, and which represent the only way civilization can possibly decarbonize—is just a big fat sham. According to Planet of the Humans, renewables are actually worse than fossil fuels.
There is an old saying in politics: “As soon as you start explaining, you have lost.” It becomes incredibly difficult to counter misinformation with a point by point rebuttal—even when you are trying to bring science to bear. Any liar and propagandist knows this.
As far as point by point scientific rebuttals of Planet of the Humans, here is a good one, and here is a virtual compendium of them. Still, I feel personally obligated to address a few of the film’s more glaring falsehoods. The film starts its descent into madness when producer/director Jeff Gibbs interviews Ozzie Zehner, who has attacked wind and solar energy and electric cars since the publication of his deeply misguided polemic Green Illusions nearly a decade ago. (Oddly enough, Zehner is also one of the film’s producers.)
“One of the most dangerous things right now is the illusion that alternative technologies, like wind and solar, are somehow different from fossil fuels.” Zehner claims, as if he were a spokesperson for Exxon. When visiting a solar facility, Zehner resorts to direct misinformation: “You use more fossil fuels to do this than you’re getting benefit from it. You would have been better off just burning the fossil fuels”
Of course, this is utterly false. Wind and solar are vastly better when it comes to emissions (and every other environmental consideration). These charts from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory show how energy coming from wind and solar and other renewables over their life cycle are not even close in emissions to fossil fuels. The film gallops down a road of lies and misinformation. And it only gets worse.
In another scene, a solar panel array in Michigan is shown, and the panels are described as having less than 8 percent efficiency, “If you happen to be NASA, and you happen to own a rover running around Mars, they have very efficient panels. But we can’t afford those.” The implication is that solar is wildly inefficient and the whole premise of solar power is a lie.
This interview is presented as being current. But it isn’t—and the solar panels aren’t either. The panels shown are from a generation of solar dating to 2008, when this site was constructed. Today’s panels are vastly cheaper—and far more efficient. This is like trotting out a gas-guzzling 1979 T-bird and ridiculing it—while pretending it is a Prius. It is utter, deceitful nonsense.
It is also, I might add, utter journalistic malpractice. When these solar panels were made, AOC was an undergraduate at Boston University, George W. Bush was president, and Greta Thunberg hadn’t even entered kindergarten. To show this interview as if it were current is a travesty.
Having misinformed its audience about solar, the film moves on to wind: “You’ve got to have a fossil fuel power plant backing it up
and idling 100 percent of the time,” says an uncredited anti-wind protester.
And here we have the most egregious of the film’s false tropes: intermittency. The fossil fuel industry and its shills loved to trot out this argument (again, back in 2008–13) saying, “Well, the sun doesn’t always shine, the wind doesn’t always blow, therefore renewable energy will always need a fossil fuel back up. What about that?”
Intermittency was a problem renewable energy scientists spent a lot of time figuring out a decade ago. Thousands of renewable energy scientists, hundreds of peer-reviewed studies, and dozens of 100 percent renewable energy plans have been addressing this for nearly a decade. But to Planet of the Humans, none of that work ever happened!
The film’s overwhelming message: Renewable energy is a sham, it doesn’t work, it is a lie and an illusion.
And as if that weren’t bad enough, the film then spends the rest of its running time talking about biomass—burning wood, essentially, for energy. Biomass is bad, bad, bad, it says!
The film goes on for what seems like an eternity “exposing” Bill McKibben for supposedly pushing biomass. But McKibben has been on the record opposing it since at least 2016. Also, for the record, biomass currently contributes just 1.4 percent of US energy—a small fraction of the amount from other renewable sources. In the grand scheme of things, as Cornell scientist Tony Ingraffea put it to me, biomass is “totally inconsequential.”
But here is the problem: Most people don’t know these things. Renewable energy is still so new, so fast-changing that the facts about renewable energy are not universally known. We still have far to go in teaching people the basics of renewable energy. And the film trades on this widespread ignorance in appalling and deceitful ways.
Anyone well-versed in solar and wind or in the Green New Deal knows, within the first few minutes, that this film is false from the get-go. Not only does renewable energy work, it is working like gangbusters. Renewable energy has experienced exponential growth; New York and California have rapidly expanding 100 percent renewable energy programs, and the wind and the sun are providing ever increasing amounts of power nationally and around the world.
The Green New Deal lays out not only the route to a rapid transformation away from fossil fuels but a host of important transformations. It outlines the retraining of fossil fuel workers, the creation of 20 million new jobs, delivering environmental justice and healing to frontline communities, and holding the fossil fuel industry accountable for the damage it has caused. It is an intersectional call to justice.
Moore’s film ignores all of this and backs itself into a nihilistic, apocalyptic corner. Then comes its most immoral and damning gambit: the claim that reducing the population is among the only effective remedies.
We see old white male after old white male declaring there is no solution to climate change except reducing the population. (With this many white guys, we can only guess which groups of people are supposed to stop reproducing.) We are told to face up to our own apocalypse—that humans should “know when it’s their time to go.”
The claim that it is all those overpopulated countries that are causing the problem (especially coming from a boomer white guy in Michigan) would be deeply problematic even in “normal” times. But in the middle of a global pandemic that is killing a disproportionate number of black and brown people, it is more than just racist. It can be seen as an incitement to eco-fascist population controls.
We shouldn’t be surprised to see the pushers of population control and the oil industry on the same side. But even this hides a much darker truth: The fossil fuel industry is already engaged in a form of population control—the murderous kind. Air pollution from the fossil fuel industry kills a staggering 5-7 million people a year. Every year. Jacobson and a team at The Solutions Project have conducted a worldwide study to measure the health effects of pollution. They concluded that if the world moved to renewable energy the planet would collectively save $30 trillion in health care costs—and more than 5 million lives.
The fossil fuel industry is a global pandemic. Pollution caused by the fossil fuels are also an inherent part of that other pandemic, the coronavirus. From cancer alley in Louisiana to Queens, New York—the most polluted areas in the country have far higher death rates from Covid-19. Lung disease and heart disease are at the top of the list of co-factors in coronavirus deaths—and these conditions are often related to pollution from fossil fuels.
Releasing this on the eve of Earth Day’s 50th anniversary is like Bernie Sanders endorsing Donald Trump while chugging hydroxychloroquine. Planet of the Humans delivers all of the fossil fuel industry’s misinformation points tied up in a bow, sold to us by one of the progressive left’s loudest voices.
The film is already being used by pro-fracking groups to attack renewable energy and environmentalists. And there is one other beneficiary: Michael Moore.
Mike has had a lot of time to respond to these criticisms. Instead, he’s chosen to stick cotton in his ears and continue to promote his campaign of falsehood and smears.
Advocating population control when poor people are dying in droves from the fossil fuel industry and the coronavirus is so insensitive it’s almost impossible to fathom. It’s actually worse than the snake oil Donald Trump peddles about Covid-19. Because we actually have a cure for the fossil fuel pandemic—the Green New Deal and renewable energy. But instead of advocating this cure, Michael Moore wants you to join the doomsday death cult and drink the fracked Kool-Aid of the fossil fuel industry.
Please, Mike: Start listening to science, to reason, to the movement—and retract and apologize for this film.
To everyone else, don’t despair! We have a future if we want one. No amount of attention-grabbing bloviation from Trump, Breitbart, or Moore will stop the sun from shining, the wind from blowing—or the truth from coming to light.