Michael Moore’s environment film a slap in the face on Earth Day
Note: I originally published this post as a Note on my Facebook page, then reprinted it in Medium at the request of several friends. There it garnered a lot of attention, getting listed in several articles and blogs about the controversy over Planet of the Humans, and netting me several radio, video, and podcast interviews. You can now find it as a post in Medium’s Noteworthy: A Journal Blog.
I have followed the films of Michael Moore since Roger & Me came out while I was in grad school. Fahrenheit 9/11 looked at what happened to civil liberties in this country after 9/11, and Fahrenheit 11/9 looked at the betrayal of the grassroots leading up to the 2016 election. Where to Invade Next takes on our military-industrial complex, and Sicko exposes the dysfunction and suffering of our ridiculous health care system.
Michael Moore was also one of the most articulate surrogates for Bernie Sanders, explaining better than anyone how Democrats betrayed the working class and lost so many votes in the Rust Belt Midwest in 2016 that we ended up electing Donald Trump. I was proud to get this photo with him in Iowa during Bernie’s campaign in 2020, where he told us how 90,000 people who cast ballots in Michigan didn’t vote for either candidate for president — they left the top of the ticket blank — in a state where Hillary lost by 10,000 votes.
So when I heard that Michael Moore was taking on the topic of climate change, and our nation’s inaction on this existential threat, I was pretty excited to see his new film. There’s so much to skewer here — the wanton destruction of Republicans, the measly gesturing of Democrats — that I thought surely MM would do this topic justice.
But instead of attacking fossil-fuel based system we live in and the politicians who are fiddling while Earth burns, what does Planet of the Humans go after? Environmentalists and renewable energy. It not only makes no sense, but it’s toxic to the environmental movement. It feels like a slap in the face from a friend to have this released on Earth Day.
Film’s core arguments not explored
This is not to say the film has no good points, but those points are not examined. One core argument it makes is that we must scale back our lifestyle of endless consumption of natural resources. Clearly our current levels of consumption are unsustainable, and part of the solution is to get people to consume less. But how do we do that? The film doesn’t take on that question.
For the record, economists have been examining how to scale back endless growth for years. One way of getting our society to be less based on consumption is to change how we measure economic health. Instead of looking simply at gross national product, we need to incorporate measures of well-being, inclusion, and sustainability. The New Economics Foundation proposed five new measures — good jobs, well-being, environment, fairness, and health — back in 2015. Economist Jeffrey Sachs (another Bernie supporter) made this the topic of his 2015 book The Age of Sustainable Development — which he also wrote about here.
But do Moore and his longtime collaborator Jeff Gibbs, who directed Planet of the Humans, explore any of this? No.
Another core argument of the film left unexplored is overpopulation. This comes up a lot on climate discussion boards — there are simply too many people on the planet to be sustainable. Gibbs interviews several academics who make this point — but again does not begin to take on the question of what we should do about it.
This question is not nearly so straightforward as it seems. Where exactly would we begin in reducing the human population? China’s one-child policy, discontinued in 2015, led to forced abortions, infanticide of girls, and now a surplus of bachelors. More recently, the manifesto from the Walmart gunman in El Paso displayed a school of thought known as ecofascism that would resurrect eugenics in deciding who gets to procreate.
Yet if you look at actual data of fertility rates across the world, the countries where women are having the most children are not those with the highest carbon emissions, but those with the lowest. Here’s a graph posted by Zeke Hausfather of Carbon Brief:
The countries with the lowest carbon emissions are the poorest countries with generally higher fertility rates. Demographers have long studied that as well, starting with a model known as the demographic transition posited in 1929.
The model outlines three stages of population growth: 1) pre-development, with high birth rates coupled with high death rates, 2) death rates fall as a result of development and advances in medical treatment, but birth rates remain high, leading to a population boom, and 3) birth rates fall to match lower death rates, leading in to stabilizing population growth. Although the model is a broad generalization, it goes a long way to explaining the world population growth in the past century — and shows how we can bring population growth down.
Climate thinkers have gone beyond the demographic transition to examine how specifically we can get a handle on population growth in today’s world. It turns out we can do this without resorting to one-child policies or ecofascism. The key is to make education of girls, empowerment of women, and reproductive health a priority.
Project Drawdown takes this on directly. The book “describes the 100 most substantive solutions to global warming. For each solution, we describe its history, the carbon impact it provides, the relative cost and savings, the path to adoption, and how it works.”
The second-most impactful solution? Educating girls and family planning, which together result in 85.42 gigatons of carbon reduced or sequestered because women who are empowered choose to have fewer children. This is at the heart of the demographic transition.
But does Moore and Gibbs’s film explore any of this? No.
Misleading attacks on renewable energy
Instead of exploring any of these questions, instead Planet of the Humans spends most of its time attacking the major solution to lowering carbon emissions — renewables — and the enviromentalists and environmental groups that spend their time trying to get our government to move toward clean energy.
In doing so, the film repeats some of the ugliest climate denial tropes and provides fodder to the worst climate denial groups in the country. It’s no accident that environmentalists like Josh Fox are speaking out forcefully against the film while paid industry shills like Myron Ebell are praising it, and online denialists are having a field day.
When the “global warming is a hoax” crowd is touting your film, it’s time to examine yourself.
Old information presented as if it’s current
So let’s look at the attacks of this film on renewable energy. Science writer Ketan Joshi traces the ideas promulgated in the film back to the climate denial heyday of 2010–2015. “It is clear that Gibbs has been trying to make this documentary for a long, long time,” he writes. Most of the ideas in the film about renewable energy — even much of the footage — is out of date.
For example, the solar farm in Lansing, Michigan, that the film says is only 8 percent efficient and produces only 64 MWh of power per year was built in 2008. In the past 12 years solar technology has increased by leaps and bounds. A more recent installation of the same size can now generate 436 MWh per year. To leave the dates off the footage in this film is highly disingenuous. It’s like claiming a cell phone doesn’t let you surf the internet, then showing a flip phone to prove your point.
Other renewable energy installations shown in the film are also misrepresented, Joshi points out. For example, the Solar Energy Generating Systems (SEGS) in California — the one Gibbs and producer Ozzie Zeher called a “solar dead zone” — is actually a series of nine solar fields that generate 354 MW of electricity. The footage of an old wind farm was an installation in Hawaii that was removed in 2012 — now that site is a farm surrounding the pads the turbines once sat on.
The film also attacks the Ivanpah concentrated solar power (CSP) plant because it requires natural gas to start every morning. What the film doesn’t tell you is that this was one of the first CSPs built and that newer CSP plants do not use gas. For example, the Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Facility in Nevada uses molten salt to store energy produced during the day so that is can continue to run at night.
Another denialist trope repeated in this film is that solar and wind can’t possibly work because they are intermittent — the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow. The film briefly considers battery storage as the solution to intermittency, but claims that can’t possibly work because we have only a miniscule amount of storage compared to the amount of energy generated.
What the film doesn’t tell you is that we don’t need storage to equal the amount of energy generated. First, more than two-thirds of energy produced is wasted in inefficiency, so one obvious solution is energy efficiency, particularly in buildings — ranging from large office towers to single family homes — which are responsible for 39% of carbon emissions worldwide and are the top source of carbon emissions in cities. Energy efficiency is the baseline step to lowering carbon emissions, with the co-benefits of saving money and making us more energy independent. This solution is completely ignored by Moore and Gibbs’s film.
Also undiscussed is the research of Stanford civil engineer Mark Jacobson and the many research teams inspired by his work in mapping out the path to 100% renewable energy. This research makes two key points: 1) renewables generate electricity much more efficiently than burning fossil fuels, so we don’t need to build as much of it, and 2) once we reach a critical mass of renewable energy on the grid, the intermittency problem will solve itself.
To do that will require upgrading and integrating the grid across the nation, but if that happens, then even if the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing exactly where you are, it will be somewhere, and that energy can be put on the grid to help stabilize it everywhere.
All of this is why the Green New Deal must include not just a massive rollout of renewable energy, but also a mass retrofit of buildings to make them energy efficient as well as upgrading and integrating the grid — all of which will help create millions of good-paying jobs. But again the implications of this are completely untouched by Moore and Gibbs’s film.
Use of resources
Yet another climate denial trope used throughout this film is that solar panels and wind turbines require natural resources to manufacture, so they must be as bad as fossil fuels, right?
Wrong, and there is loads of research to back up this point. But think about it yourself. Let’s say you have to dig up various minerals to produce a solar panel or wind turbine. Yes, that does have an impact on the planet. No matter what kind of energy source we use, it will have an impact on the planet. Just existing has an impact on the planet.
But once you build a solar panel or a wind turbine, nothing else has to be done. It will operate for at least 20 years, creating electricity from the free and continuous resources of the sun and the wind. You do not have to continually dig up and feed those generation units with yet more natural resources to get them to produce power.
Not so with fossil fuels. Energy generation units like coal plants, nuclear plants, or even your internal combustion engine car must continually be fed with natural resources that must continually be drilled, mined, or fracked from the earth in order to produce power. Doesn’t it stand to reason that an energy generation unit which doesn’t have to be continually supplied with natural resource extraction will have less of a footprint than one that does?
Of course it does, and the research supports this. There’s an entire scientific field of research called Life Cycle Analysis — or looking at the impact from start to finish of all sorts of competing things such as high-speed rail vs conventional rail, solar and wind vs coal and oil, electric vehicles vs internal combustion engines, and so forth.
In general this research finds that while there are specific points where renewables have more of an impact than fossil fuels — for example, the need for certain rare minerals — overall fossil fuels have a much greater greenhouse gas impact on the planet than do renewables. Here’s another graph courtesy of Zeke Hausfather of Carbon Brief:
When Ozzie Zenher, the main “expert” interviewed in the film, claims, “You would have been better off just burning fossil fuels in the first place,” he is dead wrong, and copious amounts of research shows he is wrong. This is misinformation long peddled by the worst climate deniers, and now to their great delight being peddled by Michael Moore.
Another point not mentioned in the film is that when an energy plant of any sort is proposed — including a solar or wind plant — it must undergo environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act. There has to be an environmental assessment, and often a lengthy environmental impact statement that covers things like air quality, biological resources, cultural resources, hazardous materials, land use, public health, socioeconomics, traffic, transmission safety, waste management, worker safety, and more. For example, here is the 1,249-page Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Ivanpah solar plant.
Of course this process is not always perfect. One of the key complaints about the Dakota Access Pipeline is that a full environmental impact statement was never done. Instead, the Army Corps of Engineers concluded the pipeline would have no significant impact because the oil would be transported one way or another regardless, ignoring the “no action alternative” option of leaving the oil in the ground.
If anything, given the powers behind the government agencies conducting these assessments, proposed renewable energy facilities receive more scrutiny while proposed fossil fuel facilities glide through unscathed. But Moore and Gibbs’s film doesn’t look at that.
As if all that is not enough, the film also spreads misinformation about electric vehicles — again with dated footage and bad arguments. The launch of the Chevy Volt depicted in the film was from 2010. The main argument is that the electricity being stored by the vehicle’s battery was generated by fossil fuels, so it must be pointless to drive an EV, right?
Wrong again, on two counts. First, even if the energy the EV is using was generated by coal, it is still cleaner to drive an electric vehicle. The Union of Concerned Scientists has crunched these numbers. Across the United States, EVs get the equivalent of 88 mpg as compared to gas cars. Even in areas such as Ohio where the grid is dirty, EVs get the equivalent of 56 mpg, while in California, which has a much cleaner grid, they get the equivalent of 122 mpg.
Second, the grid itself is getting cleaner. Coal plants are closing, and more renewable energy is going onto the grid. Getting more renewable energy onto the grid is one of the major goals of the Ready for 100 campaign, which works to get cities to commit to transitioning to 100% renewable energy — and so far 163 cities, 13 counties, 8 states, DC and Puerto Rico have all made some version of this commitment.
One chief way of doing this in Ohio is for cities to use community choice aggregation to leverage contracts for 100% renewable energy from utilities. Recently Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther committed to pursuing aggregation for 100% renewable energy by 2022. Cincinnati has long been aggregated for 100% renewable energy but recently used this demand to leverage construction of the nation’s largest municipal solar farm.
If adding this scale of clean energy to the grid can be done in Ohio — where the legislature and regulatory agencies are notoriously hostile to renewables — it can be done anywhere. Yet once again, Moore’s film completely ignores these successes by grassroots climate activists.
Transition to clean energy
Yet another denialist talking point promulgated in Planet of the Humans is the idea that if you have to use fossil fuels to do anything with renewable energy, that cancels out the gains you might make from renewables. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told, “If you heat your house, drive a car, or use any manufactured product, then you are a hypocrite for supporting renewables because all of that involves fossil fuels.”
Well, duh. As Leah Stokes put it, “That’s why it’s called a clean energy transition. You move away from fossil fuels by making clean energy. Eventually the entire system is clean energy.”
The argument that something is made using fossil fuels right now completely misses the point, because right now our entire system is based on fossil fuels. For now, you have to use fossil fuels to make the solar panels and wind turbines that create clean energy. But that is changing, will continue to change — and must change if we are to have a livable planet.
The science is extremely clear that staying on fossil fuels is a death sentence for our species and up to 1 million other species on the planet. We transition or die. That’s not to say the transition won’t be difficult and messy and take awhile — which is why it would have been much better if, instead of funding climate denial for the past three decades, Exxon and the Koch brothers would have changed their business models to not be so reliant on fossil fuels.
Fortunately, the more renewable energy we create, the cheaper it gets, allowing us to create even more renewable energy, with the ultimate goal of renewables taking over from fossil fuels. Here’s a graph of the cost of solar voltaic cells, the main ingredient in solar panels:
Here’s a similar graph for the cost of wind energy.
As a result of these price trends, investment in renewable energy is far outpacing investment in fossil fuels, and renewables are offering a higher return on investment, which will spur even more investment in renewables, thus moving along the transition. However, fossil fuels still make up the vast majority of energy we use, and the transition needs to happen faster. Films like Planet of the Humans hinder rather than help this transition.
Planet of the Humans does raise good points in two areas regarding the energy transition: gas plants and biofuels.
Regarding gas plants, the film points out rightly that although coal plants are closing, many are being replaced by gas plants, and gas is not clean. Although gas burns cleaner at the plant than coal, emissions from extraction and transportation have been undercounted. Most natural gas comes from fracking, which leaks a lot more methane than originally acknowledged. Methane is more than 100 times as potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The last thing we need during a climate crisis is more methane in the atmosphere.
This gets to another point regarding the energy transition. While we must put more renewable energy onto the grid, that by itself is not enough. We must also take fossil fuels off the grid. In other words, we must both say yes to renewables and no to fossil fuels. One tactic by itself is not enough. We can’t say no to fossil fuels without something to replace them with. But we also can’t say yes to renewables without removing fossil fuels, or we will not lower carbon emissions. The climate transition must include both.
One basic way of saying no to fossil fuels is to tax them. This is another basic tenet in economics ignored by this film — that if something is creating costs not taken into account in its price — in economic terms, an externality — then you tax it to increase the price to cover those costs. Fossil fuels are the world’s prime example, causing massive costs to the environment, creating storms, floods, and droughts that threaten our cities and ability to grow food, ocean acidification that threatens the world’s food chain, air and water pollution that threatens public health — yet none of this is accounted for in the cost.
Such taxes have worked in the case of cigarettes to bring down rates of smoking. Unfortunately, raising the price of fossil fuels but doing nothing else would cause massive hardship to working people. After all, our entire system is dependent on fossil fuels, and as we saw in France, simply raising the price is a good way to start a yellow vest rebellion.
Instead, the version of a carbon tax I like is carbon fee and dividend, which would charge the tax to the fossil fuel corporations at the point of extraction, then rebate the money to all American households in equal shares. This would give most Americans more than enough money to absorb rising costs as a result of the tax. It would also stimulate the transition to renewable energy because business and manufacturers — which would not get the rebate — would be incentivized to seek a cheaper source of clean energy.
But as we saw with the points about population and consumption, although the film raises a legitimate point, it doesn’t explore that point and doesn’t seek out any solutions. Instead it uses that point to attack those who are actively seeking the solutions.
A surprising amount of time in Planet of the Humans is spent on biomass and trash incineration, which some do count as renewable energy. Biomass can cover a lot of forms of energy including ethanol for fuel from corn or sugar cane and burning wood chips to create electricity. Trash incineration is just what it sounds like — burning waste material to create electricity. All of these sources of energy have a lot of problems explored in the film.
But while I have encountered biomass and waste incineration counted as renewable energy when looking at other countries, they are not widely practiced in the United States — and, counter to the representation in the film, are widely opposed by environmentalists and human rights activists for many of the reasons brought up in the film.
Growing corn for fuel means that crop cannot be used to feed people or animals — increasing demand for other corn on the market and raising the price of food. Growing sugar for ethanol in Brazil has led to deforestation, eviction of indigenous people, and pollution. Waste incineration results in toxic air pollution and toxic ash that must be disposed of.
However, altogether biomass and waste incineration produce only 2% of all electricity in the United States. The film spends a lot of time on such a small source of power.
That’s not to say it’s not worth exploring the problems with ethanol, wood chips, and waste incineration. It is happening and could expand. Particularly concerning are the investments in this technology discussed in the film. Forests in the Southeast are being chopped down to make wood chips to be exported to Europe. Plans to build a trash incinerator in Cleveland were only defeated by hundreds of citizen activists. It is good to be aware of these issues, and Planet of the Humans makes a good point in raising them.
If Planet of the Humans had stuck to raising questions about gas plants, biomass, and trash incineration, I wouldn’t be spending my day writing this article. But it didn’t. Instead it used these issues to attack the frontline activists leading the charge on the climate crisis.
Perhaps most disingenous and infuriating is the attack on Bill McKibben, one of our most important voices on the climate crisis. You can read McKibben’s response to the film here. While years ago he did support a small biomass plant at his college as an alternative to fossil fuels, he has since considered the ramifications of biomass at a large scale and written several articles against this technology, articles that Moore and Gibbs ignored.
Their insinuation that McKibben takes corporate money is ludicrous. The annual reports of 350.org show they get a little over half of their funding from individual donations, and a little under half from foundations and grants. This is very common in the non-profit sector.
One foundation that funds 350.org is the Rockefeller Foundation. Many years ago the Rockefellers made their money from Standard Oil, now Exxon. Moore and Gibbs seem to see that as a “gotcha” for McKibben and 350.org. Apparently the filmmakers don’t know about the long-running feud between the Rockefellers and Exxon. The Rockefellers are disgusted with Exxon’s “morally reprehensible” climate denial and business model. They tried to divest themselves of all shares of Exxon, but couldn’t because most of it was tied up in a trust. So then they tried to push through shareholder resolutions forcing the company to account for the costs of climate change. They have funded several climate initiatives, including a grant to InsideClimate News. Exxon accuses them of conspiracy against the corporation.
In my experience, McKibben is truly supportive of grassroots activists. He literally spent an hour of his time speaking for free in an event that I organized last year. I never thought he would answer my email asking him to speak, much less that he would do it without an honorarium. But he repeatedly ignored my questions about how to pay an honorarium because we are a grassroots group, and he knew that would require fundraising.
Moore and Gibbs also repeatedly attack the Sierra Club for taking money from Michael Bloomberg and supposedly for supporting biomass.
First, regarding Bloomberg. Bloomberg does support gas plants and fracking. That doesn’t mean Sierra Club supports it. Sierra Club has an entire team devoted to Beyond Dirty Fuels, primarily fracking. That team is actively opposing a petrochemical hub being built in Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania to turn fracked ethane into plastic. They are also working on a campaign to oppose a gas plant proposed for construction at Ohio State University, and I hope you will sign this form to tell the Ohio Power Siting Board not to approve this plant.
Next, regarding biomass. Here are Sierra Club statements that biomass is not carbon neutral and not a climate solution. Here is the Sierra Club guidance on biomass. It’s nuanced. There may be specific instances where biomass is okay, such as using municipal tree trimmings that would otherwise end up in a landfill. However, destroying forests to use the wood or make room to plant ethanol crops is not sustainable. Likewise, capping landfills and using the methane they emit to create electricity is better than letting this potent greenhouse gas escape into the atmosphere.
The final montage of Planet of the Humans is a gut wrenching look at the destruction of forests where orangutans live, and the resulting deaths and damage to this iconic species. What is happening has been horrible to see as it has repeatedly crossed my desk over the last several years, and and it was horrible to watch in this film.
But here’s what Planet of the Humans doesn’t mention: Biofuels are not the main reason forests are being cleared for palm oil plantations. It is being done in Indonesia and Malasia mainly to produce palm oil for use in snack foods and grocery items, as well as cosmetics, soaps, and shampoos.
According to Palm Oil Investigations, consumer foods are the major driver of palm oil plantations at 72%. Cosmetics are next at 18%, while feedstock and biofuel account for about 10% of palm oil use. Further, the EU, which is responsible for most of the recent increase in the use of palm oil for biofuels, recently issued a directive that palm oil biofuel is unsustainable, making it in ineligible for subsidies, and they plan to phase it out by 2030.
While the destruction of orangutan habitat poses a very real threat to the survival of orangutans, to lay responsibility for this on climate activists is a stretch so far as to be a lie. The threat to orangutans from palm oil deserves serious treatment. It doesn’t get that here.
For all these reasons, I cannot recommend Planet of the Humans, and I am deeply disappointed with Michael Moore for not only producing it, but actively promoting it through his extensive platform, even in the face of widespread opposition and correction of its misinformation. I have to ask, why the hell is he doing this? Is it ignorance about environmental issues? A favor to his longtime collaborator? Just a general “fuck you” to the world?
Whatever it is, I hope MM comes to his senses and stops promoting this terrible film. It is doing actual damage to the climate movement by spreading climate denial misinformation, once the purview of front groups funded by Exxon and the Koch brothers, into progressive circles where people don’t know all the facts I have outlined here to counter its claims.
I am deeply disappointed in Michael Moore for attaching his name to Planet of the Humans, and hope he will reconsider and withdraw his support.
Editing note: Section on palm oil recast to add new information.
Image: Michael and me at a Bernie campaign event in Ottumwa, Iowa, in January 2020.