Michael Moore and Jeff Gibbs new movie, Planet of the Humans (POTH) serves to uncomfortably remind viewers that in many ways, despite our increased awareness of the growing biodiversity and climate crises, often our “environmental” and “sustainable” solutions, such as “natural” fossil gas, biomass and biofuels, have proven as bad or worse than the coal and petroleum they were intended to replace.
Though the angry criticism from many within the community about some of the film’s flawed math is justified, the ensuing flurry of mainly negative media around the film has sadly resulted in diverting critical attention away from POTH’s otherwise vital questions about why, after half a century of environmental activism, we are still collectively failing. L. Michael Buchsbaum reviews where POTH is spot-on and laments where the filmmakers should have gone even further.
Much more Gibbs’ project than Moore’s, POTH is intended as something of a meta-critique of the relative success and failures of the green movement as a whole. Reflecting upon on his lifetime of activism, Gibbs focuses on the ways renewables have been framed to a general public yearning for better solutions. Despite much of the prevailing perception from within the ranks of the environmental movement—and Moore’s historical audience–POTH reminds us that wind, solar and renewables alone cannot solve our insatiable energy demands nor our impacts to the planet. Gibbs laments that despite several generations of innovations, instead of reducing our overall carbon pollution, renewables have simply become additional energy sources for our increasing demand, further accelerating global habitat loss worldwide.
More than questioning if renewables and cleaner technologies alone can actually save us from ourselves, the filmmakers rightly deserve credit for boldly shining a spotlight on the continuingly queasy merger of environmentalism and green-framed corporate capitalism. In this sense, Gibbs “makes a refreshingly skeptical case,” admits the Guardian in one of several otherwise negative reviews. It also sets up his other central question: what will happen as the clean energy transition becomes increasingly fueled by the insanity underlying Wall Street’s fantasy of infinite growth upon a finite planet?
Gibbs insinuates that throughout the decade-plus he’s made the film, several leading environmental groups and figures have become co-opted by the machinations of green capitalism, polluting both minds and messaging along the way. During the film’s 104 minutes, he lambasts a litany of established environmental organizations and leaders like Al Gore, the Sierra Club, Michael Bloomberg and 350.org founder, Bill McKibben. Pillorying the manner in which they framed and sold questionable “green” energy solutions to otherwise trusting activists and the general public, he suggests that much of the movement has been unwittingly corrupted by the infamous Koch brothers and other dark actors within the oil and gas industry itself.
Beyond the Blather
The genesis of Gibbs’ film was an exposé treating biomass and biofuels, both of which were also initially framed as cleaner alternatives to fossil fuels. Even it’s reluctant distributor, Films for Action concedes that POTH “might be right in its excoriation” of them. Relying upon extremely shaky science, policymakers worldwide give them a grudging pass. Biomass continues to be counted as the EU’s “main source of renewable energy, with a share of almost 60%.” Under this cover, Brussels intends that “bioenergy will play a key role in achieving the EU’s renewable energy targets for 2030 and beyond,” even as the climate math and physics largely don’t add up.
While laudably addressing biomass’ failures, the film’s audience would have been better served if Gibbs had dove even deeper into the troubling partnership between America’s Sierra Club and Mike Bloomberg, the world’s eighth richest man. As Gibbs was making POTH, fracking for gas exploded across the nation. Simultaneously billionaire Bloomberg leapt to help frame “natural” gas as a clean “bridge fuel” to renewables, becoming both the largest donor to the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal Campaign” as well as to the organization itself. In the years since, gas’ unhindered expansion has become key to U.S. energy, economic and foreign policy, fueling its ascent to dominant global producer of “freedom molecules.”
Along the way, as Gibbs points out, cheap fracked gas not only surpassed coal as America’s primary electricity generator, but has become a key component in chemical-dependent GMO corn production–much of which is then transformed into ethanol and other biofuels. Meanwhile gas has also become a primary fuel-stock in the production of ocean-fouling single-use plastics.
Though initially hailed by the Obama Democrats and many supportive green groups as a clean-burning transitional fuel, when accounting for it’s billowing fugitive methane releases, vast land and water impacts, fracking has proven to be an incontrovertible environmental disaster, colossally accelerating global climate change and ecosystem damage.
While the Sierra Club has denounced fracking, it was very late to the party compared to McKibben’s 350.org, Greenpeace and others. Bloomberg, (to say nothing of Trump) nevertheless remains a passionate fracking defender. As he spent over $1 billion of his own fortune on a short-lived run for the Democratic presidential nomination, he rejected any calls from progressives to limit or ban it. His recent admission to purchasing much of the party’s success should send alarm bells ringing about “green” capitalist realities overtaking green hopes and dreams.
Despite the ever-growing body of science, green energy leader Germany, among others, is likewise subsidizing the construction of LNG infrastructure while it shifts its energy grid away from coal. Though critics of POTH like Morris are keen to highlight the growing penetration of renewables there and worldwide, Gibbs rightly points out that much of the fuel switch currently taking place is from coal to gas. Yet the green lie about its environmental promise lingers and gas remains a key element within the framework European Green Deal. As long as policymakers conveniently continue to overlook the global impacts of burgeoning methane leakage along ever more complex supply chains, their “solution” will negate any promised GHG savings.
Additionally, as critics of the film point out, now that renewables like solar and wind have improved, they have become more profitable and bankable. While we need big capitalism to start backing their expansion, key lenders like Chase and Blackrock have neither changed their philosophies nor their endless growth fantasies. While Gibbs worries how General Electric (GE) might begin harvesting undersea kelp forests for biofuels, he doesn’t mention GE’s recent entry into offshore wind generation. As the conglomerate celebrates the introduction of a line of massive 12MW+ offshore wind turbines, framing their promise for future generations of green energy, they are quietly designing them to also power remote deep-sea oil and gas platforms too.
As we Earthlings emerge from our Corona-timeout, POTH uncomfortably and inconveniently forces a re-examination of how we got here: it’s not our technological solutions that are failing, but our mindsets.
The article has first been published on Energy Transition blog. More related content available on the blog's page.