There is indeed much to be critical of in Michael Moore’s new film “Planet of the Humans.” But the film also contains a legitimate critique of society, according to Jan Rotmans, professor in Sustainability Transitions at DRIFT, Erasmus University Rotterdam.
Rarely has a documentary caused as much uproar as the film “Planet of the Humans” by Jeff Gibbs and Michael Moore. Millions of people have already viewed the film online, and reaction is divided into two camps. Right-wing populists and anti-environmentalists greeted the film with acclaim, while reaction from the environmental movement was scathingly critical.
I recently watched the film as well, somewhat reluctantly, I must confess, as the negative reviews had already preceded its release. But I sat through the full 100 minutes, watching the film with a mixture of wonder and horror. And the film definitely affected me, particularly the deeper message presented in the latter portion. Before you get there, however, you must traverse a mountain of errors and misconceptions.
For the first hour of the film, you feel like you are in another world, one of 10 years ago, so I checked to see what year we are in and it is indeed 2020. We see one of the very first electric cars, the now 10-year-old Chevy Volt, an anachronism, like looking at a mobile phone from 10 years ago. This is the example we are provided, despite the fact that there have been major advancements in electric vehicle technology over the last 10 years. It is also suggested that electric vehicles run on coal-generated power, which is also an outdated argument today.
Outdated Solar Panels
Next we see completely outdated, 10-year-old solar panels with an efficiency of 8%, even though efficiency rates have now doubled. It is suggested that the life span of solar panels is just 10 years, despite the fact that they actually last 25 years. And finally, it is stated that the production of solar panels consumes more energy than they produce. That is patently false; the energy cost recovery time for solar panels is about two years. And the carbon dioxide emissions for solar panels over their entire life cycle are 10 to 20 times lower than that of fossil fuels.
A sad spectacle unfolds concerning rows of old, small wind turbines with broken blades, which the film suggests are also dependent on huge amounts of resources and fossil fuels. This is also untrue. The energy cost recovery time for wind turbines is around one or two years, and the carbon emissions for windmills over their entire life cycle is 50 to 100 times lower than that of fossil fuels.
In short, the first hour of the film is full of old footage, outdated figures, factual inaccuracies and misleading framing. There are also disadvantages to any form of renewable energy, but thanks to its greatly increased production in recent decades, we have been able to limit the increase of carbon emissions and prevent a certain degree of climate damage. We would have been much worse off otherwise.
The film becomes much more interesting after this, however. The discussion of biomass is too coarse and one-sided, but it does hold water. It touches on a sensitive topic: how the scientific community appears to be divided over biomass and the environmental movement has yet to take a clear position on it. The fact of the matter is that our perspective on biomass has changed in recent years. Ten years ago, biofuels were still viewed as a panacea; today, they are subject to a great deal of criticism. There are many types of biomass: maize, sugarcane, rapeseed, palm oil, wood waste, algae, garbage, organic waste and sewage sludge. These can be used in different ways: as fuel, to generate energy or as raw materials with which to make bioproducts. As a building block of the bio-based economy, biomass can be of tremendous value, especially with respect to premium bioproducts such as polymers, food, animal feed and cosmetic and pharmaceutical products. But the large-scale burning of biomass for energy production does not appear to provide a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels because, as has been scientifically proven, it does not result in a sufficient reduction of carbon emissions.
As the film shows, large-scale clearing of the rainforests for palm oil production is devastating and disgraceful. The large-scale co-incineration of biomass in coal-fired power stations is also extremely detrimental, as it barely reduces carbon emissions while at the same time, produces large amounts of particulates and nitrogen oxide. Subsidizing these activities to the tune of billions of euros, as is done in the Netherlands, for example, is foolhardy. The absurdity of this is painfully illustrated in the film.
But Moore makes the most important point during the last half hour of the film. Where is the energy transition actually leading us to? Could this possibly be a dead end? Not that he offers us a way out or any solution. He suggests that there are too many people on the planet, but that point is much too simply stated. On the other hand, he does have a point that we do not question enough whether or not we are on the right path. Our perspective is too narrow, limited to the climate problem and energy transition. But it is impossible to examine these in isolation from our economic system and its underlying paradigm of growth. Energy transition entails more than bringing together different technologies and replacing fossil fuel-based technology with renewable technology. Any energy transition embedded in the current economic system, which is built on the premise of unlimited growth, is doomed to failure. A successful energy transition will also require a shift in values based on a different economic paradigm, and necessitates a broader perspective. Our vision is also too limited in the Netherlands. Thus we invest billions in biomass power plants in order to reach climate goals, even though doing so maintains the old economic system. We have also prioritized researching technologies to extract carbon out of the atmosphere over creating negative emissions in order to comply with the 2-degree climate goal. Instead, we look away from the real problem, which is our obsession with economic growth, enshrined in our behavior. Taking too limited a view and adhering too strictly to climate goals can thus lead to an adverse effect: namely, the preservation of the old, capitalist economic system built on neoliberal values.
The core of the problem is our desire for continuous growth. But economic growth means more production and consumption. This requires energy, resources, raw materials, water and physical space, which in turn places an ever increasing burden on nature. It is true that in recent decades we have begun doing these things in a less polluting fashion by reducing the amount of carbon required per unit of production. However, these improvements are outweighed by the incessant growth in the volume of goods and services produced. To put it another way, there has been a relative decoupling, but not yet an absolute break. Our growth thus continues at the expense of nature. We take from the earth but we do not give in return. Expressed in monetary terms, we are running an ecological deficit of around 35%, many times greater than the financial deficit.
Last year, an authoritative U.N. panel on biodiversity determined that humans are destroying the nature on earth on a massive scale. One million species have become threatened with extinction due to the expansion of agricultural land (330% since 1970) and increased urbanization (doubled since 1990), with 75% of the earth’s land and 66% of its oceans now seriously impacted by humans.
Both publicly and politically, we are avoiding this fundamental debate which has remained scientifically dormant for decades. There is too little focus on this broader discussion even within the environmental movement. Why do we still take gross domestic product as our starting point even though we are aware that we are consciously inflicting damage on nature, and subsequently the economy, as a result? Why do we not reassess the concept of growth? This could mean zero growth, or green growth, or growth focused on progress in the realm of sustainability (or even “agrowth,” as described by economist Jeroen van den Bergh) rather than on income growth or material growth. We have to focus on the core of the problem, and that is deeply rooted in the capitalist system that we ourselves have created. The problem thus resides deeply within ourselves. Every systemic crisis resides within ourselves. Even the coronavirus pandemic can be traced back to our own behavior: how we eat, travel, trade, move about and treat animals. This pandemic could have also originated in the Netherlands, the most livestock-dense country in the world.
Moore lays painfully bare the impossibility of unlimited growth on a finite planet. And that finitude is determined not so much by climate, but by resources, raw materials, nature, biodiversity and physical space. Replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy is necessary, but it does not solve the problem of the finite nature of our planet. Attempting to solve the climate problem by hypercapitalist means is an insidious trap, as Moore makes plain. That affected me deeply, but many people did not even get to that point because they got hung up on the many errors and misconceptions about renewable energy that the film contains. That is a shame, because the film deserves a better fate. And so does humanity.