Sun. Sep 25th, 2022
A man drives a car.
enlarge It’s unclear where Jeff Gibbs is going in this scene, but so is the movie as a whole.

Let’s say you want to make a documentary about a complex and important subject. You could spend a lot of time researching — developing a complete picture of things, identifying scientists to interview, and figuring out how to give viewers the context they need to understand the most nuanced issues. Or you could just point your camera at things until you have an hour and 40 minutes of footage, record a voiceover, upload that baby to YouTube and call it a day.

Planet of the peoplea documentary made by Jeff Gibbs and Michael Moore, falls into the latter category.

The subject of the film — which was released on YouTube just before Earth Day to cast shadows on what it sees as a corporate takeover of the day — is green energy. But if you think you might learn something about green energy from a movie-length treatment of the subject, think again. The basic formula is this: Gibbs reveals that he once thought renewables were magically perfect, without any kind of environmental impact, but he learns that there is some impact and so declares that they are as bad or worse than fossil fuels.

The cycle of life

There’s an entire field of science devoted to what’s called “life cycle assessment” — estimating the cradle-to-grave effects of mining, manufacturing, using and disposing of things like solar panels or electric vehicles. That science makes exactly zero appearances in Planet of the people† Instead, we are treated to a series of “revelations” that most people should be well aware of. Fossil fuels are still used to make and bring wind turbines! Raw materials are being extracted to make batteries for electric vehicles! Solar panels do not last forever and will eventually be replaced! While Tesla says its Gigafactory generates renewable electricity to cover 100 percent of its usage, it’s… connected to the electricity grid by high voltage lines

To whom are these statements surprising?

Arguably false claims come quickly and furiously. It has been said several times that fossil fuel plants have to be “idle” all day to start up when the sun or wind goes down and that this is worse than just running the fossil fuel plant all day. Similarly, we are told that using grid storage batteries to smooth out the supply of increased renewables is making things worse rather than better (because of battery manufacturing). And hydrogen? That can only be done from petroleum, we learn, as if splitting water wasn’t the main argument for expanding hydrogen use.

No calculations are made at any time, no data is shown for the network’s total emissions over time, and no scientists are consulted to quantify the emissions or compare different scenarios. Some of the information presented comes from Gibbs’ strategy of harassing industry trade show representatives and environmental advocates with tough questions on camera, then quickly stringing together clipped clips of people admitting they have drawbacks. The rest comes from Ozzie Zehner – an author of a critical book on renewable energy titled: Green Illusions-who is also listed as the film’s producer. Zehner is usually used to explain how raw materials used in green technology are produced, with statements such as “You are using more fossil fuels for this than you are benefiting from it.”

That’s false. Really, really false. As you would expect, during their lifetime, solar and wind installations produce many times more energy than was used to produce them, even within a few months to a few years. And that means the lifetime emissions associated with these forms of generations are much, much less than for a gas or coal-fired power plant.

The film spends no time on the potential for recycling or alternatives to industrial energy that could reduce the carbon footprint of manufacturing. Instead, today the use of fossil fuels is treated as a… QED prove the whole enterprise is a lie, and it’s on to the next straw man.

In an almost impossibly lazy bit, Gibbs and Zehner visit a concentrated solar power plant outside of Daggett, California, but are surprised to find that the mirrors are missing. “It suddenly dawned on me what we were looking at,” Gibbs says. “A Solar Dead Zone.” End scene.

It took me less than a minute on Wikipedia to find out that this array, originally completed in 1985, was deconstructed for replacement in 2014-2015. A new photovoltaic array has been online since 2017.

Planet of the people is an example of how the ends of the political spectrum can sometimes meet, as many of these same arguments can be found more often on websites such as Breitbart or Natural News. (Praise for the film has already appeared on Breitbart.) Those who reject climate science like to scoff at renewable energy with supposed proof that it’s all a scam. The motives are of course very different here, but the tactics are the same.

Critical biomass

Biomass combustion plants are a separate focus of the film. Although Gibbs initially established his reputation as an environmentalist by outlining his career in activism and saying that his Michigan cottage is heated with wood-burning instead of fossil fuels, he attacks biomass by painting it as a forest devourer. Armed with a really cool Trespassing scene — a staple of the gutsy underdog documentary genre — where Gibbs finds entire trees outside a Vermont power plant, Gibbs declares that biomass is a lie. Instead of burning waste products, he says they cut down forests for energy.

Where were those trees cut? Were they by-products of logging that were too small for wood? Those questions are not answered.

There are plenty of bioenergy misuse issues to explore, including deforestation for energy crops that compete with food crops — or perhaps the source of those trees in Vermont. There are also plenty of opportunities for responsible bioenergy, such as residues from food crops or forest thinning to prevent wildfires. But this is not a nuanced exploration. Instead, there’s just the ridiculous extrapolation that trying to generate all of our electricity by burning harvested trees would consume all of America’s forests.

This extends to the film’s third objective: attacking prominent environmentalists like Al Gore, Bill McKibben, and the Sierra Club for being corrupted by Big Biomass money. Gibbs asks some on-camera advocates whether they would reject biomass and presents their confused or confused answers as damning. This section of the film includes lines like “Capitalism’s takeover of the environmental movement is now complete” and “The Nature Conservancy is now The Logging Conservancy.”

There is no why

Given all this, you may be wondering what? Planet of the people presents as the Turn right solution. When you watch it, you still wonder that in the end. It offers this: “We humans must expect infinite growth on a finite planet to be suicide.” Ok… then what? Only two things are mentioned: the human population must decrease and the individual consumption of goods and energy must decrease.

The focus of some Western environmentalists on population growth is problematic in ways that cannot be ignored. Population growth today is mainly driven by developing regions including India and African countries. A wealthy, white American consumes far more resources than these people — when Gibbs describes population growth as a problem that must stop, the message doesn’t sound quite favorable to the developing world. And while it’s true that population growth tends to level off with increasing wealth and women’s rights — the most suggested goals — it’s hard to empathize with a message about shrinking the human population.

But even that aside, these vague solutions don’t do anything that the movie’s logic hasn’t already rejected. Green energy is supposedly not a solution because the ecological footprint is greater than zero. In a hypothetical world where there are far fewer people on Earth and everyone consumes far less, the ecological footprint of humans is still greater than zero† Why is reducing our footprint through cleaner technology a lie and a scam, while reducing our footprint through population shrinkage and consumption is the truth we all have to accept? The film offers no justification.

Instead, after a few words about acceptance and awareness, Planet of the people ends with a few silent minutes of emotional images of orangutans affected by deforestation.

The movie’s argument isn’t going anywhere because it has nowhere to go. It is essentially not about a path forward or a vision of a better future. It’s more like a long “I told you so.” Several speakers tell us that industrial civilization cannot come up with a solution because industrial civilization is the problem. From that axiom, green energy cannot possibly be good, because industries can make money from it. Exposing the “scams” of industrial green energy is just a defeatist victory round.

in the end, Planet of the people is a mishmash of things Jeff Gibbs doesn’t know, presented as if no one knows them. And for most people you will know less after watching than at the beginning.

For a documentary about energy, it’s all heat and no light.

By akfire1

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