Did I want to spend two precious hours of work time last week watching a badly made film narrated in a droning monotone? No, no I did not. But as the uproar over Planet of the Humans has progressed, I’ve realized that ignoring this thing isn’t an option. The activists are too mad, the denialists too triumphant, and producer Michael Moore too smug about being at the center of it all.
The film was released on Earth Day and initially generated some excitement: a Michael Moore film about climate change! Surely it would tackle the capitalism-climate intersection, shine a light on systemic power issues, maybe make some unsuspected arguments. But as the reviews and synopses rolled in it became clear none of that was happening.
Directed by long-time Moore collaborator Jeff Gibbs, the film instead seems to be a collection of footage Gibbs gathered a decade ago. It calls out inefficiencies in renewable energy technologies using data from 2008, makes Bill McKibben and Al Gore the big villains of climate inaction, and comes to the conclusion that the only real solution here is population control.
When the film was released online last week, McKibben and 350.org quickly issued a rebuttal, that corrected various inaccuracies and responded to the film’s accusations. Josh Fox, director of the documentary Gasland, gathered signatures from climate scientists and activists demanding that the film be pulled from distribution. On April 23, Fox announced on Twitter that the distributor, Films for Action, had agreed to pull the film. That decision was short-lived: Films for Action reposted the film, with the following explanation:
“When Planet of the Humans first came out, we added it to the site before watching it because we trusted Michael Moore’s track record of releasing quality films that are factually accurate. After we watched it, we had issues with the film but assumed it was at least factually accurate, since Michael knows his films will be rigorously fact-checked. We are disheartened and dismayed to report that the film is full of misinformation (1, 2, 3, 4) – so much so that for half a day we removed the film from the site. Ultimately, we decided to put it back up because we believe media literacy, critique and debate is the best solution to misinformation.”
And so, the debate raged on. Climate deniers sent out press releases and tweets, and created gleeful new videos using clips from the film. Moore, Gibbs, and producer Ozzie Zehner ignored the criticism as they made the rounds of the late night talk shows and cable news. There was no avoiding this film.
As of this writing, Planet of the Humans has been viewed more than four million times. Now that I’ve watched it myself, let me say up front that there are kernels of truth here that would have made for an important and interesting documentary, if Moore and director Jeff Gibbs had brought more intellectual honesty to bear on the project.
It’s true, for instance, that the renewable energy supply chain has worrisome environmental and social impacts. Mining lithium for electric car batteries, for example, can pollute water sources. And in a 2014 report, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Design for the Environment program noted that because lithium-ion batteries often use nickel and cobalt, they have the “highest potential for environmental impacts.” Some environmental organizations do cozy up to investors, wealthy donors, and corporations, and the climate movement does include some people who are, for my tastes, a little too focused on perpetuating their personal fame and fortune rather than going for broke on resolving the climate crisis. So again, not completely wild accusations.
But unfortunately, Moore and Gibbs don’t include equally factual counterpoints that would get in the way of their skewering of Big Green or the climate movement.
Good documentary filmmaking hews closely to the ethics of journalism. Sure, you’re looking for a narrative thread that keeps audiences engaged. But you don’t cherry-pick the facts to include only those people and data that prove the pre-determined point you want to make — unless you’re Michael Moore and Jeff Gibbs, apparently. To justify their main argument, which is that the only way to address climate change is via population control, they veer sharply away from documentary and into commentary, leaning on wildly outdated information, often inaccurate data points and a bizarre obsession with Big Green as the real problem blocking action on climate. Let’s explore these issues in detail:
- Old data and information: If you’re going to make a film that spends more than an hour tackling the pros and cons of renewable energy, you have to use the most up-to-date information about this rapidly evolving industry. But the film’s most recent information on clean energy technologies dates back years. Gibbs starts off a rant about both electric cars and solar power at a Chevy Volt event that General Motors put on in 2008, and what follows never advances, as far as I can tell, past 2012. I kept waiting for Gibbs to move into the present from there, but it never quite happened. There’s a missed opportunity here: Why not call out GM for greenwashing? Or update your reporting to note how many electric cars are still plugged into fossil fuels? These omissions undermine any larger point the filmmakers were aiming for.
- Cherry-picking and inaccuracies: Most of the film’s inaccuracies involve use of outdated information. But some are the result of cherry-picking facts to suit its conclusions, while ignoring those that don’t. Gibbs again and again points out problems with renewables that no one credible is actually denying: They have inefficiencies compared to burning fossil fuels, and rely on changeable natural conditions to generate power (called intermittency). There certainly are fossil fuels associated with both constructing and operating renewables at a commercial scale. But as climate scientist Zeke Hausfather pointed out last week in a tweet, the life-cycle impacts of wind or solar are tiny compared to those of coal, oil, or gas (see chart below). Which is not to say that efforts shouldn’t be made to reduce those impacts, but that’s not the argument Gibbs makes. Instead, he tells viewers that renewables are just as bad as fossil fuels and therefore ought to be abandoned entirely. Gibbs also claims that solar panels are only 8% efficient, meaning that only 8% of the sunlight that hits them can be converted into energy. That was true 12 or 13 years ago, but these days solar efficiency has more than doubled. Advances have been made in both energy storage and forecasting to address the intermittency problem as well. As Australian climate writer Ketan Joshi pointed out in his fact-check of the film, there’s a circular argument here: Gibbs bemoans utilities using batteries to help smooth out renewable energy supply and demand, because of the environmental toll of battery materials, but then criticizes them for unreliability if they don’t have the energy storage. Is there room for improvement in renewable energy technology and storage? Absolutely. Does that mean they’re as bad as fossil fuels and ought to be scrapped altogether? No.
- The ol’ population argument. Amazingly, after criticizing the notion that a technology-only solution to climate change won’t work, Gibbs comes to an equally lazy conclusion: that the only way to address the problem is population control. I’ve been covering climate change long enough to watch the population debate come and go twice over, and I read enough history to know it came and went at least two or three times before my time. But Gibbs seems to think he’s the first person to discover that there are just too many humans consuming too many resources. Solution? Not reduced consumption, but fewer humans. Note that every expert making this argument in the movie is white and upper class and from the global West. Since population growth is low in wealthy industrialized countries, which nonetheless tend to be the biggest consumers by household, calls to curtail birth rates are generally targeted at developing countries — which also happen to be populated predominantly by low-income black and brown people, and consume far less per household. These countries also happen to be the world’s lowest emitters, so equating population reduction to emissions reduction starts to really fall apart here. The last time I covered this issue, about six years ago, I asked a Stanford University professor how she squared her own reproductive choices with the call she was making for global population reduction. She replied, “I mean, my children are much more likely to solve big global problems like climate change, statistically, so I really don’t see it as an issue.” Placing a higher value on some humans than others, and trying to skew the birth rate in favor of those more valuable humans, is called eugenics — which is a crime against humanity, not a solution to climate change.
- An obsession with Big Green while ignoring Big Fossil. For some reason, the only time we hear any modulation in Gibbs’ tone at all is when he’s critiquing environmental groups such as 350.org and the Sierra Club. Honestly, if you’re critiquing the Sierra Club in a movie that relies on outdated information to make its points, you’d be far better off taking aim at then-executive director Karl Pope accepting $25 million to push the “natural gas is a bridge fuel narrative,” than attacking current executive director Mike Brune, as well as campaign director Mary Anne Hitt, for taking Mike Bloomberg’s money to shut down coal plants. Have some coal plants been replaced by natural gas? Yes, unfortunately. Is that something Sierra Club has recommended or supported at any point in its Beyond Coal campaign? Not in any way. With 350.org and its founder, journalist and activist Bill McKibben, Gibbs again trots out outdated information, including footage of McKibben praising biomass more than a decade ago. (He has resolutely opposed it since 2016.) Gibbs attempts to “gotcha” McKibben by using footage in which he stammers about where the organization’s funding comes from, and then acknowledges receiving some support from the Rockefeller Foundation. Gibbs says this discredits McKibben and 350.org, because the Rockefellers used wealth gained from drilling oil to create their philanthropies But he ignores the fact that the Rockefeller Foundation has spent more money, more aggressively than any other similar organization, to attack climate change and hold oil companies accountable. Can philanthropic funding be problematic? Of course. There’s no clean money out there. But it borders on malicious to insinuate that McKibben, who has never taken any pay for his work with 350.org, is in it for the money. With this selective presentation of facts, Gibbs has done more than discredit himself: He’s provided climate denialists with new fodder for their disinformation campaigns, which are still going strong and undercutting climate action. Moreover, in leaving out fossil fuel companies, utilities, and automotive companies from his narrative, Gibbs ignores the primary reason that renewables still have a ways to go before delivering on their promise: a well-documented, decades-long campaign intended to stop both regulation of carbon pollution, and development of competitive renewable energy technologies. Had the scientists working to develop lithium batteries and solar, wind, and nuclear energy technologies back in the 1970s and 80s — many of them employed by oil companies — been allowed to continue their work, we’d likely be much further along today on all the related issues Gibbs considers deal-breakers: efficiency, materials sourcing, and waste management.
One last thing: No one is served by calls to remove Planet of the Humans from circulation entirely. Rather than challenging or correcting the film’s half-truths and bogus arguments, those calls have had the perverse effect of feeding into the denialist disinfo machine. Climate deniers like Marc Morano and free market climate denialist group CFACT have used that outrage to cry censorship and rebrand Planet of the Humans as “the documentary environmentalists don’t want you to see.”
Instead of calls to ban the film, since Moore and Gibbs claim it is a documentary, critics should call on them to issue retractions and corrections, just like any credible news outlet would do.
For more on this subject, check out our podcast episode with political scientist and environmental policy expert Leah Stokes, on the many flaws in the film: