By Anders Lorenzen
Generally, documentaries tend to carry a message, to have a vision, and they are often biased, and they present the facts skewed to the message they are trying to convey.
But other than saying that renewables are as bad as fossil fuels, it is unclear what the Jeff Gibbs YouTube documentary backed by Michael Moore, ‘The Planet of Humans’ is trying to say.
We have in the past had documentaries that portray climate change as a hoax and say that renewables don’t work. And we have also had many documentaries saying that climate change is real and terrifying and that we must aggressively tackle it by investing in renewables and cleantech solutions. But there hasn`t until now been one that described climate change as a real and serious problem causing dangerous destruction in the natural world, but which also says that renewables and electric vehicles are a hoax and a fraud and do not work. That was until Gibbs released Planet of the Humans last week for Earth Day.
Jeff Gibbs sets out to describe himself as an environmentalist concerned about climate change and species extinction and the natural world. He says that through his journey he has discovered that renewables are not a viable option and that they are as bad as fossil fuels or in many cases worse.
Remarkably he gets people on camera, presenting themselves as experts, to state that renewables are dependant on fossil fuels and as a result, you would have less of a carbon footprint if you resolved to burn only fossil fuels.
Jeff Gibbs sets out to document his vision by pretending to do some investigative film making. His first victim is a local solar festival. When it starts to rain, he ventures backstage and discovers that they had to plug into generators and the grid. How controversial! , I’m sure no one would have imagined that needed to happen.
Next victim was General Motors (GM) who were spearheading an electric vehicle initiative. Again Gibbs put his investigative methods to the test and found that these vehicles needed to re-charge from a grid that was mainly coal-powered.
More controversy arose when the GM employee revealed that she did not actually think coal was that bad, “you can have clean coal, right” she said. Dear reader, perhaps I’m missing a trick, but how exactly does this disprove renewables or electric vehicle technology? We know that driving an electric vehicle charged 100% on coal power is still cleaner than driving a petrol car.
Next victim was a newly built solar farm where the guy doing a tour of it revealed that he has been told to say that it generates electricity for 50 households annually. But, having done the maths, he believed it was closer to ten households. And we visit the Ivanpah concentrated solar farm in the Mojave desert where we are told that pristine indigenous trees had to be destroyed to make way for the solar farm, and it actually requires energy from a local gas plant to start-up in the morning.
A visit to the farm also shows discarded panels which Gibbs describes as a solar waste site. However, recent satellite images show that the solar farm is still running as normal. As a caveat, it needs to be said that all these examples highlighted by Gibbs are over a decade old and stem from the very early Obama years.
When releasing the film in 2020 why would he use footage and examples from 2009?
Why Gibbs is so wrong about renewables
By now, these examples are not only outdated but renewable energy technologies have come far since 2009. No attempt is made to look at modern renewable energy technologies, and the leaps made recently in increasing efficiencies in both wind turbines and solar panels, in both battery technology and energy storage, and in how smarter grids more easily manage renewables. No mention either how countries with a large sector of renewables have consistently shut down coal power capacity and other fossil fuels which has resulted in a decrease of emissions. Had Gibbs looked at this, his argument would quickly have fallen apart. The only way that Gibbs could make his argument was to look at outdated technology without explanation while painting them in an even worse light.
Why didn`t he look at how coal plants in the US states are consistently closing down as more renewables come online? Why didn`t he look at the UK where, due in large part to offshore wind power, the country hardly consumes any coal power as the grid is now dominated by wind and solar power as well as nuclear and natural gas, even as the uptake of electric vehicles eats into electricity demand? These are just a couple of examples which could be highlighted from across the world that contrary to the lies spread by Gibbs demonstrates that renewables do in fact work.
The venture into biomass
Halfway through the documentary, Gibbs takes a strange turn by focusing on the problematic issue of biomass while criticising environmental activist, author and founder of 350.org Bill McKibben as well as the Sierra Club for supporting it. I will not dwell on this too much as there are more credible reasoning for criticising biomass and there are valid arguments as to whether it really should be considered a renewable resource.
A whole film could easily have been devoted to discussing the problems surrounding biomass, which is not a new controversy, has been documented, and several groups are working on it. But you can’t put solar and wind power in the same grouping as biomass.
Gibbs: the population must be controlled
So what do we do?
You would have thought that after establishing that fossil fuels and renewables are no good, and presumably also nuclear power, – though it is not even mentioned in the film, – Gibbs would present a credible alternative solution. The real problem the filmmaker presents is through an interview with middle-aged white Americans saying overpopulation is the real problem and the only way to tackle the crisis is to control the population and consume less. That’s it, apparently. That’s the solution. I’m sure most would not want me to go into an analysis of why this is not a credible way forward.
Humans are not perfect
Listen, society is not perfect, nor are policymakers, politicians, energy companies and so on and they will all make mistakes. This is not to say these projects highlighted by Gibbs are faultless, though they have still been framed by Gibbs in a way that does not do them justice. No scientific evidence has been presented to prove his argument, which basically is seen simply from his viewpoint.
There has for sure been mistakes made when planning some renewable energy projects, just as there are frequent mistakes made with any projects. There has also been many that have been absolutely right and which have delivered many societal benefits. These include not only large corporate efforts but also local community-owned projects which deliver crucial development benefits which fossil fuels can’t, such as electrifying rural communities through solar. But of course, Gibbs prefers not to discuss those.
Humans are not perfect, they make mistakes. There is a valid point that we need to talk about which is the labour footprint of renewables, the materials and minerals needed. But the same goes for everything our society consumes, cars – whether electric or petrol driven, your phone, your TV, your fridge and the list could go on.
A wider point needs to be made that everything we humans do has a cost, nothing comes free of charge. We need food, water, energy, travel and so on. Either you go for dirty or you go for clean energy, these are the options given. Gibbs even admitted that he found himself conflicted as he wants neither fossil fuels nor renewables. That leaves one option; nuclear, but as stated earlier this is not even mentioned.
So what has motivated Gibbs to produce the film? What did he want to achieve by making this film? He stated he is worried about climate change and the state of the natural world. You could assume he wanted to stop the production and utilisation of renewables. If that were to happen climate change would speed considerably, and we would not have a credible way to tackle it. There would be greater destruction of the natural world, as we would drill for more oil and gas, mine for more minerals, destroy and disturb more forests and the natural world.
The documentary does seem to have been a gift to the climate-denying far-right movement. They have long used many of the arguments Gibbs made in the film as making a case for not taking action on climate change. The guys at the far-right and climate-denying propaganda website Breitbart loved it.
I will just leave you with one final thought. If this was really a credible documentary why did they not manage to find a distributor for it and were eventually forced to publish it for free on YouTube?