When it comes to global warming, there continues to be plenty of magical thinking going on. And such magical thinking is not exclusive to the conservative side of the political spectrum.
It is easy to take apart conservative denial of global warming, based as it is on ideology and a total lack of scientific grounding. In their own way, however, right-wing climate deniers are consistent on one point — they know that effectively tackling global warming means economic disruption, so their solution is to deny there is any global warming. Liberals, however, have their heads in the sand as well — too honest to deny the obvious, they instead deny there will be any cost. We’ll switch to renewable energy and continue business as usual.
The latter is not realistic. And that brings us to the new environmental film Planet of the Humans, which has certainly touched many a liberal nerve. Believing we can continue capitalist business as usual, merrily consuming far beyond the Earth’s capacity to replenish resources and enjoy infinite growth on a finite planet, leads to a disinclination to be realistic about the cost of dealing with global warming. The liberal idea that we can make a seamless switch to renewable energy and continue to use Earth’s resources and consume at the same rate humanity has been doing is fantasy.
So there is no mistaking where my perspective lies, I do believe the fastest possible switch to renewable energy should be made and we should abandon the use of fossil fuels in the shortest reasonable time. But we should be realistic about the limitations. Renewables, although part of the solution to global warming, can’t save us on their own. Humanity, at least those in the Global North, has no choice but to consume much less, including less energy. Unfortunately, there is no getting around that. The limitations of renewables will be discussed below, but first let’s dismantle the disingenuous attacks on the film, produced and directed by Jeff Gibbs, with Michael Moore as executive producer. For the record, I have watched Planet of the Humans in its entirety twice.
Should dissenting voices be silenced?
The first thing to be pointed out is that the attacks on the film are led by those whose hypocrisy was exposed. Let us acknowledge that those exposed can’t be expected to take kindly to that. But the attacks are hardly limited to the leaders of the large organizations who come under criticism, such as 350.org and the Sierra Club. Josh Fox isn’t among those mentioned, but he nonetheless was so infuriated that he circulated a letter demanding the film be banned, sadly signed by several prominent environmentalists, including Naomi Klein (who really should know better) and Michael Mann (a promoter of nuclear energy, an industry that would not exist without massive subsidies).
Mr. Fox states, “The film touts blatantly untrue fossil fuel industry talking points deceitfully misleading its audience on renewable energy, disparages and attacks important climate leaders, ignores science and policy advances in energy, downplays or denounces climate and anti-fossil fuel campaigns and employs specious techniques of misinformation to deliver a deeply cynical and erroneous message.” That’s a whole lot of accusation. Let’s unpack it.
The film frontally attacks the fossil fuel industry throughout. To imply that it is somehow aligned with the fossil fuel industry is beyond laughable. The heart of the critique was that certain prominent environmentalists are too cozy with fossil fuel interests. Further, Mr. Gibbs doesn’t “disparage” or “attack” “important climate leaders,” he allows them to speak for themselves and thus reveal themselves.
I see absolutely no evidence that Mr. Gibbs forced Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, to repeatedly declare his enthusiastic support for biomass, which generates energy through massive burning of trees. It doesn’t seem a stretch to see that chopping down forests isn’t environmentally friendly or sustainable, given the immense scale of biomass plants. In the final credits, the film insinuates that Mr. McKibben changed his mind on biomass after the film was first shown. That is inaccurate as Mr. McKibben published an article titled “Burning trees for electricity is a bad idea” in 2016. It should be acknowledged he did change his mind and the film should have reported that change. Nonetheless, there was plenty of data demonstrating how dangerous biomass is before his conversion — data that should have been known to him.
Were the dangers of biomass hidden from our eyes?
Increased logging is surely not a route to reducing global warming. A paper by the British watchdog group Biofuelwatch reports:
“Increased demand for bioenergy is already resulting in the more intensive logging including very destructive whole tree harvesting or brash removal and replacement of forest and other ecosystems with monocultures. Expansion of industrial tree plantations for bioenergy is expected to lead to further land grabbing and land conflicts. At the same time, communities affected by biomass power stations are exposed to increased air pollution (particulates, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, dioxins etc.) and thus public health risks. Meanwhile, a growing number of scientific studies show that burning wood for energy commonly results in a carbon debt of decades or even centuries compared with fossil fuels that might otherwise have been burnt.”
A Partnership for Policy Integrity study found that biomass electricity generation, which relies primarily on the burning of wood, is “more polluting and worse for the climate than coal, according to a new analysis of 88 pollution permits for biomass power plants in 25 [U.S.] states.” The partnership’s director, Mary Booth, wrote:
“The biomass power industry portrays their facilities as ‘clean.’ But we found that even the newest biomass plants are allowed to pollute more than modern coal- and gas-fired plants, and that pollution from bioenergy is increasingly unregulated.”
The Biofuelwatch report was published in 2012 and the Policy Integrity report was published in 2014, so claims of not knowing are disingenuous.
It is of course possible to aim at the wrong target. The pro-vegan film Cowspiracy, for example, consistently attacked environmental groups for not seeing animal agriculture as the solution to all problems, relentlessly mocked environmentalists for not agreeing 100 percent with its thesis and took industrial capitalism off the hook. That would be an example of an unfair hatchet job. Planet of the Humans, by contrast, aims its target at industrial capitalism and the fossil fuel industry.
Don’t grassroots activists count as environmentalists?
Like it or not, there are liberal environmental groups that promote bad environmental practices and even partner with investment funds that heavily invest in fossil fuels. Incidentally, it isn’t until the one-hour mark in a film that lasts one hour and 40 minutes before it begins to criticize mainstream liberal organizations including the Sierra Club. And it is careful to show the large gap between rank-and-file members and those group’s leaderships. Anybody who has experience in the environmental movement can tell you about how grassroots members and local leaders are often well ahead of their national leaders. That is particularly true of the Sierra Club, in my own experience.
Perhaps the most over-the-top attack on the film was conjured by Eoin Higgins and published in Common Dreams and AlterNet. Mr. Higgins goes to the extreme of accusing Mr. Gibbs of “arguing for ecofascist solutions.” I suppose it is better not to dignify such nonsense. The “review,” alas, gets no better as it drones on. We can only hope Mr. Higgins did not hyperventilate while writing his screed. It does not appear he took the trouble to actually see the film nor to grasp the immense differences between socialism and fascism.
Mr. Higgins quotes an assortment of critics peddling similarly over-the-top attacks. One, Emily Atkin, is quoted as saying, “This movie repeatedly claims that humans are better off burning fossil fuels than using renewable energy.” Once again, the film’s critique is of organizations being too closely tied to the fossil fuel industry. A basic premise of the film is that large amounts of fossil fuels are used in the manufacturing of solar panels and especially wind-power towers and turbines, and they have to be replaced in short periods of times. The film also notes that because wind and solar are intermittent, and current battery-storage technology far from adequate, existing fossil fuel plants have to be kept online as backup sources. Power plants thus need to run continuously because you can’t switch them on and off at will. Basic science here.
Further, because most “renewable” energy is in the form of biomass, not only do you have greenhouse-gas emissions, you also lose the carbon sink of the destroyed forests, thereby constituting a double whammy. Note the effects of biomass discussed a few paragraphs earlier — if it is true that biomass is more polluting than fossil fuels, then why use it?
Mr. Higgins goes on to allege, “In a more disturbing move, Gibbs promotes population control as the best answer to the warming of the planet,” and then quotes another critic aligning Planet of the Humans with the odious far-right website Breitbart. Thanks to watching the film on YouTube, I could stop and start at will. I added up the entire total of time in which population was discussed. It is about one minute and 30 seconds. Three professors mentioning population are given space in this brief minute and a half, and none came anywhere near advocating any eugenic ideas. The first noted there are “too many human beings using too much too fast”; one said “we have to have our abilities to consume reined in”; and all three put their remarks in the context that humanity is consuming at an unsustainable rate.
That last point ought to be obvious, but evidently isn’t, at least to Mr. Higgins. So for his benefit, Global Footprint Network (which certainly appears to me to be an environmental organization) calculates that the world is consuming the equivalent of 1.75 Earths — in other words, humanity is using natural resources 75 percent faster than they can be replenished. A figure that steadily increases. The advanced capitalist countries obviously consume at a more furious rate than the global average. That is, ahem, unsustainable. Basic mathematics informs us that either humanity learns to consume less or nature will force it on us.
Yet another “authority” is quoted by Mr. Higgins declaring, “The truth is, pinning our problems on population lets industrial capitalism off the hook.” But, once again, there was not one sentence asserting that, and the entire film was a massive indictment of capitalism. Particularly effective was a long sequence in which the film speeds up to dramatically demonstrate the massive industrial processes and heavy metals that are used to manufacture wind towers. There is an indictment of people like Mr. McKibben and organizations like the Sierra Club being far too cozy with capitalism. You really have to ask if any of these critics actually saw the film. Or perhaps they did, and seeing their magical belief that we can have business as usual exposed so throughly decided that attacking the film for things it never says would be their best response.
Is wanting a cleaner environment really “anti-working class”?
A similar line of specious attack has been launched by Leigh Phillips in Jacobin. Mr. Phillips, consistent with his belief that we can “take over the machine and run it rationally,” absurdly declares that Planet of the Humans is “anti-humanist” and “anti-working class.” I would think that desiring a clean environment would be good for working people, but perhaps Mr. Phillips has a different understanding than I. He writes, “Progress is a dangerous myth, the film argues; there are too many humans consuming too much stuff, so everyone in developed countries — including the working class — needs to consume less, while the planet as a whole must be depopulated down to a more sustainable number,” declaring such ideas “literally anti-progressive and anti-human.”
I suppose if the film actually argued what Mr. Phillips claims it does, he’d have a point. Unfortunately, as already demonstrated, the film at no point advocates forcibly reducing the population. It is necessary again to point out that you can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet, and that capitalism can’t function without constant growth. There is no way to make the irrational rational.
Because he is a target of the film, it is only fair to note Mr. McKibben’s reaction. “A Youtube video emerged on Earth Day eve making charges about me and about 350.org — namely that I was a supporter of biomass energy, and that 350 and I were beholden to corporate funding,” he writes. “I am used to ceaseless harassment and attack from the fossil fuel industry. … It does hurt more to be attacked by others who think of themselves as environmentalists.”
The film shows repeated public appearance where the 350.org leader extravagantly praises biomass. It also shows him acknowledging funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, among other corporate sources, while mostly dodging a question on the source of 350.org’s funding. Are we supposed to ignore his own words? Among his appearances were sharing a stage with a Goldman Sachs executive who talked of organizing $40 trillion to $50 trillion in “green investments.” I trust the readers of this publication are quite familiar with the vampire squid and its touching interest in the betterment of humanity.
There are many other attacks on Planet of the Humans on the Internet, each claiming that the film is full of “errors” and “misinformation.” I decided to put that to the test by selecting at random two factual statements made by the film.
One was that solar (1.5%) and wind (3.1%) combined for only 4.6% of Germany’s energy consumption. In reviewing the latest figures, for 2018 as reported by the International Energy Agency, I found that the combined figure for solar and wind is slightly less than 5%. So this checks out. (Oil, natural gas and coal are by far the biggest energy sources in Germany despite its reputation as a renewable trendsetter.) The second was that solar and wind accounted for roughly one-quarter of global renewable energy; biomass accounted for nearly two-thirds. As of 2017, again the latest I could find, solar, wind and hydro accounted for 31% of world renewable energy — close to what the film reported. (The remaining 69% was biofuels and waste.) Mr. Gibbs seems to have done his homework.
The other consistent line of attack is that groups like the Sierra Club and advocates like Al Gore would never do anything questionable. The film both quotes from materials that the groups in question have published and from U.S. Securities and Exchange filings. Mr. McKibben personally and his 350.org organization recommended investing in the Green Century Funds. At the time of examination, the funds had 0.6 percent of its capital invested in renewable energy and energy efficiency, and far more in mining, oil and gas, McDonald’s, logging companies and BlackRock, a major investor in deforestation projects. The Sierra Club partnered with Aspiration, a so-called “green fund” that in fact invests in oil and gas companies, Monsanto and Halliburton.
Is it sacrilege to point out issues with renewables?
Toward the end of the film, Mr. Gibbs says, “The takeover of the environmental movement by capitalism is now complete,” and concludes “We must take control of our environmental movement.” Once again, the filmmaker repeatedly gave space to rank-and-file members of the Sierra Club and 350.org who disagreed with their leaders’ approval of biomass and gave a platform to a series of grassroots activists fighting biomass and other destructive practices in their communities. So the over-the-top claims that the film was a broad attack on the environmental movement, and on behalf of the fossil fuel industry no less, is laughable. The target is the leadership of large organizations who are too cozy with corporate interests — that’s the critique that clearly hit home, as the intensity of the attacks demonstrate.
Or perhaps grassroots activists who don’t lead national organizations that prefer to “get along” with political insiders and corporate elites are not considered proper environmentalists?
To conclude, let’s briefly examine some of the issues surrounding renewable energy sources. (Readers wishing more detail can click on the links that will be supplied.) Even wind energy has environmental issues. The turbines used to produce electricity from wind increasingly are built with the “rare earth” element neodymium, which requires a highly toxic process to produce. Turbine magnets using neodymium are more expensive than those using ceramic, but are also more efficient. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that an additional 380 metric tons of neodymium would be necessary if the United States is to generate 20 percent of its electricity from wind by 2030. That’s just one country. Increasing rare earth mining means more pollution and toxic waste.
How about sequestering carbon dioxide? The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) rests its belief that techno-fixes will save the day through “bioenergy with carbon dioxide capture and storage” (BECCS), the capture and sequestration of the carbon produced by bioenergy processes. The carbon dioxide would be “captured” before it escapes into the atmosphere and “permanently” stored underground or underwater, thereby removing it from the air and negating its greenhouse effects. A Biofuelwatch study reports that the IPCC, among others, counts flooding oil reservoirs with carbon dioxide, to extract otherwise inaccessible oil out of the ground, as BECCS. Hardly “carbon neutral”!
And electric vehicles are only as green as the electricity that powers them. If fossil fuels produce the electricity, then how green is it really? An electric automobile still has the metal, plastic, rubber, glass and other raw materials a gas-guzzling one has. By one estimate, 56 percent of all the pollution a vehicle will ever produce comes before it hits the road.
Critics of Planet of the Humans do make one valid point — the film is too pessimistic about the likely improvements still to come in solar panels and other renewable sources. The film implies such technologies are hopeless. As a counter-argument, it is possible to get long-term energy from hydropower, a renewable not mentioned in the film. New York State gets 17 percent of its power from two hydroplants that have operated for 60 years and are maintained well enough by a state agency that they will supply energy for decades to come. So although these giant plants obviously used much energy to build, they are large ongoing net positives in terms of greenhouse gases.
Development of renewable energy sources is necessary to bring an end to fossil fuels. But only one part. Building solar panels and other renewable equipment to last much longer is another part. But there is no achieving sustainability without consuming less — or at least those of us in the advanced capitalist countries consuming less. That is the hard truth that must be faced. The liberal belief that we can have our cake and not only eat it but make more cakes and eat them, too, is a fantasy. There are no free lunches nor limitless cakes.