Having just written a book about climate change and energy, I forced myself to view Planet of the Humans, the controversial film Michael Moore released to the internet last week. From everything I had read about it, I expected it would disappoint me fantastically. I was only half right.
I am crushed to see that the filmmaker who gave us Roger and Me fails to see through the classism and white supremacy underlying environmentalists’ tired “population control” narrative. When affluent people in affluent countries use that narrative, it’s like they threw a party for the neighborhood, laced the appetizers with cocaine, but now want to kick the guests out for dancing too much. Wealthy nations must leave more room on the dancefloor for everyone, and get over thinking it’s our party in the first place. Period.
I’m more conflicted about the rest of the film. I share the opinions of others, that Planet of the Humans seems willfully outdated in its presentation of solar technology and deceptive in how it conflates wind and solar with easy targets like biomass and ethanol. I also believe that lobbing ad-hominem attacks against well-intentioned activists like Bill McKibben is counterproductive.
But the film is right to suggest that we need better climate solutions, and in that way, it is a conversation-starter. It’s unfortunate, then, that so many of the film’s critics seem reluctant to engage in conversation. Several want Planet of the Humans banned, but their arguments so far are no more convincing than the film, as they leave several questions unanswered. For example, why has the American renewables transition seen such paltry reductions in greenhouse gas emissions compared to other nations, particularly when accounting for lifecycle emissions overseas, and what should be done about it? What developments in battery storage and grid design have mitigated fossil fuel backup and to what extent? What is being done, besides reporting, to remedy social and ecological destruction in the mining, processing and disposal of materials used in wind and solar? These, to my knowledge, seem like valid questions.
More importantly, critics accuse the film of parroting "fossil fuel industry talking points," which entirely misses one of the film’s most important observations: that the modern renewables industry is rarely separate from the fossil fuels industry.
More importantly, critics accuse the film of parroting “fossil fuel industry talking points,” which entirely misses one of the film’s most important observations: that the modern renewables industry is rarely separate from the fossil fuels industry. So many energy conglomerates invest in both renewable energy and fossil fuels that when many of us buy renewable energy, we support fossil fuel extraction. Instead of addressing this issue, many critics have seized upon a few inarticulate lines from the film to deflect attention from the industry’s structure to its technologies.
Focusing on technologies is a distraction for all of us. It is obvious that renewable technology is capable of powering the planet. The more important questions are: why don’t we let it, despite clear evidence of what’s at stake? Why should we settle for such a slow energy transition in the United States? Where Planet of the Humans sees a massive renewable energy con premised on weak technology, I see weak energy policies asking technology to do very little in the way of innovation.
Technologies are human-engineered solutions to human-conceived problems. The problem for which most American lawmakers have designed electricity policy is not climate change or fossil fuel dependence. Rather, policies mandate only that renewable electrons be added to the grid, not that we add less overall, or that we maximize greenhouse gas reductions in doing so. In effect, this is treating our energy transition like a racecar driver treats a tire-change, switching out one thing for another of identical shape. Never mind that our whole electricity system is obsolete. The grid is antiquated and shoddy. Distribution and demand have been engineered by people selling high-volume low-cost electrons, using subterfuge to make us think there’s no other way, for over a century. Tires are only one part of what we need to change. We need a new racetrack, new rules, and new goals.
No matter our affinity for them or their optimal potential, renewable technologies are destined to fall flat on social and environmental benchmarks because they are legislated for the electricity system that we have, not the one we need. For example, in Scandinavia wind and hydro can stand on their own, without fossil fuel backup. Why not in the United States? The answer relates to our existing electricity system: its interstate geopolitics and the presence of a strong natural gas industry with good branding and innumerable, long corporate tentacles.
Americans are stuck with methane-spewing gas-renewable grids, and with tradable renewable energy certificates dependent on co-existing with fossil fuels, because they are relatively easy and cheap policies for putting renewable electrons on the grid, like a tire is easy to put on a car. But here we are, facing incontrovertible evidence from climate scientists that simply dumping renewable electrons on the grid is not working fast enough, and that methane might be making things far worse than presumed.
It’s the willingness of citizens in affluent nations to accept energy decisions made on our behalf without making demands at the ballot box for social and environmental goals.
After writing Electric Mountains, in which I try to make sense of Northern New England’s changing energy landscape, my disappointment in Planet of the Humans derives not just from its critique of renewables, but from how it reduces the issue to a good vs evil trope, which the film’s critics are now participating in. Things are more complex, and it is high time to lean-in to that complexity. Renewable energy may be far better for the planet than how it’s portrayed in the film, but is it as good as it could be, or as good as it needs to be given the state of the climate?
It is a copout to blame business for our climate impasse because the profit motive in capitalism is as predictable as a cat meowing. Renewable energy’s Achilles heel is unimaginative governance—even among progressives—that permits renewables capitalists to use antiquated industry playbooks and big technologies making big money that trickles back into politics. It is propping up a broken, outdated system instead of redesigning it. Smarter policies will beget new businesses with smarter applications of technology, but we need to demand them.
The film is accurate in suggesting that humans are responsible for the sorry state of our planet, but it’s not due to the number of us breathing air or eating food. It’s the willingness of citizens in affluent nations to accept energy decisions made on our behalf without making demands at the ballot box for social and environmental goals. It is accepting without question the design of our lives, homes, and commerce as engineered by the people selling us electrons. It is treating visible technologies, like wind turbines and solar panels, as totemic icons of change, without asking for the receipts.