“Planet of the Humans” - Jeff Gibbs (2019)

Planet of the Humans (2019) is an environmental documentary film that takes an aggressively contrarian stance towards “green energy”, and for this reason it is likely to generate considerable controversy.  And since the film was recently (for Earth Day, 2020) made temporarily freely available on YouTube [1], it will probably draw a large viewing audience.  

Many viewers might find the film’s negative stance towards green energy to be surprising, since its executive producer was well-known and customarily progressive/leftist documentary filmmaker Michael Moore.  But we should probably keep in mind that this is not solely Moore’s film – it was written, directed, and edited by Jeff Gibbs and co-produced by Gibbs and Ozzie Zehner.  Indeed, based on a subsequent YouTube-available self-serving discussion on the part of the filmmakers [2], I get the feeling that this movie is mostly a product of Gibbs and Zehner.

In general, I felt that the film was relatively disorganized, but it did feature three main themes:
  • Criticism of green energy in general.  This is mostly in opposition to Wind, Water, and Solar (WWS) power (where the water power is primarily via hydroelectricity generation).
  • Criticism of biofuels (produced from biomass).  These are mostly plant-based products that are used to produce fuels in the form of woodchips, pellets, etc.
  • Criticism of technology in general
1.  Criticism of Green Energy
The film begins with its scathing criticisms of renewable energy practices, particularly with respect to two of the most popular forms of renewable energy – wind and solar power.  The arguments seem to follow those of producer Ozzie Zehner, who some time ago published a book Green Illusions (2012) that denounced the practices and prospects of green energy [3].  Zehner and this film complain that green energy is (a) inefficient, (b) requires the pollution-inducing mining of rare materials, and (c) is inextricably dependent on fossil fuels anyway. 

However, Zehner’s and this film’s arguments on this score are largely outdated and false.  I won’t go into the details here, but I refer you to these references for more specific information [4,5,6,7].  I think the critical responses in these references should be convincing enough for you to reject the main arguments on this subject made by Gibbs and Zehner in this film.  There is a further issue in this regard, which I will discuss below.

2.  Criticism of biofuels
The second half of the film constitutes an attack on biofuels and on some environmentalists who have endorsed the development of biofuels.  Biofuels, such as woodchips, wood pellets, and palm oil, are carbon-burning fuels that are harvested from plants that have been specifically sequestered and harvested for fuel purposes.  Biofuel proponents have argued that they are a form of renewable energy, because the carbon in the CO2 that is created when they are burned can later be reabsorbed from the atmosphere by new growing plants.  This reabsorption process could take decades, even centuries, and so this is hardly a pathway for sustainable energy resourcing.  And of course there are other concerns, too: 
  • the production of biofuels uses up land that could be devoted to food production, and 
  • the burning of biofuels contributes to air pollution and global-warming processes.
Most environmentalists therefore renounce the use of biofuels as a suitable option for future energy development, and I am in general agreement with this film’s critical stance towards biofuels.  But I still have two issues with the way thing are presented concerning biofuels in Planet of the Humans.  For one thing, the filmmakers spend a lot of muckracking effort criticizing environmentalist figures like Bill McKibben, Al Gore, and the Sierra Club for endorsing and profiting from biofuel production organizations.  To me the venomous tone in this connection just distracts one from the larger issues, and anyway, I don’t believe these targeted environmentalist figures now endorse biofuels [4].  Another problem here is that Planet of the Humans conflates biofuels with WWS in order to condemn all renewable energy.  The reality is that indeed biofuels are harmful, while WWS energy sources are hugely beneficial.  The film misleads the viewer here.

3.  Criticism of technology in general
The third theme, which underlies much of the film’s presentation, concerns the anti-technology stance on the part of the filmmakers.  There is a wide spectrum of views concerning the ultimate effects of technology on humanity.  At one end of the spectrum are those who see technology as the ultimate benefactor and savior of mankind.  People at this end, when asked how to address our future energy needs, advocate a massive effort to construct and install a fleet of huge solar-power-collecting satellites that would orbit the earth [8].  But we need to be aware that caution is needed in connection with technology’s sometimes blind interference with complex natural processes, which some scientists speculate has brought about problems like the coronavirus pandemic [9].  So there are people at the other end of the technology-supporting spectrum, i.e. the anti-technology end, who are fearful of all forms of technology.  Some of them even want to reduce the world’s population to a tenth of its current size and have people live locally off the land.  Gibbs and Zehner seem to be near that extreme anti-technology end of the spectrum, and this colors their very pessimistic expectations about human prospects and the predations of modern capitalism.  For them, current efforts in renewable and green energy are inevitably doomed, and our future is dim. 

So all three of these themes in the film contain elements that can mislead the viewer.  But there is another matter in connection with the first theme (criticism of green energy) that deserves further mention.  If one is going to discuss the feasibility of widespread green energy, then he or she must address the work of Professor Mark Jacobson and his research team at Stanford University.  Jacobson and his coworkers have made studies detailing how WWS green energy can be used to economically and safely satisfy 100% of our energy needs [10,11,12,13,14].  These studies take account of electric grid stability, pollution, and safety, and they have detailed how each of the 50 states in the United States as well as more than 140 countries can individually and profitably adopt WWS energy to supply all their energy needs.  Although, of course, there would be initial construction costs, Jacobson’s schemes, if implemented, would lead to vast savings of resources, money, and human lives.  And I believe Jacobson’s plans to deploy WWS green energy would even entail less land usage than is currently used by the fossil fuel industry.

Professor Jacobson has supplied detailed responses to questions concerning his proposed schemes for 100% green energy, and I am sure he would have responded to questions that Gibbs and Zehner may have had, too.  In fact any film that discusses green energy in the context of Jacobson’s work would be interesting to see.  But Planet of the Humans makes no mention of Jacobson’s work, and for this reason alone, it disqualifies the film from serious consideration.  Although Planet of the Humans has managed tp receive some positive reviews in the mainstream media [15], I don’t recommend the film to you, and, for me, the film will not do anything for Michael Moore’s reputation.

  1.  “Michael Moore Presents: Planet of the Humans | Full Documentary | Directed by Jeff Gibbs”, YouTube, (21 April 2020).   
  2. “‘Planet of the Humans’ Earth Day Live Stream w/ Michael Moore, Jeff Gibbs & Ozzie Zehner”, YouTube, (22 April 2020). 
  3. Ozzie Zehner, Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism, (ISBN 978-0-8032-3775-9), The University of Nebraska Press, (2012).
  4. Timothy Wallis, "Skepticism Is Healthy, but Planet of the Humans Is Toxic - A Critical Review", Films For Action, (23 April 2020).     (see also: https://votetosurvive.org/skepticism-is-healthy-but-planet-of-the-humans-is-toxic/)
  5. Tom Zeller Jr., “Ozzie Zehner’s ‘Green Illusions’ Ruffles Feathers”, HuffPost, (27 July 2012, 6 December 2017).  
  6. Josh Fox, “Meet the New Flack for Oil and Gas: Michael Moore”, The Nation, (30 April 2020).  
  7. Oliver Milman, “Climate experts call for 'dangerous' Michael Moore film to be taken down”, The Guardian, (28 April 2020).   
  8. “Space-based solar power”, Wikipedia, (24 April 2020).   
  9. Damian Carrington, “Halt destruction of nature or suffer even worse pandemics, say world’s top scientists”, The Guardian, (27 Apr 2020).  
  10. Mark Z. Jacobson, Mark A. Delucchi, Mary A. Cameron, Indu Priya Manogaran, Yanbo Shu, and Anna-Katharina von Krauland, “Impacts of Green New Deal Energy Plans on Grid Stability, Costs, Jobs, Health, and Climate in 143 Countries”, One Earth, (2019).   
  11. Kashyap Vyas, “Is Mark Jacobson’s Plan to Use 100% Renewable Energy Feasible?”, Interesting Engineering, (22 January 2019).   
  12. Michael Barnard, “100% WWS Part 1: Jacobson’s New Study Displaces 99.7% Fossil Energy With Massive Savings”, CleanTechnica, (20 December 2019).   
  13. Mark Z. Jacobson, Mark A. Delucchi, Zack A.F. Bauer, Savannah C. Goodman, William E. Chapman, Mary A. Cameron, Cedric Bozonnat, Liat Chobadi, Hailey A. Clonts, Peter Enevoldsen, Jenny R. Erwin, Simone N. Fobi, Owen K. Goldstrom, Eleanor M. Hennessy, Jingyi Liu, Jonathan Lo, Clayton B. Meyer, Sean B. Morris, Kevin R. Moy, Patrick L. O’Neill, Ivalin Petkov, Stephanie Redfern, Robin Schucker, Michael A. Sontag, Jingfan Wang, Eric Weiner, and Alexander S. Yachanin, “100% Clean and Renewable Wind, Water, and Sunlight All-Sector Energy Roadmaps for 139 Countries of the World”, Joule 1, Elsevier Inc., pp. 108–121, (6 September 2017).   
  14. Mark Ruffalo, Marco Krapels, and Mark Jacobson, “Our 100% Clean Energy Vision”, The Solutions Project, (2020).   
  15. Peter Bradshaw, “Planet of the Humans review – contrarian eco-doc from the Michael Moore stable”, The Guardian, (22 April 2020).   

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