Michael Moore’s Planet of the Humans is manipulative, and in many ways an exercise in lazy documentary making. The film is rife with out-of-date facts and figures about the efficacy of solar and wind power. And it’s so strong on gloom that it ignores many potential solutions to the world’s energy problems.
At the same time, the flawed film – viewed more than five million times on YouTube since it was released for free on April 21 – could serve some purpose. It’s a wake-up call for those who pay no attention to where their electricity or heat comes from, or for those who believe renewables are the whole answer to the world’s climate and energy problems.
It’s hard to find something more depressing than the news these days, but Planet of the Humans manages. The main thrust is that unlimited growth on our finite planet is suicide, and we are doing just that. “I realized that the illusion we could fix all of this with ‘green’ technology was one of the things distracting us from making a real plan to save ourselves,” says director Jeff Gibbs, a long-time Moore friend and collaborator, in describing the film’s premise.
First and foremost, the film challenges the idea that renewables are impact-free. It’s full of images of solar arrays worn out and smashed, and wind turbines broken and spinning aimlessly. It shows the intense rare-earth metals mining, industrial processes and caustic chemicals required to build turbines and panels. It questions whether renewables can provide any significant, stable power. That’s creating the biggest backlash, especially from those who work in renewable energy.
“It’s like showing an image of an old, brick-style cellphone to describe the latest iPhone,” said Dan Balaban, chief executive of Calgary-based Greengate Power Corp. – which is developing Canada’s largest solar farm near Vulcan, Alta. “I found the movie purposely misleading, and very uninspired.”
Planet of the Humans is just plain wrong on many fronts. In his criticism of the film, Peter Tertzakian – executive director of Calgary’s ARC Energy Institute – points out that there’s no mention of what a significant, major global push for greater energy efficiency could accomplish. And solar and wind are getting more and more efficient and cheap, and now provide some of the least expensive power available.
But much more successfully, Planet of the Humans takes a wrecking ball to the idea that biomass is a clean industry.
Ideally, biomass uses bioenergy sources – mostly wood waste products from lumber operations and the like – to produce heat or steam for electricity generation. According to Natural Resources Canada, biomass produced about 2 per cent of the country’s electricity in 2016, and Canada is the second-largest exporter of the wood pellets that power biomass plants in Europe, Japan and the United States, after the U.S. itself.
But the film contends the sector has grown to the point where it’s contributing to deforestation. This month, Stand.earth said biomass wood pellets destined for overseas export are being made from whole trees sourced in British Columbia’s inland rain forests. “Burning wood pellets is more polluting at the stack than coal when it comes to climate-warming carbon dioxide. To make matters worse, that doesn’t even begin to cover the damage caused from logging vital forests,” the environmental group said.
That the film has been watched so widely tells us something, maybe that people understand energy challenges are more complicated than has been advertised.
Planet of the Humans is deeply critical of global capitalism. It is disparaging of fossil fuels, pipelines and the oil sands. Yet in finance and oil-focused Calgary, everyone seems to be watching the film and loving it. They know where energy comes from, and that all sources have their pros and cons.
Of course, there’s also the thrill of seeing climate activists such as Al Gore being taken to task. The former presidential candidate has never been shy about targeting Alberta’s main industry. But as the documentary points out, a significant portion of his wealth comes from the 2013 sale of his Current TV to Al Jazeera, a media conglomerate state-owned by Qatar – a country economically dependent on oil and gas – for hundreds of millions of dollars.
There’s a reason some Albertans are kicking back for some small-screen schadenfreude. The Canadian oil industry has been constantly challenged by people such as Mr. Gore for the real and significant environmental effects of and greenhouse gas emissions from oil-sands production. But sometimes lost in any discussion about the Canadian industry is that oil and gas, as with renewables, have become more efficient and have made environmental improvements, too.
Then there’s the fact that Alberta produces oil and gas only because of demand, as the world continues to consume massive quantities of fossil fuels.
Many people in Alberta have come to understand there are more disruptions coming to the energy industry, that part of the drop in global oil demand brought on by the pandemic could be permanent, and that the world will need a mix of energy sources in the decades ahead. Albertans have been grappling with an energy shift for the last number of years and know it’s complicated.
And as much as Planet of the Humans is wrong, it’s also an in-your-face notice that every source of energy – no matter how green-sounding – has environmental consequences.
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