Planet of the Humans movie draws outrage as it calls for economic slowdown: Don Pittis

The Michael Moore-backed documentary Planet of the Humans has drawn outraged criticism, not from the anti-environmental crowd, many of whom seem to quite like it, but from committed environmentalists.

Film uses gotcha journalism to tar well-known green leaders and argue that climate fight is not enough

Abandoned wind power turbines, as seen in the new documentary Planet of the Humans, which has drawn outraged criticism from environmentalists. (Planet of the Humans)

If anyone was foolish enough to actually think that human technology had the planet's natural forces safely under our control, the disruptive effect of COVID-19 has been only the latest reminder that it doesn't.

A main message of the new environmental documentary Planet of the Humans is that despite our powerful economic grip on the world — or more likely because of it — we have started a planetary tire fire that even our greenest leaders seem unable to cool.

To say the movie, backed by rabble-rousing filmmaker Michael Moore and made by his longtime associate Jeff Gibbs, is controversial is an understatement.

Offering it free on the internet during the COVID-19 lockdown has helped attract more than 4.6 million views since the film's Earth Day release last week.

But it has also attracted a wave of outraged criticism, not from the expected anti-environmental crowd, many of whom seem to quite like it, but from committed environmentalists themselves.

The film tars several well-known green leaders — including Al Gore, who helped bring climate change awareness to the people in the 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth — as being in the pocket of big business.

Orangutans gather on Salat Island in Indonesia. One of the arguments presented in the film is that humans are in the process of wiping out the world's other species. (Willy Kurniawan/Reuters)

Like many documentaries, especially those from Moore, this film is a polemic, using tendentious language and clips to make its argument stronger even at the expense of objectivity.

Rather than proving its claims with economically sound and up-to-date facts, it often feels like an attempt to manipulate viewers who just don't know any better — like Moore's anecdotal evidence about Canadians not locking their doors in his 2002 movie, Bowling for Columbine. 

Anecdotes are a great tool to illustrate a point but only if the point is a truthful representation.

Displacing old tech takes trial and error

For instance, images of rusted, abandoned windmills in Hawaii are not representative of a wind energy industry that has been successfully operating around the world for decades. As with any technology, constant maintenance is essential. 

Pictures of a crumbling solar site make no mention of the fact that it was in the process of being replaced by a better one. The film uses footage and interviews referencing technology that is more than a decade old without revealing it.

It fails to address the essential fact that any new technology must pass through many stages and have many failures while trying to challenge tried and true existing systems.

State Electricity Company officials stand between solar cell panels at the largest solar power plant in Indonesia, at Oelpuah village. A Bloomberg report out this week found that solar and on-shore wind power are the cheapest forms of energy in two-thirds of the world. (Antara Foto/Widodo S Jusuf/Reuters)

In its apparent effort to make the case that fighting climate change is not enough and that industrial capitalism continues to erode the earth's resources even when directed toward green projects, the film uses the tricks of gotcha journalism.

In one instance showing grainy found footage of an environmental leader who seems to avoid mentioning he has accepted money from the Rockefeller Foundation, which funds energy and development projects around the world, as if it implied business collusion, without ever presenting evidence of it.

The movie has been justly criticized for using out-of-date information, such as misleading video clips of older models of solar panels to demonstrate the failures and inefficiencies of photovoltaic panels.

"It's like doing a documentary on the uselessness of mobile phones but only examining the [1990s] Motorola Ultrasleek," wrote infuriated technology writer Ketan Joshi.

Solar and wind getting cheaper

Many of the arguments used to condemn some green energy initiatives misrepresent their reliance on the carbon economy, including the idea that building green infrastructure creates more lifetime carbon than burning the energy equivalent in oil; that solar and wind energy projects need fossil fuel backup; and that battery-powered electric cars run on energy from coal-powered plants.

As green technologies have gone mainstream and cheap, many for-profit alternative technologies are now operating without subsidies, which they could not do if they used more energy than they produced.

Integrated power grids, where deficits in one area are supplemented with energy stored in hydro dams or batteries or from places where the wind is blowing or the sun shining mean that in many areas, emergency backup gas generators are hardly used.

An electric car charging station in Vancouver. Electric car skeptics point out there are still a lot of fossil fuels that go into their manufacture and operation. (Chris Helgren/Reuters)

Fossil fuels are still required to manufacture electric cars and the batteries they run on, which have their own environmental impacts, and to feed the electricity grids that keep them running. But in some places, including parts of Ontario and B.C., they are charged to all intents and purposes virtually carbon-free

One place to find modern answers to some of the film's arguments is a portion of the media empire owned by Michael Bloomberg, one of the business leaders condemned in the film. Bloomberg New Energy Finance, which keeps abreast of green developments from a hard financial perspective, just this week reported that solar and wind are now the cheapest sources of new power for two-thirds of the world's population.

Biomass a green industry letdown

Refuting all of the film's economic arguments and the ways in which they're out of step with the fast-moving, capitalist green tech sector would take many columns and leave no time to address the few things this film gets right.

The movie has some core messages that are worth seeing.

One is to open our eyes to the scale of industrial biomass plants that burn mostly trees but more loosely have used garbage and macerated tires to make electricity and that it is not the environment-friendly industry it was once thought to be.

Another valid lesson is the power money has to reset the green agenda, turning what was a grassroots action into a profit centre and subtly co-opting the movement's objectives. This is what capitalism does. It can't help itself.

But it is a reminder to environmental activists to keep governments and companies focused on moving that agenda forward.

The final and most valid point the film makes is that as we use the power of capitalism to fight climate change with efficient windmills, sleek electric cars and better batteries, we must not lose sight of the fact that we only have one world, and we must share it.

As activist Greta Thunberg told the UN Climate Action Summit last year, the pursuit of endless economic growth is just not worth the money if it leads to mass extinction. Once we live in a world where only humans are left, it really doesn't matter how good our intentions were.

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg who, like the movie, has also railed against endless economic growth, at a March protest in Brussels. (Johanna Geron/Reuters)


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.

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