On the 50th anniversary of Earth Day last week, documentary maker Michael Moore and his longtime collaborator Jeff Gibbs released a powerful new movie called “The Planet of the Humans.”
Like many Michael Moore films, itʼs highly controversial and flawed. But you should watch the movie because itʼs very well done, thought-provoking and gut- wrenching. Itʼs free on YouTube, and you can find it there by just searching for "Planet of the Humans."
In the film, just after the opening sequence, Jeff Gibbs, the writer and narrator of the documentary, is driving on a highway at sunset. He asks: “Have you ever wondered what would happen if a single species took over an entire planet? Maybe theyʼre cute, maybe theyʼre clever, but lack a certain – shall we say – self - restraint?”
Itʼs a theme, the dangers of human population growth and consumption – delivered in a cool, rational tone, thankfully free of Mooreʼs trademark grandstanding – that the movie returns to and builds on.
“Less must be the new more,” Gibbs says. “And instead of climate change, we must at long last accept that itʼs not the carbon dioxide molecule destroying the planet, its us. Itʼs not one thing, but everything that we humans are doing.”
Weʼre clear-cutting forests, strip mining, and wiping out other species. Humans are also driving global warming.
The movie argues that climate change is a real and serious problem. But itʼs only one of several of the problems weʼre causing, and we canʼt solve it with a technological fix, the filmmakers claim. This is because, the narrator asserts, solar and wind power can never replace fossil fuels, because they are intermittent, weather-limited, and short-lived technologies.
Instead, humans need to do whatʼs much harder: We need to change our behavior – not just how we fire up our laptops and lightbulbs -- to conserve our resources and respect other forms of life.
The most important – and true -- part of the film comes when the narrator
criticizes a growing form of so-called “green” energy: the burning of wood and wood pellets to generate electricity, using government tax subsidies designed for clean fuel.
Jeff Gibbs and a guide climb a hill in Vermont to witness the mountaintop removal of trees for a biomass (or wood-burning) energy plant.
“They claim theyʼre just using forest residues, but actually a great deal of what the McNeil (Generating Station) and lots of other biomass facilities burn is whole trees,” the guide tells Gibbs. “As you can see by this pile that is stacked right outside this facility, these are trees.”
The problem is, the burning of wood pellets – although promoted and subsidized as a “clean” source of energy – actually releases more carbon dioxide and toxic air pollutants to the atmosphere than even burning coal, per unit of energy. Yes, biomass is theoretically “green” because trees can be replanted and absorb carbon dioxide when they grow back. But that wonʼt be until decades in the future, after our climate has been wrecked, critics of the biomass industry argue.
The film has been blasted by the Sierra Club and many environmentalists because it uses outdated information about the effectiveness of solar power, which has become increasingly cost-efficient in recent years.
More disturbing, both Jeff Gibbs and Michael Moore do a real disservice – and engage in sloppy journalism -- by falsely suggesting that climate activist Bill McKibben supports the biomass industry. In fact, McKibben came out publicly against biomass four years ago in this 2016 article in Grist, headlined, bluntly: "Burning Trees for Electricity is a Bad Idea."
Worse, the film makers wrongly smear the character of mainstream environmental groups by suggesting that greens are motivated by a desire for profits from the solar, wind and biomass industries. This is just not true. Most environmentalists, like most teachers or artists or police officers, are not in it for the money – and in fact, earn very little, but care deeply about what they do.
But despite all these flaws, "The Planet of the Humans" is a movie definitely worth watching because it pushes beyond easy answers and our comfortable ideas about ourselves.