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Blistering Critiques for Moore’s Planet of the Humans: Short on Facts, Arbitrary in Style

An Earth Day release by filmmaker Michael Moore and director Jeff Gibbs, purporting to show that a clean energy transition won’t help address the climate crisis and that climate campaigners have sold out to “wealthy interests and corporate America”, has spurred an avalanche of critical analysis, prompting one of its distributors to take the online video out of circulation before putting it back up a half-day later.

The production, Planet of the Humans, “is the wake-up call to the reality we are afraid to face: that in the midst of a human-caused extinction event, the environmental movement’s answer is to push for techno-fixes and band-aids,” its proponents claim. “It’s too little, too late.”

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But veteran climate and energy campaigners, researchers, and policy-makers who actually know the clean energy technologies that Gibbs and Moore tried to take on say the movie is short on facts, arbitrary in style, and out of date in many of its harshest critiques. Many of them [okay, many of us, and here’s our take—Ed.] are less exercised about the film’s criticisms of bioenergy production, and its attempt to argue that out-of-control consumption is a fundamental problem that industrial countries must address—but note that those points are obscured in misleading or inaccurate claims. 

“You would never recommend this film to anyone,” writes global climate policy veteran Tom Athanasiou,” one of three lead researchers behind the Climate Equity Reference Project. “You’d be carrying water for the fossils if you did. So it’s a failure on its own terms, since it wants, or pretends to want, to bring the truth about renewables to the green movement.”

“It’s too bad, because his central complaint, that the environmental movement is looking to green tech to save us, and believing quite a bit of nonsense in the process, is pretty legit, though it’s less legit every year, and you wouldn’t know it from this film,” Athanasiou adds. “This kind of techno-optimism is and has always been a huge mistake,” calling it out “is an excellent point, and it could have been made well. Gibbs could have built a good bit of teaching around it. But instead, he threw so many cheap shots and so much old news into the bucket that it ruined, and I mean ruined, the mix. The truth is that he doesn’t have the slightest idea about how to make his critique in a helpful way.”

FilmsForAction, one of the movie’s online distributors, responded quickly to the storm of pushback against the movie by taking it out of circulation, tweeted Gasland director Josh Fox, who organized an online letter demanding an apology from Moore. Half a day later, the page was live again, but included multiple links to critical reviews and an explanation from the U.S. media literacy site.

“When Planet of the Humans first came out, we added it to the site before watching it because we trusted Michael Moore’s track record of releasing quality films that are factually accurate. After we watched it, we had issues with the film but assumed it was at least factually accurate, since Michael knows his films will be rigorously fact-checked,” FilmsForAction wrote.

Unfortunately, according to Fox, that wasn’t the case. “Like all the distributors of the film that I spoke to, FFA had not seen the film prior to posting it,” and “I think it’s strange that Michael Moore would not let anyone see the film before distribution.” Other observers said Moore set himself up for failure by apparently deciding against a technical vetting before he released.

Now, Fox added, “so many people have speculated as to why @mmflint would put up a movie with so many fossil fuel industry talking points and with so many errors, falsehoods, and misinformation. I can’t guess,” and Moore hadn’t responded to the letter as of Friday.

But “I will add here, with deep regret and sadness, that my hero has fallen. I have watched @mmflint  PUNCH UP at authority and hypocrisy with glee for his whole career. He has deeply inspired me and taught me. But now he’s the Goliath in the room, PUNCHING DOWN at us,” Fox added. “A multi-millionaire many many many times over, @mmflint is now attacking environmental heroes like @billmckibben, @VanJones68, and even local organizers like the great Nathan Sooy of PA. I cannot sit by and watch that happen. This is not fun, this is terrible.”

All of which had FilmsForAction declaring itself “disheartened and dismayed to report that the film is full of misinformation—so much so that for half a day we removed the film from the site. Ultimately, we decided to put it back up because we believe media literacy, critique, and debate is the best solution to misinformation,” and vastly preferable to a “rather confused debate” that would have focused on censorship rather than the substance of the film, or lack thereof.

That left a parade of climate and energy experts to critique the substance and apparent purpose of the film. “I’m going to state this strategically,” Athanasiou told The Mix. “I think we have won the battle of the science, in the sense that the [climate] denialists are now manifestly and visibly ideologues. They’re a feature of the geography, they’re not going to go away, but they’re not taken seriously except as trolls. So what’s happening is the nightmare scenario where we go directly from denial to despair. So we absolutely need a positive transition story that we actually believe.”

By that standard, Planet of the Humans “absolutely counsels despair,” he added. “Really, how did we get to this situation where the loudest ‘progressive’ voice is the one who is most convinced we’re doomed?”

Science writer and renewables veteran Ketan Joshi writes the film off as a “reheated mess of lazy, old myths,” and takes apart many of the specifics point by point. As one example of the “extreme oldness of this documentary,” he cites a tour of  a solar farm in downtown Lansing, Michigan, “in which a bemused official states that a large farm can only power ten homes in a year”. That’s because the 150-kilowatt Cedar Street Solar Array was built in 2008, and 12 years is “an absolute eternity, in solar development years”.

PV Magazine had this assessment: “The film reports on a solar installation in Michigan with PV panels rated at ‘just under 8%’ conversion efficiency. It’s difficult to identify the brand of panel in the film (Abound?)—but that efficiency is from another solar era”. Joshi notes that “efficiency gains in solar have been so rapid that by leaving the dates off his footage he is very actively deceiving the audience. The site generates 64 MWh a year, according to the owner—a more recent installation in the same area generates around 436.”

He adds that “the footage really is from another era. It’s like doing a documentary on the uselessness of mobile phones but only examining the Motorola Ultrasleek.” Gibbs’ hits on a bigger solar plant and on wind energy are similarly out of date.

Veteran climate journalist Emily Atkin notes that climate denial and alt-right propaganda shops like the Heartland Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute were waxing ecstatic about the film, with Breitbart’s climate denial columnist declaring it “the most powerful, brutally honest, and important documentary of [Moore’s] career.” 

But “does Michael Moore’s new bombshell climate change documentary, Planet of the Humans, include equally bombshell evidence to support [its] controversial claims?” Atkin asks. “Does the film’s director Jeff Gibbs give the environmentalists he attacks a fair chance to respond? And on the extremely racially fraught issue of limiting population growth, do Moore and Gibbs interview any non-white experts to support their point? That’s a no, and a no, and an extremely cringeworthy nooooope.”

“A good drinking game for the Michael Moore film is to drink every time a person of colour speaks,” wrote climate justice writer Mary Annaïse Heglar, in a tweet republished by Atkin. “That is, if you don’t want to get drunk.”

Previously, Atkin said she hoped she wouldn’t have to review the film on her excellent HEATED newsletter (subs here) because she’d seen it all before. “I’m tired of having to spend hours consuming and debunking messy-yet-blockbuster climate reporting from dudes who seemingly woke up a few mornings beforehand and decided they were climate journalists,” she wrote. “I feel like a hamster on a wheel: The Wheel of First Time Climate Dudes.”

Atkin explains: “The wheel starts to spin when a dude who spent his entire career doing everything except climate journalism decides he’s going to be the one to do a Big Climate Journalism Moment. This moment can be an interview with a famous person, a huge piece in a fancy publication, or a documentary film executive produced by Michael Moore.

“Because of the bigness of said moment, it is consumed by hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. But because neither the author nor editor has done much climate journalism before, the viral moment suffers from factual inaccuracies and misleading tropes.

“That’s understandable. Climate change is a very difficult subject to cover—due in large part to the sophisticated 40-year disinformation campaign around the subject, perpetuated and funded by the multi-trillion-dollar fossil fuel industry and its powerful political allies.

“But that doesn’t change the fact that harmful inaccuracies have been consumed by many people. The wheel comes full circle when climate journalists have to spend massive amounts of time and intellectual energy consuming and debunking the First Time Climate Dudes’ story.”

350.org co-founder Bill McKibben, apparently the target of choice for much of Gibbs’ and Moore’s attack, had to do some debunking of his own, responding to an out-of-date claim that he supports unsustainable energy forms and a sly insinuation that he has a financial interest in his climate work.

“Like the filmmaker, I previously personally supported burning biomass as an alternative to fossil fuels—in my case, when the rural college where I teach replaced its oil furnaces with a wood chip burner more than a decade ago, I saluted it,” he wrote. “But as more scientists studied the consequences of large-scale biomass burning, the math began to show that it would put large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere at precisely the wrong moment: if we break the back of the climate system now, it won’t matter if forests suck it up 50 years hence.”

He added that, “as for taking corporate money, I’ve actually never taken a penny in pay from 350.org, or from any other environmental group. Instead, I’ve donated hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years in honoraria and prizes.” 350.org “hasn’t taken corporate money,” he added, and has never acted as a financial advisor or promoted one sustainable fund over another, as Gibbs implied.

“I am used to ceaseless harassment and attack from the fossil fuel industry, and I’ve done my best to ignore a lifetime of death threats from right wing extremists,” McKibben said. “It does hurt more to be attacked by others who think of themselves as environmentalists.”

But Atkin reports that least one 350.org volunteer took the film at face value, cut all ties with the campaign group, and pledged to tell all his or her friends to to the same.

5 Comments (Open | Close)

5 Comments To "Blistering Critiques for Moore’s Planet of the Humans: Short on Facts, Arbitrary in Style"

#1 Comment By Philip Cafaro On April 27, 2020 @ 1:00 PM

This flawed film is nevertheless a valuable contribution to the public discourse on environmentalism. It’s main thesis is that modern environmentalism is a failure. The most up to date scientific publications on climate disruption and biodiversity loss show unequivocally that it is right. Greenhouse gas emissions are increasing, Earth is getting hotter, weather is getting more dangerous. Earth has lost 50% to 60% of its wild vertebrates just in the past 50 years, with most species declining in numbers, many drastically.

Whatever your views on the way forward environmentally, we can probably all agree that the status quo isn’t working and that we need more public discussion on these matters. Kudos to Gibbs and Moore for raising the issue.

Contemporary mainstream environmentalism has degenerated into advocacy of technological solutions to climate change, narrowly understood as a matter of inefficient resource use. What environmentalism needs to become (again?) is a comprehensive critique of human overpopulation, overconsumption and overdevelopment and a movement aimed at creating societies with fewer people, more protected areas, and economies that support limited numbers of people comfortably rather than in luxury.

The film is arguably unfair to Bill McKibben and the Sierra Club. But Bill and Michael Brune (SC executive director) are environmental leaders who are leading the movement astray, in the opinion of many of us.

The film arguably gets the importance of quickly transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy drastically wrong. But contemporary environmentalists get the same issue wrong by inflating the importance of this transition, and failing to fit it in a larger context of limiting human demands on nature.

I urge people to see the film and decide what they get wrong or right for themselves. And those interested in the environmental impacts of overpopulation and humane solutions for reducing human numbers should check out the website of The Overpopulation Project: https://overpopulation-project.com/

#2 Comment By João Abegão On April 28, 2020 @ 6:59 AM

Mrs. Atkin, the human population is growing by roughly 80 million people a year. This fact will not change even if you consult non-white experts. Science and truth don’t care about the color of our skin, so please let’s stop sowing more division by race.
Signed: a white male population expert

#3 Comment By Paul Donahue On April 29, 2020 @ 11:45 AM

The countries with stable or declining populations are also the countries with by far the largest, and growing CO2 emissions. Capitalism-driven economic growth and population have almost nothing to do with each other. Addressing global warming by calling for “population control” is an utter non-starter.

#4 Comment By Kevin K On May 5, 2020 @ 1:49 PM

Earth Environmental Degradation = (natural resources used + waste produced) x human population
This can be broken down by country or economic status within countries, where 1st world, capitalism-driven, affluent consumers use more resources and produce more waste – up to 15x that of an average 3rd world person – but the equation is still the same. It will take reduction of all 3 factors to prevent an environmental crash.

I think capitalist-driven economic growth is also linked to population growth in that almost without exception, every 3rd world person wants and works toward becoming a 1st world consumer.

Population control is going to happen because earth is a finite planet. My hope is that people, through education and critical thinking, learn to self regulate. Human population regulation through disease and environmental catastrophe would be a shameful mess. The film promotes education and critical thinking so I recommend it.

#5 Comment By Bob Meinetz On May 2, 2020 @ 10:26 PM

A shame, that Mitchell Beer considers reviewing Planet of the Humans an opportunity to launch a seething tirade of insults and attacks, with barely a mention of what’s actually in the film. In support, he offers opinions of Tom Athanasiou, Ketan Joshi, Mary Annaïse Heglar, and Emily Atkin…Any physicists or electrical engineers among the undistinguished clan you claim “actually know the clean energy technologies”? I didn’t think so.

The one factual inaccuracy addressed by Beer comes from…PV Magazine, which writes:

“The site [solar farm in Lansing] generates 64 MWh a year, according to the owner—a more recent installation in the same area generates around 436.”

I have no reason to believe this statement is inaccurate. Yet it completely misses the film’s point: it could generate orders of magnitude more energy and still be reliant on fossil fuel gas for backup power. That, along with the fact solar has yet to generate more than 2% of U.S. electricity, disqualifies solar from the meager list of options we have for addressing climate change. After decades and tens of $billions wasted, enough is enough.

Violent denial, insults, and attacks are characteristic when the faithful of any religion are forced to confront scientific fact face-to-face. I get that it might be tough for renewables advocates to admit they were wrong, but they were wrong. Time to own it, and move on.

This comment has been edited to remove insults and attacks aimed at the sources we cited in our summary.