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April 27, 2020

Michael Moore's "Planet Of The Humans": This Is Not The Movie Review You Were Looking For [crisis du jour]

I happily leave to others the assessment of the artistic and cultural merits, if any, of Michael Moore’s recent film “Planet of the Humans”. I’m a physicist by training and have taught a course for more than a decade on energy and energy policy. Since Planet of the Humans (PotH) purports to be about energy production and its consequences, Moore has ventured in this film into an area that I know something about.

On one level, the movie tries to be a hard-hitting exposé of the movers and shakers in the ‘green energy’ space, and it sort-of succeeds at that. I think viewers whose knowledge of ‘green’ energy begins and ends with proclamations from MSNBC and Greta Thunberg will be genuinely shocked by the revelations in this film. On the other hand, those of us who live in the real world and disbelieve media propaganda will probably find far less here that we didn’t already know.

But even so: the skewering that several well-known ‘green’ energy promoters receive in PotH is long overdue. Al Gore is a frequent target of Moore’s (and of Jeff Gibbs, the film’s writer and director; Moore was the executive producer), portraying Gore as cloaking himself in a robe of environmentalism but really being in the game for the money. Same with Bill McKibben (founder of 350.org, arguably the world’s leading climate-change activism website). Same with groups like the Sierra Club and the Nature Conservancy. But the skewering lacks any sense that Gore and his ilk are ultimately playing on the same team as Moore and Gibbs with perhaps greater pragmatism; instead, it has the purer-than-thou flavor of a Bolshevik hectoring a Menshevik.

I do appreciate that there is some legitimate science in the film. For example, Gibbs interviews a researcher at UC-Berkeley who demolishes the widespread myth that solar cells are made from sand. They aren’t. They need high-quality quartz for their fabrication ... as well as coal, both as a source of carbon to fabricate the solar cells and to fire the furnace where the solar cells are made. I wish the film had taken the next step of educating its viewers on how low solar’s Energy Returned on Energy Invested is, and why that matters. ERoEI is similar to the dollar return on a stock or a bond investment: how many Joules of energy did we get from this source, and how many Joules of energy did we use to create this source? Divide those two numbers, and you have ERoEI. Crude oil, for example, has an ERoEI of about 6, so when we invest one Joule of energy in drilling for oil, we get six back in the form of crude. Not long ago, I was of the opinion that the ERoEI for solar photovoltaics was between 2 and 3; more recent scholarship has that number closer to 1 ... which, if true, would mean that solar is an energy treadmill on which we can never get ahead. But the film doesn’t touch that idea, because its goal is evidently polemics rather than education.

The film giddily eviscerates the electric car, revealing that what makes the rechargeable batteries in electric cars possible is none other than pure carbon (obtained from smelting coal) and that most of the grid power that charges those car batteries comes from burning fossil fuels. Again, this isn’t news if you’ve been paying attention. In the film, the revelation that coal powers most electric vehicles happens - embarrassingly - at the rollout of the Chevy Volt, GM’s first plug-in hybrid car. Curious journalists are then given a tour of a local solar field, during which the guide reveals that this football-field-sized solar facility produces enough electricity serve ... eight customers. Had the film-makers taken my class, they would already know the Crisis du Jour Solar Panel Rule Of Thumb: time-averaged, 24/7/365, in most places in the U.S., a square foot of solar panels will produce one Watt of power. And! I’ll double the offer:time-averaged, 24/7/365, the average U.S. household consumes about 1400 Watts of electric power (about 1000 kWHr per month). So if you live in a 30’x50’ ranch house, there’s probably enough roof space to provide your household’s electric needs with solar panels alone (using appropriate storage). But! If you live in a Manhattan high-rise, it’s not even close ... hence the purported need for large solar fields. The bottom line is that solar is a dilute power source, and no amount of money from a green venture-capital firm can change that. The same goes for wind power, only it’s worse because the sun powers the wind, meaning that wind energy can, at best, be only as energy-dense as solar is. And - worse still - both solar and wind are intermittent (solar in a predictable way and wind in an unpredictable way), so both need either energy-storage schemes or a reliable ‘baseload’ power source in order to be useful to utility companies.

All that said, the film’s inclusion of some good science is only in the service of its philosophical goals, goals which - as far as I can tell - are thoroughly nihilistic. Moore and Gibbs offer no constructive solutions to the problems they have outlined. The film is called “Planet of the Humans” as (of course) a riff on Planet of the Apes, a future world in which apes rule where humans once did. Planet of the Humans begins with Gibbs asking passers-by on camera (like Leno’s ‘Street Walking’ episodes), How long do you think we humans have? The answers range from 10 years to eternity, but the last responder - an older woman who is within sight of the Golden Gate Bridge - says: “We’re gonna turn back into apes.” Thatis the message of the film: we are going to die off as humans because of our greed and stupidity in using fossil fuels and ruining the planet in the process. And there’s no way around that, and anyone who tells you otherwise is a greedy Al Gore or an evil conservative.

In the film’s focal-point scene, about midway through the movie, Gibbs is so troubled by the tragedy of climate change and the future prospects for humanity that he visits a psychology professor at Skidmore College in upstate New York for some informal therapy. Gibbs begins with a (false) dichotomy: “The Right has religion, and they have a belief in infinite fossil fuels. Our side says, ‘Oh, it’s gonna be ok, we have solar panels [and] wind towers’ ... Could it be that we can’t face our own mortality?” In other words - if I understand his question correctly - “We’re screwed, aren’t we?” The prof responds by paraphrasing the French existentialist Albert Camus: “There’s only one liberty: to come to terms with death. Thereafter, anything is possible.” In other words - Yes is the answer to Gibbs’ question. We are screwed, and we can only be un-screwed by coming to grips with the notion that our self-screwing will kill us all. So in the end, the movie ends up leaving us with nothing but despair and death.

From where I sit, I’m glad that there are people and institutions hard at work today providing real solutions that can help us all and give us hope instead of nothingburgers and despair. I think of the ‘intentional communities’, groups ranging from Mennonites to New Agers, who endeavor to live simply around a common purpose. I think of researchers who are right now endeavoring to find new ways to harness energy or to make our current ways more efficient. I think of Michael Schellenberger, a bona fide Berkeley leftist who champions nuclear power as the eco-friendly way to generate electricity. In the end, as fun as it is to watch some left-wing sacred cows get barbecued, Planet of the Humans goes to great lengths and great cost to offer us no solutions and no hope. Would that the labor and capital that went into the film had been used for constructive purposes instead.

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posted by Open Blogger at 06:46 PM

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