An overzealous attack on renewables

It is unlikely that Moore will come out and apologise for his new documentary or take it out of circulation

Syed Mohammad Ali May 29, 2020
The writer is a development anthropologist. He can be reached at [email protected]

A few weeks ago, I got a link for a YouTube released documentary produced by Michael Moore on the environment. Released free on April 21, Planet of the Humans had around eight million views till it was removed due to an environmental photographer’s copyright claim.

While this freely available movie concerning the environment got a lot of attention, not all of it was good or productive.

For those who don’t know him, Moore is an American documentary maker, who made his mark several decades ago showcasing the devastation caused in his hometown of Flint, Michigan, after General Motors decided to close its local manufacturing plant (Roger and Me). Thereafter, Moore has received several accolades for his documentaries focused on the gun culture (Bowling for Columbine), the broken healthcare system in the US (Sicko), and even for his critique of the Bush administration’s ill-fated decision to invade Iraq and Afghanistan (Fahrenheit 9/11).

Planet of the Humans is directed, written, and presented by Jeff Gibbs, and produced by Michael Moore — the same duo that made Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11. This new documentary makes several bold claims about the eco-movement, and the futility of renewable energy. It claims that renewables production (such as solar panels and wind farms) needs lots of materials, energy, and metals, which makes them just as bad as fossil fuels. This film thus leaves the viewer thinking there is no net gain from renewable technologies. Such claims have upset climate scientists and environmental campaigners, many of whom are now calling for the film to be removed from public viewing.

The many critics of the documentary are pointing out how its research on renewable energy is out-of-date, simplistic, and misleading. Much of the footage used in the documentary is over a decade old and no longer relevant. Early in the documentary Gibbs, for instance, goes to see an electric vehicle demonstration, and concludes that these vehicles are dirty because they probably run on coal generated electricity. However, as the electricity system has been getting cleaner over the past decade, independent studies demonstrate that electric vehicles have much lower emissions than gas-powered ones.

Scientific studies have also found that CO2 emissions created from building solar and wind plants are insignificant compared to the emissions created from directly burning fossil fuels. In response to the movie, energy experts have pointed out how solar panels can now generate the energy required to build themselves within a couple of years operation, and yet many of them remain productive for up to 20 years. Large wind turbines pay off their ecological debt in 12 months but continue being productive for 25-30 years. The film’s treatment of bioenergy is also deemed simplistic because while some methods, such as ethanol from corn, are environmentally damaging, ethanol from waste starch is not. Moore and Gibbs want environmentalists and activists to focus on curbing population and excessive production instead of placing their faith in renewables.

While he has made a name for himself speaking truth to power, Moore does tend to be somewhat sensationalist, and can sacrifice nuance for the sake of building his own argument. This time, however, he seems to have gone too far. This new movie’s all-out attack on renewables is a disservice to the environmental movement and it is falling right into the hands of climate change deniers, who are trying to use Moore’s assertions to push for reenergising investments in fossil fuels. Predictably, far-right news organisations like Breitbart have voiced support for the documentary. It is unlikely that Moore will come out and apologise for his new documentary or take it out of circulation. One does, however, hope that Moore and Gibbs will both come out strongly to distance themselves from the fossil fuel-backed climate deniers rushing to promote their latest work.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 29th, 2020.

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