Movie Review: Michael Moore’s “Planet of the Humans” Traffics in Myths, Errors, and Dangerous Misdirection

May 2, 2020 | 9:37 am
Photo: SkillUp/Shutterstock
John Rogers
Energy Campaign Analytic Lead

A new film produced by legendary activist and movie-based provocateur Michael Moore appears to take on lots of sacred cows (and cowherders) in the US environmental movement. What it really does is perpetuate a range of anti-clean energy myths, peddle outdated facts and dubious allegations, and end up with a conclusion that is as dangerous as it is wrong.

I didn’t really want to have to write this blog post. Based on what I’d heard about it, I didn’t even want to give the film another hit on YouTube, where “Planet of the Humans” is currently available for free (having premiered last year to less attention).

But I’ve spent almost my entire career working on renewables, and this seemed to be a pretty high-profile anti-renewables piece, from an unexpected direction. (And I heard it took a swipe at an organization I’m rather fond of.) So I watched the movie on a recent stay-at-home evening.

In so many ways, from start to finish, the film lived up—or down—to my low expectations. Even so, and even now, I’m reluctant to give it more attention via our blog. But I’ve gotten enough questions and reactions about it, from friends and others, that there are things I just can’t stay silent about. Here are three.

It ignores more than a decade of clean energy progress

First, there’s the—how do I put this?—lack of academic or intellectual rigor when it comes to some pretty important aspects of the clean energy revolution. It’s stunning, really, to see where their explorations took them; a time machine was apparently involved, given how outdated some of their “facts” were. A few examples:

  • The film includes someone talking about solar (PV) modules that were 8% efficient. When I put solar on my house four years ago, I used modules that are 22% efficient—commercially available ones, not something I stole off a NASA satellite. Why would you highlight a number so low… unless you were trying to make solar look bad?
  • In a related vein, they mention that “Some solar panels are built to last 10 years,” while oddly neglecting to mention that the vast majority of solar panels come with 25-year warranties, and likely last considerably beyond that. So, while there may be some applications for which it makes sense to buy cheaper, shorter-duration panels, in general, why would you?
  • They question the energy payback of technologies like wind turbines—how long it takes to get more energy out than you put into making them—without, apparently, spending the three minutes on the Internet that it would take to see that there’s actually plenty of scholarship on this. And then actually reading a piece or two to discover that the numbers are actually quite favorable for renewables. (See this, for example, from the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory.)
  • When they switch from tilting at windmills to tilting at electric vehicles, they paint EVs too in the worst possible light by finding a small utility that was heavily dependent on coal, including a coal plant whose roots go back to 1922. They ignore the loads of data (remember data?), including from my fine UCS colleagues, showing that in every region of the country, even the most coal-heavy ones, EVs beat gasoline-powered cars on emissions. And they forget to mention that, while oil is getting nothing but dirtier, our power grids are getting cleaner all the time. (Even the small utility they include has been cleaning up its act, and “is now committed to providing 30 percent clean energy by 2020 and 40 percent by 2030.”)

The list of errors, omissions, and misdirections goes on. One review just resorted to numbering all the other takedowns based on the film’s factual challenges: “…the film is also full of misinformation (1234567)…” But maybe you get the idea.

There’s no single perfect solution to climate change, which is why we need to consider a wide range of tools and strategies and weigh their impacts—with data and facts. But we know that we need to reduce the emissions that cause climate change, and that the time to take action is now. Misrepresenting, mischaracterizing, or just plain being incorrect about the tools we have available to us does nothing to move us down that path.

The mention of UCS is entirely misleading

Given the above-mentioned challenges with facts, it might not surprise you to know that the one (~30-second) mention of the Union of Concerned Scientists also has a hard time hewing to the truth.

The film takes issue with our work on advocating vehicle electrification, and it does so in a vague and misleading way. With a fuzzy, quick-on-to-the-next-cut backdrop of an IRS Form 990 (for a foundation, though I had to rewind the movie four times to freeze it in the place where I could actually tell that), it implies that UCS took money from corporations profiting from EVs, without (again) stopping to check the facts, or reaching out to UCS about it. It wouldn’t have been hard, either way, to discover that UCS doesn’t take corporate money at all.

As an organization, we do fully support efforts to electrify vehicles. And we do that solely because we’ve found (remember research?) that they’re an effective way to reduce oil use and to cut emissions from transportation, which is now the US’s largest source of CO2 emissions. If you understand the science behind EVs and the power grid (see bullet #4 in the previous section), you’ll understand why transportation is a big focus of our climate work.

It gets worse

The film’s factual problems on clean energy and clean transportation should be enough to sink it, but the film moves into even darker territory. The most troubling part of the documentary is its conclusion that people are the problem.

That’s a notion that UCS—which believes in putting science to work to build a safer, healthier world for everyone—firmly rejects as simplistic and dangerous. It’s a small step from “people are the problem” to “some people are a problem,” the all-too-common tool of repressive governments, nationalist movements, and others to target and harm racial, ethnic, or religious groups.

Leah Stokes, a professor at UC Santa Barbara, eloquently addressed this part of the film this way:

…the film Moore backed concludes that population control, not clean energy, is the answer. This is a highly questionable solution, which has more in common with anti-immigration hate groups than the progressive movement.

The fact is that wealthy people in the developed world have the largest environmental footprints—and they also have the lowest birthrates. When this message is promoted, it’s implying that poor people of color should have fewer children.

Not to mention the fact that pushing population control is completely disrespectful of women’s reproductive autonomy. Notably, almost all the “experts” featured in the film are white men.

(For an even harder-hitting critique along these lines, check out the review by Brian Kahn of Earther, who suggests that the movie has “got a bit more than a whiff of eugenics and ecofascism.”)

The way forward is up, not down

There’s plenty more not to like about the film, including its attacks on people and organizations that have been incredible forces for positive change in clean energy and beyond.

Overall, the kinds of arguments Moore and these filmmakers are advancing in “Planet of the Humans” are at best counterproductive to real efforts to build a sustainable world. The film’s arguments around population are not just scientifically dubious but morally questionable, and vulnerable to bad-faith exploitation.

And tearing down strategies to build a more sustainable economy is a huge win for the fossil fuel industry and its political allies. Anti-clean energy forces have gleefully embraced the new movie. They would, since they use similar strategies to promote a sense of futility and despair, and to block action that threatens their power.

The facts, though, come through in so many other venues, even at a time like this. In the power sector, where I spend my time, wind supplies more than 7% of US electricity, and keeps growing. Solar power now graces fields, deserts, and the roofs of more than 2 million US homes and businesses, and is getting ever more efficient, less expensive, and more resilient. Renewables overall were on track to hit 20% of US electricity supply this year. And yes, all of it is really crowding out fossil fuels, despite what certain films may try to tell you.

And people everywhere are mobilizing to push the rest to be a part of the solution to climate change and other environmental ills.

As we mark the 50th Earth Day, even as we renew our commitment to improving our air, water, land, and climate—for humanity and the many species we share this globe with—all that progress deserves to be a strong focus of attention.

About the author

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John Rogers is energy campaign analytic lead at the Union of Concerned Scientists with expertise in clean energy technologies and policies and a focus on solar, wind, and natural gas. He co-managed the UCS-led Energy and Water in a Warming World Initiative, a multi-year program aimed at raising awareness of the energy-water connection, particularly in the context of climate change, and motivating and informing effective low-carbon and low-water energy solutions.