I am not much of a TV watcher, and even less for watching documentaries, unless they are about cooking, for I make a lot of my own breakfasts, and dinners if I don’t much like what the facility provides (it is usually good). There seemed to be a deal of fuss about ‘Planet of the Humans’, and I thought I should spend hour and forty minutes watching it. The title is a take on ‘Planet of the Apes’ (1968), which I did see long time ago, and have almost completely forgotten. This documentary stars Jeff Gibbs, who is also a director, and he is a composer who seems to be involved in almost all aspects of film and television. He is disarmingly unhandsome, quiet and persistent as an interviewer. Another director is Ozzie Zehner, who is young, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and the author of a 2012 book called Green Illusions, which I don’t know of and haven’t read. The executive producer is Michael Moore, who is better known for ‘Bowling with Columbine’, and has been a star for left-wing environmental enthusiasts because of his films and general attitudes.
What’s he doing here? ‘Planet of the Humans’ is an attack on just about everything dear to the environmental left. You name it, electric vehicles, alternative energy, people like Bill McKibben (who really clobbers himself) and Robert Kennedy Jnr, and the way in which some rich people have bankrolled the environmental movement, converting it to their own ends and fortunes. I am not in any kind of position to comment on that last attack, but since I have been referred to in the past as some kind of shill for the Koch Brothers, of whom I had not heard at the time, it was fascinating to see them skewered, as it were, for being on the other side.
What did I think of the film? Some of the visuals are breath-taking, the musical accompaniment is excellent, and the argument is familiar enough to me. The progress takes us from Gibbs’s youthful fascination with the environment and his growing disillusion as he realised that the much-promoted alternative energy sources not only were inefficient because of intermittency and ‘diffusivity (meaning you need lots of them to get much power) but came with their own costs, which supporters simply dismissed. Some of what he discovered was new to me.
I had no idea, for example, how widespread the burning of biomass had become in the USA. In my innocence I had thought it was only the bizarre business of cutting down logs in the USA, converting them to woodchips, and then sending shiploads of them to Drax in the UK so that they could power the British electricity grid. Not so, there seem to be hundreds of biomass generators in the USA as well. The environmentalists seem to be of the view that biomass is carbon neutral, so it’s OK to burn it. A real study of that process seems to be needed.
In similar strain I thought the Ivanpah solar facility in California had been a great success save for the singed birds. The film provided images of broken mirrors there. I looked Ivanpah up on Wikipedia and it seems that the production of electricity has remained constant. On the other hand, the planet uses a great deal of natural gas to get the boilers going in the morning. Carbon neutral? I dunno.
The general argument of the film is that alternative energy sources, setting aside the whole carbon-neutrality issue, do not and cannot provide reliable grid power. They must be backed up by something that can quickly be switched on and off to deal with intermittency. If there is sudden cloud cover, for example, then the efficiency of the solar power units is instantly reduced. What happens then? Someone somewhere has to keep the supply and voltage levels constant. Large battery sources can deal with very short-term intermittency, but when there is a dull day, or little wind, you need real back-up. Where is that to come from? Why, dear old fossil fuel sources, unless you have some convenient hydroelectric storage (Australia has little of that, Canada a great deal).
Now none of that is at all new. It has been true from the beginning, and I have written about it on a number of occasions. It was not new to Mr Zehner, because he published his book in 2012. What we get, I think, is Mr Gibbs’s slow conversion from a believer into a doubter, illustrated by what Mr Zehner shows him. How long do these mirrors and towers last? Well, they take us to the very first solar power facility in the USA, in California, from memory. There was great excitement about it at the time. It’s gone, completely, utterly gone. The mayor of the ghost town alongside it was morbidly unemotional: there were to be jobs, the place would be a boom town; it didn’t happen.
I am sceptical about documentaries, because they always come with a message. It cannot be otherwise. What you choose to film, and what you choose to edit, and what you finally put together, come from your own imagination and knowledge, and/or what your sponsors want you to present. It is the case here. As I said earlier, I simply have no useful knowledge about the links between billionaires and the environmental movement. It is clear, nonetheless, that Messrs Gibbs and Zehner have strong views, and believe they know what is happening and has happened.
I enjoyed watching it until the end, where the presenter, and I guess the whole team, threw up their hands and said that the problem was us. We humans. There are too many of us, and we can’t live sustainably. This is a theme that goes back to Thomas Malthus, and more recently to the Club of Rome, Paul Ehrlich and others. None of them proposed a kind of ceremonial seppuku, through which, by disembowelling themselves, they showed the way to the rest of us benighted mortals.
I shook my head. They hadn’t mentioned nuclear energy in any sustained way. I never discovered what they meant by ‘sustainable’, a contemporary catch-phrase that seems to mean whatever you want it to mean. I’ve written about that, too. In a piece I wrote some time back I argued that
… the main weapon we use is the price mechanism. As resources diminish, or the supply of something is inadequate for whatever reason, its price goes up. As that happens, people get into substitution, or give up using the resource, while others see an opportunity to develop something that is actually better. It is not obvious what the innovation will be. One example is the replacement of the iron lung by the Salk vaccine in the treatment of poliomyelitis.
My pervading optimism suggests that this is how we will deal with what Gibbs and Zehner worry about. Yes, human numbers have increased a great deal in the past hundred years or so, but they are predicted by the demographers to level out as this century proceeds. And the greater numbers are much better fed and housed, and poverty has declined.
The film? It actually came out last year, and is currently free to download. I think it is worth watching, but you need your sceptical hat on.
ENDNOTE: I have written about some of these issues over the eight years this website has been going, so there are several different essays that refer, for example, to ‘sustainability’. For those interested in such matters, the easiest way to discover what I have written before is to use the magnifying-glass icon at the top right of the masthead, type in the word or words you want to explore, and click on the relevant essay. Yes, I suppose I should do this for you, but I’ve written 958 essays so far, and I would find that a lot of work, for which I don’t have the time.