Why "Planet of the Humans," Michael Moore’s new film about green energy, is so controversial

The documentary, directed by Jeff Gibbs and produced by Moore, is streaming free on YouTube now

By Sophia A. McClennen

Contributing Writer

Published May 1, 2020 6:00PM (EDT)

Planet Of The Humans poster | Michael Moore (Ozzie Zehner/AP Photo/Evan Agostini/Invision/Salon)
Planet Of The Humans poster | Michael Moore (Ozzie Zehner/AP Photo/Evan Agostini/Invision/Salon)

Michael Moore has a long history of releasing documentaries that ask tough questions in challenging times. In fact, as evidenced by films like "Bowling for Columbine" and "Fahrenheit 9/11," it would be fair to say that his signature move is shaking up the status quo, skewering sacred cows and asking his audience to confront what he calls "the awful truth."

Moore is also a trailblazer when it comes to finding creative ways to capture the attention of his audience. He literally revolutionized the documentary form, transforming it from a genre that only intellectuals and schoolkids watched to a mainstay of entertainment media. He also renovated the format of the increasingly popular genre of satirical investigative news with "TV Nation," which aired on BBC from 1994-1995.

So, it shouldn't shock us that in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic he decided to drop a myth-shattering film about the fragile future of human life for free on YouTube. Yet, as with all Michael Moore projects, it turns out that he still offers us a lot of surprises.

On April 21, Moore presented "Planet of the Humans," a documentary executive produced by Moore and directed by his longtime collaborator Jeff Gibbs. "Planet of the Humans" is a bold film that argues that human beings are losing the fight to stop climate change because they are following the wrong leaders. Researched for over a decade and originally slated to hit festivals this spring, the film was in a holding pattern due to the pandemic until Moore and Gibbs realized that it had an uncanny timeliness that demanded a creative and immediate release. So, they made it available for free on YouTube.

Opening with Gibbs in voice over, the films asks: How long do you think we humans have? As it cuts to a series of on-the-street interview replies, most of which are glib or unaware, the pandemic-stricken viewer can't help but feel an eerie sense of doom. 

"Planet of the Humans" may be Moore's most provocative project yet, because the film questions the flawed thinking and self-congratulatory activism of the environmentalist left rather than the usual targets of right-wing corruption. It has already sparked controversy, especially among a number of high-profile climate activists like Josh Fox, director of "Gasland," and Bill McKibben, who comes under tough scrutiny. Critics suggest that some of the data cited in the film is outdated and comes too close to parroting pro-fossil fuel positions.

But many critiques avoid engaging with the core issues raised in the film — a sign that the film has indeed struck a nerve in the green movement. While Moore has been called on to "retract" the film, there is no sign that there are any plans to do so, especially now that PEN America has written a statement suggesting that pulling the film would be censorship.

Those of us familiar with Moore's work know that he refuses to shy away from controversial views if those views ask his audience to rethink paradigms, reassess the status quo, and reframe the narrative.

Here are five claims from "Planet of the Humans" that challenge widely-accepted narratives about green energy. 

1. Renewable energy is not exactly renewable.

In one pivotal scene, Ozzie Zehner, author of "Green Illusions" and a producer on the film, claims that much renewable energy relies on "some of the most toxic and industrial processes that we've ever created." Among the examples: solar panels are made from mined quartz and coal rather than sand, electric cars can get much of their power off of the non-renewable energy grid, and that wind power requires a significant amount of fossil-fuel energy.

There are two core arguments made in the film that suggest that faith in "renewable" energy is more a game of pretend than a real substitute for fossil fuel sources. First, the amount of fossil fuel energy required to produce alternative energy is examined, both in the actual production of renewable energy sources like solar panels, electric cars, and wind turbines, but also in the renewable energy process itself.

The second argument is that renewable energy itself damages the climate.  Zehner says the public is led to believe that renewable energy is "environmentally benign" and that's often not true. Biomass energy, which is often touted as a much better choice than fossil fuels, is simply another word for deforestation and burning it releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Wind energy can lead to mountaintop removal. The construction of solar panels requires the burning of quartz and coal which also releases carbon dioxide into the air. Batteries increase the carbon footprint. Solar panels degrade over time and can become a waste management issue. Tesla's electric cars use lithium, which relies on toxic mining, and aluminum, which uses eight times more energy than steel. Solar arrays require forests to be chopped down and Joshua Trees in the desert to be wiped out.

The film asks why we have been sold a version of these "renewable" energy sources that hides the real ways that they also hurt the climate. As one climate activist interviewed in the film puts it, "We shouldn't replace one terrible way of getting energy with another terrible way of getting energy." While critics might dispute some of the facts and figures in the film, what isn't being discussed is the fact that most energy consumers don't realize the complex ways that so-called renewable energy has been developed with a co-dependency on non-renewables.

2. Many green movement leaders are actually part of a corporate-influenced elite.

The film features a number of high-profile green energy leaders, among them Bill McKibben, Al Gore, Robert F. Kennedy and the Sierra Club. It then digs into their various networks and sources of support to show how these leaders have been compromised by corporate influence.

Among those examined is The Sierra Club, which the film argues promotes natural gas and takes contributions from Jeremy Grantham, a titan in timber investments. In another example Gibbs confronts Kennedy on biomass, to which Kennedy replies that the good news about renewables is that you "don't have to pick a favorite." When McKibben is asked the same question, he avoids it. In another scene, McKibben sidesteps questions about the sources of his funding. In scene after scene, Gibbs reveals that many of the icons of the green energy movement have ties to the logging industry, fossil fuel companies, and other corporate sponsors who are anything but green in mission. To drive home the point Gibbs underscores a series of sponsors for Earth Day that include, among others, Toyota and Caterpillar.

When Gibbs makes the rounds at a green energy event, there is only one high-profile green energy activist, Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva, willing to speak out against biomass and biofuels — the burning of trees and crops for energy.

At the heart of this critique is the notion that the green movement has become steeped in hypocrisy. For example, Gibbs shows how green energy festivals will often have a prominent display of a solar array, only to hide the reality that they are actually plugged into the fossil fuel grid.

This all leads Gibbs to ask what these leaders were hiding and why. "What if they had become misguided?" he asks. "What if they have made some kind of deal they shouldn't have made?" How did green energy leadership transform, the film asks, from those who resisted capitalism to those who collaborated with it?

3. Corporate capitalism has taken over green energy.

We've heard of greenwashing — efforts by corporations to give a false sense of being environmentally sound — but what "Planet of the Humans" uncovers goes far deeper than that. The film explains that corporate capitalism doesn't just greenwash; it actually profits from its deep ties to so-called green energy.  

Gibbs drives home the point that much of what drives green energy today is tied to a profit motive: "The only reason we had been force fed the story 'climate change plus renewables equals we're saved' is because billionaires, bankers and corporations profit from it."

Depicted in the film are a range of ways The Koch Brothers profit from green energy. For example, the mirrors that were made to support the Ivanpah Solar grid came from a Koch Brothers-owned company. They also build the plants that produce polysilicon for solar cells. According to the film, the Koch Brothers are likely the largest recipient of green energy biomass subsidies in the United States.  In 2013, Business Insider calculated that they received $73.1 million in state and local subsidies. And Yasha Levine tracked $1 billion in subsidies for their biofuels division in 2011 alone.

As if the Koch Brothers profiting from green energy weren't disturbing enough, "Planet of the Humans" then runs down the slimy ties between Wall Street and green energy advocates. We see shots of Goldman Sachs execs explaining how to turn forests into profits; we learn that Sierra Club partners with Aspiration Funds, which despite its green projects also includes a number that profit from the destruction of the planet. And we see Al Gore team up with former Goldman Sachs asset manager David Blood, touting the idea that capitalism gives people an incentive to do "their best."

McKibben promotes divesting from fossil fuels and investing in green options, like Green Century Funds. But the film reports that less than 1 percent of their stock is invested in solar and wind energy.

The film argues that even left-leaning, pro-planet activists can become elitist oligarchs shilling for corporate capital. Underscoring that these developments are anything but subtle, Gibbs remarks to viewers that "the takeover of the environmental movement by capitalism is now complete."

4. The manufactured faith in renewable energy has distracted us from considering ways to reduce consumption.

"Planet of the Humans" asks why the environmental movement lost sight of the basic need to reduce human energy consumption as a core mission. If renewable energy is not so renewable after all, then how did it come to dominate energy activism? "The reason why we are not talking about population, consumption, and the suicide of economic growth," Gibbs says, "is that it would be bad for business, especially for the cancerous form of capitalism that rules the world now hiding under a cover of green."

Techno-fixes create an illusion of helping the planet when all they do is help capitalism generate more profit, the film argues. This green illusion, as Zehner puts it, has allowed climate-concerned citizens to think that green energy is a solution. If they support it, they feel "good" and they don't have to change their patterns of consumption.

It's a basic lesson in capitalist ideology: Consumers are led to believe that their consumption doesn't do any damage. The film argues that this artifice of a "safe" way to get energy has distracted the public from a much-needed conversation about how to reduce the energy demands of the population.

Gibbs explains that at one point the mantra of climate activism was "reduce, reuse, recycle." Yet, the idea of reducing and reusing has been sidelined as capitalism wormed its way into the green movement and convinced everyone that renewables were the answer.

5. Why can't we talk about constructively about how to reduce human footprint?

Perhaps one of the most sensitive topics raised in the film is the question of what to do about the rise in population growth and the increase in energy demands. "Planet of the Humans" makes a bold claim — that the only way to take seriously the human toll on the planet is to talk about what humans do to it.

My colleague, Penn State Anthropology professor Nina Jablonksi, who is interviewed in the film, suggests that "population growth" is the elephant in the room that few climate activists are willing to address. Then she adds that "we have to have our ability to consume reigned in, because we are not good at reigning them if there are seemingly unrestrained resources" or close to it. As long as humans believe that they have unconstrained resources, i.e. that their energy needs can be met in renewable and sustainable ways, they will refuse to limit their consumption demands.

This line of questioning has been sidelined by leftist environmentalists because it has so often been used to advance fascist and racist agendas. But, the film asks, isn't it time to try to broach this topic in a way that highlights the fact that the highest energy demands derive from the privileged West? What if the fascism-consumption fallacy has allowed the left to ignore the need to talk about consumption? And, what if, ignoring that conversation allowed climate-concerned citizens to feel like they were doing good things for the planet when they weren't after all?

At the heart of the film is the notion that the real "inconvenient truth" that Al Gore once referred to in his iconic environmentalist film is actually more like Moore's "awful truth": Maybe we didn't focus on reducing consumption because we didn't want to. Maybe it was easier to believe that renewables would give us all the energy we wanted without asking us to change. Or, maybe we didn't know that renewables weren't the energy saviors we thought they were. After watching this film, you won't be able to think about the human toll on the planet in the same way again.

Clearly "Planet of the Humans" has struck a nerve. In its first week it had been seen over four million times, attacked by calls to have it censored, and lauded as a much-needed intervention into the energy debate.  There is no question that, in the spirit of Moore's confrontational, provocative, socially committed, progressive style, "Planet of the Humans" is a game-changer designed to spark an intense and meaningful debate over an urgent issue. It may well be that the pandemic has created the ideal context for viewers to consider that the only way to save the planet and to support human life is to change the way we live.



By Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book is "Trump Was a Joke: How Satire Made Sense of a President Who Didn't."

MORE FROM Sophia A. McClennen

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Climate Crisis Commentary Documentary Green Energy Michael Moore Planet Of The Humans Youtube