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Renewable Energy and Environmentalism - must we go back to the Hoax or Science debate?

Why we shouldn't allow Michael Moore’s Planet of the Humans to distract us from finding our critical path forward

I saw Planet of the Humans a few days after its April 21 release, and frankly, didn’t think much of it. It’s just another documentary with subpar debate that misses yet another opportunity to promote meaningful discussion about the future of our planet. The film features footage and information about renewable energy technologies that were clearly outdated. It also made insinuations about the finances and integrity of organizations such as, the Sierra Club and their environmental leaders that were interpretive, at best. Finally, while a few issues raised were worthy of broader current debate - those remained rather superficial (and I will get to them in a moment).

I admit that it wasn’t until the twittersphere exploded with angry rebukes, accusations of racism and the gloating of science deniers that I realized the film hit an emotional cord with many. Unfortunately, it swayed a constructive debate back to the rather infantile debate reminiscent of the climate denialism in American politics. Aren’t we past that phase, even if some still believe the earth is flat? Michael Moore is stuck in the heated debates that forged his persona in the past. Is there any value in us aiding that quest?

Rather than fan the flames with understandable, yet unconstructive counter accusations (see for example George Monbiot’s opinion piece in the Guardian), I would urge fellow members of the community concerned with the environment to suck the air out of this unproductive form of populist debate, recognize it as a miss, and get back to what really matters.

Before I remind us all what really matters, for the sake of those fortunate enough not to spend time watching the film, here are some corrections to its subpar information:

  • Population Growth - while the population is still growing, the evidence is clear that growth is tapering off. What’s more, most of those yet to be born will come from countries with relatively minor impacts on climate. So instead of concerning ourselves with the fact that they will be born at all, lets focus on solutions that ensure their future, with adequate health services, food security, quality education and clean technologies, so that they can grow to become sustainable citizens.

  • The Impact of Renewable Energy Technologies - indeed, solar and wind energy technologies have a carbon footprint. Those of you that have worked with the ECO-OS software know about my insistence that carbon footprints of renewable energy are not calculated as zero. In fact, this has been a quibble of mine with the convention practiced by too many in the environmental movement. BUT, and this is a very big but: the impact of renewable energy is nowhere near the impact of fossil fuels. It is at least an order of magnitude lower, when taking into consideration their full life cycles. While Moore is falsely equating all renewable energy technologies to the controversial Ivanpah solar project or to indefensible biomass burning, claiming renewables are free of emissions and impacts is also disingenuous and we should have stopped marketing renewables as such long ago. Quantification and transparency only strengthen our claims.

  • The Ephemeral Nature of Wind and Solar - here too, Planet of the Humans got the physics right, but the technology - all wrong. Sure - wind and solar radiation fluctuate. But it turns out that solar energy’s day and night cycles actually roughly fit demand for electricity quite well. It also turns out that with good policies, such as tenders for new installations with integrated storage capacity and incentives for demand response, we can operate stable grids with increasingly higher contributions from renewable energy. Declining costs of storage technologies, electrification of mobility and many other advances are providing more and more flexibility as we gain experience operating them. And we’ve only just begun accumulating that knowledge. 

So, if you desire fact-based discussions about the climate crisis and renewable energy technologies, you would definitely spend your time better with the likes of Dave Borlace’s Just Have a Think channel, rather than viewing an unfortunate documentary that will not withstand the test of time. 

The greatest danger I see stemming from getting distracted by outdated, populist films, even if "from one of our own", is that it drags us back to debates that are relevant only to a handful of egos of those involved, without contributing to the fate of humanity. With the help of a young generation led by Greta Thunberg and the action-provoking global campaigns of Extinction Rebellion, 2019 finally steered the environmental debate away from the cognitive fixedness we were stuck in and provided a context and sense of urgency that was simply lacking on the global arena. Now, the COVID-19 crisis informed this newer debate further, by exposing how vulnerable we really are to the slightest twist of "natural fate". So let us all get back to what will really make a difference for our children and address the “ecological pandemics” soon to come. Lets ask ourselves what we’re doing to ensure the 4 most critical components of our response to the Great Disruption rising in clear sight ahead:

  • Resilient infrastructure, logistics and support systems. Are we creating the systems that will allow us to thrive despite the devastating impacts of climate change in the form of widespread droughts and fires, storms and floods, disease and hunger?

  • Early warning systems. Do we have the predictive capabilities that enable us to address climatic, environmental and social disruptions before, rather than after, their collateral damage spirals out of control, impacting our livelihoods and wellbeing, as well as our social and political institutions?

  • Emergency response. Is our emergency response up to par with the challenges, enabling us the rapid deployment of resources that will get us “back to business” even where and when disasters occur?

  • Circular economy. Are we advancing a transition to a circular economy rapidly enough to enable a future where our use of the planet’s resources doesn’t risk the future of humanity and its supporting ecosystems? 

Sure, renewable energy and population growth are certainly important details of these agenda. But both those aspects are actually on the right trajectory, even if not at the pace we could hope for. It's the much tougher discussion about our economic priorities, our perspective of risk and the adequacy of our consumer culture that needs to be addressed head on. We have yet to seriously consider how we reign in consumption of physical goods and ensure the human and ecological impacts are quantitatively factored into every decision we make about the stuff we mindlessly consume. Smart, responsible and equitable consumption, by individuals, organizations, nations and humanity at large, remains the most elusive challenge we must address.The current emotions about an anachronistic film do little to advance this urgent need. Let us put it aside and move on.


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