By Michael Shellenberger
Over the last 10 years, everyone from celebrity influencers including Elon Musk, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Al Gore, to major technology brands including Apple, have repeatedly claimed that renewables like solar panels and wind farms are less polluting than fossil fuels.
But a new documentary, “Planet of the Humans,” being released free to the public on YouTube today, the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day, reveals that industrial wind farms, solar farms, biomass, and biofuels are wrecking natural environments.
“Planet of the Humans was produced by Oscar-winning filmmaker Michael Moore. “I assumed solar panels would last forever,” Moore told Reuters. “I didn’t know what went into the making of them.”
The film shows both abandoned industrial wind and solar farms and new ones being built — but after cutting down forests. “It suddenly dawned on me what we were looking at was a solar dead zone,” says filmmaker Jeff Gibbs, staring at a former solar farm in California. “I learned that the solar panels don’t last.”
Like many environmental documentaries, “Planet of Humans” endorses debunked Malthusian ideas that the world is running out of energy. “We have to have our ability to consume reigned in,” says a well-coiffed environmental leader. “Without some major die-off of the human population there is no turning back,” says a scientist.
In truth, humankind has never been at risk of running out of energy. There has always been enough fossil fuels to power human civilization for hundreds and perhaps thousands of years, and nuclear energy is effectively infinite.
But the apocalyptic rhetoric detracts little from the heart of the documentary, which exposes the complicity of climate activists including Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and Sierra Club’s Executive Director, in promoting pollution-intensive biomass energies, as well as natural gas.
The film unearths a great deal of information I had never seen before. It shows Apple’s head of sustainability, former EPA head Lisa Jackson, claiming on-stage at an Apple event, “We now run Apple on 100% renewable energy,” to loud applause.
But Gibbs interviews a scientist who researched corporate renewables programs who said, “I haven’t found a single entity anywhere in the world running on 100% solar and wind alone.” The film shows a forest being cut down to build an Apple solar farm.
After Earth Day Founder Denis Hayes claims at a 2015 Earth Day concert that the event was being powered by solar, Gibbs goes behind the stage to find out the truth. “The concert is run by a diesel generation system,” the solar vendor said. “That right there could run a toaster,” said another vendor.
The film also debunks the claim made by Elon Musk that his “Gigafactory” to make batteries is powered by renewables. In fact, it is hooked up to the electric grid.
“Some solar panels are built to only last 10 years,” said a man selling materials for solar manufacturing at a corporate expo. “It’s not like you get this magic free energy. I don’t know that it’s the solution and here I am selling the materials that go in photovoltaics.”
“What powers a learning community?” said McKibben at the unveiling of a wood-burning power plant at Middlebury College in Vermont. “As of this afternoon, the easy answer to this is wood chips. It’s incredibly beautiful to look at the bunker of wood chips. Anything that burns we can throw in there! This shows that this could happen everywhere, should happen everywhere, and must happen everywhere!”
The film reveals that McKibben and Sierra Club supported a Michigan ballot initiative that would have required the state get 25% of its electricity from renewables by 2025, and that the initiative was backed by biomass industrial interests, and that efforts to build a biomass plant at Michigan State University were hotly opposed by climate activists — including ones from 350.org.
In reality, scientists have for over a decade raised the alarm about biomass and biofuels causing rainforest destruction around the world including Brazil and Malaysia, and have documented that, when one takes into account their landscape impacts, the fuels produce significantly higher carbon emissions than oil and gas and may produce more than coal.
The film shows Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla telling Leslie Stahl of “60 Minutes” that his biofuels plant made “Clean green gasoline.” After Stahl asked what the downside was, Khosla said, “There is no downside.”
One year later, Khosla’s company filed for bankruptcy and defaulted on a $75 million loan it received from the state of Mississippi. It produced biofuels for $5 to $10 a gallon — “even without counting the cost of building the plant,” noted Washington Post’s Steve Mufson in 2014. Two earlier Khosla biofuel ventures had already gone bankrupt after receiving hundreds of millions of federal government subsidies. Shareholders sued Khosla’s company for fraud.
“Planet of the Humans” notes that Al Gore personally accepted fossil fuel money in 2013 when he and a co-owner sold Current TV to Al Jazeera, which is state-funded by Qatar, the gas-exporting nation whose citizens have the largest per capita carbon footprint in the world.
One year earlier, Gore had said the goal of “reducing our dependence on expensive dirty oil” was “to save the future of civilization.”
The film shows Jon Stewart, the host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” asking Gore, “You couldn’t find, for your business, a more sustainable choice?”
“What is not sustainable about it?” responded Gore.
“Because it is backed by fossil fuel money?” said Stewart
As part of the agreement, Gore reportedly received $100 million. Climate activists weren’t bothered by it. “I don’t think the community is too upset,” a politically active environmentalist told The Washington Post about Gore’s deal with Qatar. “My personal sense is he got a good deal.”
Gore’s business partner, David Blood, “turns forests into profits,” notes Gibbs.
The main problem with biofuels—the land required—stems from their low power density. If the United States were to replace all of its gasoline with corn ethanol, it would need an area 50 percent larger than all of the current U.S. cropland.
Even the most efficient biofuels, like those made from soybeans, require 450 to 750 times more land than petroleum. The best performing biofuel, sugarcane ethanol, widely used in Brazil, requires 400 times more land to produce the same amount of energy as petroleum.
Publicly, Kennedy, McKibben, and Brune promoted solar panels as an alternative to fossil fuels. “There were days where Germany was generating 80 percent of its power from solar,” said Mckibben. In reality, wind and solar provided just 34 percent of German electricity in 2019, and Germany relies upon burning natural gas, coal, and biogas from corn.
“In the Green Century Fund, recommended by 350.org,” reports Gibbs, “I found less than one percent solar and wind and 99% things like mining, oil and gas infrastructure, a tar sands exploiter, McDonald’s, Archer Daniels… Coca-Cola… and lots of banks, including Black Rock, the largest financer of deforestation on earth.”
“The plants that we are building, the wind plants and solar plants, are gas plants,” Robert F. Kennedy Jr. told oil and gas investors. About another project, Ivanpah, he said, “It’s a turbine that we just take from a gas plant and suspend it from a big scaffolding, a tower and surround it with giant mirrors in the desert.”
Building the Ivanpah solar farm resulted in the deaths of hundreds of old desert tortoises. “Deserts are not dead,” said the filmmaker. “They are in fact full of ancient life.”
The film points to the massive materials requirements of renewables.
Solar panels require sixteen times more materials in the form of cement, glass, concrete, and steel than do nuclear plants, and create three hundred times more waste. “You would have been better off just burning fossil fuels in the first place,” said one expert, “instead of just playing pretend. We’re basically just being fed a lie.”
The man noted that Koch Industries provide many of the materials used to build solar panels and industrial solar farms. “The funny part is that when you criticize solar plants like this you are accused of working for the Koch brothers,” he laughs. “That’s the idiocy. This relies on the most toxic industrial processes we’ve ever created.”
What drives people who believe they want to save the environment into destroying it? The filmmaker hints that the desire for “sustainability” is really a desire for a kind of immortality. “What differentiates people is that we know we’ll die someday,” says a sociologist. “We enveloped ourselves in belief systems and worldviews.”
“People on the left and the right who think we’re going to be able to solar panel ourselves into the future,” he says, “I think that’s delusional.”
The good news, the man says, is that “once you come to terms with death, anything is possible.”