by Aaron Warner
Michael Moore is no darling of right wing or conservative politics. In fact, he’s likely among the most despised for his persistent attacks on conservatives from his mostly far left stances. Which is why it was pleasantly surprising to see him as the executive producer of a documentary that takes a hard look at the illusion of green energy and calls it out for what it is – a deception which is promulgated by fear and greed.
Planet of the Humans is directed, narrated and starring Jeff Gibbs. Gibbs teamed up with Moore in 2004 for the documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, a highly critical take on the Bush Administration’s equally deceptive pretext for starting a war in Iraq. Gibbs, a son of northern Michigan, is a self-described tree hugger and child of the 60s and 70s. He began his activism early boasting of putting sand into the gas tank of a bulldozer that was mowing down trees in his beloved neighborhood.
The film quickly arrives in Vermont where Gibbs attends a save the planet concert that claims to run 100% on sustainable solar energy. Only, Mother Earth decides to make it rain and a now disenchanted Gibbs discovers the event coordinators had to use a diesel back-up generator to keep the party going.
Gibbs then sets out to investigate the efficacy of transitioning to green energy from nuclear power and fossil fuels like coal and gas. He solicits the input of several experts who, like Gibbs, have become suspicious of the green movement’s claims and ultimate hope of powering the earth through alternative energy sources. A short clip of Al Gore being interviewed with billionaire Richard Branson foreshadows the subtext of the film. When asked if Al Gore is a “prophet” Branson asks “it depends on how you spell profit” resulting in peals of laughter from all three. The moment implicitly begs the question – are we here to save the planet or is there another motivation for going green?
Gibbs’ journey includes environmentalist turned green skeptic Ozzie Zehner who explains some of his findings. Such as, solar is not made from sand, as many have been told, but from melting coal and nickel into silicon metal. It is also not efficient netting some 8% return while also having a short shelf life for its panels, unless you have a US military budget and can afford the high end technology. One such anemic solar set up is in Gibbs’ home of Michigan where a crowd gathers to celebrate the new solar installation they learn will only support ten homes in the city despite taking up nearly a city block.
Neither the math, the geography, the economics nor the immediacy for those wishing to stave off the existential threat are emerging as hopeful. However, since this is a faith movement with its faith ironically in the very cause of the problem – humans – we press on.
Back to Vermont we meet purported green hero Bill McKibben who, like Gore, assumes a role of prophet preaching the end is near if we don’t figure out how to go green. Working with the help of Middlebury College, a galvinized McKibben emerges as the face of a new green energy source – biomass. Led to believe the sustainability of biomass will buffer if not replace the flagging solar and wind sectors Gibbs tags along to ask the pertinent questions. Big name faces from the left such as Obama appointee Van Jones, now of CNN fame, and environmental lawyer turned COVID critic, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., emerge only to stumble over their words as they fail to answer Gibbs’ questions of how will this save us. They don’t know, and neither does the Sierra Club representative they refer Gibbs to. Rather than a solution biomass seems to only add to the collective confusion surrounding the source of our energy salvation.
Diving deeper into the players who purport to lead this green movement Gibbs finds the seemingly strange bedfellows from big business tossing their velvet lined hats into the ring with public declarations of philanthropic offerings aimed at saving the world. Like Branson, other billionaires from Michael Bloomberg to the arch evil Koch brothers to the trillion dollar Black Rock group, invest in Gore’s suggested solutions while positioning themselves as co-champions for saving the planet. The “prophet” motive pun from Branson is easy to see.
In the age of tribalism and anti-heroes Moore and Gibbs can’t seem to stomach playing defense for those seeking to rake in one type of green while selling a dying world on another. Even these humanistic hopefuls won’t tolerate a story built on illusions. Gibbs, jaded from exposing the Jade emperor has no clothes, opines about the fate of a species who kills itself as it attempts to do the opposite.
Earlier in the film he interviews social psychologist Sheldon Solomon who counsels Gibbs to realize the underpinning impetus for going green is a fear of death. Comparing his leftist clan to “the right” who has religion, Gibbs wrestles with the gravity of his desire to save the planet, however his tribe and his politics preclude his ability to borrow any wisdom from his political adversary despite their shared dilemma.
Ironically Gibbs’ view shares nearly everything in common with the religious right in terms of the bigger picture. He agrees that the real problem with humans is humans. Our very nature is rapacious and greedy – low on self-control and high on self-destruction. This is exactly what religious people have been saying since the days of Moses. Furthermore Gibbs has caught on film the deception, hypocrisy and greed innate to mankind even when the stakes are the highest. Sadly, Gibbs fails to see man is incapable of saving himself, even if the climate crisis is real, and that a higher savior is needed if we have any hope of surviving as a species. Perhaps his desperation will lead to a new type of open-mindedness that allows religion to reveal the only savior who can, and already has, overcome the world.
As for Vermont’s McKibben, the sad reality is he too sells himself out to big money along the way. Despite his role as Vermont’s chosen son he cannot escape his own need to fund his cause and, like so many others, gives in to venality and accepts a deal with the devil.
Gibbs and Moore bravely put their own under the microscope and rather than sacrifice truth on the altar of politics they hold their own feet to the fire lest we all burn.
Luckily, biomass is still used to create a book that reveals how we can all escape such a fate.
Categories: Film Review