Decarbonization and its Discontents

Michael Moore's "Planet of the Humans" Shows Why Solving Climate Will Be Neither Small nor Beautiful

By now, there is not that much more to say about the many flaws of Michael Moore’s Planet of the Humans that hasn’t already been said. It traffics in the worst sort of apocalyptic neo-Malthusian nihilism, summarily dismissing all technological efforts to address climate change as corporate greenwashing and advocating instead for population control and degrowth of an economy that is already in freefall.

The problems continue with the film’s breezy attacks on renewable energy. It’s not so much that they are completely wrong. There are real limitations to renewable energy at scale associated with intermittency and energy density, as well as potential land use and ecological impacts that many advocates have been reluctant to acknowledge.

But the filmmakers are lazy, conflating bioenergy with wind and solar and claims that 100 percent wind, water, and solar energy are possible with any possibility that wind, solar, geothermal, and hydroelectric power might play a meaningful role at all in efforts to decarbonize the global economy.

Still, there is more than a bit of irony in both the outrage of many climate advocates and the positive reviews coming from some ecomodernists. The latter, including my former colleague Michael Shellenberger, are so single-mindedly pro-nuclear and anti-renewables that they have cheered the movie’s cherry-picking, exaggerations, and conspiracies while largely excusing its deep Malthusianism.

In fact, the treatment of renewables is a mirror image of the misinformation that the anti-nuclear movement has trafficked in for decades. And while the turnabout may be fair play, it does little to advance the nuclear cause. The film rejects nuclear as well as renewables, dismissing technological solutions to our environmental challenges altogether in favor of calls for population control and downsizing the economy that are fundamentally antithetical to ecomodernism.

The treatment of renewables is a mirror image of the misinformation that the anti-nuclear movement has trafficked in for decades.

If the short-sighted tribalism of some nuclear advocates is a bad look, it is at least an outlier. Most prominent ecomodernists have rightly panned the film and its central claims about green technology, the economy, and population. They point out that clean energy — nuclear and renewables — can help build a prosperous future while avoiding the worst impacts of climate change.

The problem for progressive environmental advocates runs deeper. The film is, in many ways, a natural evolution of arguments that have long been made by prominent leaders of the environmental movement, who continue to insist that we can cheaply and easily power the entire world, or something close to that, with wind, water, and solar energy alone. Sooner or later, someone like Michael Moore, a progressive icon, if an iconoclastic one, was going to point out that doing so at the sorts of scales that would much matter for fighting climate change was going to have substantial environmental consequences.

Many complain that Moore has focused so much on biomass and biofuels, when the main event is wind and solar. But renewable energy, as a cognitive category, was invented by environmental advocates and has been used to powerful effect. Michael Moore didn’t come up with a category of things that included corn, tree plantations, tropical forests, silica, rare earth minerals, and steel. Nor did he suggest that all these things, in contrast to the stuff of other energy sources, are natural, inexhaustible, and operate in harmony with nature. Environmentalists did all that.

In the environmental imaginary, the planet is saved by tidy suburban homes clad fashionably with solar panels and windmills turning languidly amidst amber fields of grain, a techno-utopia, as Will Boisvert memorably observed, where clean energy technology sits “weightlessly on the land.” Because nobody owns the sun or the wind, in this utopian telling distributed and decentralized renewable energy systems will make possible an egalitarian energy democracy in which the people are liberated from corporate overlords and government technocrats alike.

In reality, getting lots of energy from wind and solar energy requires the same sorts of large-scale industrialized landscapes that environmentalists otherwise decry. Big wind and big solar are big business, and the vast majority of wind and solar installed is utility-scale rather than local and distributed. A movement that has insisted that climate change is, at bottom, a corporate conspiracy was always going to have a hard time explaining to many of its adherents why addressing climate change was going to require putting the global energy economy in the hands of a different group of large corporations and letting them despoil beautiful places. Demands to bring an end to “extractivism” were surely going to run headlong into the reality that wind and solar energy are highly extractive, dependent upon the mining and processing of highly toxic rare earth minerals in addition to all the steel and silica they require — even if their damages to society are smaller than the fossil fuels they are replacing.

Similarly, a multi-billion dollar movement that has been quick to brand its opponents as corporate shills was sooner or later going to have to explain its own connections to both the renewable energy industry and the enormous amounts of fossil wealth that its donors have channeled to environmental groups through philanthropies like the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation.

My point is not that climate advocates have gotten what’s coming to them. Nor is it that renewables advocates have gotten hoisted on their own small-is-beautiful petard. Rather, it is that any remotely plausible path to deep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions was always going to require large-scale energy development and was going to have significant ecological consequences.

In a capitalist economy, big corporations were going to do most of the heavy lifting and someone was going to get rich doing it. Or, in the post-blockadia fantasia of some, where capitalism has been vanquished in favor of some ostensibly more public-minded system, perhaps state-owned enterprises. Anyone who imagines that the latter would manage to build a modern low-carbon energy system that was not centralized, large-scale, and ecologically impactful needs to familiarize themselves with the abysmal track record of socialist economies on environmental problems of all sorts.

Any remotely plausible path to deep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions was always going to require large-scale energy development.

In this regard, the hegemony within the contemporary environmental movement of progressive politics and egalitarian culture has had consequences that go well beyond the movement’s failure to sell its agenda to the not-insubstantial cohort of Americans who share neither its politics nor its values. It has created an insular culture that has become expert at telling itself that there is nothing wrong with its agenda and approach to politics that can’t be laid at the feet of profit-hungry fossil fuel companies and solved with more protest, marching, and grassroots mobilization.

But sooner or later, you need to start building things. Big things. And those things will have impacts — on people and places and wildlife — that can’t be hidden away behind all those distributed solar home systems. Environmental advocates have insisted for decades that anyone suggesting these sorts of trade-offs was a shill, a sellout, or a disinformer. So is it really a surprise that when those trade-offs materialize, many concerned environmentalists become disillusioned and look for someone to blame?

Many critics have complained that Moore and the film’s director, Jeff Gibbs, were non-experts who came to the subject as novices and made a hash of it. But why wouldn’t they have? Having been told that catastrophe would ensue if we didn’t shift the entire planet to renewable energy, and only renewable energy, within a decade or so, Moore and Gibbs took a hard look at the current state of renewable energy and concluded that harsher measures would be necessary. Having spent careers promulgating exactly the sort of left-wing critiques that the environmental movement has long promoted, why would anyone be surprised that they took a hard look at the environmental movement and the renewables industry and saw conspiracy?

A number of self-styled “climate hawks” have taken to Twitter recently to proclaim that those of us who view climate change as a wicked problem — meaning that it is a highly uncertain and value-laden issue, a projection screen for all sorts of agendas that is shot through with competing narratives — are essentially climate deniers. There is one singular and true narrative, flowing directly from the studies of climate scientists to the actions that we must take to avoid catastrophe. There is truth and there is falsehood and anyone who ventures between the two can only be acting in bad faith.

The shock and outrage that has been occasioned by Moore’s discomforting documentary should put those claims to rest. As bad as it is, there is a logic to Planet of the Humans’ conclusions that flows directly from many of the environmental movement’s foundational claims. If in fact global catastrophe is likely to ensue should we fail to cut global emissions in half over the next decade, even a cursory look at the progress made to date by wind and solar energy, which still constitute only three percent of global primary energy, would lead one to conclude that draconian measures to cut population and shrink the economy are the only solution. This is an entailment of green claims about the issue, not a contravention of them.

It will likely surprise precisely no one that I think that the environmental community could stand to be a lot less apocalyptic about environmental challenges, a lot more ecumenical about technology, and a lot more generous toward its critics. Ham-fisted and clumsy as it is, Planet of the Humans and the response it has gotten from both anti-environmental audiences and environmental ones, is an object lesson for why that is the case.