Long after we have learned to live with the havoc-wreaking coronavirus, hopefully by scientists inventing an effective vaccine, we still will be dealing with the issue of carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gasses. A new documentary, Planet of the Humans, although deeply flawed, raises some interesting questions not only about global warming but about humanity as such. Are people basically good or bad? Is productivity good or bad? Should governments forcibly restrain or reduce not only human industrial activity but the human population?
Documentaries that cherry-pick and distort facts and that play on people’s emotions may be fun to watch, as they churn up strong feelings of moral self-righteousness, but they undermine a reasonable, context-driven approach to the issue at hand. I have long recognized Michael Moore’s genius as a documentarian along with his fast-and-loose approach to the truth. Dave Kopel has taken on Moore’s Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, showing how those films grotesquely distort facts.
When I saw that the new film, Planet of the Humans, is associated with Moore, I immediately grew skeptical. Moore acts as executive producer for the film, which is directed by environmental activist Jeff Gibbs. But, as I learned from a critical discussion by Yaron Brook, the film takes the interesting approach of criticizing “green energy” from an environmentalist perspective. Intrigued, I sat down to watch the film, which is available online at no charge.
I will leave it to others to fact-check specific claims of the film. Wikipedia rounds up relevant criticism, much of it by leading environmentalists such as Bill McKibben. I want to focus on the film’s undisputed facts, broader themes, and philosophic presumptions.
The film makes several claims about “green energy” which cannot be rationally disputed. Both wind and solar energy are intermittent, meaning they don’t work when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine. Therefore they require either a backup system (such as a natural-gas-fired generator) or a storage system.
The construction of solar and wind plants, as well as of battery storage systems, requires an enormous amount of mining and industrial processing, which burns fossil fuels and generates additional greenhouse gases along with other pollutants. Concrete, used in large quantities for wind turbines, notoriously emits large amounts of greenhouse gases. Solar cells and wind turbines eventually wear out and require replacement. And biofuel also emits pollution, often involves land clearing, and usually requires fossil-fuel-driven processing of trees and other burnable matter.
The film certainly calls into question such programs as Colorado’s “renewable energy” mandates.
The film does not do such a good job of carefully weighing the pros and cons of various sorts of alternative energies in terms of costs and net carbon emissions, relative to other power sources. The film doesn’t even mention hydroelectric generation, which in parts of the world is a huge deal. As the Colorado Sun reported last year, “Hydropower provides about 5 percent of all the electricity used in Colorado.” Nor does the film mention the promise of new-generation nuclear power plants to provide the world with low-cost, low-pollution, abundant energy. (I do agree with Gibbs’s criticisms of cronyism and of land clearing arising from insecure property rights, which he wrongly equates with capitalism.)
Gibbs’s agenda, as he makes abundantly clear, is not to cheer on efforts to replace fossil fuels with other sorts of energy production. Rather, it is to reduce human energy use and to reduce the human race itself. If you don’t believe me, skip to minute 46 of the film, where the person interviewed begins, “There are too many human beings.” Near the end of the film, Gibbs remarks, “Our human presence is already far beyond sustainability.”
It is fair to ask: Given this worldview, should people view the coronavirus as a curse or a blessing? A few environmentalists have dared to bring this up. One said, “Coronavirus is Earth’s vaccine. We’re the virus.” Another opined, “This isn’t an apocalypse. It’s an awakening. Mother Earth is finally being given a moment to breathe.” Each of those comments got nearly three-hundred thousand “likes” on Twitter.
Of course hardly any environmentalists are so overtly anti-humanist to openly wish for more people to die from a virus. A few people have wished that. Biologist David Graber infamously said, “Until such time as Homo sapiens should decide to rejoin nature, some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along.” But this is an outlier view.
Critics, then, should not just reply cavalierly, “If you think there are too many people, you go first with the die-off effort.” To steel man the position, those who think human population is too large might argue for forced child limits (think China’s defunct One Child Policy) or for policies that “nudge” people toward having fewer children, as by making children more of a tax burden. Although the position is a bit paradoxical, a person can coherently believe that people alive today should be protected but that future population should decline with lower birth rates.
As a practical matter, global population probably won’t keep growing at a high rate anyway. Our World in Data notes that “since the 1960s the growth rate has been falling.” The UN predicts that global population, today at 7.8 billion, may peak at around 11 billion people by century’s end.
Still, population growth, even if it slows, represents a huge problem for people with Gibbs’s beliefs. If massively too many people consume massively too many resources, but “green energy” is not the answer, then what is the answer? Gibbs says little on this point. He vaguely says, “Less must be the new more.”
Obviously Gibbs means much, much less: Less energy use, less mining, less industrial activity of all sorts. Gibbs is not happy merely with the increased industrial efficiency that has actually driven down our use of various resources, as Andrew McAfee documents in his book “More from Less,” subtitled “the surprising story of how we learned to prosper using fewer resources.” Gibbs isn’t looking for such marginal improvements; he’s looking to fundamentally alter our way of living. Practically speaking, what he’s calling for is mass impoverishment.
I was struck by Gibb’s reaction to the “hockey stick” graph of human population showing the dramatic growth of the past three centuries. We’ve grown from 600 million people in 1700 to 7.8 billion people now. That is simply extraordinary, and, for any humanist, something to celebrate. Gibbs looks at the explosion of human population, and the related explosion of wealth, and says, “That is the most terrifying realization I have ever had.”
But Gibbs is just another modern Malthus. His basic mistake is to think that the fundamental issue is “finite resources,” whereas the fundamental issue really is the capacity of human beings to invent their way out of problems, starting with the problem of living in hostile nature.
Gibbs believes he is witnessing a human-caused “apocalypse,” but, historically, creative people have always proved such doomsayers wrong. Producers met fears of “peak oil” with hydraulic fracturing, which massively expanded known oil and gas reserves; scientists and farmers met fears of mass starvation with advances in agriculture and fertilizers.
Ironically, the largest impediment to abundant, carbon-free energy through new-generation nuclear power plants is the environmentalist movement. We have the know-how to solve our current environmental problems, and I remain confident that eventually we will do so despite the political opposition.
Gibbs titled his film “Planet of the Humans” because he sees expansive and prosperous human civilization as a bad thing. In his worldview, people are the problem. But any person who values living and who looks forward with optimism to a future of humans progressively improving our condition and eventually expanding into the solar system will celebrate our planet of humans.