‘Planet of the Humans,’ possibly most bracing environmental documentary ever made, premieres at Traverse City Film Festival
Director Jeff Gibbs argues we’re heading toward ‘total human apocalypse’ and green energy is ‘not going to save us, it’s actually going to kill us faster.’
Films about environmental issues have long been a staple of the documentary form, a genre that in recent years alone has brought us Before the Flood, Chasing Ice, Chasing Coral and, of course, An Inconvenient Truth. But those documentaries arguably pale in importance to Planet of the Humans, which just held its world premiere at the Traverse City Film Festival.
The film directed by Jeff Gibbs, produced by Gibbs and Ozzie Zehner and executive produced by Michael Moore, makes the deeply disturbing case that unless we reverse course, the human species faces ruin.
“The ultimate problem is that there are too many people consuming too much and we don’t even have a word or a name for what this total human apocalypse is called,” Gibbs told me during an interview in Traverse City. “What is the word for a single species that’s overrun an entire planet and is causing mayhem in every direction?”
Gibbs, an environmentalist, film producer and composer who has worked on several of Moore’s documentaries, describes himself as “worried sick” about climate change. But unlike others who focus solely on the danger presented by global warming, Gibbs sees climate change as symptomatic of a larger problem – overpopulation and consumption of Earth’s resources.
“Even if we don’t save the planet,” Gibbs comments, “I’d rather go down knowing the truth about the time we’re in.”
The truth, Gibbs says, is that putative solutions to our global environmental dilemma, such as switching to renewable sources of energy, building more wind farms and electric cars, offer false hope.
“Everywhere I encountered green energy, it wasn’t what it seemed,” he says in voiceover in Planet of the Humans. “I was getting the uneasy feeling that green energy is not going to save us.”
Take energy from wind. Gibbs points out that manufacturing wind turbines necessitates the use of fossil fuels and huge quantities of resources mined from the earth.
“In these wind turbines, there’s up to 800 pounds of copper, there’s 1 to 2 tons of rare earth metals,” he notes.
Not only that, but the lifespan of a typical wind turbine is only 20 years, the film says. And making space for wind farms has meant laying waste to large tracts of land, and even, in some cases “mountaintop removal” (not unlike coal mining companies that have blown the top off of mountains in West Virginia to get at the anthracite).
Electric car manufacturing also relies on fossil fuels and other natural resources, Gibbs and Zehner emphasize.
“The problem is if you have a big box with wheels and you’re going to shove it down the highway at a high speed, that takes a lot of energy. And there’s no way around that. And what electric car proponents have done is they’ve created an illusion that they’ve found some way to do that in a green way, they’ve found a way around the physics, but they haven’t,” insists Zehner, author of Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism. “It’s just that the physics have gotten hidden in other parts of the process. So the emissions aren’t coming out of the tailpipe, they’re evolving in other ways. They’re through the manufacture of the car – like aluminum, for instance, which uses 8 times more energy than steel to produce; the batteries, which also have a tremendous impact [on the environment].”
Zehner adds, “That’s really how all these illusions are created, is that pollution isn’t occurring where we’re used to looking for it. And so we assume that, or we fall for the illusion that it’s actually not polluting.”
The sun is an essentially inexhaustible source of energy, right? True (so long as the sun exists), but harnessing solar power is not as “clean” as some imagine. Planet of the Humans shows how manufacturing solar panels (photovoltaic cells) starts with mining quartz, which causes environmental degradation in itself.
“The initial refining turns quartz into metallurgical-grade silicon, a substance used mostly to harden steel and other metals,” notes IEEE Spectrum, an engineering and applied sciences publication. “That happens in giant furnaces, and keeping them hot takes a lot of energy.”
What powers those furnaces? In some cases, natural gas and coal.
Biomass has been touted as “sustainable” and “carbon neutral” (as the industry-funded website biomass101.org puts it). But harvesting trees to burn as fuel is not the energy solution it’s cracked up to be, Gibbs believes. In one of the film’s distressing sequences 500-year-old yucca trees are chewed to bits to feed a biomass operation.
Biomass satisfies about 5-percent of total U.S. energy consumption, according to a report updated in 2016 by Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Germany, meanwhile, considered a leader in moving toward renewable energy sources, has built “around 700 biomass plants that predominantly burn residual and non-recyclable waste wood to produce power and heat,” according to Clean Energy Wire.
But how are biomass and other ostensibly “clean” power plants built? Using fossil fuels and with materials that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, like concrete, Planet of the Humans states.
Even more importantly, according to the filmmakers, the development of “alternative energy” sources like wind, solar and biomass has not, in fact, led to a reduction in consumption of fossil fuels.
“Building out an electric car and solar and wind infrastructure and the biomass, biofuel infrastructure, is going to run us off the cliff faster,” Gibbs declares. “Because it’s an additional round of mining and destruction that does not replace the one [fossil fuels] that’s already destroying the planet!”
The green energy movement, in fact, has proven counter-productive, Gibbs argues.
“It’s a giant profit center, unfortunately, for environmental groups [that support these ‘green illusions’], for corporations, for the people mining and destroying the planet,” Gibbs maintains. “The people that produce our fossil fuels love [the green energy movement] because it still uses fossil fuels and it’s not a threat to fossil fuels. All the car companies love the electric car.”
In Planet of the Humans, Gibbs aims harsh criticism at supposed environmental stewards, including the Sierra Club. He says they’ve been bought off by corporate interests that have realized there’s lots of money to be made in green energy.
“Environmental groups have been collaborating on the lie of growth by helping us pretend that there will be ‘green growth.’ As if you can have wealth or stuff that doesn’t destroy the planet. News flash: that’s an impossibility of physics and biology,” the director tells me. “There is nothing you will ever have in your life that’s not an extraction from the planet earth. And so we’ve all lost touch with that.”
Even Al Gore has lost touch with that, Gibbs asserts (as have, in his opinion, environmental and global warming activists like Robert Kennedy Jr. and Bill McKibben). In the mid 2000s, the former vice president formed a “sustainably focused” investment group with David Blood, a one-time executive at Goldman Sachs.
“Mr. Gore says sustainable investing, which he defines as ‘improving quality of life without borrowing from the future,’ is the ‘single largest investment opportunity in history,'” according to a 2018 piece in the Financial Times.
But it is borrowing from the future, Gibbs says in his film. From the near future.
“On the surface it looks like we [Gore and prominent environmentalists] are all on the same team,” Gibbs observes. “It slowly gets funneled down to what they’re all profiting from. I hate to be that cynical. Have you ever heard [Gore] talk about, ‘We’ve got to end infinite economic growth’?”
It’s not only opportunists and policy influencers on the left who come in for criticism in Planet of the Humans. Gibbs does not neglect the conservative Koch brothers, who, he maintains, are the largest single beneficiary of government subsidies for green technology. (Koch Industries is also heavily into minerals processing, oil pipelines, pulp and paper manufacturing).
To avoid the potential extinction of the human species, Gibbs believes nothing short of a radical reordering of perspective is needed.
“There are too many people consuming too much for a finite planet to support. Infinite economic growth is suicide,” he remarks. “We must take back the environmental movement from the corporate interests that have taken it over and we must convene and begin to plan how we’re going to humanely, lovingly, sustainably re-vision how we live.”
Gibbs’ prescriptions for an environmental turnaround include curtailing the world’s population, which is approaching 8 billion.
“Why don’t we provide family planning to everyone in the world? That’s not even on the environmental agenda,” he states. “Why aren’t we sharing our resources here with those people that don’t have enough so they don’t have to chop down a tree to live? … We need to change the laws in this country and the world so that corporations are not allowed to be addicted to infinite growth. We run the planet, there’s no reason they should be allowed to do whatever they want.”
The transportation system must be redesigned, Gibbs says, to cut dependence on air and automobile travel. He argues for urgent development of “high speed rail that will get us away from those cars. When are we going to build some ships that we can go across the ocean and not have to fly, that are comfortable and not these cruise ships? Nobody’s even asking the questions, how are we going to do this? So if you were really worried about climate change you’d be demanding that we have an interstate bus system and an interstate rail system that would plummet our carbon footprint, not more individual electric cars.”
Regarding population control, I asked Gibbs if he were not concerned people might accuse him of advocating the killing of 4 or 5 billion people.
“Here’s the answer,” he replied. “By not dealing with this you are going to kill off 4 or 5 billion people. And it’s going to be in somebody who’s now alive’s lifetime. I don’t want to be part of that world and I don’t want to be responsible for abdicating our responsibility. Species collapse – and we’re on the leading edge of that right now – in an uncontrolled collapse the human population could drop to zero… When you start to study what happens when civilizations fall apart, it makes World War II look like a little party. By us avoiding this we are dooming ourselves to that future.”
At a Q&A following the world premiere, Michael Moore, the film’s executive producer, said the filmmaking team has been in discussions that could lead to distribution of the film.
“We’ve talked to sales agents,” Moore noted. “We believe that there will be a tremendous amount of interest in this film… This is going to get distributed. It will be seen. And we need to build that movement. But it’s got to be a true movement of action and not funded by the very people that are destroying the planet.”
Gibbs told me of his hopes for the Planet of the Humans looking ahead.
“I’d like to have millions, tens of millions of people see the film – hundreds of millions,” he commented. “But whatever the future holds I think whether it’s influencing the right thousand people or the right 10 million people, I trust the process so we can keep moving forward.”
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