Monday, May 4, 2020


Over the last few days, various people kept messaging me - have you seen the Michael Moore Documentary 'Planet of the Humans'? It is shocking, depressing, a must-see, etc., etc., etc.

Reading about the documentary, I had got an impression that it is an American documentary about American energy scene. When it was released on the Earth Day, a lot of criticism started appearing from scientists and environmental activists in the USA. It was also quite weird to see that climate denier and white supremacist website and twitter feeds were going all gung ho about Michael Moore! Having read his book 'Stupid White Men', that was the most shocking thing for me! But it was equally surprising to see the documentary being paid a lot of positive attention by Indian environmentalists! I had not expected it to make much of a ripple here at all!

Anyway, the long and short of it is that curiosity finally drove me to watch the documentary, and I would like to share some thoughts on it. 

My recommendation: You would be better off watching the classic 1968 movie 'Planet of The Apes' than this documentary! 

Closing Scene of the Movie 'Planet of The Apes' (1968)

There was not a single thing in the entire documentary that I had not heard before, from various people in various forums. So the whole approach of the narrator - that he is revealing some deep, dark and dirty secrets was laughable.

In the first part of the documentary, the narrator is talking about his own attempts to live off grid, off capitalist market systems, etc., and how hard he tried to embrace renewable energy (may be a decade or more ago? I am not sure that the time line is mentioned, or I may have missed it). He gives a number of examples and quotes a number of people to drive home that:

(a) putting up solar and wind electricity generation systems is costly and material intensive, 

(b) a solar system consumes more energy in its creation than what it will generate over its lifetime, and 

(c) there are inherent limitations to renewables that make it impractical to think of a 100% renewable powered electric grid.

I have been asked about all three things in many of my public talks and here is what I have always answered:

(a) Creating any energy infrastructure is costly and material intensive - coal fired power plants or nuclear power plants do not appear out of thin air! The only way to address this aspect is to reduce our electricity demand, so that less electricity generation infrastructure will serve more people. This can be done in a two-fold manner - one, by actually reducing our energy needs, and two, by improving demand side efficiency. This is and will continue to be work in progress, especially as we transition away from fossil energy. 

(b) Solar systems using more energy to built than they can generate was true till 2010, but not anymore. In fact it is ironical that this documentary has been released in 2020 - the year when it is estimated that the solar industry as a whole will have 'paid back' all the energy that it consumed from its inception, and will from henceforth be net energy positive. Those interested in data can see this publication. Currently it is estimated that a solar photovoltaic cell will pay back its energy cost in about 4 years, and then produce clean and pollution free electricity for about 25 or more years.

(c) Who is insisting that we must have 100% renewable electric grid or nothing?? Even if we have a hybrid grid with a combination of fossil, renewable and nuclear, that is a step in the right direction. Even in fossil fuel based electricity generation, going from a solid fuel like coal to a cleaner burning liquid or gaseous fossil fuel is a step forward. The documentary mentions at several places that in the name of moving away from coal, utilities are going for natural gas, which also is a fossil fuel. But it fails to acknowledge that natural gas is a far cleaner fossil fuel to produce and use than coal. Yes, 100% renewable electric grid is the ultimate goal, and step by step we are approaching it globally, but have not reached it as yet. In the meanwhile, the grid will continue to be a hybrid. I don't see why this is a problem! 

Another aspect which most of us working in the decentralised renewable energy sector have been shouting about for years - renewables give us the unique opportunity of creating decentralised systems customised to local needs. This in itself provides a far better energy service to the end user and is a more environment friendly approach (e.g., roof top solar systems do not have any land footprint) than building a MW or GW scale centralised coal, or natural gas, or nuclear, or solar or wind energy system.

The intermittent nature of renewables can be overcome by using hybrids of multiple decentralised renewable energy systems, and also by creating a mega network of a large number of small smart grids, so that surplus energy generated in one part of a country or a continent or the planet can be passed on to where it is required.

It is ridiculous to expect that nobody should step out and start using any technology unless it is perfected! It is only when people start using a new concept or a product, that its limitations and further potential gets highlighted, and money becomes available for further R&D because someone is already making money from whatever improvements the new concept or product is able to deliver.

And that brings me to another outdated idea pushed throughout the documentary - that it is wrong/unethical/amoral for businesses to make money from renewable energy systems and for environmental movement to take funding from big businesses. My question is why is this wrong?? Projecting businesses and profit making as anti-environment villains is in itself a fallacy, and has kept the green movement out of the mainstream for decades. Yes, do bash any business that is indulging in exploitation and illegal activities, and yes, also bash any activists who are spreading lies to protect their funders. These are unethical practices and can even be challenged in the courts of law. But to consider the entire business community as some evil alien force out to destroy humanity has not solved any problems before, and is not likely to work now or in the future. We have to acknowledge that businesses are human creations, and as human understanding of the world around us grows, so will the businesses evolve! The values and processes followed by today's businesses are far different from the values and processes followed by businesses in the 19th century. People learn and change, and change the way they run businesses. This is what 'progress' is all about!

And finally, I come to the one and only factual segment in the documentary - large scale biomass based energy generation being labelled as 'renewable' is wrong and distructive to the environment. 

But what is new and not known about this?? Everyone working in the sector of decentralised biomass and biogas energy in India and other developing countries has been crying hoarse about this for years! Various organisations working in the sector of waste management have been presenting anti-incineration arguments year after year, to various government agencies, and helplessly seeing more and more 'waste to energy' plants coming up all over India. But most people seem to be more moved by the scenes of waste incineration and wood chip based power generation in rural USA rather than by the pleas that many of us have been making to garner support for decentralised renewables in general, and decentralised biomass energy in particular, for more than a decade! 

Furthermore, the documentary tends to advance a simplistic half-true outlook of "biomass is dirtier than coal" to replace the simplistic half-truth "biomass is renewable and therefore all biomass energy is all good" narrative, which is equally damaging to the sector.

Throwing out the outdated material, and focusing only on the contemporary valid issues, the documentary could have been a great platform to talk about the virtues of decentralisation and the need to overhaul the entire energy supply chain from supply to use, rather than just switching from coal to something else at the point of generation. But it just poses questions that have already been answered by many people many times, and then goes on to present a wrong answer as if it is some profound truth discovered by the narrator after meditating under a bodhi tree!

After 'throwing limelight' on specific challenges of the renewables and environmental movements in the USA, the apparent problem according to the makers of the documentary is global population! Some of the people interviewed do make a passing reference to consumption also, but it is implied that the consumption is high because the population is high. The very name and the opening and closing of the documentary alludes to this focus on global human population. This is totally wrong, misleading, and a typical White American myth from a typical white American standpoint that everything that happens in the USA is shaping the entire world! It is no wonder therefore that White American supremacist climate deniers are promoting the documentary! 

There is now ample quantitative data published through global studies that the driver of climate change and all other global environmental stresses is consumption patterns of the wealthy in the western world than the total number of people on the planet. For example, check out the latest study referred in this report.

Population is basically a solved issue, now we need to urgently focus on consumption of the wealthy. I have addressed the myth about population many times before! Here is one blog entry from five years ago. And those who can read Marathi, here is a relatively recent article written by me on the same topic. 

So there. You want to know what I think about the 'Planet of The Humans'? This is it - the documentary is mostly a Cinematic Planet of Outdated Half Truths. 

Priyadarshini Karve
Samuchit Enviro Tech


Samuchit Enviro Tech. 

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