[See related interview here.]
If I were to write a documentary exposing the dismal state of recycling in the U.S., I'd be right to point out how much is not being recycled, how polluting recycling can be, and how inadequate it is to try to solve the waste problem. I'd be right to call for more emphasis on reducing and reusing before recycling; however, I'd also be clear that the answer is not to stop recycling and just landfill everything, or worse, incinerate it, then landfill toxic ash.
Planet of the Humans trashes wind, solar, biomass, biofuels, hydrogen, electric cars, and energy storage as if they're all terrible, without offering solutions, and without distinguishing which are inherently bad, and which are generally good and can continue to be improved. It's basically a sales pitch for Ozzie Zehner's 2012 Green Illusions book (which you can find free online here).
Let's be clear.
The film was right to...
- criticize biomass, biofuels, and hydrogen;
- show that wind and solar have some problems, too;
- expose conflicted and clueless environmental groups, and "green" political and business leaders; and
- point to the need to reduce consumption, including by limiting human population.
The film got it wrong about...
- intermittent renewables needing to be backed up by fossil fuels;
- energy storage needing to match generation;
- renewables not replacing fossil fuels;
- renewables using more fossil fuels than they replace;
- ethanol being largely coal-powered;
- implying that there's something wrong with claiming to be 100% renewable while being tied to the electric grid;
- ...and more.
The film missed a lot, too. Notably...
- omitting any mention of systemic solutions;
- some "renewable" sources that are more deserving of critique than wind and solar;
- that nuclear power is not a clean solution, either; and
- that there's a thriving grassroots environmental justice movement that is worth supporting.
Before diving into all the rights, wrongs, and missings, let's quickly point out a few things:
- There are three sectors of energy consumption: electricity, transportation, and heating. The film mostly focuses on electricity, and each sector is handled with a pretty different mix of fuels. See our page on U.S. energy sources for context.
- When discussing solutions, electricity needs should be met first by conservation, then efficiency, then solar, wind, and perhaps some ocean-based solutions once they're ready. A modest amount of energy storage will be needed to balance it all. The transportation and heating fuel sectors need to be solved with conservation and efficiency first and second as well. For transportation, the rest should be electrified as much as possible. Planes and boats will be a challenge, but all land-based transportation needs to run on electricity from wind and solar. For heating, solar thermal, heat pumps, and electrification should meet as much demand as possible. Industrial heating will be a challenge and should mainly be tackled by reducing demand for energy intensive products like paper and cement. No solid fuels should be burned in any case. In overconsuming nations like the U.S., we should be cutting energy and material use at least by half.
- There's a world of difference between energy sources that require fuel and those that do not. Wind, solar, and water power are genuinely renewable, even though they have impacts. Other energy sources -- nuclear, hydrogen, and anything that involves burning anything (fossil fuels, biomass and waste incineration, biofuels) -- require a constant stream of extraction, consumption, pollution, and waste. The machines for every type of power involve mining of materials and various pollution and health impacts. However, for genuine renewables, that damage largely stops once the machine is built, and there isn't ongoing pollution per kilowatt-hour. This is the main dividing line we use to distinguish clean from dirty energy sources.
WHAT THEY GOT RIGHT
Energy Justice Network was featured in the section on biomass, from an interview eight years ago with our former staff member, Josh Schlossberg. Jeff Gibbs was part of our national Anti-Biomass Incineration Campaign, which brought together hundreds of community activists to successfully stop several dozen proposed biomass incinerators between 2006 and 2015.