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Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Review of Planet of the Humans: What They Get Right and the Environmentalists Get Wrong


Planet of the Humans has stirred the resentment of many a climate crusader. Yesterday, the chair of the Sierra Club California Energy and Climate Committee instructed committee members (I am one) not to “watch or promote” Planet of the Humans. Today, climate scientists called for the film’s suppression. Enticed by such parental warnings, like an aroused teenager, I just had to watch it.

The film, produced by left-wing film idol Michael Moore, appears to expose and debunk current environmental initiatives for “100% renewable cities” in the United States. Sierra Club activists view the film as undermining climate action on Earth Day. But as the creator of Community Choice Aggregation, which accounts for 67 of 71 U.S. cities that have actually achieved 100% renewable electricity as of 2020, I feel compelled to speak up.

There is some truth to this film, hidden behind a multitude of glaring falsehoods. It is important to explore what the film gets right. As climate activists in the era of climate disruption, we must be clear about what our carbon reduction polices are actually going to achieve, as we push local communities around the world to implement Green New Deal programs, Paris Agreement targets, climate mobilizations, and renewable energy initiatives. Let us not get caught up, after all, in lies created not by environmentalists, but by utilities and governments that have propagated them. They are not our lies, and therefore we need not keep them, but renounce them when clearer, bolder, more concerted actions are required to meet the United Nations ten year horizon for “worldwide energy transformation to avert irreversible ecological damage to the planet.”

The main message of Planet of the Humans is that renewable energy and electric vehicles and other technologies cannot stop climate change, but merely introduce new forms of pollution and environmental destruction. The film’s sense of hopelessness is mesmerizing. Reviewing the progress of renewable energy in recent years, film director Jeff Gibbs sniffs out contradictions and presents them in a kind of cascading epiphany of juvenile disillusionment. Wind farms' intermittency requires massive natural gas power plants. Solar farms destroy the desert. Lithium ion batteries involve new forms of sea-bed mining for rare earth metals. Each solution to climate change creates a new problem, to the extent that it merely repowers the same economy, and the same civil society. Conclusion: humanity is destructive.

Yet, between these layers of accusation lie some very, very important and salient truths.  Planet of the Humans presents harsh realities about our world, mixing up cause and effect, technology and policy. We must unpack these conflations.

In doing so, we find dominant neoliberal currents, often unconscious, at the heart of the environmental movement that profoundly undermine its impactfulness. By continuing to gloss them over in the era of Trump, mainstream environmental organizations are in fact sowing the seeds of counterrevolution. I know this, because I come up against it every day in the very green energy movements I have started, led and in some cases lost to neoliberals who don’t even know they were neoliberals, whose approach to greenhouse gas reduction is to promote the technological fixes and market solutions that are the idols of capitalism, presenting the illusion that solving climate crisis is as simple as a new line of products to consume.

Gibbs and Moore’s critiques are real, but they oversimplify the problem they describe as an existential crisis with no exit. This delivers them into the pessimistic catch-basin of "overpopulation" theory: we simply have to die to solve climate change. This leathery insight is indeed the conclusion of Planet of the Humans.

However, if you look at infrared satellite images of global greenhouse gas emissions, you will quickly observe physical sources do not correspond to high population areas, but to modern economies: that is, machines. Automobiles, power plants and heating fuels cause climate change, not people. Let us look at China as an example. Before it was “opened” by the Clinton Administration to investment from the West, it had very low carbon emissions. In just a couple of decades, its industrial modernization has made it the epicenter of climate catastrophe. Constant driving, overconsumption, and parasitic capitalism have caused climate change. Therefore, to stop climate change, we must alter modernity, not blame people or wallow in misanthropy. Specifically, we must remove the growth imperative from energy. To do this, a climate mobilization strategy must wean itself from neoliberal dependency upon incumbent energy corporations and financiers who require consumption growth in their business models in order to profit from its development.

Oddly, Planet of the Humans reproduces the fictions of neoliberal environmentalism, failing to get to the truth by reifying technology as the problem. This is much as the environmental movement has reified technology as the solution. We must understand that the failures in renewable energy result from policy, regulation, and market design, not technology. By merely focusing on the unwanted attributes of the technological manufacture of solar panels, electric vehicles and wind farms, the film makers betray a naivety about the real reason we are failing.

Meanwhile, environmentalists criticize Planet of the Humans with a similar naivety, citing the film’s "lies" and "attacks" on what they consider to be promising progress. Where their critique fails is in seeing any progress made as close to remotely adequate relative to the scale of the climate crisis, and the hyper-speed by which we must attack it.

Planet of the Humans states that the 100% clean energy movement led by Sierra Club with a $80M donation by Michael Bloomberg has created a renewable front for natural gas. This would seem to imply a nefarious conspiracy, but in fact it merely reflects the state of things, to which Sierra Club and other leading climate warriors have wearily adapted themselves: a state-sanctioned system of salutary fictions.  Because environmentalist leaders, facing limited political options, blur the lines between what is real, and what is symbolic with respect to “clean” energy, they leave themselves open to charges of falsehood. 

Indeed, the renewable energy industry is guilty of the propagation of convenient fictions. Since the 1990's, renewable energy policy has remained inside a neoliberal envelope, widely adopted by state governments and environmental champions of such policies. These policies are the holy grail of renewable energy in 2020, and they include: Renewable Energy Certificates, Carbon Credits, Greening the Grid, Net Energy Metering, and Feed-in Tariffs. Together, these fictions are a startup strategy to begin something new, not an end game strategy to transform energy.

The first fiction is embracing Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) as real, when they are not. The 100% renewable movement is certainly guilty of this, because it does not distinguish between physical and symbolic actions. A Renewable Energy Certificate is a legal invention, not energy: yet the legal invention authorizes its purchaser to call it renewable energy. This is confusing because it is untrue. REC state laws in the most pro-renewables states allow a seller of coal-fired power to claim that his product is 100% renewable, because he purchases RECs from out-of-state wind farms such as in Texas. This is referred to as "mitigation" under state laws throughout the United States and blurred into legal definitions of "green power." This thinking follows a logic that the environmental movement has been trained to accept, from day one of electric industry restructuring in the early 1990's - a market logic. RECs are a financial, not a physical, transaction and so no, we are not building renewable energy, and yes, the power plants generating the power you are purchasing as 100% renewable are in fact coal-fired. The rationale is that the RECs we have purchased will create an "incentive" upstream in the market to become greener.

The fiction of Carbon Credits is that laws allow corporations causing massive amounts of carbon pollution to claim they are 100% carbon neutral by purchasing them. Again, the same claim is made that the purchase of such credits sends an "incentive" to the market to reduce carbon.

The use of “incentives” pervades renewable energy and carbon policy, and profoundly undermines the ability of people to be able to differentiate between the real and the unreal. Today, the environmentalist establishment is guilty of propagating unreal policies in order to galvanize public support of oversimplified, financialized, superficial paths to carbon reduction. Given the mounting urgency of bringing about dramatic carbon reductions to avoid passing the threshold of being able to avert climate catastrophe, movements for climate mobilization must take notice of decades-old incentive schemes that were never designed to do anything but stimulate infant green industries, not physically transform and decarbonize the energy system.

A third fiction is the notion that we can green the grid. The effect of this approach is the equivalent to pissing into the ocean, a growing ocean, of global demand. Adding wind farms and solar farms to the grid is caught in a permanent dilution where, as Planet of the Humans points out, grids require solar farms and wind farms that generate power 20-30% of the time backfill with gas plants to generate 70-80% of the time. This gives the lie to “economies of scale.” As long as renewable energy is not local, meaning sited at the location of use, and indeed smaller, this intermittency will continue to require significant fossil fuel in tandem, and - as the film rightly points out - natural gas is not clean energy: quite the contrary, it is as harmful to the climate as coal.

This brings us to the final, least understood fiction of all. Virtually all on-grid solar systems in the world today are wired, used and paid for on the same fictional principle as RECs, Carbon Credits and the green grid: not to reduce the need for grid power in a building, but to sell power back to the grid. Net Energy Metering (NEM) and Feed-in Tariffs (FIT) are guilty of deliberately avoiding reductions in grid energy demand, and in maximizing energy transactions and grid use, rather than reducing demand and grid use. NEM and FIT render the carbon benefits of solar superficial, and drive up the need for more grid investment, resulting in more fossil fuel use.

These failings of renewable energy are not the result of solar or wind technology and its waste: but of how they are designed, how owned, and controlled. Planet of the Humans makes the fatal mistake of correctly identifying some of the cracks in the edifice of carbon reduction, but widely misses the mark of causality. Their insistence on a kind of sentimental asceticism, for example that solar panel manufacturing requires energy and metals, is a silly, millimeter-deep insight. That windmills are made of steel and concrete is an utterly foolish objection, reflecting an absence of perspective or proportionality, and an eco-Manichean view of all economic activity as dirty and evil. It is critical to parse the fact from the fiction here in order to avoid the existentialist, misanthropic malaise into which this film, in the end, settles, while also agreeing that the alarm raised - that conventional, incrementalist solutions are not adequate - is certainly heard. Planet of the Humans’ successful sniffing out of ironies concealed behind legal platitudes is limited by a resignation and pessimism of the death instinct that is antithetical to our survival and sustainability. We must navigate through the Valley of Subtleties that distinguish hypocrisy from irony. 

Turning away from technological fetishism, negative or positive, we must turn to politics. Why do all of these neoliberal policies have in common the quality of changing individual human behavior (choosing green) without changing the system (actually decarbonizing)? Because deals were made, and "necessary illusions" endorsed. The energy industry, and state governments under their undue influence adopting renewable energy laws, created them to work that way. Electric utilities did not, and do not, want their profits reduced, their revenue requirements changed, and their business models threatened. State mandates can force consumers to pay money toward a good cause, but not force utilities to reduce corporate profits. So it was therefore arranged to measure progress in ("other people's") dollars spent rather than carbon cut. It is a classic study in making progress while not rocking the proverbial boat: incrementalism hidden in a message of moral sacrifice.

The good news is that movements are currently underway to change all of these things, but these are not technological movements. They are not led by billionaire geniuses, big foundations nor even most of the “big” environmental NGOs, but by municipal governments and the activists who support them. Importantly, the centralization of renewable energy development, the obsession with maximizing transactions rather than demand reduction (the growth imperative) and its ineffectiveness as a carbon reduction strategy, are valid insights that mainstream environmental leaders and their campaign messages continue to miss.

Decentralization is a critical pathway, with major movement underway across the nation and world, that the film also simply fails to acknowledge at all, as if it didn’t exist. In fact, the community energy movement is underway, led by a different breed of environmentalists. Local installation, pairing local generation with local use, with local investment, neighbor-level sharing and cooperatives, and interoperable use and storage of onsite energy, present widely replicable, proven strategies to actually, physically, and enduringly slash carbon emissions.  In fact, of the 100% renewable US cities today, many of them, known as Community Choice Aggregations, are taking just this approach.

The film’s snapshot of green energy is a little old, but so is the propaganda of mainstream environmentalists now (idiotically) calling for Planet of the Humans to be censored from the internet. Community energy programs are focusing on deployments of renewable energy technology to not purchase Renewable Energy Certificates, build green megaprojects or implement Net Energy Metering programs, but to finance and build new local renewable, demand-reducing facilities in the urban core. They are physically building renewable energy, microgrids, urban heat loops, and energy efficiency automation in a way that reduces grid demand rather than merely selling back power to the grid. Not only that: they are focusing on climate equity, customer ownership and sharing, and local job creation, so that the majority, not the select few, can participate in and benefit economically from local renewable energy. These movements, which represent the cutting edge of climate action, are finding ways not merely to add green power to a brown grid, but to physically reduce the need for fossil fuel combustion, and to displace demand for heating and transportation fuels.

None of this is on the radar of Moore’s film, but neither is it clearly distinguished in the minds of mainstream environmental groups that promote 100% clean energy cities.  Environmentalists and lawmakers need to learn to get real about carbon reduction if we are to meet the urgent 2030 deadline recently set by the United Nations. We need to get out of startup mode and into endgame mode, that means a radical physical transformation in three years, not ten, to even come anywhere close to reaching the UN targets by 2030. We need clearer paths to radical decarbonization that overcome the glaring contradictions caused by bogus strategies to green the grid, sell renewable energy and carbon credits, and net meter solar. This is a shift from greening to weaning ourselves from the grid: from additionality to subtractionality of carbon, from carbon taxes and fees to energy equity.  Planet of the Humans may be wrong on the details, but environmental activists would be remiss to ignore its message and maintain the useless fictions of neoliberal environmental policy in the era of climate crisis. In the final analysis, this film is a needed call to arms for the environmental movement to embrace an End Game scenario for climate action, effective immediately. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

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Paul Fenn is the author of CCA 3.0: Achieving Greenhouse Gas Reduction (2020), co-director of the Local Green New Deal (localgreennewdeal.org), president of Local Power LLC (localpower.com) and co-author of Enlightenment in an Age of Destruction (2018). He lives in Massachusetts.

8 comments:

Julia said...

Readers interested in Paul Fenn's energy degrowth strategy for the Community Energy movement can read about it at his Local Green New Deal web site http://localgreennewdeal.org or get a copy of his detailed plan, Local Power's recently completed Community Choice Aggregation 3.0: Greenhouse Gas Reduction, available for free at http://localpower.com/CCA_30.html

Paul Fenn said...

You can visit the Local Green New Deal project web site at LocalGreenNewDeal.org where you can order a free copy of our new Community Choice Aggregation 3.0 program design, which is focused on decentralization, degrowth and reduced grid and pipeline use. - Paul

Don said...

Can you give background on Community Choice? Where can you do this? How do you do it?

Janeane Constantinou said...

Hi Paul..goog article

JR Ryan said...

Hi Paul, great article! Shared.

This is the point I have been trying to make to people since this failed souffle of a film came out. Moore is well known for playing loose and fast with the facts in his films, but I wonder if having to edit this under Shelter in Place has removed him from the researchers that would correct his impulsiveness?

I was very disappointed with Josh Fox's response to this on Rising as well, particularly as he keeps hammering on about the Green New Deal as a major win for the environmental movement. Really? So it's been taken up as law now has it? This for me typified the ineffectiveness with which the mainstream environmental movement has become too comfortable. For his part, I wonder if the failure of his film Gasland to effect any real change in the growth of the fracking industry didn't disillusion him to the ability of the eco-social movement to make any real measurable progress.

I have my own ideas about how we can make progress, and not by playing the role of Pilate bending to the force of the masses and washing our hands before praise-condemning the saviour of economic system change. And not by constantly haranguing a populace into some form of guilt recruitment to "swell our numbers". The corporate polluters and ecocidal maniacs of our world clearly do not care how many children line the streets every Friday. Our incremental change isn't even incremental! Its rate is only increasing in comparison to itself, whereas in comparison to the use and extraction of fossil fuels, it is actually decreasing or stagnant as a percentage.

We don't have an energy problem, we have a capitalism problem. Moore's film, as you point out, is at least right in this respect, and that is a BIG respect. For the leading environmentalists to ignore this is almost MORE damaging than any succour the film might give to the fossil fuel lobby and climate change denialists.

Josh Fox says that this film will be used by energy shills to detract and obfuscate the environmental movement's message with untruths and misrepresentations. Really? Would they dare to be so dishonest? Well clutch my pears and get the chaise lounge, I might just faint with surprise! What does he think they have been doing all this time, waiting for the movement to blow up from the inside before striking? They speak to their bubble, and we speak to ours. By now, the polarization of public opinion is more or less complete. So, what is he concerned about, losing supporters? Losing backers? We were never going to recruit the southern good ol' boys rolling coal on joggers in the outskirts of Houston. Is that what we've been waiting for all this time? An argument good enough to convince trolls to give up their goats? FFS!

We have made progress in public opinion, but the neoliberal wing of this movement is in danger of not just losing that momentum, but never leveraging our power to strike at the heart of the problem at all. Like I said, I have my ideas, I need help achieving them, but I'd love to discuss with you sometime if you are interested.

Michael Dawson said...

But the things you mention that the movie leaves out are, like 350's various projects, utterly inadequate to, if not also distracting from, the actual problem at hand, which is, as you say, radical reconstruction of the entire society.

accountablepublishing.com said...

JR Ryan,

Thanks for your comments. I agree with much of what you have written here, particularly the notion that climate action is somehow a public opinion challenge, as if people need convincing that climate change is real.

If it is real, the reasoning goes, people will support any and all policy to address it, whether Cap and Trade, a Carbon Tax, Congestion pricing, or whatever. Meanwhile, Cap and Trade systems have never worked after 30 years, and Carbon Taxes and Congestion all share the characteristics of ignoring the polluters and making the little guy pay, as if paying more for things solves the problem.

This is where you realize a key problem of environmentalism is its obliviousness to the fact that half of Americans have less than $400 in savings, and that these folks don't want to pay fees for anything. It's corollary is found in the Covid outbreak, where people are supposed to stop working and stay sheltered when they lack the resources to sustain a multi-month economic stall.

Not just in America but throughout the world the majority of people live hand to mouth. No form of climate solution that oppresses or charges those people will work. That's why climate justice is such a key phrase. We need a new economic system. That being said, no small task.

Let's correspond. My own effort to create a new system is now a 25+ year full time project called Community Choice Aggregation. The detailed version of this new system may be found at my web site at http://localpower.com/CCA_30.html. The project web site is at http://LocalGreenNewDeal.org. I also wrote a book about it, which is at https://www.palgrave.com/gp/book/9783319707839.

accountablepublishing.com said...

Michael Dawson,

Thanks for your remark. Radical reconstruction indeed! The dilemma is by what principle? In so many ways we are caught between the Cold War options of global capitalism and nation state socialism. Neither option is acceptable to the majority, so we play ping pong of criticism between these extremes. In so many ways, neoliberalism provided the vaseline for the Band Aid system we have, the create a fuzzy zone in which we can pretend to exercise not our opinions but our values, not in politics but in consumption. Thus, the crisis of governance in climate change takes us back not jut to WWI but indeed to the American and French Revolutions. It is a major epochal challenge that no amount of values can overcome, requiring a truly new system vs a rehash of already discarded systems.

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