This article looks into the recently released documentary Planet of the Humans. I was interested to watch this as I saw it getting a surprisingly warm reception online.
I was initially hesitant as I am a big Christopher Hitchens fan and I was aware of how he had intellectually disassembled Michael Moore and exposed his many weaknesses. I will post a video of Christopher doing this below.
Upon watching it, it became immediately obvious how one sided the documentary was. There was no attempt to be balanced. It reminded me of some of the worst instances of corporate greenwashing, but in reverse and in documentary form. The documentary is using bad science and inaccurate information to put across a one sided point of view. It is ironic that the documentary is guilty of a crime they are accusing others of.
For those who are unaware of what greenwashing is, it consists of misleading communications, to insinuate that a product or process is more environmentally friendly than it really is.
There is a 7 step framework originally created by TerraChoice that you can find here and I have my own article on the subject that you can find here.
So what I thought would be interesting, would be to re-watch the documentary and highlight where it commits sins highlighted in the 7 sins of greenwashing.
Sin of the hidden trade-off
This is used to describe claims that suggest a product is green based on a narrow set of attributes without attention to other important environmental issues.
There are several scenes where music festivals are shown to be attempting to be powered 100% by renewable energy without success. The documentary is guilty of this sin, as there is no attempt made to investigate whether these technologies work at a grid level, which they do.
If the documentary makers would have watched this video by Amory Lovins, they would have learned that modern renewable power doesn’t need a breakthrough in energy storage in order to be highly successful.
Sin of no proof
This is used to describe environmental claims not substantiated by easily accessible supporting information or by a reliable third-party certification.
There is a scene at 1 min 22 where it was suggested that there was a seaweed forest that was promoted as being a sustainability game changer, but that was dead 1 year later. Why was it dead, were there specific reasons, should we give up on seaweed, what about algae? The documentary merely leaves the suggestion out there that this technology is useless, but no evidence is provided as to whether this is correct.
Sin of vagueness
This is used to describe claims that are so poorly defined or broad that their real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer.
This is probably the sin that is most synonymous with the documentary as whole so there are quite a few examples to get through.
There is a scene at the launch of an electric car where a question is asked about the electricity that is charging the car. Yes it was likely from non-renewable sources in the USA, but that could change, and electric vehicles are superior at turning energy into power, something that was not explained in the documentary.
There is a scene where a hydrogen salesman was asked where the hydrogen comes from. This was cute, but there was no attempt to explain that ammonia could end up being a breakthrough source for hydrogen, with the ability to reduce carbon emissions substantially.
Sin of worshipping false labels
This is used to describe claims that give the impression of third-party endorsement where no such endorsement exists.
I don’t want to sound too harsh, but the documentary repeatedly uses cutaways to social scientists who espouse views that humanity is doomed and there are no technological fixes that will save civilisation. I would have preferred for a diversity of views to be aired, including those from engineering, physics and sustainability backgrounds. Why was no attempt made to interview people who hold the opposite point of view?
For instance, Project Drawdown has recently catalogued the top 100 most powerful climate change solutions. Is it not strange to not have interviewed someone from their organisation, such as Paul Hawken?
Authors such as Richard Heinberg where wheeled out and promoted as having widespread respect for their viewpoints. I say this as someone who got interested in sustainability by reading books by Richard Heinberg. He has been wrong about many issues, such as his opinion on the timing of peak oil. His book titles are deliberately provocative, he is but one view among many, there are reasons to be optimistic.
Sin of irrelevance
This is used to describe claims that may be truthful but is unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products.
There is a fairly odd scene with a tour of what can only be described as a group of activists who espouse views on the efficacy of wind turbines. I appreciate their sincerity, but are these really the best people to listen to, to get a balanced view on the costs and benefits and environmental trade offs of wind power? I don’t want to say that their viewpoint is irrelevant, but their elevation and promotion via Michael Moore’s platform bear no resemblance to their subject matter expertise.
There are other technologies put forward for mockery in the documentary. These include elephant dung and animal fat. I have never heard these promoted as mainstream solutions, these have been included for no other reason than to be immediately shot down. It makes for good TV, but it is not scientific.
Sin of lesser of two evils
This is used to describe claims that may be true within the product category but that risks distracting the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the category as a whole.
The treatment of renewable energy in this documentary is very disappointing. The documentary would have been fine if it focussed its attention on the questionable sustainability benefits of biofuels and biomass.
Unfortunately, it became a very poorly executed hatchet job on wind power, solar power and electric vehicles. Interestingly, I do not remember there being a single mention of nuclear power, which is strange, as it is normally something that stokes a strong degree of debate.
The first time that energy return on energy invested is even touched upon, the documentary is 32 minutes in, and it barely comes up again. This is the benchmark against which all energy sources should be judged against.
Sin of fibbing
This is used to describe environmental claims that are simply false, I think we all know what that means.
I have found 1 particularly egregious example. At around 1 hour 4 mins, I saw a chart of the German electricity mix, this was used to demonstrate that they have not been performing strongly and are in fact over reliant on biomass to meet their renewable energy obligations. I will post a screen shot of this chart below.
The source for this was said to be the German federal government, however I noticed that there was no date attributed to this data.
After an easy search online, my suspicions were proved to be correct, and biomass does not make up a preponderance of Germany’s renewable energy mix for the 2019 data. I will post a pie chart below.
What you need to know
This article looked into the recently released documentary Planet of the Humans through the lens of the 7 sins of greenwashing. As we can see, there are many examples where the documentary is guilty of these in reverse.
I haven’t even felt the need to touch upon the conspiracy theory nature of the documentary, the assertions made speak volumes about Michael Moore’s quality control filter.
I think it is important to point out that the environmental and sustainability movement is much bigger than Bill McKibben, Al Gore and Robert F Kennedy Jr. There was no mention of corporate sustainability, commitments to net zero or progress to date.
My worry is that this will find widespread appeal and those that watch it won’t follow up with any fact checking of their own.
Thank you for reading,
By Barnaby Nash
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