350 Bay Area’s Take on “Planet of the Humans”

by | May 8, 2020

We Are STILL Here Making It Better

                            STILL . . .  This. What we have been given. What we must earn. This will never end.                                                                                                                                                                     last line from The Overstory by Richard Powers     

Who would have guessed a “documentary” would come out from Michael Moore who has been pushing Bernie and the Green New Deal, that tells everyone that clean energy in this country is really just fossil fuels in disguise?  And for greatest effect, on Earth Day, while we are being reminded that fossil fuels are the problem when we are all so emotionally fragile and open from watching the death toll rise from the pandemic.  To top it all off, it seems that a primary message is that we need a lot fewer people on the planet. Is it possible that Gibbs and Zehner who put this documentary together, and Moore as executive producer, kind of feel it is okay that Trump is having more people getting out there and dying – sacrificing for the economy, and his reelection? In their minds, it is probably more the overconsumers they think should go, but they could have made that more clear for those on the Right unanimous in their praise of the film.

I was so appalled at what they were doing that I could only watch a part on my first attempt. I went back to it the next day at the point where they started attacking leaders in the climate movement, sowing still more division. It was striking how willing they were to manipulate their audience by going through all their old footage and choosing only the segments that supported a very one-sided message while not even giving any time for the people they attacked in the climate movement to respond.  

It is easy to hear Gibbs and Zehner’s frustration level. Many of us have a lot of our own with how the revolution is not happening fast enough – and some of us hurt that we won’t have Bernie leading, maybe like them. That miracle Jeff Gibbs, the narrator and director, thought was supposed to happen, hasn’t. Miracles are hard to come by as Trump has learned. The transition has been slower (they fail to mention, because of intense, well-funded, climate denying) than many have hoped. And then there is also the fact that the pace of the climate crisis and all of its effects are happening even much faster than we thought back when they did the filming. He wanted to make sure with the old footage chosen, though, that everyone saw that there was something not right happening behind the curtain of the “clean energy movement”. Perhaps that is worth considering but, really, these guys need to be told that solar and wind, generally, and especially in California, has grown and changed a lot. It is worth taking a look at how we are doing in California today.

On that Sunday I first watched it, I checked on the CAISO site you can go to, where you can see the demand for energy in CA at any moment during a day and where the supply is coming from.  At 3:00 pm 22,373 MW was being used out of which 15,131 MW was being supplied by renewables (68%). Yes, biomass was in there at about 2% and biogas at another 1.4% of that 68%.  An additional 5% beyond the 68% came from large hydro and another 10% from nuclear, that we are getting rid of soon. So that’s at least 83% “carbon-free” at that time. 12% was coming from natural gas, but only the smallest fraction of 1%, even at night, is ever from coal. Nights are still a problem but increasingly less expensive battery capacity is being added to the grid. There is not enough wind at night. We have moved farther than people thought we could on our renewable energy goals in CA 8-10 years. We know the transition is needing to go faster. Is what we are doing now, perfectly sustainable forever into the future? No, lots of changes have been made in these last years, though, and will continue in the future. 

There are the problems with rare minerals used to make solar panels and batteries, even with changes in those in the last few years that make them way more efficient than shown in the film. But if you look, today, at life-cycle emissions and all the effects on taxpayers’ costs for healthcare, the environment and climate mitigation, solar, wind, and batteries are way more efficient and less damaging than fossil fuels. So, why did they feel they had to use old, outdated footage so much in this film? They should be able to make their point with updated information rather than try to manipulate us with this easy to see through, cherry-picked, old stuff?  

Perhaps they are mostly just trying to say we use way too much and that’s not likely to change. At first I thought it was from their belief that the game is over and we are deluding ourselves that we can do anything about it.  So maybe they were kind of just proud they are relieving us of our illusions. “Just get over it, the planet is dying rapidly and nothing is working fast enough”. That belief is out there expressed a lot these days and at times it is hard not to let it in. The case is being made to just focus on adaptation measures and on helping people treat each other more kindly as planetary disasters increase. Most climate activists are not ready to go there, exclusively. And there are the youth, whose energy in fighting for their future encourages us all..  Climate strikes have happened since the footage used in the movie. So Greta and her statement “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth” which most all us climate activists agree with, is not mentioned. We know what Moore thinks about capitalism and how it has failed the 99% and the documentary is saying we have let capitalist tendencies into the way we do green energy. 

My first reaction was – not me, us – certainly not 350 Bay Area, or 350.org,  Maybe in some parts of the green movement at some times. Cap and trade is really not working well at all in CA – the whole carbon offsets and free allowances for polluters is riddled with problems; carbon pricing, in general, is market based. The price is always set way too low to start. Though the idea, if implemented well, might have helped many years ago. Still it has been very helpful in getting the message about climate breakdown out, even it was always suspiciously bound up in a system that promotes more being better. So what is 350 Bay Area doing that is not reinforcing the capitalist virus?  Quite a bit, actually. 

It was good to be reminded about biomass and that it is just not okay to cut down trees for fuel which is where some of the messaging about the for-profit interests getting mixed in with the push for “renewables” was.  And biomass is rising somewhat from where it is at 1.4% now as a source for fueling US electricity needs. Obviously, that needs to be stopped. 350 Bay Area here in CA where us environmentalists love our trees alive, well, it never was okay. Even dead trees in the forest, we have learned, play a huge role in helping forests grow back from fires more quickly. I will say more a little later about Bill McKibben who gets a really unfair take down on this.

It is possible that 350 Bay Area has been so focused on getting more solar and wind that we may not have emphasized energy efficiency as much as we could. It has been there all the time, though, as we push our local community choice energy (CCE) programs here in the Bay Area and CA to focus on incentivising using less energy. These CCE’s did not even exist when most of the footage was taken that is in the documentary, so maybe Moore, Gibbs, and Zehner are not aware of this trend in energy democracy that has sped up the renewable energy movement.  Driving fewer miles is better, even if you have an EV.  Public transportation incentives and more room for bikes are still better and more equitable. Fly much less, for sure.

Maybe we will learn something from this stay-at-home time from so many online meetings. Lockdown for the Climate Emergency! We ARE in an Emergency bigger than the pandemic now, or the ones coming. Yes, the cleanest energy is the energy we don’t use. This will be a takeaway from this documentary to focus on even more. But there is the way we think solar should be done, too. And we are very focused on that. It is important for energy efficiency even and I wonder if these guys even know about the ideas regarding community microgrids being put forth in CA and elsewhere across the country.

350 Bay Area is frequently pointing out that utility scale solar has problems with it. Wrong thinking or conflicted people are making profits. There is inherent in the Investor-Owned Utility (IOU) model that more and bigger, is better. Big transmission lines to bring energy from those projects is where the IOU’s can overestimate what they will need.  Lately, because of their potential or current bankruptcies, they have even been pleading for an extra few percent of profit beyond what they usually get, which is already in addition to what they need for their work . . .  because their hedge fund shareholders want that. We are constantly fighting that and arguing instead that many more smaller projects, designed and owned by the communities that more efficiently use the energy coming from them, work best. 

These projects come from a not for profit, local government model.  They can be set up in an advanced community energy way that allows more parts of the grid to be sectionalized off. Power, from renewables with battery back-up, can exist for at least the important services in an emergency or to fight fires that are coming from our climate change fueled droughts at first and then, increasingly, all of the time. With right sized batteries, these microgrids or other roof-top solar – that the IOU’s constantly resist or try to control – we end up having closer to the exact amount of energy we need. The excess energy capacity that IOU’s push for, that we might not need later as we learn to use less and less from working at home more or using our bikes or, with better public transportation, never gets approved then.  So many natural gas peaker plants thought to be needed, even some in their final stage of approval, have not been allowed to move forward in the last two years in California. Climate activism works.  And also, something we fight against at the state level, is that all of us are paying equally for costly transmission over long distance, insecure lines, even if our energy is almost never “transmitted” but comes from very local solar build out that can be more smartly managed on the distribution grid we most often see around us. The state, as our Governor recently said, needs to focus on decentralizing the grid which is what 350 Bay Area has been pushing for.

Many CCE programs in our communities are incentivizing battery powered EV’s by saying if we have them hooked up at night (charging in the day is better at certain hours when more solar is on the grid and less energy use is happening) so that while you are asleep and don’t need the energy in your battery, they can take a little to supplement the wind that is blowing so they can supply more renewable energy at night to the grid.  There are many creative things that can happen.  Will all of them put together get us back to a stable climate? It certainly is unlikely in the time most of us have left, as it is already getting bad. But what do you do in any crisis? Just say “this is bad” like the filmmakers did.  There are people like Bill McKibben who have inspired many groups to start up all over the world to try to change the course the developed world has been on. And he has focused on and supported environmental justice, how fossil fuel use affects frontline communities, as has 350.org and 350 Bay Area.

Let’s look at how Bill was treated. He has come out with his own longer response that is especially worth reading HERE. In the picture below he was here in the Bay Area in 2016 ( just after writing a strong article on how bad burning trees is for energy) at an event speaking with climate activist students who have plans for how to make the world more livable for them.

mckibben

Mckibben was especially worried about coal back in 2012, and the oil burning fuel used at Middlebury College where he was, so thought maybe biomass would be better for a while since true renewable energy was not ready yet to provide enough.  But who wins when you focus on that time in the past only and don’t give indication that the climate leader changed his point of view long ago?  Or taking a segment from an interview where he struggles for a moment with remembering which foundations have contributed to 350.org after showing how fossil fuel and other related big corporations have sponsored environmental events, implying 350.org has taken from those big corporations (they haven’t and neither has 350 Bay Area or other 350 local groups) is kind of FoxNews style fake news. They do something of the same with Michael Brune who came on as Executive Director of Sierra Club in 2010 and soon after ended funding from any natural gas interests. He did this right around the time when methane leaks from fracking and the whole life cycle of getting natural gas to where it is burned for energy were being shown to make it as bad as coal for moving Climate Breakdown along. This kind of obvious “gotcha” journalism should make us all wonder if we are not being pushed messages that skip over a lot of important updated facts in all the other segments. 

There are problems with each segment in the solar and wind sections. There is so much more to analyze and debunk. It is important to learn more about where we are today with renewable energy. This review is helpful for that HERE and there is a long list of them HERE that includes this one from The Nation, written by Josh Fox, who beat Moore to showing how bad fracking is in a couple of excellent documentaries in Moore and Jeff Gibbs’ style.

If you haven’t watched POTH, it is not really worth your time. If you do watch it, or have, there is some slight benefit in taking the time to think about some of it. 

Biomass energy from trees is bad and we need to stop it. Some may learn a little from that part, though it is a bit more nuanced about some biofuels, and a whole documentary on that would have been good. 

We need to keep big corporations from getting too involved in the renewable energy sector. In some ways, yes, for sure. But Google, loving that they could put this documentary on their youtube, was not chosen like Tesla was to be attacked, even though Google says they have powered 100% of their huge operations with renewable . . .  and are still hooked into the grid as was pointed out about Tesla which actually might be so they could provide some of their unused solar energy back to the local community they are in. 

We should all feel the need to have and buy a lot less. Needs a whole documentary on this, rather than the sparse treatment it gets in this one.  

And maybe have only one or no children for a while. Again, sounds simple, but how you implement that needs a couple of documentaries rather than having a few white men speculating in this one. Would it have been worth at least one woman having a say here? 

So some worthwhile things to consider, or to feel guilty about personally as fossil fuel interests prefer you to do. But it is all wrapped in a package that is a mess. 

You really have to wonder why they chose Earth Day to push it out.  

Climate activists were busy fighting fossil fuels in our “Stop the Money Pipeline” campaign that day. Youth were speaking about how we need the Green New Deal on EarthDayLive. Were Moore, Gibbs, and Zehner feeling a desperate need right then to enable Breibart.com, and so many other conservative business groups who have since cheered it on, to have a chance to say that our side of the climate crisis has finally confirmed what Trump has been saying about the worthlessness of clean energy? 

And, as a Breitbart reviewer speculated, they maybe single handedly gave the election to Trump and Republicans . . .  just so they could tell all their environmentalist friends they have gone in the wrong direction and have duped their followers? The Trump, far right, campaign ads, using the messages in this film, referencing Moore and parts of this documentary, are being made now and social media will be filled with them in clever ways soon.

 

Ken Jones
Clean Energy Campaign
350 Bay Area/350Marin