Monday, April 27, 2020

Babies, bathwater and Planet Human

So many are dunking so well on Michael Moore's misbegotten Planet Human video on YouTube that it hardly needs my help. Two good places to look are Ketan Joshi, covering how outdated and/or wrong all the information is in the documentary, and Climate Crocks, summarizing and linking to what everyone else has found wrong with it (see also GetEnergySmartNow for even more).

I'll just add three things I haven't seen elsewhere (maybe I just missed it):

1. What's wrong with talking about ideology? People are wrestling with the facts and non-facts of the video when those issues aren't what drove its creation. Just like Naomi Klein with her book, the video's creators are strongly opposed to capitalism - definitely opposed to American capitalism, probably opposed to the European version too. They believe that this capitalism can't make things better in general, and therefore can't solve climate change in particular. When you have massively decreased prices for solar, wind, and storage, that raises the prospect that we don't necessarily have to overthrow capitalism to fix the climate - so if your real mission is overthrow capitalism, then you must deny that renewables and storage actually work.

There's nothing wrong with critiquing capitalism, especially American capitalism and how far it's deviated from free market ideals, but you have to start from the same basis in facts. The video is starting from a basis in ideology and being selective with the facts.

Moving along now to the babies and bathwater;

2. Biomass energy isn't innately wrong, and we should hope it works out. Most of the critiques I've read just shrug at biomass issues and then move on to wind and solar. Like people interviewed in the video, I probably should know more about biomass than I do. I can say that just as it's appropriate to use land to grow food, I think it could be appropriate to use land to grow energy. The concept isn't innately wrong, so it's a matter of how it's done (and I recognize there are lots of problems, particularly with corn ethanol).

I'll also add that not all forests are created (ok, made) equal. It is criminal to cut down old-growth, primary forest to make wood chips, or really to cut down that forest for any reason. Much of the world's forests though are second-growth and plantation monocrop forests. Quick-growing, small-diameter trees from the American South are used for plywood and used for biomass, and I don't know why the former is okay but not the latter. Some, maybe most second-growth forests should be allowed to age, but that doesn't mean every tree plantation is sacred. Other crops like switch grass and algae also remain (distant) possibilities. Finally regarding biomass, there are only limited possibilities of negative carbon emissions, and biomass plus carbon capture is one of them, so we should hope it works out.

3. We need an "antiracists for population control" movement. It is extremely unfortunate that racists love them some population control. If you consider Somalia and the problems it has, the fact that its population will be significantly larger in 20 years doesn't rank high on the list. Drill down a level deeper though and the average mother in rural developing nations generally wants smaller families where she can devote more resources to each child and to herself, so on an antiracist level, population control is relevant and empowering. Looking to broader global issues, it is rich White people (and some East Asian countries) that have the giant ecological footprint that most need population control.

I think people who can't stand the racists and are turned off by the some of the blindness of others in the population control movement are missing the need to get involved and redirect the effort.

So in conclusion, yeah, not a good video. One tip if you're going to watch it is to watch at 1.25 or 1.5 times speed, saving some time and skimming through the emotional manipulation sections. Also an effortless refutation by Bill McKibben of what could be fairly described as lies made about him in the video.

UPDATE: maybe too trivial to add this, but I'm doing it anyway - the solar panels on the Mars rovers didn't cost a $1 million per square inch. I couldn't find their exact dimensions, but I do know the primary mission cost about $400 million and the panels are far larger than 400 square inches, maybe more than twice that size. I'm sure installation and testing was extremely expensive but I doubt the panels themselves cost more than five figures. (UPDATE 2: A Siegel tracks it down in the comments, the panels were just over 2000 square inches.) Others have pointed out that on Earth, PV is far more efficient and cheaper than the system that the video cherrypicked.


Fernando Leanme said...

I loved Planet of the Humans. I emailed dozens of friends and family recommended they see it and pass it on. I loved the part where the guy starts hustling for the company cutting down trees.

Canman said...

Yes there's some exaggeration and over-embellishment from people talking off the top of their head, but these slight errors don't negate their broader points. Whether 8% efficient or more, there's a limited amount of energy you can get from solar panels. They mostly last for more than 10 years, but they DO wear out and degrade with time. Also, they're NOT made of sand, but high quality quartz and coal. Making them also results in toxic byproducts, ... in China.

That solar wasteland will certainly be replaced with another array, it DID require grinding up a bunch of desert life. And if you want to run the economy on solar your going to need many multiples of what you got now! Grind, grind, grind! Want to get rid of biomass? Grind up even moore desert.

As for nuclear, I suggested to the Onion:

Nuclear Industry Demands Apology from Michael Moore for Implying they are Green Energy

"This is an unconscionable smear", said an unnamed industry spokesperson.

David B. Benson said...

One source states that the gallium arsinide solar cells are $7.15/W. That's about 20 times the price of commercial solar cells.

EliRabett said...

Gallium is a rare metal, very rare and very expensive. There is simply not enough of it to make any large number of solar cells.

David B. Benson said...

Gallium arsinide solar cells are the most efficient known. One desires low weight as the price of going safely to Mars is proportional to the mass securely landing.

David B. Benson said...

From Wikipedia, the estimate is there is over a million tons of gallium in known reserves of bauxite and zinc ores. But the gallium is only coproduced with the aluminum and zinc.

Barton Paul Levenson said...

FL: I loved Planet of the Humans.

BPL: Of course you did. It told you what you wanted to hear.

Barton Paul Levenson said...

C: Whether 8% efficient or more, there's a limited amount of energy you can get from solar panels.

BPL: Of course the average is now 20%, but Canman doesn't know that because he's getting his information from Moore's stupid film.

A Siegel said...

According to this NASA press backgrounder document from June 2003, the total solar was 14 square feet: "The
solar panels fold up to fit inside the lander for the trip to Mars, and deploy to form a
total area of 1.3 square meters (14 square feet) of three-layer photovoltaic cells". 14sq ft = 2016 square inches

Tom said...

It was obvious a decade ago that large corporations were moving into green energy, and many a spirited discussion was held on the subject, with the usual name calling and snide remark leavening the dough. (It's arsenide, by the way, not arsinide.)

Because of the dilute nature of current modern renewables it requires large scale investment to put up. Or capital, to use the C word. So does the corrective for dilute energy--storage. Did Moore go after that too?

I like Michael Moore a lot, in the same way I liked Kurt Vonnegut. I'm glad Moore's still alive.

Enjoy the art, not the 'science.'


Eli and David should note that gallium is geochemically about as abundant as lithium--

The arsenic in GaAs photovoltaics is ten times rarer

I look forward to Brian's effortless refutation of

"what could be fairly described as lies made about [me] in the video." Gasland II written and directed by Josh Fox, who started the torch & pitchfork crusade against Michael Moore.

I learned of Gaslands II 's existence when a friend who watches HBO called to say that Fox had cameoed a one sentence printed quote from Naomi Oreskes calling me a science denier-- an ellipsis she cobbled together from three sentences two paragraphs apart in an op-ed.

Bunnies around here can testify that frakking simply doesn't figure in my writing, but the dudgeon is strong in this episode of The Climate Wars.

Snape said...


Sure, let’s turn the world’s forests into tree farms so we can accommodate the energy needs of way too many humans.

Beakers said...

Population - Its easy to sort population growth, evidenced by us having done. All that it needs is access to healthcare and women having reproductive rights, both things that are worthwhile in and of themselves but also have the effect of women choosing to have fewer children.
The remaining increase in population is thanks to better life expectancy, and that will plateau anyway. Hans Rosling was an excellent communicator on this, his vid has been on youtube for years, a far better watch than a collection of tired old lies on renewables energy return on investment.
Bioenergy, in the UK we have Drax power station. Used to be 4 big coal burners but they switched part to wood pellet and are changing the remainder to gas. They claim that all the wood is wood waste (mostly from north america). If true, fine, but not scaleable so all a bit irrelevant. If not true, trees being cut down to be declared waste, pretty bad.

Brian said...

Part of the problem is that we talk about large population growth when we should talk about large populations. There are too many people, each with too large a footprint on the planet. It will be a lot easier to get into ecological balance if there were fewer people, esp in places with large individual impacts.

And to not be anti-human, have as many billions of people as we want, off-planet.

Boldie said...

Who cares about GaAs solar cells, they are a niche technology only relevant for applications like space and concentrating PV. There are enough resources to satisfy these niche applications. It is not relevant for the overall energy transition which will most likely be done with plain old silicon, one of the most abundant resources on earth.

Snape said...

You know the environment is in trouble when clearcutting forests is seen as part of the solution:

Snape said...

Sorry, I should have acknowledged the thoughtful comments by Beakers and Brian. I agree with both.

Canman said...

I know I sound like a broken record for people who remember what a broken record sounds like, but:

Michael Shellenberger
Michael shellenberger
Michael Shellenberger

Nuff said!

Snape said...


A lot of what I read in the “Ecomodernist Manifesto” is misleading, so not a big fan if this represents Michael Shellenberger’s POV.