Directed and Written by Jeff Gibbs
Review by Ashley McGovern
It’s often the minor charges that lead to a great, overdue downfall, c.f. Capone and the accountants. A few weeks ago Jeff Gibbs’ much-criticised documentary was taken off YouTube for copyright infringement. That’s small fry compared to other charges levelled against the film. Since it’s release, almost every publication, of nearly every persuasion, has attacked it. Its entire approach – questioning the complacency of the renewable energy sector – was condemned; its facts said to be perniciously outdated; its timing pure contrarianism. There are so many point-by-point refutations out there that I needn’t go into it. Naturally, the Green Movement’s own Lord Summerisle, George Monbiot, has all the facts – as he always does.
Even worse, this reviewer can’t refer back to the documentary. I’ve been left sans primary material. And my memory is reliably poor. I’ll have to rely on certain tricks and techniques to recall the film. Something like Degas’ haughty plan for how an art studio, in the late 19th century, should have been run. It’s exacting beyond belief. To instil everything from an eidetic recall of forms, to a perfectly steady hand, Degas said something along the lines that an art school should have six floors. You start at the top and draw directly from sculptures, objects etc. Once memorised you move downstairs. But you still draw the forms from upstairs – this time from memory. The good students eventually work their way down many floors and get to draw from life; the forgetful ones toil away at odds and ends until they can remember. One wrong move means trudging back upstairs and starting again. (Twenty minutes in, I’d have ran down the fire escape after defacing the Venuses)
Anyway, that’s the conditions I’m writing under. Back to the documentary. It’s a bifurcated thesis: first, renewables like solar energy are more wasteful than the big polluters like oil; secondly, the Green Movement is all too happy to toe a concocted centrist lie to escape its duty of promoting a truly revolutionary solution to climate change.
On the first point, Gibbs wants us to go below surface benignity. Fields of solar panels and many-acred wind farms sound good, but, remember, they’re still manufactured products. They are part of the dirty factory chain like everything else. Component parts for a turbine are melded under high temperatures (coal) and the huge things then transported all over the world (dirty fuel). Upon installation, they’re not powerful (Gibbs likes using stats of the “twenty wind farms can only power a mini-fridge for three minutes” variety) so rely on natural gas backups for when the weather isn’t playing its part. Apparently, the figure that’s supposed to lodge in the mind of the viewer – that solar panels are only 8% efficient – is 20 years out of date.
Gibbs continues: worse still, they only have a lifespan of about ten years. So the process repeats. It’s clearly sensible to take this ‘life cycle’ approach; analysing the inputs as well as the allegedly green outputs. But why use data that’s widely regarded as old hat? Here’s where many people trash the documentary: fudging data is not a slip, it’s a deliberate choice to undermine a hard-won if imperfect solution. From memory, Gibbs occasionally glances towards Europe (not enough for his detractors) and shows how the supposed German miracle of a majority wind-powered electricity supply is false. For answers to this and more, I direct you to Lord Summerisle.
Taking it as documentary footage, there’s a grossly fumbling set piece of the above manufacture process. Quick cuts of forests being ripped out, monstrous fires, huge wind propellers being shuffled about the globe. It looks like the bizarre indoctrination scene from The Parallax View – a masterpiece for sure, but also a fan favourite of paranoid conspiracists. Images lurch at you but don’t have an impact. It’s visual bluster and doesn’t help any subtly the research was supposed to drive home. However, at least this is the part where Gibbs remains silent and let’s imagery do the work. For the most part, his lifeless voiceover sounds like the economics teacher in Ferris Bueller trying to sell you staples.
It’s important to note Michael Moore had a hand in Planet of the Humans. The master of the deceitful cut no doubt had a role more involved, more prominent than simply “producer” (Gibbs is a one-time protege of Moore’s). Moore’s work always reminds me of that famous Hitchcock interview. The one where he’s demonstrating what montage can do. Hitchcock films himself smiling, a cheery old fellow. He then cuts to a mother and baby in the park, so the implication becomes a heart-warming one of an old man marvelling at motherhood and child’s play. Now for the trickery: what happens if you keep the old man footage exactly as it was, but cut to a pretty girl sunbathing? Hitchcock becomes a dirty old man. Therein lies the power of cutting, as Moore well knows.
The second part was a more specific attack at leaders of the American Green Movement. Al Gore, Bill McKibben and Robert F Kennedy Jr are, according to Gibbs, peddling lies. They’ve been taken in by biomass. This is the process of destroying forests so you can burn organic matter like logs for energy, yet tearing down natural land to burn it up is patently limited as a strategy, at worst irreparably damaging. And if you’re willing to allow that good-natured public intellectuals can be fooled by the science, then how about the very real world of donations? At one point (again, memory is failing) Gibbs shows a dodgy donation to the Sierra club, a successful grassroots environmental organization, from some timber magnate. Proof that rich people are benefitting from one of the allegedly best solutions we have, and a clear sign that the Green Movement are profiteering equivocators.
All in all, Planet of the Humans was about as welcome as a cow fart in a Save the Ozone conference. The movie seems to self-appoint its own worthiness by relying on the mould we’ve seen hundreds of times in ‘heroic journalist’ movies. In every heroic journalist movie, some self-righteous prig (usually an anchor) will say “Always question, son”. This is what
Gibbs thinks he’s doing by discrediting the supposed mendacious logic of both Green and world leaders. He thinks he’s asking crucial questions, even if they’re uncomfortable to accept. He isn’t. He isn’t even trying. Even the “heroic” movie journalist strives to get his facts right. Nevermind, it’s now off YouTube, so go back to recycling and watching Baby Monkey.