Planet of the Humans

Planet of the Humans, movie by Michael Moore and Jeff Gibbs

Moore and Gibbs’ movie appears calculated to incite controversy. If so, they certainly roiled the environmental community. So far, it’s received little mainstream attention, and a few environmental activists are demanding that it be pulled because it is misleading – and also, perhaps, because it gores prominent environmentalists like Al Gore.

Whatever motivated Moore and Gibbs, it wasn’t profit. They imply that the movie was financed by Moore. They seem not to expect anybody to pay to see it. Click on the title above and Films for Action not only lets you see the 1-hour, 40-minute production for free, it links to many different reviews about it. Therefore, we are reviewing Planet of the Humans too.

First, a few of its factual flaws. The most obvious is that they showed the failures of early solar panel projects, which inevitably failed; cost too much; had an energy conversion ratio of 8% or less. Not mentioned is that present commercial solar panels’ conversion ratios are 18-20%, and R&D is targeting conversion in the 25-35% range using less exotic materials. These yield a return on energy (EROI) north of 10/1. Not great, but feasible if you can tolerate the additional losses in batteries storing energy for night time use.

Second, Gibbs shows a chart of the percent of total German energy coming from renewable sources, but implies that it represents the percent of electricity generated. Actually, renewables are about 30% percent of German electrical energy generation.

Third, Bill McKibbon and most other environmentalists long ago stopped promoting biomass as a source of energy to replace fossil fuels. Doing so would consume much of all US annual vegetation (never finished estimating a percentage, but way too high to be feasible.) However, the Biomass Power Association still promotes biomass as a large scale “solution.” Burning small volumes for human use is inescapable, but trivial compared with the COreleased by forest fires; plus burning fossil fuels. Regardless of how much COgoes into the air, nature can’t grow enough biomass to power an industrial society.

Fourth, and most serious, the movie implies that there is no alternative to fossil fuels. That made heads spin and started accusations that Moore and Gibbs actually made a propaganda movie for fossil fuel moguls. No way did they intend that, but perhaps in their eagerness to skewer alternative energy business opportunists – or scammers – they were sloppy with facts and left that impression. If their intended message was that our only alternative is to slash our total use of energy, they didn’t drive it home. Let’s explore that issue.

Fallacy of Stopping Fossil Fuels with Market Thinking

The prior records of both Moore and Gibbs shows that neither are fans of either fossil fuels or big corporations, but the movie illustrates how environmental entrepreneurs also went astray. Their mindsets are stuck in conventional business ruts. See a problem; start a business, solve the problem, and do well by doing good. Making money seems necessary for success. Moore and Gibbs pan this thinking emotionally, but do not explain it.

Decreasing Returns on Energy: This is how much energy one burns in order to produce more energy. Conceptually simple, EROI hits limits identifying all the inputs to an energy production process and assessing the energy embedded in them. You cannot track the embedded energy in every bolt and nut in an electric car, for instance. But if you identify and assess the big pieces, you are close enough for decision purposes.

Regardless of EROI’s limitations, from just a sketchy process overview, one can smell BS in an alternative fuel process. Take corn ethanol, for instance. First you must grow the corn. That takes energy, quite a bit of it if done by “industrial farming.” Then fodder must be transported to a processing site where corn is fermented into ethanol. Takes more energy to use heat for this rather than enzymes. Then distill the ethanol from the ferment; more heat. Then dispose of the residuals; move a lot of stuff someplace else. Then move ethanol to a facility to blend it with motor fuel. Finally transport motor fuel to gas stations; then to vehicle fuel tanks.

You can’t get more energy out of corn than nature puts into corn, and that’s not a huge amount. The EROI of ethanol has been estimated many times. Estimates range from 0.6 to 1.8, depending on location and process used; lots of variance, but all low. You might put more energy in than you get out, and definitely will not get a high yield. Besides, the energy density of ethanol is only about 70% of gasoline, so drivers get fewer miles per gallon.

EROI is dropping on fossil fuel production, none of the alternatives are great, and anything that burns still puts CO2in the air. EROIs vary a bit, but here are a few: Fracking; 5/1. Tar sands 2.5/1. PV cells; 10-15/1 at best. Old concentrated petroleum wells, about 30/1.

Industrial economies were built on coal and petroleum EROIs north of 40/1. We could waste it – have a big party creating structures, roads, vehicle fleets, server farms, a lot of “stuff.” Low EROI energy can’t keep all this running, much less add to it. Almost all players made decisions based on cost, not EROI. Price/cost model convolutions may hide the deceptions, but by burning cheap energy and ignoring external costs to make expensive energy, you can make money. Question: Ignoring the money models, what do these processes really accomplish?

Thinking That Incremental Improvements Are Enough: Take as examples electric powered vehicles, or even improved mileage vehicles. If all electric, energy must still come from somewhere. If it’s from fossil fuel plants, that is at best an incremental improvement if lighter electric vehicles have a better “mileage per BTU” — and there are transmission losses just shipping the electrons to the vehicle. No tailpipe pollution, but the spewing of emissions transfers to wherever that energy is generated. And then, what about all the energy and pollution obtaining the exotics in most alternative vehicles; rare earths for instance? 

Incremental improvements in electric motors and batteries portend electric vehicles at a “competitive cost.” However, decades of incremental improvements have also doubled and tripled the fuel economy of internal combustion engines. In price competitive markets they will remain viable for a while.

Standard economic logic is that if operating costs decrease, people will buy more vehicles and drive further. Economists call this Jevon’s Paradox. Actually, if fuel is cheap, people tend to buy bigger, less fuel-efficient vehicles, and if it’s expensive, go for fuel efficiency. However, we now think that driving a vehicle is a necessity, so $20 a gallon gasoline would stop many of us from driving, but we’d screech that this is unfair to poor precariats who must drive to work. Social factors complicate the economic analysis.

If we must decrease total fuel use in a market economy, more fuel-efficient vehicles are apt to be, at best, a slow way to reach that goal. How to cut fuel use quickly? Stop driving vehicles, as can be seen in Covid-19 shutdowns. However, everything is so spread out that not driving leaves many of us stranded. Reducing fuel use requires major social and infrastructure changes.

That’s way beyond incremental innovations in automotive technology. We have to conceptualize in much broader systems thinking — including nature. 

The same logic applies to other resources, like water. We buy and sell water rights. In a drought, most people cut back to comply with restrictions, but some think that a “right” guarantees them water, no matter what, especially if lack of water costs them a lot of money. More factors are at play than simple economic models capture.

This logic extends to cap-and-trade markets, mostly for greenhouse gases. In practice, cap-and-trade market complexity includes derivatives traded on secondary markets, but the basic idea is akin to trading rationing coupons — simple. Reality is that governments can’t enforce the caps if companies do not voluntarily comply. Greenhouse gas reductions from cap-and-trade are modest compared with what’s needed. 

The upshot of all this is that we can’t dramatically improve the environment while still guided primarily by money, markets, and economic growth – the same logic that created the problems. We have to learn to think differently.

Excessive Faith in Technology: Planet of the Humans illustrates this. Surely, if slide rule engineering could send astronauts to the moon, all the digital wonders we have created since can keep our economic system going. So why can’t we save the planet and the economy at the same time – or find another planet to move to? The mental model of many alternate fuel ventures is that unless a technology to cut COemissions makes money, there is no other way to deploy it. Crank up business models showing that profit is possible, add energetic entrepreneurs to sell them to investors, and you get Moore and Gibbs’ vignettes. 

Critics dinged Moore and Gibbs for not presenting a solution, something to give people hope. However, on careful examination, all scenarios to simultaneously save both the planet and the economic system can’t offer much hope. Moore and Gibbs concentrated on greenhouse gas emissions, and there are many more threats than that. At least they had the sense not to hype a false hope. Slim as that hope may be, it resides in our ability to adapt. Can we re-orient our psyches to something like Compression Thinking? And no, Compression Thinking does not propose ending all technical development, but certainly a re-directing of its purposes to aims compatible with nature. We need innovation from a completely different perspective and cradled in a different system.

But first we have to overcome nostalgia drag, our longing to get back to a time when we thought we knew how to function, and cannot accept that that old world can no longer exist. Whether even Donella Meadows foresaw how utterly our economic thinking must shift, she conveyed the emotion of it much better than me (thanks to Craig Lindell for reminding me of her):

‘When most of us are presented with the ultimata of potential disaster, when we hear that we “must” choose some form of planned stability, when we face the “necessity” of a designed sustainable state, we are being bereaved, whether or not we fully realize it. When cast upon our own resources in this way we feel, we intuit, a kind of cosmic loneliness that we could not have foreseen. We become orphans. We no longer see ourselves as children of a cosmic order or the beneficiaries of the historical process. Limits to growth denies all that. It tells us, perhaps for the first time in our experience, that the only plan must be our own. With one stroke it strips us of the assurance offered by past forms of Providence and progress, and with another it thrusts into our reluctant hands the responsibility for the future.’

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