Planet of the Humans Review: Shining a Light on the Energy Black Box

| May 6, 2020 | Leave a Comment

Author(s): Megan Seibert

As its filmmakers anticipated, the new movie Planet of the Humans is generating quite the controversy. Push-back from the mainstream environmental community was to be expected, but what perhaps wasn’t – with some exceptions – is the hostility and lack of nuanced, substantive response that’s sadly become a staple of societal discourse. In their reactionary attempts to hurl divisive labels and empty punches, many reviews seem to be missing the key underlying point of the film. 

Several key responses seem to be emerging:

  • The information is outdated / solar panel efficiency and life span continue to increase
  • Solar and wind are still less environmentally impactful than fossil fuels
  • We can innovate our way out of material and manufacturing conundrums 
  • There’s no reason electric cars can’t be charged entirely by solar and wind
  • We can recycle solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries in a closed-loop system
  • The filmmakers didn’t interview credible scientists, engineers, or experts

These critiques miss one of the two underlying points of the movie, which is that solar panels, high-tech wind turbines, and batteries are not sustainable. They can’t be sustained without fossil fuels, which subsidize their entire life cycle. And they’re not sustainable from a materials, ecological degradation, and waste perspective.

Many of the reviews claim that, sure, fossil fuels currently subsidize solar, wind, batteries, and electric cars, but that need not be the case in the future because these energy technologies can power our entire grid, as well as their own production, if only we make the full transition. This is precisely the point of the movie: these technologies are impossible to make without fossil fuels. They simply can’t power their own regeneration, and even if they could, gigatons of metals would still have to be mined and transported; manufacturing processes are still highly toxic; and there’s still the problem of all the waste generated when the panels, turbines, and batteries reach the end of their lives. 

Why are these technologies impossible to make without fossil fuels? The key limiting factor is manufacturing. All modern manufacturing processes rely on thermal energy that produces extremely high temperatures. Solar panels, for example, require temperatures of around 2,700º to 3,600ºF (1,500º to 2,000ºC) in order to transform silicon dioxide into metallurgical grade silicon. The steel that modern, high-tech wind turbines are made out of require temperatures of around 1,800ºF (1,000ºC) to produce metallurgical coal, one of steel’s key ingredients. Combining the coal with iron ore then requires temperatures of 3,100ºF (1,700ºC). Concrete, another key ingredient for modern wind turbines (which affixes the massive structures to the ground), is made in kilns that reach temperatures up to 2,700ºF (1,500ºC). These temperatures can’t be reached using electricity generated from solar panels or wind turbines, whether directly or from their stored energy in batteries. The closest to doing so is via concentrated solar thermal collectors, which cost around $1 billion per facility, only operate effectively in hot climates, and, as the movie points out, still rely on back-up fossil energy.

Widening the lens beyond manufacturing, the problem of fossil fuel subsidy expands and starts to intertwine with unsustainable ecological and even social impacts. Go on Google Images and take a look at any mining operation today if you’re skeptical about what the movie shows. Take your pick of material. The ecological destruction is unambiguous. You’ll also see lots of large, fossil-fueled machinery, most or all of which can’t run on batteries (which themselves would require gigatons of materials). Remove this heavy machinery from the equation and we’re left with, largely, a return to human labor. Cargo ships can’t run on batteries, so we’re left with diminished quantities and longer transportation timelines by returning to a sailing fleet. Then there’s the problem of getting the materials to the ports from the mining sites and then from the ports to the manufacturing sites. As Alice Friedemann lays out in her book When Trucks Stop Running, ubiquitous electric rail looks improbable if not impossible. More manufacturing problems exist beyond the thermal heat barrier. The production of solar panels releases greenhouse gases that are thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide. Almost two tons of CO2 are generated for every ton of steel, and every ton of concrete generates a ton of CO2. One ton of radioactive waste is produced for every ton of mined rare earth metals, which are now essential components in the latest generation of wind turbines. These high-tech turbines – whose various components range in weight from around 2,500 pounds to 22,000 pounds – are installed with huge fossil-fueled cranes, which, like the mining machinery, can’t be powered by batteries (which, as mentioned earlier, have their own life cycle problems). Then there’s the problem of end-of-life waste. The aluminum frame from a solar panel can be recycled, but the rest is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to recycle, not to mention that recycling requires its own energetic and material intakes. While the steel towers from a wind turbine can be recycled (the problem of deconstructing it notwithstanding), its composite blades can’t be. And the list goes on.

It’s these high-level, big picture, bottleneck constraints that the movie – however imperfectly or incompletely – highlights, or at least prompts us to start thinking about. Quibbling about whether a solar panel lasts 10 years or 30, or is 8% or 20% efficient, is irrelevant within this larger context. Disturbingly, many reviewers have glossed over these larger problems, as if the filmmakers are being melodramatic or silly. Yes, is takes stuff to make stuff, they say – so what, we all know that! We’ll innovate and become more efficient. We’ll just make manufacturing less toxic. We’ll just recycle everything and close the loop. Easy as that, problem solved. It’s not that easy by a long shot.

The second main point of the movie is that continual growth on a finite planet is impossible. While this basic ecological truism should be undisputed, it still remarkably receives push-back even within the environmental community (not to mention outside it), which is evident in many of the reviews. Kudos to the filmmakers for covering overpopulation, the most taboo yet important of the degrowth variables. Unsurprisingly, this has been the most attacked aspect of the movie’s degrowth message, with the familiar fearmongering outcries of ecofascism. The movie’s nod to curbing consumption has been more positively received, which is also unsurprising since it’s the most socially palatable aspect of degrowth. And kudos for covering the final variable in the degrowth equation, capitalism and its co-opting of environmentalism. While I agree with Richard Heinberg that the treatment of Jeremy Grantham was misleadingly monolithic, the central point desperately needed exposure.

As to the final critique of other reviewers about the lack of inclusion of scientists, engineers, or other experts, this is a legitimate point to raise, but like other topics in the movie, it’s tricky. As someone working within the space of renewable energy and sustainability, I know first-hand that many scientists and researchers don’t take a critical stance towards renewable energy. An overly narrow perspective has been adopted whereby solar, wind, and batteries are taken for granted, evaluated as if they’ve come out of a black box, either ignoring their up and downstream holistic contexts or treating them insufficiently. There are a handful of researchers who view renewable energy and sustainability within a more holistic framework, but they’re hard time to find. I’m not sure whether the filmmakers didn’t know of any or chose not to include them. Regardless, it’s intrepid investigative researchers like Ozzie Zehner and Alice Friedemann, who aren’t cranking out tons of peer-reviewed papers, that have done a lot of important work in this space. Even those in academia who are aware of renewable energy limitations are oftentimes afraid to speak out because, as this movie shows, challenging sacred cows is not for the faint of heart.

My primary critique of the movie is its treatment of biomass. While biomass used at the rate and scale it is today isn’t sustainable by any means, the fact remains that it’s our central source of renewable energy and material, as it was for all of time up until the Industrial Age. That being said, addressing this point would have delved into the implications arena, which clearly wasn’t within the scope of the movie.

Does Planet of the Humans do an exemplary job of covering every issue it raises? No, but then again, few movies do. Does it offer solutions to the problems it raises? No, but that clearly wasn’t its goal. Does it rely on some well-placed sensationalism? Sure. But what Planet of the Humans does do is open a door into critically important territory that’s been all but neglected in the public sphere. It shines a light into the black box of energy that our future depends upon, asking us to widen our lens, examine every possible angle, and start coming to terms with what life after fossil fuels will really look like.

By Megan Seibert, The REAL Green New Deal Project

The views and opinions expressed through the MAHB Website are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect an official position of the MAHB. The MAHB aims to share a range of perspectives and welcomes the discussions that they prompt.