Directed by: Jeff Gibbs
Premise: A documentary about climate change and the green energy movement. The documentary makes the case that most sources of supposedly renewable energy like solar, wind, and biomass technology are not nearly as clean or reliable as they are claimed to be.
What Works: There are quite a few documentaries about climate change and the need for clean and sustainable energy sources. Reflecting mainstream discourse on the subject, films like An Inconvenient Truth and its sequel as well as Before the Flood and GasLand and Years of Living Dangerously have outlined the threat of climate change and made the case for transitioning to so-called green energy. The 2020 documentary Planet of the Humans takes a different tack. It concurs with these other documentaries insofar as it recognizes the environmental crisis but this documentary takes a critical look at the proposed solution. Planet of the Humans asks some straightforward questions about the efficacy of green energy and discovers some troubling answers. Most documentaries on this topic inspire their audiences with tales of technological innovation in which humanity will invent its way out of the climate crisis. The understated but critical assumption of that narrative is that nothing will fundamentally change especially for people who enjoy the comforts of the first world. As these other documentaries put it, solar and wind technology will replace coal power plants and life will go on with clear skies and clean water and abundant energy. Planet of the Humans punches a hole in that narrative. It makes a convincing case that this idealized dream will never happen because green technologies don’t generate enough power to satisfy first world energy consumption and they depend upon deforestation and traditional fossil fuel infrastructure. This point is neatly made in a sequence of GM unveiling an electric car. The vehicle has no carbon emissions but consumers charge the battery by plugging into their home electrical grid which is powered by fossil fuels. Planet of the Humans also makes the case that green power initiatives have been advanced by people who are motivated by capitalism rather than conservation and their green technology plans are a bait and switch scam that will not solve climate and energy problems. Perhaps most devastating, Planet of the Humans charges that the environmental movement, including high profile personalities and organizations, have compromised themselves by supporting these plans. This is an impressively contrarian documentary. It is in no way a pro-fossil fuels piece but it does challenge the narrative around green energy in ways provoke us to rethink the topic.
What Doesn’t: The argument made in Planet of the Humans is compelling and convincing but the filmmakers spend a lot of screen time retreading the same issues and pointing out the shortcomings of alternative energy while skimming over the film’s most provocative implication. Planet of the Humans maintains that green energy is never going to generate enough power to replace fossil fuels. This means consumers of the future are going to have to get by with less. While that is addressed superficially, the documentarians don’t explore what that might look like. As a matter of filmmaking craft, the weakest part of Planet of the Humans is the narration performed by filmmaker Jeff Gibbs. The content of Gibbs’ narration includes all the relevant information and he presents it clearly enough but Gibbs is not a compelling speaker. He doesn’t have the charisma or dramatic flair of Michael Moore or the quirky personality of Josh Fox and so the narration of Planet of the Humans is often flat.
Bottom Line: Despite the film’s shortcomings, filmmaker Jeff Gibbs has made an important contribution to the genre of climate change documentaries. Planet of the Humans is a challenging film that forces its audience to confront the bigger and broader changes that are coming our way.
Episode: #798 (April 26, 2020)