Planet of the Humans Alternate title: What if Nuclear Energy Didn’t Exist?

Michael Moore’s “Planet of the Humans” continues to cause shockwaves in the green movement — but this one fact blows it out the water.

Written by

Generation Atomic

May 14, 2020

Eric G. Meyer is Founder & Executive Director of Generation Atomic

After surveying the positive and negative reviews of the Michael Moore produced Jeff Gibbs film Planet of the Humans, I mustered the mental strength to watch it. I already knew what to expect, I had asked Jeff Gibbs about the film almost six months ago.

In retrospect, I really wish I would have taken the time to dig into this conversation a bit more, to see exactly how he came to this degrowther perspective, and see if I could change it.

But I didn’t… I had proposals to write, people to hire, clean power to protect.

Now after seeing the film and the divisive reactions from all sorts of people who care about the planet, I wish I had a time machine so I could go back, tell Jeff a bit more about nuclear power, and convince him to make a few edits.

Jeff Gibbs makes a mostly honest (if selective) critique of wind, solar, and biomass. There’s really only one unforgivable flub, and that was the claim that wind and solar take more fossil fuels to create than the energy they produce over their lifetime. The truth? It takes 3–4 years for solar, and less than a year for well-sited wind projects to produce the energy required to build them. This flub left the film wide-open for criticism, despite many valid points about the environmental impact of renewables. There is definitely a conversation to be had about how much energy it takes to create a resource versus how much it generates, but instead we got a throwaway line with no hard statistics.

EROEI Chart (James Conca)

Despite this error, I’m glad the film was made and has now been seen by nearly 8 million people as of this writing. More people need to know how much logging and mining is required for a 100 percent renewables future (it makes Tolkien’s orcs look like the Civilian Conservation Corps). More people need to know that habitats are always impacted by renewable development.

500 year old yucca plant mashed up to make way for solar.

I fought back tears when I saw workers mulch up a 500-year-old Joshua Tree to make room for a 20-year solar project. And more people need to know how intertwined renewables and fracked gas will be for at least the next 30 years. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was not lying when he said these “wind and solar plants are gas plants.”

Gibbs presents these damning facts as supporting the central thesis of the film: that there are just too many humans consuming too much on spaceship Earth.

Gibbs refutes ‘Planet of the Humans’ is a call for depopulation

When writing this I went back to Jeff Gibbs and probed more about whether he supports population control. “I just want to be clear…we never use the words “population control” in the film and never would,” Gibbs said.

“We despise the concept. Our view is that humans are hitting multiple limits all at once, driven by increasing human numbers but more importantly an enormous surge in economic growth. Every report on the state of the planet says pretty much the same thing. HOW we come to grips with our out of control human presence is something we must co-create together, while taking care of those who need it the most.”

Here’s the problem. This conclusion is rendered completely irrelevant by one simple truth: nuclear energy exists.

It might be hard to gather that from the film, which almost completely omits discussion of the largest carbon-free electricity source in North America and Europe. “We humans must accept that infinite growth on a finite planet is suicide,” Gibbs says, laying out the core of his argument.

Yeah, sure. In a world where nuclear energy doesn’t exist.

And we should thank the universe that it does.

Binary neutron star collision. (Wikimedia Commons)

Six billion years ago two binary neutron stars collided, creating everything above number 26 (Iron) on the periodic table, and specifically the elements thorium (90) and uranium (92).

Their decay in the core of our planet creates the geodynamo, an electromagnetic shield that protects our atmosphere from the solar winds and allows us to have liquid water, air, and whales on this beautiful pale blue dot. Yes, nuclear energy made it possible for there to be a planet of the humans.

Geodynamo protecting our atmosphere from the solar winds. (NASA via Los Angeles Air Force Base)

These humans (six billion years later) figured out how to use it to make carbon-free electricity. In fact it became the largest source of carbon-free electricity in North America and Europe and among the fastest historically to scale up and decarbonize an electricity grid (e.g. France, Sweden).

Rate of Clean Energy Added, Per Person, Per Year. Generation Atomic.

What about Uranium though, it’s finite, right? Perhaps Gibbs’ thesis “that infinite growth… is suicide,” has merit? Well, maybe, but luckily breeder reactors, thorium, and renewable uranium (at least four billion tons) from seawater exist.

A chunk of any of these fuels the size of a softball can provide one human’s lifetime supply of energy.

Translation: we can power the entire planet at western levels of consumption for millions of years. Simply because nuclear power exists, the film’s anti-human degrowth argument falls apart.

The only thing we really have to give up? Our fear of it.

Photo by Victor Garcia on Unsplash

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