Planet of the Humans (streaming free online) looks at humans’ energy and climate footprint. Virtually all of my comrades in the climate movement who watched it, trashed it for playing fast and loose with facts and history and for an egregious attack on Bill McKibben, who many say is one of the hardest working and most inspiring leaders of the climate movement, from his publication in 1989 of The End of Nature, the first book on climate change for a popular audience, to his co-founding of the global climate organization 350.org with half a dozen of his students at Middlebury College, to his co-organizing of the fossil fuel divestment movement with Naomi Klein. Of course, we haven’t won the climate war yet, but McKibben has contributed more than most toward that goal.
So, I had pretty much decided not to waste 100 minutes of my time on the documentary, but then I changed my mind. I wanted to decide for myself if Michael Moore really had flipped to the other side (I would say “to the dark side,” but I’m sick of all the references to “dark” as bad.)
I was offended by the film’s scorching McKibben for promoting biofuels years ago as renewable energy, because he had come around to rejecting it before Gibbs made his film. (Gibbs responds to McKibben’s critique of the film, saying Bill is sending mixed messages.) Gibbs also uses outdated and very inaccurate data to make it look like solar energy is so inefficient as to be useless, when he had to have known that solar power has leapfrogged in efficiency while plummeting in price.
But a few months after watching it, I’m left with the useful conclusion that there is no free lunch where energy is concerned, and I agree with Gibbs’s conclusion that environmentalists talk as if there’s no downside to developing any kind of power, including solar, wind and hydro.
I have two examples I’ve become aware of in the past few months that illustrate this.
One is a proposal to build three dams on a tributary of the Colorado River just east of the Grand Canyon. The proposed dams would be part of a pumped hydro- storage project to store electricity when it’s in surplus to be used when renewable energy is not available. Sounds good, right?
But the project poses a danger to endangered species, the cultural heritage of indigenous nations, and the scarce regional water supply that will be even more stressed by the planet’s accelerating climate crisis.
I interviewed Roger Clark, Grand Canyon program director with the Grand Canyon Trust, and learned the project itself would store about 44,000 acre feet – equivalent to 44,000 football fields with water a foot deep.
He said, “The water would come from groundwater, and the developer is proposing to put three wells in the bottom of the canyon floor, and then pump all that ground water into the biggest storage reservoir in the bottom. And they would have to replenish that reservoir, because every time you pump it up to the upper reservoirs, it sits for awhile; it evaporates.” It’s impossible to overstate the importance of water in this arid region and the threat this project poses.
There are 11 affiliated tribes in the Grand Canyon, including Navajo, Hopi and Zuni, and that stretch of river is very important culturally. And there’s also an endangered fish, the humpback chub, that is only found in that part of the Little Colorado River.
So, even though it would be part of a renewable energy project, I can see why this project should not move forward.
Closer to home, folks involved in the Hamden Alliance for Trees, of which I’m a member, have come out in opposition to a proposal to build a solar array in the northern end of town to help power some buildings on a college campus. Again, sounds good. Why are we, town officials and many others opposed to this project? Because it would destroy 15 acres of trees (pictured above), and trees are our best natural defense against climate catastrophe. We are supporting the neighbors there, who oppose the project for that reason and also because of concerns about flooding if all the trees are cut down.
All forms of energy -- even solar and wind -- require raw materials, including rare earths and other materials that must be mined; they create climate emissions during construction. There are downsides to all of them. Energy conservation (not using energy) and energy efficiency (getting more bang for the energy consumed) are the best ways to reduce our climate footprint, and to reduce attendant ground-level pollution that affects people of color and low income folks disproportionately.
The movie also weighs in on human population as a driver of climate catastrophe, but I'll save that for another post.