Bill McKibben: On Being the Villain in a Michael Moore Movie

May 2, 2020

Bill McKibben with Dark Snow Project in Narsarsuaq, Greenland

Bill McKibben has written a response to Michael Moore’s dog pile of a movie in Rolling Stone.
I know Moore. I know Bill.

Believe Bill.

Rolling Stone:

Basically, Moore and his colleagues have made a film attacking renewable energy as a sham and arguing that the environmental movement is just a tool of corporations trying to make money off green energy. “One of the most dangerous things right now is the illusion that alternative technologies, like wind and solar, are somehow different from fossil fuels,” Ozzie Zehner, one of the film’s producers, tells the camera. When visiting a solar facility, he insists: “You use more fossil fuels to do this than you’re getting benefit from it. You would have been better off just burning the fossil fuels.”

That’s not true, not in the least — the time it takes for a solar panel to pay back the energy used to build it is well under four years. Since it lasts three decades, it means 90 percent of the power it produces is pollution-free, compared with zero percent of the power from burning fossil fuels. It turns out that pretty much everything else about the movie was wrong — there have been at least 24 debunkings, many of them painfully rigorous; as one scientist wrote in a particularly scathing takedown, “Planet of the Humans is deeply useless. Watch anything else.” Moore’s fellow filmmaker Josh Fox, in an epic unraveling of the film’s endless lies, got in one of the best shots: “Releasing this on the eve of Earth Day’s 50th anniversary is like Bernie Sanders endorsing Donald Trump while chugging hydroxychloroquine.”

Here’s long-time solar activist (and, oh yeah, the guy who wrote “Heart of Gold“) Neil Young: “The amount of damage this film tries to create (succeeding in the VERY short term) will ultimately bring light to the real facts, which are turning up everywhere in response to Michael Moore’s new erroneous and headline grabbing TV publicity tour of misinformation. A very damaging film to the human struggle for a better way of living, Moore’s film completely destroys whatever reputation he has earned so far.”

But enough about the future of humanity. Let’s talk about me, since I got to be the stand-in for “corporate environmentalism” for much of the film. Cherry-picking a few clips culled from the approximately ten zillion interviews, speeches, and panels I’ve engaged in these past decades, the filmmaker made two basic points. One, that I was a big proponent of biomass energy — that is, burning trees to generate power. Two, that I was a key part of “green capitalism,” trying somehow to profit from selling people on the false promise of solar and wind power.

The first has at least a kernel of — not truth, but history. Almost two decades ago, wonderful students at the rural Vermont college where I teach proposed that the oil-burning heat plant be replaced with one that burned woodchips. I thought it was a good idea, and when it finally came to pass in 2009, I spoke at its inauguration. This was not a weird idea — at the time, most environmentalists thought likewise, because as new trees grow back in place of the ones that have been cut, they will soak up the carbon released in the burning. “At that point I would have done the same,” Bill Moomaw, who is one of the most eminent researchers in the field, put it. “Because we hadn’t done the math yet.” But as scientists did begin to do the math, a different truth emerged: Burning trees put a puff of carbon into air now, which is when the climate system is breaking. That this carbon may be sucked up a generation hence is therefore not much help. And as that science emerged, I changed my mind, becoming an outspoken opponent of biomass. (Something else happened too: the efficiency of solar and wind power soared, meaning there was ever less need to burn anything. The film’s attacks on renewable energy are antique, dating from a decade ago, when a solar panel cost 10 times what it does today; engineers have since done their job, making renewable energy the cheapest way to generate power on our planet.)

As for the second charge, it’s simply a lie — indeed, it’s the kind of breathtaking black-is-white lie that’s come to characterize our public life at least since Vietnam veteran John Kerry was accused by the right wing of committing treason. I have never taken a penny from green energy companies or mutual funds or anyone else with a role in these fights. I’ve never been paid by environmental groups either, not even, which I founded and which I’ve given all I have to give. I’ve written books and given endless talks challenging the prevailing ideas about economic growth, and I’ve run campaigns designed entirely to cut consumption.

Let me speak as plainly as I know how. When it comes to me, it’s not that Planet of the Humans overstates the case, or gets it partly wrong, or opens an argument worth having: it is a sewer. I’ll finish with just the smallest example: In the credits, it defensively claims that I began opposing biomass only last year, in response to news of this film. In fact, as we wrote the filmmakers on numerous occasions, I’ve been on the record about the topic for years. Here, for instance, is a piece from 2016 with the not very subtle title “Burning Trees for Electricity Is a Bad Idea.” Please read it. When you do, you will see that the filmmakers didn’t just engage in bad journalism (though they surely did), they acted in bad faith. They didn’t just behave dishonestly (though they surely did), they behaved dishonorably. I’m aware that in our current salty era those words may sound mild, but in my lexicon they are the strongest possible epithets.

A reasonable question: Given that the film has been so thoroughly debunked, can it really cause problems?

I’ve spent the past three decades, ever since I wrote The End of Nature at the age of 28, deeply committed to realism: no fantasy, no spin, no wish will help us deal with the basic molecular structure of carbon dioxide. That commitment to reality has to carry over into every part of one’s life. So, realistically, most of the millions of people who watch this film will not read the careful debunkings. Most of them will assume, in the way we all do when we watch something, that there must be something there, it must be half true anyway. (That’s why propaganda is effective). To give one more small example from my email, here’s a note I received the other day:

Stop killing trees you lying murderer.  

Forests are life.  you are killing us all.  

You can change your stance and turn back the tide of destruction you unleashed… or perhaps just go throw yourself in a fire and go down as one of the worst humans to ever exist.  

Straight up evil. 

When I wrote back (and I always write back, as politely as I know how), explaining what I’ve explained in this essay, the writer’s reply was: “I have read your dribble and am glad someone has finally called you out for the puppet you are.”

I don’t think most people are that mean-spirited (or maybe I just hope not) and of course dozens of friends within the climate movement wrote to express their solidarity and love. But I have no doubt that many of the people who’ve seen the film are, at the least, disheartened. Here’s what one hard-working climate activist wrote me from Montana: “The problem is, this movie is all over the place and is already causing divisions and conflicts in climate action groups that I’m involved in — it’s like they detonated a bomb in the center of the climate action movement.” Which I’m sure is true (and I’m sure it’s why the film has been so well-received at Breitbart and every other climate-denier operation on the planet).

Personal note:

I was a keynote speaker on zoom call the other day to a good size group of local officials, educators and enviro types located mostly in Moore’s home stronghold of upper Michigan, and I can tell you that when I described the movie as a sham, for what its worth, there seemed to be general agreement, as well as some bafflement of what the motive was behind the film.

I’m not baffled, Mike has always been first about Mike.
The search for truth, and God knows, fate of the earth, have always been very distant afterthoughts.

20 Responses to “Bill McKibben: On Being the Villain in a Michael Moore Movie”

      • John Oneill Says:

        The point of the exercise is not to spread ownership of power generation, it’s to reduce overall emissions. Ten years ago there was widespread popular installation of solar in Spain, encouraged by over-generous subsidies. Those then became completely unaffordable, even though solar was still only providing a minor proportion of the country’s power. The government retroactively cut the tariffs paid, and many who could ill afford it took a brutal haircut on their savings.
        Germany has 48GW of solar and 60 GW of wind, but the peak generation from each today was only 16 GW and 17 GW – at the moment it’s 0 and 9. Peak demand from the grid was 54 GW. At noon wholesale power prices dropped to 5.25 E/MWh, then shot up to 28 E as solar dropped out. Overall emissions per KWh likewise climbed from 158 grams to 256 grams, as coal and gas ramped up. Finland, which gets a third of its power from nuclear, and even more imported from Sweden’s nuclear plants, never went above 130 grams all day, and once the two large reactors currently abuilding come on stream, emissions should start dropping towards French levels.
        Lazard’s levelised cost of energy figures reactors as lasting for forty years, but nearly all those in the US have applied for, or received, extensions to sixty years, and three have been granted to eighty years. That effectively doubles the energy return on capital invested. Some plants which had been approved to sixty years are being closed because of renewables mandates or feed-in tariffs, which give preference to intermittent solar or wind generators over nuclear. Since the nuclear plants have over double the capacity factor of WnS, the inevitable result is a rise in gas generation.

        • MorinMoss Says:

          “but nearly all those in the US have applied for, or received, extensions to sixty years, and three have been granted to eighty years”

          Those had better be much more carefully maintained than typical US infrastructure.
          When will America finally decide on a disposal site or to start large-scale reprocessing?

          • John Oneill Says:

            ‘Those had better be much more carefully maintained than typical US infrastructure.’ They are.
            “When will America finally decide on a disposal site or to start large-scale reprocessing?’ The NRC has determined that medium term storage in casks at the reactor site is safe. Why go to the trouble of moving it all across the country? They’re also funding Moltex Energy on research on reprocessing. Those guys reckon that a pyroprocessing unit the size of a billiard table could produce enough chloride fuel to start their reactor in about a year. Pyroprocessing should be much cheaper than the purex process used in France and Japan.

        • leslie graham Says:

          Yeah. Nuclear might be ten times the price but we should also take into account what would happen if there was a terrible accident at a large solar plant – it could flood whole countries with dangerous levels of sunlight and make them too bright for human habitation for decades.
          Bound to happen sooner or later.

          • John Oneill Says:

            To replace the output of one reactor, you’d need enough solar panels to reach edge to edge right around the earth. If they weren’t backed up by fossil fuels, as at present, most of the solar output would have to go into storage, which would 1/ Cost more than the solar panels 2/ Lose a good proportion of the power through the charge and discharge cycle 3/ Be much more liable to fires (batteries) or other accidents (pumped storage) than reactors have proved 4/ Never be adequate for a high latitude winter, so other power sources, probably fossil, would still be needed.
            A modern society is as dependant on the regular pulse of the power system as an animal is on its heartbeat. To maintain that, people will use whatever it takes, and that will mean fossil fuels. Beijing is planning to install dozens of swimming-pool type, low pressure reactors just to supply district heating. Winters there are very cold, calm, and foggy – wind and solar just would not work.

          • leslie graham Says:

            “To replace the output of one reactor, you’d need enough solar panels to reach edge to edge right around the earth. ”

            Utter garbage. And I suspect you know it.

            The entire electrical energy needs of planet Earth as at 2001 could be met by a solar farm of 100klm on each side. There are cattle ranches bigger than that in Queensland. If you dropped a farm of this size at random into the Ausralian outback you would probably never find it again.
            If you seriously want to argue the ‘merits’ of a failed dinosaur technology at least have the decency not to lie.

  1. grindupbaker Says:

    A dramatic example of what happens when The Arts (journalism, politics, business, whatever, human stuff) gets involved in physical science. Anecdote & stunning Production Values. Dull quantified analysis errrrrr not so much. My comment on its GoogleTube release was that it isn’t quantified in any useful way (you know, statistics). I mean, very exciting & all that good stuff. Right here I mentioned “396,000 gigawatts” and got “loses something in translation”. Well yes I always knew that, I understand. I just don’t know the energy of typical U.S. American bum wiping exercise, I’m ignorant of innumerable topics, so I can’t state it in U.S. American bum wiping quantity or something similar that’s easily understood by all humans. I should have gone with Production Values in that comment, and all comments, instead.

  2. Sir Charles Says:

    I bet Moore et al have never read the IPCC Special Report, RENEWABLE ENERGY SOURCES AND CLIMATE CHANGE MITIGATION which deals with many factors in the process:

    “Climate change is one of the great challenges of the 21st century. Its most severe impacts may still be avoided if efforts are made to transform current energy systems. Renewable energy sources have a large potential to displace emissions of greenhouse gases from the combustion of fossil fuels and thereby to mitigate climate change. If implemented properly, renewable energy sources can contribute to social and economic development, to energy access, to a secure and sustainable energy supply, and to a reduction of negative impacts of energy provision on the environment and human health.”

  3. grindupbaker Says:

    Whoa hang on am I reading that correctly ? dribble !!! I’ll show you that’s not dribble Mister ! The world is bigger than the Russian embassy. There’s the Chinese.

  4. Sir Charles Says:

    Inside Clean Energy: 6 Things Michael Moore’s ‘Planet of the Humans’ Gets Wrong

    The documentary’s “facts” are deceptive and misleading, not to mention way out of date

  5. ubrew12 Says:

    Jeff Gibbs film conclusions: “Energy systems are predatory on the environment!” Anyone with a single class in Thermodynamics will yawn at this revelation. Fossil fuel is one of the greatest gifts ever given to humanity. That’s not the problem. The problem is they paid to propagate a lie about how fossil fuel is predatory on the environment, and now that lie is going to sink us all.

    But we all knew it was predatory, even if we didn’t know how.
    It’s friggin’ Thermodynamics…

  6. toddinnorway Says:

    The level of misinformation from Moore’s latest film is so spectacular, banal and ridiculous you have to wonder if his intent was create this giant strawman which would inspire a global response to debunk it and set the record straight on renewables once and for all.

    • leslie graham Says:

      The thought occurs certainly.

      The RWNJ’s falling in love with Mr Moore is deeply disturbing given the insane levels of hate they have continuously spewed at him for decades.

      But lets not underestimate the MAGAt’s capacity to swallow the spectacularly ridiculous.

  7. Michael Moore Presents: Planet of the Humans | Full Documentary | Directed by Jeff Gibbs

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