With the election over and the riots quieted, it is back to Michael Moore and Jeff Gibbs’s influential “Planet of the Humans.” The hard tradeoffs with renewable energies, a major theme of the documentary, will be a major theme in the Biden era, as wind and solar projects get pushback from the grassroots.
Moore/Gibbs memorialized what had long been recognized by the environmental intelligentsia. A review of the eco-literature reveals ample recognition and warning about the downsides of industrial wind turbines and solar arrays as grid electricity. But it was as if mentioning the problem was enough to just move on. After all, there has to be some supply-side replacement for fossil fuels (not to mention nuclear) given the political barrier to deindustrialization and negative growth.
Below is a sampling of the historical recognition of the Gibbs/Moore thesis. The overall point: The expose by Planet of the Humans was long overdue.
In a preview of the documentary a year before its release, mainstream environmentalist Michael Donnelly penned a favorable review, stating:
The bottom line [of this film] is … ALL efforts on addressing the climate costs are reduced to illusions/delusions designed to keep our over-sized human footprint and out-of-control consumption chugging along without any consumer sacrifices or loss of consumption-based profits….
Forget all you have heard about how ‘Renewable Energy’ is our salvation. It is all a myth that is very lucrative for some. Feel-good stuff like electric cars, etc. Such vehicles are actually powered by coal, natural gas… or dead salmon in the Northwest.
Michael Moore said at the time:
It turned out the wake-up call was about our own side. It was kind of crushing to discover that the things I believed in weren’t real, first of all, and then to discover not only are the solar panels and wind turbines not going to save us … but (also) that there is this whole dark side of the corporate money…. It dawned on me that these technologies were just another profit center.
And Moore again:
We all want to feel good about something like the electric car, but in the back of your head somewhere you’ve thought, “Yeah but where is the electricity coming from?” And it’s like, “I don’t want to think about that, I’m glad we have electric cars.”
In previous decades, the same qualifications and concerns were heard—although dismissed by Big Green. A sampling of quotations follows:
The use of the term “pollution-free energy” refers to the fact that environmental disruption is minimized to a great degree by the use of natural energy technologies, but the elimination of entropy is impossible.
– Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 91.
Are environmentalists cooling to the sun, wind, and water—energy sources they have long touted as ecologically superior to oil, coal, and nuclear power? A report by the National Audubon Society, now attracting considerable attention in Washington, warns that “renewable” energy sources are far from benign. Observes one startled environmental consultant: “Symbolically, it’s like someone in the nuclear industry saying nukes are dangerous”…. Some of the side effects the study identified: air and water pollution caused by converting plant matter into energy; urban sprawl from solar collectors, which are best suited to detached, single-family houses; depleted forests from wood burning; and increased chances of earthquakes from hydropower dams.
– Staff Article, “The Graying of the Green Lobby,” Fortune, February 7, 1983, p. 22.
An energy source is only renewable if, with proper management, its sustained use will not deplete supplies…. An early calculation of environmental limits is thus an essential component of any renewable energy project.
– Cynthia Shea, “Renewable Energy: Today’s Contribution, Tomorrow’s Promise,” Worldwatch Paper 81, Worldwatch Institute, January 1988, p. 6.
Renewable technologies are not always sustainable in the sense of being socially and environmentally benign. Particularly in the case of large-scale applications in developing countries, notably of hydropower and biomass, adverse effects may arise for the local population. Moreover, adverse environmental side effects may occur, such as smog from the use of traditional biomass fuels … or changes in biological habitats and local climate.
– Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 1995: Economic and Social Dimensions of Climate Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 241.
Environmental organizations generally support the development of “renewable” energy resources . . . but reserve judgment on specific projects until site-specific impacts are known. Depending on local conditions, environmental criticism of renewable plants can be every bit as scathing as for fossil plants, much to the dismay of policy advocates.
– Rich Ferguson, “Electric Industry Restructuring and Environmental Stewardship,” The Electricity Journal, July 1999, 27–28.
Paul Gipe on Wind Energy
Wind expert Paul Gipe published a treatise, Wind Energy Comes of Age (John Wiley & Sons, 1995), that pointed out the downsides of industrial wind that needed to be overcome for this technology to become mainstream. As it turned out, Big Green was not very concerned about the environment when it came to massive wind turbines. Nonetheless, Gipe’s warnings foreshadowed The Planet of the Humans.
In his foreword to Gipe’s book, Chris Flavin of the Worldwatch Institute stated (pp. xiv–xv):
To its credit, Wind Energy Comes of Age tackles even the most nettlesome issues plaguing the wind industry, including the problem of bird kills, often referred to euphemistically as ‘avian mortality’…. Unless the industry heeds Paul’s warnings, it will lose the environmental high-ground that helped get it where it is today…. Even those who feel stung by his criticisms would do well to remember the fate of the nuclear power industry, and others that chose to ignore early problems.
Gipe himself chronicled a number of wind power’s problems a quarter-century ago:
Flashing lights are particularly annoying at night, as is the bright “security” lighting common at wind plant substations in California…. For many rural residents, nightfall is a time of tranquility. Flashing strobe lights atop wind turbines or security lighting will exacerbate any annoyance the turbines’ presence causes residents. (p. 320)
Although the impacts of wind plants may be minor in comparison to those of a coal-fired plant, they are no less real to those living nearby…. The people who choose to live in such locations do so primarily because the land is unsuitable for other urban uses. They reasonably expect that the area will remain rural and undeveloped. (p. 324)
Next to aesthetic impact, no aspect of wind energy creates more alarm or more debate than noise…. Wind turbines are not silent. They are audible. All wind turbines create unwanted sound, that is, noise. Some do so to a greater degree than others. And the sounds they produce—the swish of blades through the air, the whir of gears inside the transmission, and the hum of the generator—are typically foreign to rural settings where wind turbines are the most often used. (p. 371)
[Wind turbine] sounds carry long distances in the mountains…. Low ambient noise levels in sheltered valleys, and refraction of the turbines’ noise emissions—which bends the sound toward the valley floor, particularly under nighttime temperature inversions—enable residents to ‘hear’ the wind turbines, or any other noise source, for great distances. (pp. 372–73)
In California, golden eagles are a “species of special concern.” This designation mandates that Fish and Game protect them. Federal law in the United States also prohibits the ‘taking’ of golden eagles under the Bald Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Taking is a euphemism for killing…. Anyone who “knowingly or with wanton disregard” kills bald or golden eagles commits a felony in the United States, punishable by two years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000”. (p. 344)
Recognition of the aesthetic/ecological problems of renewable energies are as old as William Stanley Jevons (1865), who warned that dilute, intermittent energies were inadequate for “the large factories and iron works,” and as recent as James Hansen (the father of climate alarm), who stated: “Suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the United States, China, India, or the world as a whole is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy.”
Moore/Gibbs’ The Planet of the Humans has a back story that cannot be ignored. Joe Biden’s “build back better” plan had better take note.