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Planet of the Humans: Beware the environmental capitalists

Earth Day came and went largely indoors this year for much of the planet, with the television providing re-runs of anything by David Attenborough to inspire us to look after our environment. Or there was Jeff Gibbs’ ‘Planet of the Humans’.

A difficult-to-watch documentary for many reasons, ‘Planet of the Humans’ tells us that any efforts we make to save our planet are futile. 

Gibbs seeks to highlight – not very convincingly – the failings of the clean-energy movement, blaming banks, corporate executives and well-known environmental groups along the way. The documentary was posted on YouTube free to all on April 22; it had clocked up 3.4 million views by the time I watched it. 

It was always going to be antagonistic, with a fair amount of creative editing that avoided the full story – Michael Moore was the executive producer after all. And it didn’t disappoint in that regard. 

Gibbs, narrating in monotone, highlights that solar panels can only convert 8% of sunshine into electricity to prove a point that solar is not worth the damage wreaked by mining for its components. 

Indeed, that would have been an accurate number back in 2009, but today panels run at between 18% and 25% efficiency and technological improvements are increasing efficiency and storage every year. 

Jeff Gibbs takes an antagonistic tone

The documentary also fails to distinguish between old thermal solar and photovoltaic solar. 

Ultimately Gibbs wants us to know that the environmental movement has been co-opted by capitalists who don’t care about the planet and, for reasons that remain a mystery, environmental groups are in cahoots. 

The last thing the environmental movement needs is people thinking clean energy is a waste of time – especially when the only solution offered by Gibbs as an alternative is to curb the population or get everyone to “stop buying stuff.” 

But, that said, the sustainable financial industry would do well not to dismiss the documentary out of hand. 

Uncomfortable truths

For one thing, while Gibbs fumbles through solar and wind, he does highlight one part of the renewable energy conversation that has remained largely hidden. 

About halfway through ‘Planet of the Humans’ Gibbs makes the point (which probably should have been the crux of his documentary) that, in our dash to get to net zero carbon, we have taken the easy route by deriving fuel from burning wood. 

Biomass produces 65% of Europe’s renewable energy for example – and most people don’t know that. In fact, most people in the documentary waving ‘Net Zero’ banners were horrified to learn from Gibbs that trees are being grown only to be cut down to burn for fuel. 

I have seen environmental non-profits hiding failing projects for fear of losing donors when it would have been more helpful to be transparent 

There are regulations of course that Gibbs conveniently doesn’t point out. In the EU, forest biomass can only be considered climate-friendly if it is harvested sustainably and if the carbon stocks from the forests where that biomass is harvested are being maintained or enhanced. 

But it’s an uncomfortable net zero story, given we are also battling with a biological diversity crisis – one that is rarely discussed by banks or investors. It highlights clearly why we need a capital approach that weighs up the impact of every investment not just in terms of social impact and carbon emissions but also natural capital. 

Secondly, Gibbs, albeit clumsily, brings attention to the myriad forms of greenwashing that are happening. He points out that non-profits may not be being quite so transparent about who gives them money and whether or not that puts them in any sort of a conflict. 

I have seen environmental non-profits hiding failing projects for fear of losing donors when it would have been more helpful to be transparent. 

Gibbs also holds up examples of clean energy funds that maintain holdings of fossil fuel company stock, and shows an Earth Day event, among whose sponsors were banks and car manufacturers, being powered by diesel generators while claiming to get energy from solar. 

Taken all together, the programme leaves the viewer with a sense that private-sector efforts are just plain amateurish in the face of a dire global emergency of enormous magnitude – it could leave a negative impression of sustainable finance with a very large audience. 

Rather, though, it is another reminder to try a little harder. These aren’t things the green industry doesn’t know already: we need greater transparency, more impact reporting and less marketing.