Chris Walker: Is Michael Moore’s attack on responsible investing really the “greatest documentary of the century?”

No, Planet of the Humans is riddled with inaccuracies and glib prognostications

Everyone who works in the sustainable investment industry has been given a direct challenge, and it comes from the most unlikely quarter. 

Michael Moore’s latest movie ‘The Planet of the Humans’ is a ringing indictment of us, and of our greatest heroes. It levels accusations of rank hypocrisy, and self-seeking deception, and we need to get our arguments straight if we are going to stand up to it. All this from someone who espouses the “Green New Deal.”  Moore argues “it is only your friends who can tell you when you’re doing wrong.” 

All I can say is with friends like Moore, who needs enemies?

Michael Moore is no stranger to controversy. He has turned the once dreary art of factual documentaries into a lethal weapon, one he has wielded effectively in the political scene. Bowling for Columbine exposed the dangerous rise of the gun lobby in US politics, and the growing human consequences. Fahrenheit 9/11 did the same for the Bush administration and the oil industry’s hold on American foreign policy. To date it remains the highest grossing documentary in box office history. Sicko exposed numerous malpractices in the US health industry. 

This platinum pedigree is why Moore’s latest film is causing such political waves. Released for free viewing on YouTube – the day before Earth Day for maximum effect – at the time of writing, Planet of the Humans has chalked up nearly seven million views in just two weeks. The Guardian hailed it as “refreshingly contrarian.” Something of an understatement. Counterpunch called it “the greatest documentary of the century.”

For any environmentalist, watching this movie is akin to torture, and that’s not just the narration in a monotone drone by Moore’s long-time collaborator Jeff Gibbs. At its core is the argument that we have been blinded by an obsession with climate change to the much wider damage being done generally to our planet. We have allowed capitalists to fool us into believing capitalism could save us. Solar power and wind power are both inefficient and hugely dependant on fossil fuels. Biomass is even worse, and electric vehicles a non-starter. Moore argues “we should not allow Wall Street or corporate America anywhere near us.” 

In fact it appears that this high prophet of progressivism has given manna from heaven to climate-change-deniers, and those on the far right of politics. Robert Buckley (founder of the Koch institute for Energy Research) welcomed the film for showing renewables are “mostly a hedge fund scam.” Breitbart chimed in condemning an “ugly scam, orchestrated by a cynical few at the expense of the many.” Andrew Montford of the Global Warming Foundation tweeted “greens have been lying to everyone for 25 years” in order to “make a few dishonest capitalists very rich.”

Moore says he made the movie because “he hated the fact these billionaires were tricking everyone,” and there are certainly some prominent scalps. Not just the ‘usual suspects’ (the Koch family, Goldman Sachs and Mike Bloomberg), but people dear to the Green cause. Al Gore is particularly skewered, although with some rather biased film editing (which, for example, unfairly suggests he was supporting the destruction of the Amazon rainforest).  

The story is not pretty. Gore went into partnership with the ex-CEO of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, David Blood, to form, not “Blood & Gore,” but Generation Investment Management. They invested $650 million in biofuels two years before Gore’s own seminal movie An Inconvenient Truth. Gibbs’ monotone asks “was that movie just about climate change, or something else.” Gore has been a lead proponent of cap and trade, but shouldn’t he declare a conflict of interest? In 2008, Generation Investment Management reportedly bought a $12.6m stake in Camco Clean Energy, which is a major carbon credit business. The New York Times pointed out that another Gore investment, Silver Spring Networks, received $560m from a federal subsidy policy he had championed. Moreover, Gore partnered with California venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers who had invested $1bn in forty companies bidding for contracts under the new system. This led Tennessee congresswoman Marsha Blackburn to ask – “is the legislation…something you are going to benefit personally from?”

When Richard Branson was asked “is Al Gore a prophet?” he replied “how do you spell prophet?” 

This poking fun at the alleged hypocrisy of major public figures is all “good, clean fun”, but the movie goes much further. It attacks the entire renewable energy industry.  Bill McKibben, the founder of and arguably the USA’s leading environmentalist, is humiliated for his promotion of the use of wood to generate power – which “must happen everywhere.” I share Moore’s queasiness about cutting down trees and there is sickening footage of a mountain-top removal in McKibben’s home state of Vermont. The pollution caused by one wood chip burning plant is assessed at a nearby school, and it is found that they have been burning tyres mixed with the wood – apparently necessary to reach the temperatures required. 

But the reputation of so many people is so comprehensively trashed – they deserve their own ‘right-to-reply’ documentary.

There is certainly a lot that is at fault with this movie. The film-makers seem to have a quasi-religious obsession that renewables are tainted either by having used fossil fuels in their production or for relying on them via the grid in moments when they go down. Thus they assert in shocked tones that solar panels could be made using coal and quartz where, horror of horrors, the Kochs are investors. And the fact that a Tesla production plant claims to use green energy and yet is connected to the grid, is ridiculed. But surely these arguments massively miss the point. An overall assessment of emissions is all that is required.

Many arguments are simply out of date. Critics have labelled this the “time-capsule” quality of the film. The launch of the Chevrolet Vault is shown in one scene – but this was ten years ago now. EV vehicles have advanced hugely. Footage of solar panels is similarly dated – technology has moved on.

Others are just plain wrong. Figures are flashed on the screen momentarily claiming that Germany gets only 1.5 % of its energy consumption from solar power, and 3.1% from wind. The Fraunhofer Institute reports the true figures as 9.1% and 24.8 %. Are the filmmakers saying this is a lie, or is this a massive error about something rather central to their argument?

All of us must watch this movie. But none of us must agree with all of it. Riddled with inaccuracies and glib prognostications, the film-makers offer no solution other than veiled Malthusian suggestions about population control, and fantasies around an end to consumerism. Ultimately it demonstrates the importance of a fundamentally scientific approach to all these issues. And that you cannot trust all of your friends.

Christopher Walker writes on business and global issues. He ran a large equity fund and has many years of investment experience.