Something that long hasn’t set well with me in the green movement is that so much of it is based on marketable products. For example, not long ago, the world was set alight by the idea of plant-based soda bottles. It was as if making plastic from plants had solved all our issues, and suddenly, using these innovative new bottles made the plastic-bottle experience guilt-free. Of course, that wasn’t the case.
Bioplastics, in many ways, are likely more problematic than petroleum-based plastic. In the case of Coca-Cola’s “PlantBottle”, the end result was the same non-biodegradable chemistry. It just had to be derived from plant-based ethanol instead of fossil fuels. With that in mind, it’s probably worth pointing out just how much fossil fuel was required to grow, harvest, transport, and process the plants to make that plastic. In reality, we’d only found a new way to make the same old problem, which really boils down to the fact that disposable plastic bottles are detrimental to the environment.
In other words, the packaging both literally and figuratively changed, but the end product wasn’t green at all. That didn’t stop the marketing bonanza. Soon, “plant-based”, “biobased” and “biodegradable” plastics were everywhere, and the prefixes “bio” and “plant” persuaded consumers that now an end to the issue of plastics was in-hand. We were on route to a viable solution, and buying our water in biobased plastic bottles was aiding in this answer. What a sham!
The truth is that we needed to (and still need to) drastically reduce our use of plastics and eliminate disposable plastics, but this would be detrimental to a convenience-based economy that hugely relies on fossil fuels, plastic packaging, and nonessential “necessities” to survive. The answer isn’t a new type of plastic, i.e. a new way to continue along the wrong route. Rather, it is a re-imagining of how we are living, a version of vitality not reliant of caffeinated cola products distributed in plastic bottles.
Planet of the Humans
The above tale is only to bring us to a discussion of a new documentary Emma and I watched this past weekend: Planet of the Humans. It was produced by Michael Moore (director of Roger & Me, Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11, Capitalism: A Love Story, etc.). Due to the COVID-19 lockdown, he and director Jeff Gibbs decided to release it for free on YouTube.
Having seen an interview with Moore, we knew that the film was going to look at renewable energy, removing the rose-coloured glasses from behind which folks normally view it. For us, in the process of equipping our off-grid cabin with solar, and being viewers of Moore’s previous documentaries, we thought we’d prepared ourselves, both for how we felt about renewable realities and how we were going to feel about what the film was going to show us.
Some days later, unease is still swirling within me. It’s a mix of disappointment, disparagement, and disdain. Frankly, it’s a feeling often brought about when I choose to watch such documentaries, when I put stock (to use a problematic term) in seemingly green companies, or when I support well-meaning politicians (Is that a real thing?). At once, I seem to have learned nothing all that new but somehow feel ornery in the revelation.
What the film addresses is how the current approach to renewable energy is basically another version of the PlantBottle. It’s just an illusion of something that fixes the problem, a means of packaging power in such a way that we can continue to drink it in indeterminately while the planet we’re supposedly saving suffers. We’ve been sold a marketing scheme to keep us in surround sound systems, microwave ovens, and air conditioners because losing such necessities is not convenient to the economy.
We knew renewable energy did not come from renewable sources. Solar panels, windmills, batteries, and all the components that go with them are usually built, boxed, and distributed with fossil fuel energy. No surprise, the documentary breaks some of those statistics down, citing the amount of coal required as a material in solar panels as well as to fuel constructing the panels. Similarly, the cost and lifespan of windmills is called into serious question. There remains a favourable embodied energy exchange to argue on behalf of, but the nonrenewable aspect of renewable energy is a knife easily twisted, one that greenhorn eco-warriors don’t often deal with.
More problematic for me was peering into the behind the scenes realities of companies, NGOs, government programs, and political figures who have been champions of renewable energy. What becomes apparent quickly is that they’ve knowingly been peddling green facades for the fossil fuel industry to continue its march. Without getting into the particulars of Al Gore, Mike Bloomberg, or any of the other green movement leaders, what we learn is that most of the groundbreaking projects are conceived with smoke and mirrors, and the green scene is not something to recklessly follow.
Planet of the Humans delivers an abundance of footage of programs that have failed and been abandoned, renewable power plants with natural gas plants powering them, and companies on 100% renewable energy but not really. Possibly worse is the massive deforestation in pursuit of renewable wood pellets/biomass for “sustainable” industrial energy production. In the end, what has happened is the appearance of green has become a marketable commodity, so politicians, businesses, and organisations have done enough to attach their names to a financial investment meant to pay dividends. The bottom line is profit over action, keeping some semblance of the unsustainable status quo.
A Revolution of Resolution
In the end, the honest answer can’t be pressed because it’s not profitable. Just as with plastic bottles, we simply need to find ways to minimise our energy usage. The answer to our energy woes and the pollution caused by its production is a wholesale reduction on energy. We don’t need renewable energy power plants that produce the same unseemly quantities of energy that coal plants, nuclear plants, and natural gas plants do. We need homes that require less energy. We need lifestyles less dependent on electricity.
As hard to swallow as a documentary like this is, permaculturalists have already been thinking towards the actual solution for decades now. We’ve already been weighing the embodied energy of solar panels and batteries against the power payback they provide. We’ve been designing passive heating and cooling systems. We’ve been growing our own fresh food. We’ve been reusing and repurposing what we can. We’ve been learning about medicinal plants, local building materials, and productive waste cycles. We’ve been lessening and lessening our energy demands because there is no other true green solution.
The world adopting a permaculture lifestyle is not conducive to the gross consumption of convenience capitalism. Our ever-expanding economies are not built to provide us with needs and good choices; rather, they are built on glut to grow without recognition of limits. Unfortunately, renewable energy has tumbled into this same pitfall with other profitable green solutions such as biofuel and bioplastic: Market demands trump honest assessment. The goal is not to fix the energy problem so much as to sell as many solar panels as possible.
It’s there where I find myself able to let go of any guilt I may have with regards to our off-grid solar power set-up. At least I tell myself that. It’s a modest system sized to power LED lights, two laptops, a freezer, a well pump, and a handful of occasionally-used, low-demand appliances. We are also going to meet some of our energy needs from wood we sustainably harvest (from fallen trees at the homestead and local maintenance projects) and biogas production from waste onsite. We’ve designed for passive solar heating and cooling. In short, energy conservation—not profit—has been our motivating factor, and that looks much different.
Regrettably, the film offers little in terms of how to solve the upcoming energy crisis, neither from a personal or political level. It’s time to start touting true solutions. That’s what permaculture looks like, and that’s what we are doing.