The Age Of Fire Is Ending — With Or Without Humans (Reaction To Planet Of The Humans Film)

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My CleanTechnica colleague in arms Steve Hanley beat me to it writing a piece reacting to the movie Planet Of The Humans, but as luck would have it, he actually encourages reactions from any of the several millions who actually watched the whole thing, which I did, mostly because a friend was unsure about its theses and wished to discuss it with me. So here’s my unfiltered reaction that I started scribbling on days ago, and had it not been for Steve raving about it I probably would have scrapped it. It’s not all bad though. So keep reading.

Photo cortesy: Jesper Berggreen

The Dumb Apes

I got mental fatigue watching Michael Moore’s Planet Of The Humans, because I seemed to struggle to extract anything useful while listening to Jeff Gibbs narrating the movie as I waited impatiently for new fresh facts to arise upon which a rational conclusion might be based. So why watch it then? Because I wanted to know what all the fuss is about, and now that I’ve watched it, I should at least try to construct an objective take on it to help you not get blinded by neither rage nor awe.

We really do not need more reasons to be divided on issues concerning survival of the Homo Sapiens species, do we? If you want to hear Michael Moore and Jeff Gibbs defend the movie, this interview by The Hill is relatively sober, and my takeaway from it is that Michael wishes to “ignite a discussion” on the topic. Well, he certainly managed to do that.

Screenshot from YouTube in case they pull it for its controversy

I won’t get into all details that this movie covers, as I’ll leave it to you to watch it with an open mind (It’s free to watch on Youtube for a 30-day period). In short, the movie depicts the human race as a curious albeit less intelligent class of primates busy destroying the planet in the name of profit.

This is not a full blown review, because believe it or not, the movie helped condense a novel idea in my mind that I would much rather talk about. So, in order to wrap up the parts of the movie that caught my attention, I’ll just put forward first an incredible notion, and then a credible one.

It’s incredible how totally shallow this movie is at explaining how electrification of transportation might actually change the world in a significant way. All we are told is that EVs run off electricity generated by burning coal, and the example of an EV brought forward is the GM Volt (Not a typo, that’s a Volt, not a Bolt).

One theme of the movie: No, don’t you try to argue that EVs can run on pure wind and solar power, because everybody knows that these technologies are virtually based on fossil fuels and break down faster that any other known technology in history. I mean, really? I felt like I was watching a 1970s documentary on the topic of science fiction technologies that would never be viable. I was so close to give up watching a number of times, because all information brought forward was a decade old at best.

The credible — and luckily overarching — theme in this movie was the outrageous burning of solid biofuels, mainly wood. This is where I woke up. This is why I even bother writing this. This I simply didn’t know the scale of. Whether or not institutions like the Sierra Club and individuals like Bill McKibben (founder of really have endorsed the burning of biofuels at some point is of less importance to me. What is really, really important, is that we stop burning biofuels of any kind immediately! Wait, what? Why? How? Stay with me…

Let me finish this mostly useless reaction on the movie itself by asking this question: Why was the movie made? There are no suggested solutions to the problems described, and unfortunately it is much too easy — even from the title itself — to conclude that humans are destroying Planet Earth, and that it would be better off without us.

Heck, the movie even mentions the overpopulation crisis, which I personally think is unfounded due to the fact that at least 1 billion of us consume at least 10 times as many resources in an unsustainable way compared to the other 7 billion of us. If everybody lived with sensible (i.e. not ridiculously low) sustainable consumption levels and used efficient non-polluting modes of transportation, there would at least be room for a wealthy and healthy population of 11 billion on this planet, which coincidentally seems to be the plateau UN population data suggests.

Any suggestion that humans are a cancer to the planet is very destructive in its sheer proposal, and it shreds away any motivation to actually try solve the problems at hand. Michael Moore talks a lot about the doom of growth, that humans just want more and more stuff. I know of no such humans, personally. I know humans who want better stuff. It’s a matter of defining what better means. I want a more sustainable product that doesn’t kill me and my planet, I do not necessarily want more products. What do you want?

Anyway, so the movie is constructed on very old data, which seems completely irrational, so dear Michael Moore, call me on the phone if the plot is actually this: The movie is a trap for the fossil crowd. They fall in the trap, find the outdated weapons to throw at the renewable crowd, but realize that things has changed a lot in the last decade, so they lose the fight. No? That’s what I would claim at this point to save my reputation.

The Facts

In a nutshell, I became interested in one thing only from watching this movie. I wanted to know how much biofuel we burn. Interestingly, those numbers were not hard to find. The International Renewable Energy Agency was shamed in the movie for supporting biofuels at too large a scale, and that seems outright a contradiction to its own name.

So I looked at the IRENA’s webpage, and sure enough, all the numbers are there, (up until 2019 for worldwide installed capacity and up until 2017 for worldwide electricity generation) and I was shocked to see that an organization that “supports countries in their transition to a sustainable energy future” would happily share these facts. Here’s what I found form their clever interactive graph tool for anyone to use:

Installed capacity. Image courtesy IRENA
Electricity generation. Image courtesy IRENA

I left out hydropower because it’s such a big chunk that has not changed much over the years, so that the relation between solar, wind, and biofuels stand out more clearly.

The IRENA website states that about three-quarters of the world’s renewable energy use involves bioenergy, with more than half of that consisting of traditional biomass use (e.g. wood, animal waste and traditional charcoal). Let me just say that again: Three-quarters!

Seeing this left me in disbelief. Although wind and solar share is growing rapidly, that chunk of biomass is too big, way to big. We are supposed to lower the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are we not? We are past the times of talking carbon neutral fuels are we not? We are supposed to halt any addition of things like carbon dioxide to the atmosphere are we not?

Maybe it’s just me, but I had come to believe we should minimize emissions of GHGs whatever the source! In other words: The plan is to stop burning stuff, right!? I once even tried to calculate how many new trees we would need to get back to normal pre-industrial CO2 levels on International Day Of Forests in 2018, which I got somewhat wrong, but it is a heck of a lot of trees! We need our carbon in solids, not in gases, starting now.

By the way, Tesla was only mentioned as a business that had an unfinished Gigafactory in Nevada without solar panels on the roof yet, and hooked up to the grid. Shame on Tesla! Again, Michael and Jeff, you can’t be serious? Look at the numbers. If the human race survives this age of burning stuff, I bet you Tesla will have something to say in the aftermath.

The End Of The Age Of Fire

After thinking about all this for a few days, and trying to simplify the problem to fit in my own limited cognitive framework, I came up with the term, “The age of fire.” If you think about it, you will realize that, at least to the knowledge of humans, there was a time when fire was not considered a tool, but only a nuisance that ravaged nature once in a while and put pressure on the development of living organisms. Then one day, one smart individual (well there might actually have been several individual over millenia who just didn’t survive the revelation) succeeded in controlling this powerful tool. And here we are.

Photo courtesy: Jesper Berggreen

After hundreds of thousands of years of burning stuff to reach this self-acclaimed pinnacle of human ingenuity, I think it is time for this fire-tool to accompany the stone-tools in the museums. Otherwise this will actually be our pinnacle, and what a sad way to see us go. Imagine, in all history of life on this planet there will be a pre-fire and post-fire era. The prior was sustainable in its own right. The latter could be too.

There is nothing in first principles of physics that prevents us from deciding to have only one burning furnace active in safe distance to power everything humans could possibly need or want: The sun. We don’t have to burn stuff. We can choose to just build stuff.

From an alien perspective imagine sitting in your spaceship, traveling the sights of the Milky Way, watching planets come and go in magnificent timelapses (provided you have the newest FTTD — full time traveling device) installed in your spaceship. Watch planets being formed, cool down, and in suspense see if any lifeforms might evolve before an asteroid smashes it all to bits. Imagine coming across the pale blue dot called Earth, and just as you cheer at the marvel of life emerging from small puddles of organic molecules evolving into advanced bipeds gazing at the skies wondering if they are alone in the universe (which makes you giggle because you know they aren’t), you see a flash of light, and puff, a dull scorched black ball continues in its trajectory around the local sun not caring one bit if it gets hit by anything. Well, you wouldn’t recommend visiting this solar system to your friends now would you?

(I just realized that I, by accident, put forward a new explanation of the Fermi paradox…)

A Future-Supporting Conscious Life

On 6 occasions in my life I have traveled to different countries in Africa. Every round trip was an average of about 20,000 km (12,400 miles) by air, so for the record: I am responsible for emitting carbon dioxide for a total of 120,000 km (74,500 miles) which mile for mile corresponds roughly to driving that distance in a passenger car going 10 km per liter (24 mpg). In Africa I experienced the deep blue and clear sky every single day for long periods of time, only interrupted by thunderstorms in rainy seasons bringing the water of life to the unpolluted soil under my feet.

My home country Denmark is a neat and tidy place, but when you look closer you will find things like micro plastics, particulate pollution, contaminated groundwater, etc.. These days of shelter in place during the coronavirus crisis has reminded me of the days in Africa and it has dawned on me that the sensation of a truly pollution-free environment is key to human well-being.

I dream of a world where the technology the human race creates will have the primary goal of ensuring a non-hazardous environment for biological life. Please don’t get me wrong on this crucial point: I am not advocating for a world where no biological life is hurt or killed, but I find it utterly insane that any biology should succumb to artificial man-made chemical compounds that are released to the environment without control. Yes, it’s a hard task to overcome, but in my mind there is no alternative if we want to survive long term.

I am also very cautious about calling any combination of compounds on the surface or in the atmosphere of this planet by the term natural. What is natural? If you die of CO2 asphyxiation on Planet Earth you are probably the victim of some sort of accident that has very little to do with nature. But if you experience the exact same cause of death on the surface of Mars, it would be perfectly natural.

In other words: We have to clean up our mess, with mess defined as that which does not support human life. There are two ways to do this. One is to get rid of ourselves and leave Mother Earth the hell alone. The other is to get smart and tip-toe on this current fragile human-friendly state of the planet in order to not suffer too much. The more humans we are, the more careful we have to be. And I don’t buy the overpopulation narrative. Please read the UN stats on that. The population explosion is over. Equilibrium is within reach.

However, we are for sure too many people to ever be able to jump back up in the trees in the tropics. Ever since we were forced out of that paradise — which according to the controversial theories of Tony Wright could actually have been many times of which we hold the record of surviving the longest — we have strained the resources outside the forests to an extent that endangers the very same forest we emerged from. We don’t recognize our cradle anymore, so we burn it down.

By the mastery of fire you find the reason for our expansion, achievements, as well as risk of ultimate failure. Our vastly superior neocortex, which was formed in forgotten times under radically different circumstances, figured out how to survive by using tools. The most powerful tool being that of fire. By combusting biological materials we developed technologies at blistering speeds never seen in biology before. All other relatively competent primates like orangutans, chimps, and gorillas were left in the dust.

But now that we are at our best ability of burning stuff, not only the carbon-based biology that grows alongside us, but also fossil carbon-based material that was formed millions of years ago, we have to stop doing it! That sucks! But here is a blunt fact: For the time being we only have one planet to torch to oblivion, and we are sitting on it! Unless we find a chain of unused planets that can provide a livable environment for slightly above average advanced primates, so that we can torch, jump to the next, torch, jump to the next, and so forth, we have to stop burning stuff! Period!

The Reality Of Things To Come

So, as mentioned, at the end of the day there are really only two options of reality from a human perspective:

The first option is that we go extinct and leave a world without self realizing conscious life, which would in a sense be a state of nothingness, because there would be no humans to have any perspective, a truly dreadful option. If we are indeed the only creatures in the universe conscious of our own existence and fragility, switching that light off would not only be sad, it would be the dumbest thing that ever happened in the universe. Like, ever!

The second option is that we realize that this vessel we float around on is the only one we have and nothing is more important than to keep it afloat with us on it in symbiosis.

In the out-most extreme consequence, it matters less whether we survive as mortal Homo Sapiens version 1, an immortal version 2, or if we find a way to transcend our consciousness to another form of life based on another substrate. In my opinion though, I think we will sooner rather than later become a multiplanetary species with lots of flesh around our replacement parts and a well known spongy wet computer hooked up but still confined in something we, out of habit, will call a head for a long time. But who knows?

Either way. This rant is at best harmless to the reader. Let’s hope the movie Planet Of The Humans turns out to be harmless too.

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Jesper Berggreen

Jesper had his perspective on the world expanded vastly after having attended primary school in rural Africa in the early 1980s. And while educated a computer programmer and laboratory technician, working with computers and lab-robots at the institute of forensic medicine in Aarhus, Denmark, he never forgets what life is like having nothing. Thus it became obvious for him that technological advancement is necessary for the prosperity of all humankind, sharing this one vessel we call planet earth. However, technology has to be smart, clean, sustainable, widely accessible, and democratic in order to change the world for the better. Writing about clean energy, electric transportation, energy poverty, and related issues, he gets the message through to anyone who wants to know better. Jesper is founder of and a long-term investor in Tesla, Ørsted, and Vestas.

Jesper Berggreen has 243 posts and counting. See all posts by Jesper Berggreen