Planet of the Humans — the Good, the Wow, and the Wrong

Michael Moore has backed a most unusual movie: a Deep Environmentalism doomfest filled the potential Republican talking points. Such honesty should be rewarded. Watch the movie! If you have YouTube on your television, pop yourself some popcorn and make it a movie night. (See end of post for a decadent popcorn recipe.) It is quite entertaining. Then come back here and read my notes below. There are some important lessons to be learned, including some that the filmmaker still needs to learn himself.

The Good

I, at least, was quite entertained by the movie. It swept me back to my childhood – days of gas lines, “Who Killed Lake Erie”, “The Lorax”, and all sorts of fearful predictions of environmental catastrophe. It is also a beautiful movie; Michael Moore is the executive producer, not the director or narrator. You never see or hear him. The tone is whistful, not snarky.

The scenes of environmental rallies and expos takes me back to my Asheville days, when I attempted to teach environmentalists sound economics. The scenes had a familiar vibe and the numbers presented resembled those I recall from talking to venders at the Southern Energy and Environment Expo.

There is a lot of wishful thinking on the part of environmental activists. Much green technology is not a good as advertised. Jeff Gibbs exposes this repeatedly, pointing out diesel generators backing solar panels at rallies, natural gas lines backing larger power stations, and the pathetic output of solar panels deployed in northern states.

He also rightfully points out the amount of fossil fuels needed to make biofuels, solar cells and other alternative energy items. And green energy often has a larger environmental footprint the fossil fuels. (This is an old story. Hundreds of years ago coal saved Europe’s forests.)

The Wow

Things get truly sad when the movie starts exposing the use of biofuels. There are scenes of clearcutting Vermont forests to make woodchips to burn to make electricity.

Those woodchips could have been used to make toilet paper!

It gets even worse. Rain forests in Brazil are being cut down to grow sugar cane to make ethanol to run cars. Rain forests are being cut down in Indonesia to make room for oil palms to make biodiesel. The images of orangutans deprived of their homes are particularly heartbreaking.

In between he exposes the complicity of some major environmental players in this devastation, including Al Gore, Bill McKibben and the Sierra Club. They have taken corporate money in mass quantities, and them that pay the piper are naming the tune.

The movie is a veritable cornucopia of potential Republican talking points.

Some of you might be tempted to neener dance and gloat about Liberal Hypocrisy.

Don’t.

The Republicans in Congress are similarly corrupted. Party rules require that all party members raise mass quantities of special interest money or they won’t get decent committee assignments.

Activism is expensive. The temptation to take money from deep pocketed sources is enormous. And somethings this is indeed the right thing to do. But it can be corrupting….

The Wrong

There is a great deal of bad engineering and bad economics portrayed in the movie, both on the part of assorted environmental activists, and by the narrator himself.

For example, using 8% efficiency solar cells to power a First World economy in a norther state like Michigan or Vermont is indeed rather silly. On the other hand, cheap flexible cells could be rather handy in undeveloped parts of the world where there are no power lines. Such cells would suffice to power electronic devices such as small computers, phones, radios and TVs. Batteries sufficient to power enough lighting for nighttime reading is also manageable. Pumps for irrigation and drinking water could also be powered with such cells. You don’t need batteries at all. Just use above ground water tanks.

Another example: The film showed logs being stripped of their branches and then shipped to a power plant to be turned into wood chips and then burned for electricity. That is truly inappropriate technology! What you are supposed to do is burn the branches and pine needles! Use the logs for lumber or paper. (And you could burn the paper after it is used…) Burning pine straw is very, very, very natural! Where I live pine straw does not rot on its own. It just piles up. And I live in a wet climate. Without human intervention this straw would be burned as forest floor fires. (This happened in my home town when I was a kid. Smoke in the air for days.) If you collect the straw, burn it in a power plant, and then return the ashes to the forest floor for fertilizer, you are approximating what nature would have done on its own.

In another example biofuel plant they were mixing tire chips in with the wood chips. Someone (I forget who) said that the wood chips didn’t burn hot enough due to moisture content so they added some things that burn hotter. People in the area complained of resulting pollution.

Hmmm, if you have a power plant, you have mass quantities of waste heat. Why not use the waste heat to kiln dry the wood chips before burning?

I do not know if the other biomass plants around the country have these defects or not. Did the filmakers pick some particularly bad examples and implicitly project, or is this the norm?

The economics of the filmaker are even worse than the engineering portrayed. Billionaires are killing the planet! It’s all their fault! Money is Evil! (Not direct quotes, but pretty much the message.)

Here’s my message to Mr. Gibbs: Billionaires do what you pay them to do. That’s how they become billionaires.

The market is telling Exxon, Koch Industries, etc. that The People want fossil fuels and the things that you can make with them – including solar panels and electric cars.

Raise the price of fossil fuels. and billionaires will get the signal and make money by figuring out ways to burn less. The early results will likely be something other than solar power plants and electric cars, however; the low hanging fruit is likely to be mundane things such as better home insulation, solar hot water, and cogeneration.

A Final Lesson

Dwelling on doom is addictive. It provides a form of excitement, that many find entertaining and/or motivating. But it also lead to very bad predictions. For example, the movie has several clips of an interview with Ben Heinberg. I happen to have one of Heinberg’s books on my shelf:

This book is one of many in the Peak Oil genre. According to it and others, the U.S. hit it peak oil production capability in 1970 and was doomed to have dwindling oil ever after. The world was due to follow a similar pattern

Oops!

Today the U.S. is an energy exporter, and other oil exporting nations are engaging in a price war to put U.S. oil producers out of business.

Mr. Heinberg didn’t do his homework. Or, more accurately, he refused to believe what the data told him.

I did the homework back in high school. Energy policy was the national debate topic my sophomore year (1979). I learned many things including: fusion is very very very hard; we had gas lines because the government was controlling the price of domestic oil; and the U.S. has enormous shale oil deposits, when the oil price rises high enough those deposits will be tapped. At the time the target price was $100/barrel, and that’s when $100 was quite a bit more money than today.

Well, long before we started starving in the streets due to lack of oil to run our tractors, the tech for extracting energy from oil shale improved. (But even if the tech hadn’t improved, we had the tech to get what we needed in a pinch even back when Jimmy Carter was President.)

In future posts and static articles, we will explore more deeply which alternative energy technologies are likely to prove useful. There might even be profits involved….

About that Popcorn

If your are going to eat popcorn while watching this (or any other movie), do it right. Do not eat microwave popcorn! It’s evil! I retch just walking by the packages in the grocery store due to the pseudo butter flavor.

To do popcorn right, you need:

  • Loose popcorn. (Orville Redenbacher’s is fine. Harris Teeter’s store brand organic is a bit better.)
  • Spectrum Naturals organic palm oil. Make sure it is fresh! If the expiration date is less than six months away, the tub is too old. (Big difference between using a bit of palm oil for popcorn and using it to power diesel engines!)
  • Grass fed butter. (Kerrygold rocks.)
  • Salt.
  • Optional: Solid blocks of parmesan and romano cheese. (Not the pre grated stuff. Grate it yourself as needed.)

In a large pot melt enough palm oil so that when you add one layer of popcorn, the oil almost covers the kernels. Add one layer of popcorn. Cover. Heat enough to bring the oil to a sizzle. DO NOT OVERHEAT! Too much heat ruins popcorn! (This is the problem with all the air poppers I have tried. Too hot.) I use about 40% power for my stove. It should take several minutes before the popcorn starts popping. Turn off heat when popcorn stops popping. Don’t burn your popcorn trying to get every kernel to pop.

Melt butter in the microwave in a teacup. Careful not to overheat. Mix some salt into the butter and then spoon over the popcorn. Optional: sprinkle the cheese you grated on the popcorn while the butter is still sticky. Add more salt if needed.

Now you have some popcorn that can made even the saddest doomsday movie enjoyable.

Warning: The above recipe is not recommended for those with heart trouble.

[Money making idea: develop an air popper that doesn’t overheat the popcorn…]

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