Recently, petrolhead pundit Jeremy Clarkson was thought to have disgraced himself by pointing out that the hi-tech sea yacht used by Greta Thunberg for her transatlantic crossing, for all its solar panels and underwater turbines, had an old-fashioned diesel engine aboard for emergencies. I thought about Clarkson’s jibe while watching this refreshingly contrarian eco-documentary from environmentalist Jeff Gibbs, which has been uploaded for free online viewing by its executive producer, Michael Moore.
Gibbs has a cheeky habit of going backstage at music festivals that solemnly declare themselves to be using 100% renewable energy, only to find that the fancy array of solar panels behind the tent is enough to power a single bass guitar. The rest of the energy is provided by just plugging into the shameful old electricity grid, provided by fossil fuels. He sees it as symptomatic of the mainstream environmental movement, running on delusional piety.
All the green, liberal A-listers – Bill McKibben, Al Gore, Van Jones, Robert F Kennedy Jr – are attacked in this film as a pompous and complacent high-priest caste of the environmental movement, who are shilling for a fossil fuel industry that has sneakily taken them over. (Although it should be said that, for all his radical bravado, Gibbs does not dare criticise Thunberg.)
Big Oil and its corporate and banking representatives have, according to this film, found a way to rebrand themselves as green or greenish, to use the green movement for their own ends, and to get their mitts on the huge subsidies that taxpayers around the world are handing over to anyone claiming to be developing renewable energy resources, which turn out to be the same old fossil-fuel entities in different packaging.
Solar panels and wind turbines? These provide no energy when there is no sun or wind and degrade after only a few decades, says Gibbs. And in any case they need a lot of fossil fuels in their manufacture: silicon, cobalt, silver, graphite, rare earths – and of course coal. The same goes for manufacturing storage batteries. Factories claiming to have gone “beyond coal” again and again turn out to be relying on natural gas. Corporate behemoths such as Apple make spurious claims for their energy usage. But how about the ultra-fashionable new “renewable” energy source: biomass or wood-chips? This is basically a colossal logging industry that requires a lot of fossil fuel energy to harvest and transport the material. As Gibbs’ interviewees point out, you might just as well as burn the fossil fuels in the first place. And it is laying waste rainforests and areas of natural beauty.
This, says Gibbs, is the queasy merger of environmentalism and capitalism – and he makes a refreshingly sceptical case. But he takes it further, suggesting that unfettered capitalism and its insanity of eternal growth on a finite planet is also what is leading us to the cliff edge. True enough, although his comments on overpopulation have an unintentionally ironic chime, in the middle of the Covid-19 outbreak.
Most chillingly of all, Gibbs at one stage of the film appears to suggest that there is no cure for any of this, that, just as humans are mortal, so the species itself is staring its own mortality in the face. But he appears to back away from that view by the end, saying merely that things need to change. But what things and how?
It’s not at all clear. I found myself thinking of Robert Stone’s controversial 2013 documentary Pandora’s Promise, which made a revisionist case for nuclear power: a clean energy source that (allegedly) has cleaned up its act on safety and really can provide for our wholesale energy needs without contributing to climate change, in a way that “renewables” can’t.
Gibbs doesn’t mention nuclear and – a little lamely, perhaps – has no clear lesson or moral, other than the need to take a fiercely critical look at the environmental establishment. Well, it’s always valuable to re-examine a sacred cow.