We live in an age of denial. Global climate change, a documented and proven process, is still openly debated in both public and political forums. The few unbiased scientific reports which are released are immediately politicized, making it impossible for the public to determine what is reality. Further, most of us aren’t willing or able to read long and complex reports on the subtle environmental shifts around us, before sculpting them into our understanding. In these cases, documentaries can do wonders.
Documentaries have the amazing benefit of adding video to topics that are otherwise difficult to demonstrate or explain. In the case of environmental matters, documentaries serve two major purposes. First, they can explain the complexities of environmental science through interviews and videos of the environment. Better than trying to explain the science of global warming through written word, documentaries can use animated graphics or experts to weave a narrative the viewer can more easily pick up.
The other major benefit is the ability to show the environment for its beauty and importance. While many people accept the science of climate change and the abstract importance of the greater environment which is at risk, they do not fully grasp the beauty and seismic importance of protecting it. By showing viewers exactly what is at risk, documentaries can inspire a whole new wave of advocates.
Here are a few of the best examples of projects that embody one — or both — of these qualities. The following are five environmental documentaries everyone should watch.
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An Inconvenient Truth/Sequel
Al Gore set the standard with his 2006 An Inconvenient Truth, which he followed up this past year with An Inconvenient Sequel. Both have been praised for their clarity and ability to introduce the topic of climate change and human impacts to new audiences. While some critics have complained that the films oversimplified certain concepts, this decision adds to the accessibility of the material. These are great films for those otherwise unaware of global climate change.
This film was created in 2010 as a personal investigation into the impact of drilling and fracking and opens viewers’ eyes to the impact such actions have on the greater environment. Whereas docs like An Inconvenient Truth focus on the macro of humanity’s environmental impact, Gasland creates a much smaller focus, going in-depth on the specifics of the drilling industry. This makes it somewhat less approachable but also lends the entire film a laser focus.
Further, the documentary does a great job at showing the consequence of drilling for communities and individuals, something a larger-scale project couldn’t hope to accomplish.
Before the Flood
Leonardo DiCaprio headlines this 2016 project, touring to various locations and speaking with world leaders on the topic of global climate change. It is a bit of a hybrid, including beautifully shot helicopter video, a journey of self-discovery by DiCaprio, and the opening of a dialogue on the global stage. The film’s tone is one of deep concern and tentative hope, as our guide chats with politicians, green energy factory owners, and the Pope.
The viewers will become intimately involved with the issue even as DiCaprio does himself, aided by wonderful cinematography and an array of famous figures across the continents.
Also released in 2016, this documentary narrows to follow the story of an 11-year-old Chinese girl who works in one of China’s many plastic waste processing towns. The film plunges the viewer into the squalor caused abroad by consumption at home, as the young girl works through an unceasing mound of MacDonald’s napkins, granola bar wrappers and broken toys. It is impossible not to pick up on the larger statement of the story: a consumption culture impacts those both near and far.
The film, through its depressing and brutal surroundings, has a strong impact on anyone watching for the first time. Documentaries like this function in the same way as those of giant ice sheets cracking: we watch something delicate and beautiful destroyed before us, and we cannot help but shudder at the sense of undeniable loss. It carries with it the slice-of-life reality of any good documentary, not trying to spin a narrative, but simply portray a situation as it truly is.
Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret
This 2016 documentary covers the lesser-known factors of greenhouse gas: the beef industry. Consumption of beef results in a massive daily release of methane from, well, cow farts. While this might seem negligible next to the massive factories and shipping ports of the world, the fast food industry has caused cheap beef production to skyrocket, and ethane is one of the largest global contributors to atmospheric warming.
This documentary presents an interesting side of the problem and will keep the viewers invested throughout by giving a tour of force into the machinations of the cheap beef industry and the problems it is causing the rest of the earth.
A good environmental documentary should be used to spread awareness, inform the public of something interesting and potentially impactful, and instigate action. All of the above do this and are some environmental documentaries everyone should watch.