This summer we invited our sustainability office student interns to each recommend to our newsletter subscribers two environmentally-themed documentaries. Their choices reflect their diverse interests: from food and agriculture, to activism, to urban sustainability, to climate change, to product lifecycles, and more. We hope that within this list you’ll find documentaries that will stimulate, educate, motivate, and perhaps even agitate. Click on the titles to watch the movies. Happy viewing!
1. Plastic Paradise: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (2013)
“'Plastic Paradise' is a must-watch for anyone concerned about our oceans. Much of the documentary focuses on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a collection of marine debris spanning an area twice the size of Texas in the North Pacific Ocean. The plastics in this garbage patch are then ingested by fish and other wildlife, leading to premature death. In some instances, the fish and the plastics inside them are consumed by humans. The film raises awareness of these problems and provides solutions that make it easier to reduce plastic usage so that we will we be able to protect our oceans, other species, and ourselves.” —Veronica Johnson, Sustainability Intern.
2. Cowspiracy (2014)
“'Cowspiracy' is a documentary about major environmental organizations choosing to ignore the environmental impacts of animal agriculture so that they do not lose public support. Animal agriculture is a leading cause of climate change, species extinction, ocean dead zones, water pollution, and deforestation. In fact, one study estimated that livestock and their byproducts account for 51% of all worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, 20%-33% of all freshwater consumption, and 45% of Earth’s land usage. As a self-proclaimed environmentalist, I realized that I could no longer ignore the impact of my dietary choices on the planet and have been vegan ever since.” —Veronica Johnson, Sustainability Intern.
3. This Changes Everything (2015)
“In 2016, the phrase 'global warming' is a buzzword. It has become associated with political opinions and apocalyptic nightmares. Naomi Klein, author of the book which this film is based on, asks us this: to forgo the polarizing and doomful tones of global warming and see it instead as our best chance at a global call-to-action. Interwoven with this notion is the need for post-industrialized nations and cities to respect the lands and lives of other humans. Put simply, every action has a reaction. 'This Changes Everything' uncovers those reactions which are intangibly hidden and distantly manifested in polluted wells and airways of other communities. It takes you on a journey across the world to learn, consider, and connect.” —Sophia Erhard, Sustainability Intern.
4. The True Cost (2015)
“When we think about our clothing, we usually think about the fabric, the style, the color. 'The True Cost' asks us to consider something else: the people. Who is manning the sewing machine? Who is dyeing the leather? Who is piecing together our shoes? The fashion industry relies on the cheap and undervalued labor of millions of people. The consumerist values of the U.S. and other nations propel this workforce and, in the process, contribute to environmental harm. In fact, the fashion industry is the second most-polluting industry in the world according to some estimates. It’s only precursor? Oil. 'The True Cost' questions your purchasing power and relationship with clothing. It bridges the disconnect between the aisles of graphic tees and the human behind your clothes. Is that shirt really worth it?” —Sophia Erhard, Sustainability Intern.
5. Virunga (2014)
“'Virunga' follows the stories of conservationists, park employees, and insurrectionists as they encounter the conservation efforts of the mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The primates are some of the last remaining individuals of their species. These conservation efforts are complicated by armed conflicts and threats of oil exploration in the area. Dealing with guerrilla warfare and the effects of displacing local communities does not fit the simplified model people have of conservation--simply constructing a national park and leaving nature alone. This case study complicates that one-dimensional view. I would also recommend delving deeper into the story, as this film, though informative and engaging, presents a very Westernized view of the conflict and surrounding communities. The story of 'Virunga' underlines how conservation must often work at the intersections of politics, economics, and society.” —Ben Johnson, Sustainability Intern.
6. Vegucated (2011)
“'Vegucated' follows three Americans who adopt a vegan diet for six weeks. They experience the health benefits of veganism while also learning about the problems surrounding animal agriculture. Every time I watch this documentary, I am reminded why eating meat is problematic for environmentalists. This film presents personal and intimate epiphanies about the cruelty and environmental impact of consuming meat. All in all, it is a heartwarming and encouraging story about people experiencing a paradigm shift in the way they see food. If you are interested in vegetarian or vegan diets, I would highly recommend this!” —Ben Johnson, Sustainability Intern.
7. The Nature of Cities (2010)
“This documentary does a nice job of displaying successful development projects that showcase nature in cities, rather than isolate citizens from its creatures and natural systems. Tim Beatley, an urban and environmental planning professor from the University of Virginia, explores communities in Northern Europe and in the U.S. that use green roofs and walls, gardens, promenades, and nature reserves to allow people to engage in the outdoors. Fundamental to the projects is making nature an explicit part of a city in an effort to synthesize rather than separate the natural and built environment. One of the most impacting cases made in this documentary is for reconceptualizing cities and buildings as venues for biophilia and resilience as opposed to calling them 'sustainable cities.' The film left me with some hope for a world that is both resilient and liveable, but also left me questioning how non-Western societies would look in this resilience-lifestyle nexus achieved by predominantly Northern European architects and planners.” —Geneva Vest, Sustainability Intern.
8. Garbage Warrior (2007)
“This documentary follows the life of an unconventional architect in New Mexico, Mike Reynolds, who uses discarded materials and resources such as aluminum cans, tires, and uncaptured water to create what he calls Earth Ships. I like this film especially because it provides direct insight from Reynolds, who is typically silenced for his radical and self-proclaimed lawless structures. He has quirky ideas (like establishing an unregistered subdivision for his fellow environmentalists to live in his homes) that are completely impractical in society. But that is the point he makes--we cannot operate in the status quo if we want to save the planet from destruction. I think the film captures radical solutions to climate change while also depicting the obstacles humanity faces such as government and policy that stagnate necessary solutions.” —Geneva Vest, Sustainability Intern.
9. If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (2011)
“An eco-terrorist group known as the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) was designated by the FBI as the United States’s top domestic terror threat in the early 2000s. This film offers interviews with ELF members, friends and family of members, those affected by the group’s sabotage activities, and the agents who worked on the investigation that led to the arrest of many of the group’s members in a complex examination of environmental activism pushed to its logical extreme. I find that most environmental documentaries serve as an educational effort, a call to action; 'If a Tree Falls' is not a traditional environmental documentary in this sense. It trades inspiration for ambiguity, hope for confusion. But it invited me to listen to a wide range of perspectives and it certainly challenged my conceptions of environmentalism as an unconditional force for good. In fact, I cannot imagine anyone on any side of the environmentalist spectrum walking away from this film with moral superiority completely intact. I have never been more uncertain of what effective environmental activism looks like, but more than ever, I want to keep searching." —Ethan Hasiuk, Sustainability Intern.
10. Tapped (2009)
“'Tapped' asks why we choose to pay a premium price to obtain water from the virtually unregulated bottled water industry without considering its impact on people and places outside of our immediate experience. The film exposes the concealed industrial infrastructure and impacts associated with bottled water, from a natural spring in rural Fryeburg, Maine, to the Flint Hills petrochemical facility in Corpus Christi, Texas, to a plastic-covered beach in southern Florida. In short, the film effectively demonstrates that our obsession with commodifying a human right has real implications for environmental justice, the state of the Earth’s ecosystems, and our health as consumers. I was certainly frustrated about bottled water before viewing the film as I felt that it represented the most preposterous form of American consumerism, but now I see it as a product with real and severe issues throughout its entire life cycle.” —Ethan Hasiuk, Sustainability Intern.
11. Chasing Ice (2012)
“'Chasing Ice' follows environmental photographer James Balog and his expedition to the Arctic for National Geographic. In this eye-opening film, James Balog provides concrete, visual proof of the existence of global warming. As many people are eager to discredit temperature statistics or sea level changes, Balog and his team monitor the changes in glaciers over long periods of time to visually show the effects of climate change. In order to do this, Balog set up numerous cameras all over the north pole region and took time lapse videos and photos of the same glaciers over long periods of time. His videos show large glaciers melting and plunging into the ocean. Over the span of three years, some glaciers receded over 10 miles and one glacier lost as much height as the Empire State Building. Using this visual data, Balog hopes to raise awareness for global warming, showing that it can no longer be ignored or shot down as a typical 'weather cycle' of the Earth.” —Neha Goel, Sustainability Intern.
12. Water Blues Green Solutions (2014)
“'Water Blues Green Solutions' is an interactive film project, telling the stories of communities working with nature to create solutions for their water challenges – flooding, pollution, and scarcity. What really impressed me was the novelty and the hard work needed to solve these issues in an environmentally appropriate way. For example, in Philadelphia, the city deals with the overflow of sewage during heavy rainfalls into a local river, which happens to also be a source for that region's drinking water. Instead of letting the wastewater flow into this river, teams of individuals have banded together to build hundreds of green spaces and rooftop gardens throughout the region so that more rainwater will be soaked straight into the ground instead of running off into and overwhelming the sewers, thus preventing sewage overflows. Philadelphia’s innovative efforts set an example for the rest of the urbanizing world.” —Neha Goel, Sustainability Intern.