Documentaries are a great way to learn more about environmentalism and nature without having to pore over a bunch of scientific studies and research papers.
I find that the best documentaries usually have three things in common; firstly they identify the challenges we face, secondly they accurately determine the cause of these problems, and thirdly they propose some kind of solution. Because it can’t all be bad news…right?
These 10 docs all fit the bill and cover a wide range of topics. This is by no means and exhaustive list and I plan to make a second and third edition down the line. But for now, here are 10 of my favourite sustainability docs.
(It’s not all doom and gloom, I promise!)
Let’s start with one you’ve probably heard of. David Attenborough is known around the globe for his work on breath-taking nature documentaries such as Planet Earth and The Blue Planet. And Our Planet has its fair share of beautiful footage, but its aim is quite different.
Here Attenborough and his team examine the impact that human beings have had on some of the world’s greatest and most celebrated ecosystems.
Each episode focuses on a different region or habitat and shows us the real-life consequences of our environmental choices.
Available on Vimeo | 50 mins
It goes without saying that fresh water is one of the most precious natural resources on our planet.
In RiverBlue, conservationist Mark Angelo gives us an insight into the damaging effect that the fashion industry is having on our worlds waterways.
He visits some of the most toxic rivers in the world, examining the consequences of pollution on local populations, and identifying ways for the fashion industry to help create a more sustainable future.
The Biggest Little Farm
The uplifting and educational story of John and Molly Chester who in 2010 decided to build their very own biodiverse, sustainable farm in California.
The documentary follows their trials and tribulations over the course of seven years as they try to implement natural forms of farming and create a thriving ecosystem for their plants and animals.
This is one of my personal favourites, providing a great insight into permaculture and the challenges of keeping a sustainable business alive.
Before the Flood
Made by National Geographic, this documentary follows environmentalist and actor Leonardo DiCaprio over the course of three years as he looks to document the consequences of climate change and find out if there is a way for the damage to be reversed.
Along the way he speaks to experts in various environmental fields as well as world leaders in the run up to the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.
This documentary covers a lot and as a result it isn’t as detailed as some others on this list, but it is an urgent call to action that is definitely worth the watch.
A Life on Our Planet
Available on Netflix | 1hr 54 mins
Another David Attenborough production, but this one is a little different again. This standalone film tracks the impact of human beings on our environment over the course of Attenborough’s 70-year career as a nature filmmaker and environmentalist.
Attenborough describes this film as his “witness statement”, and it provides a very powerful insight into just how much our planet has been changed, particularly from the perspective of a man who saw those changes happen first-hand. He also examines the ways in which we can help reverse this damage and be better in the future.
Coral reefs play host to some of the planets most vibrant and important forms of marine life, but many are now at risk of disappearing entirely. In this documentary, a group of scientists, divers and photographers set out to understand and document the bleaching and disappearance of the world’s reefs.
This film does an incredible job of highlighting the importance of coral bleaching, which is too often seen as an “out of sight out of mind” issue. Both beautiful and haunting, it will give you a whole new appreciation for life on the reef.
Available on Sky Store | 1hr 32 mins
By now most of us know the main environmental challenges and problems we face. But identifying the problems is only half the battle. We need solutions that look to the future, and that’s exactly the kind of forward thinking that 2040 tries to provide.
This documentary focuses on the people all over the world who are finding new and innovative ways to tackle to our world’s environmental problems. These solutions range from eco-friendly agriculture and renewable energy methods, to environmental education and changes in the ways we govern ourselves.
Ice on Fire
Climate change is a very real threat and in Ice on Fire, DiCaprio again takes us along as he explores the science behind global warming. The jargon of climate change can be difficult to get your head round but this doc does a great job of making the complicated stuff more digestible, particularly in explaining the role of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane.
The film also focuses on various methods for sequestering or reabsorbing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere in order to reduce our net carbon footprint and prevent a catastrophic climate event in the future.
Available on Netflix | 1hr 42 mins
Our oceans are a good indicator of the health of our planet, and right now the vital signs are worrying. In this film, journalist Craig Leeson along with a team of divers, researchers and scientists set out to document and understand the impact of plastic pollution on our seas and oceans, as well as offer some potential solutions to the plastics problem.
They examine the effects of all types of plastics on marine life, from large plastics that can be a choking hazard for various sea creatures, to cancer-causing microplastics which are eaten and release toxic materials into the food chain.
Fools & Dreamers
Available on YouTube (Free) | 30 mins
And finally, there are few places on earth that show our planet’s natural beauty quite like New Zealand. In this short and sweet documentary, Hugh Wilson takes us inside Hinewai Nature Reserve, a 1500-hectare reserve which, in the space of 30 years under his supervision, has gone from a patch of inefficient farmland to a thriving forest full of native flora and fauna.
His work perfectly illustrates nature’s ability to thrive when left alone, something we could all do a little more often.
Psst… If you can’t afford to pay for any of the above documentaries, or if they have been removed from streaming sites, some of them are regularly uploaded to YouTube, Vimeo or Dailymotion for free. You didn’t hear it from me….