Environmental issues have proved themselves to be an increasingly hot subject in film and television. With access to a wide range of environmentally-themed documentaries or movies, it might be overwhelming searching for entertaining yet educational content. From old to new, here are 20 of the best environmental films of 2021, covering topics including climate change, water ecosystems, the animal industry and sustainability.
1. The Human Element (2019)
First on our list of the best environmental films is The Human Element. Centred around climate change, The Human Element chronicles the quest of environmental photographer James Balog to highlight how the four elements — air, earth, water and fire — are being altered by the fifth element of human activity. Pioneering in its videography, the documentary reveals how global warming has drastically contributed to wildfires and hurricanes that disrupt human-nature balance. To examine the impact, Balog visits Americans at the forefront of climate change, including inhabitants of Tangier Island, a fishing community facing rising sea levels. The documentary encourages audiences to reconsider their relationship with the natural world.
2. Before the Flood (2016)
Next on our list of the best environmental films is Before the Flood, a collaboration between actor and Earth Alliance co-founder Leonardo DiCaprio and National Geographic. Taking viewers around the world, the documentary features poignant accounts of how different stakeholders are affected by climate change, through deforestation, rising sea levels and other human activities. The film calls for world leaders to fight for a more sustainable future and arms viewers with solutions they can implement into their lives, from reducing meat consumption to voting for leaders who will initiate positive environmental change.
3. Eyes of the Orangutan (2021)
A debut feature by internationally acclaimed environmental photojournalist Aaron Gekoski, Eyes of the Orangutan details the abuse of primates in the tourism industry. The film documents how orangutans and other wildlife animals are forcibly removed from their natural habitats and are made to perform for humans in degrading displays, as well as shed light on how orangutan-smuggling syndicates work. While there are no shortage of shocking and upsetting scenes, it’s an incredibly important film highlighting wildlife exploitation and tourism, and the discussion whether tourists are just as responsible and complicit in animal abuse as the poachers.
4. 2040 (2019)
2040 is a refreshingly optimistic pick if you want something less grim. Rather than focusing on the urgency of problems, the solution-oriented documentary seeks out creative alternatives to tackle challenges of climate change. In particular, it imagines technological breakthroughs which, supported by academics and ecological experts, have the potential to reverse the situation by the year 2040. Cases in point include renewable energy like rooftop solar, shifts towards regenerative agricultural practices, and the versatile use of seaweeds as a facilitator of food security.
5. An Inconvenient Truth (2006)
An Inconvenient Truth is a concert film recounting former US Vice President Al Gore’s campaign in 2000 to educate people about global warming, making the documentary stand out in its experimental narration. This presentation on climate change, Gore claims, has been delivered to worldwide audiences more than 1 000 times. Apart from detailed graphs, flow charts and visuals, the Keynote slide show also collates personal anecdotes of Gore such as his college education with an early climate expert. The film concludes with Gore stressing how “each one of us is a cause of global warming, but [….] the solutions are in our hands.” This is one of the seminal- and best- environmental films made.
6. RiverBlue (2017)
Moving on to water habitats, RiverBlue follows Canadian conservationist, professor and paddler Mark Angelo embarking on an unprecedented three-year river journey around the world. During his adventure, he unveils the irreversible damage that the global fashion industry has inflicted on water supplies. Through interactions with local conservationists interspersed with footage of rivers and seas heavily polluted by toxic chemicals, this eco-fashion film urges us to reevaluate our thirst for fast fashion and reorient our consumption practices
7. Artifishal (2019)
Produced by Patagonia, Artifishal exposes the impacts of overfishing, with a specific focus on wild salmon, which are now on the verge of extinction in North America. The documentary sheds light on the implications of wild salmon farming in aquaculture farms and fish hatcheries which is one of our many attempts to exploit nature for profit. Artifishal opens a rarely honest window on how our obsessive taste for seafood is eroding the diversity of ecological systems
8. Chasing Coral (2017)
A Netflix original documentary, Chasing Coral, captures an assembled team of divers, photographers and scientists striving to document the alarming disappearance of coral reefs in warming oceans. They set out on an ocean voyage, discovering numerous bleached coral reefs around the world. By unraveling the underwater mystery in a time-lapse framework, film producers illustrate that the looming death of aquatic life is an environmental tragedy of our own making and can only be prevented through active intervention.
9. David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet (2020)
This new documentary serves as the “witness statement” of 94-year-old naturalist David Attenborough, who traces his career as a natural historian and outlines how the biodiversity of our planet has degenerated over his lifetime. The narrative starts in Pripyat, the ghost city home to the former Chernobyl Nuclear Plant, and traverses across various locations including the African Serengeti. He laments over a drastic decline in wildlife, caused by humans. Attenborough ultimately articulates hopes for the future and brings to the forefront solutions that may restore biodiversity. Looking at his career that spans five decades, this could easily go down as one of the best environmental films of all time.
10. My Octopus Teacher (2020)
A moving documentary released by Netflix, My Octopus Teacher captures filmmaker and diver Craig Foster forging a peculiar friendship with a wild common octopus. Filmed in an underwater kelp forest in False Bay near Cape Town, South Africa, his once-in-a-lifetime experience includes tracking the octopus’s movements every day, witnessing how the octopus defends herself against pyjama sharks and eventually dies after mating. Foster describes the effect of this unusual encounter on his life and further reflects on his relationship with his son, who has now become interested in the wonders of marine life.
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11. Racing Extinction (2015)
The illegal animal trade is one of the most pressing threats to wildlife. In Racing Extinction, a team of eco-activists go on a mission to explore the man-made causes of the ongoing Anthropogenic mass extinction, fingering animal poaching and trafficking as the most prominent cause. Horrors of the black-market animal trade are disclosed, including the shark fin and manta ray gill plate trade in Hong Kong and mainland China for traditional medicines. The film also identifies the Amphibian extinction crisis and that of the Florida grasshopper sparrow, among others, as causes for concern.
12. The Ivory Game (2016)
The poaching of elephants for ivory is inarguably a paradigmatic example of unsustainable trade in wildlife commodities, which is exactly what The Ivory Game delves into. This Netflix documentary features two undercover filmmakers investigating the multi-million-dollar ivory trade in China and Hong Kong, as well as its complexities and repercussions. The documentary also delves into the deep-rooted corruption fuelling the trade. Meant to incite a worldwide call to stop the trade, the film warns us of the impending extinction of elephants within the next 15 years if no action is taken.
13. Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret (2014)
Also centred on the animal industry, Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret dissects the catastrophic impacts of animal agriculture such as deforestation, water pollution and topsoil erosion. Identified as the most destructive industry facing the planet (and ironically the most unchallenged one), animal agriculture is further revealed to be responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the combined exhaust from all transportation. Implicit at the heart of the documentary also suggests a certain reluctance for leading environmental organisations to openly discuss this issue, and filmmaker Kip Andersen further probes their policies.
14. Virunga (2014)
This Oscar-nominated film chronicles the story of four rangers who have risked their lives to save Africa’s most precious national park and its endangered gorillas, which are some of the world’s last mountain gorillas. Helmed by filmmaker Orlando von Einsiedel and executively produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, the documentary follows events that occurred in Congo’s Virunga National Park during the rise of the violent M23 Rebellion in 2012 and investigates British oil company Soco International’s oil drilling activities and exploration within the World Heritage Site. Soon after the film’s release, Soco officially ended all oil exploration in Virunga in April 2014 following significant criticism, demonstrating the true power of documentaries and making it one of the best environmental films.
15. No Impact Man (2009)
If you’re looking for a more intimate story that inspires change, this is a must-watch. In No Impact Man, American writer and blogger Colin Beavan partakes in a year-long experiment to radically reduce his carbon footprint, but his wife is hesitant to abandon her consumer comforts. The struggles that characterise the zero-carbon experience of the Manhattan-based couple invite viewers to individually question their personal habits and lifestyle choices. This is a light-hearted look at environmentalism that might perhaps strike us as more relatable: After all, who doesn’t get emotionally stressed when trying to change our ways.
16. Food Inc. (2008)
Sustainability covers multiple aspects, food being one of the most notable. Food Inc. looks into how the fast food model employing harmful practices of corporate farming and agribusiness degrade the health of people and our planet. The film inspects the industrial production of meat and grains and vegetables and wraps up by pointing out the manipulative power of American multinational corporations who supply cheap but chemical-ridden food. By drawing attention to the recent booming trend of organic foods, the film compels us to make more environmentally conscious eating choices.
17. Catching the Sun (2015)
Energy is another aspect that sustainability touches upon. This documentary addresses the business of renewable energy by portraying unemployed workers in Richmond, Northern California engaging in green-collar job training to work in the field of solar installation. Also referencing the history of solar technology in the US and success stories of German and Indian clean energy businesses, Catching the Sun debunks the misconception that renewable energy requires sacrificing economic prosperity. Instead, these solutions are becoming more affordable, hopefully paving the way for a cleaner, greener future.
18. Just Eat it! A Food Waste Story (2019)
Follow Canadian couple, Grant Baldwin and Jen Rustemeyer, as they attempt to survive exclusively on food waste over the course of six months in this entertaining yet educational documentary work. With the goal to illustrate our “systematic obsession with expiry dates, perfect produce, and portion sizes”, the films encourages audiences to re-examine how they view food and relationship with it. Featuring interviews with author and activist Tristram Stuart and acclaimed author Jonathan Bloom, Just Eat It will make you reconsider throwing out food every time you eat out in a restaurant and bypassing ‘ugly’ produce at the grocery store.
19. Extinction: The Facts (2020)
The world is in the midst of a sixth mass extinction caused by human activity such as deforestation, poaching and overfishing, not to mention, climate change. Narrated by David Attenborough, the documentary delves into how our actions and development is pushing one million species to the brink of extinction, as well as how biodiversity is linked to epidemics such as Ebola. But it’s not all doom and gloom, the renowned naturalist explores the different solutions in which we can slow down and prevent this rapid biodiversity loss, including putting environmental labels on food products, slashing the demand of agricultural land by reducing food waste, curbing our use of pesticides, and regulate fishing.
20. The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
Documentaries aside, here is an apocalyptic action movie in the realms of science fiction. The Day After Tomorrow is loosely based on the climate-induced disruption of the North Atlantic Ocean circulation, triggering global cooling and inevitably, a new ice age. Racked by abrupt global warming, the dystopian world drives home the message that human pursuits are transforming the climate which might lead us into unforeseen peril in the face of nature’s wrath.
21. Seaspiracy (2021)
This is last on our list of the best environmental films, although certainly not least. Seaspiracy is a shocking documentary film about the environmental impact of fishing. The film examines various human impacts on marine life and advocates for ending fish consumption.
Whether your tastes lean more towards plot-based narratives or documentaries, this list of some of the best environmental films offers something for everyone to get a rounded view on the problems of today and the potential solutions that come along.
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