Fifty years ago, on April 22, 1970, some 20 million people across the United States, young and old, took to the streets to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment. That first-ever Earth Day celebration gave voice to an emerging public consciousness about the state of our planet and marked the birth of the modern environmental movement.
In the years that followed, Earth Day morphed into an annual global event with people in more than 190 countries taking part in the celebrations.
As this year’s Earth Day approaches, all long-planned, in-person gatherings to celebrate half a century of the environmental movement have been cancelled.
This coming Wednesday, we won’t be able to go out on the streets to shout out our love for this living planet. Most of us will still be under shelter-in-place orders. Many others will be actively fighting a virus that has by now afflicted more than 2 million people and shutdown economies across the world.
The world’s largest civic event will have to be celebrated digitally. Earth Day organizers have planned many virtual events and activities for the next week to commemorate the day, from taking individual “green” actions at home to participating in online climate discussions.
I would like to add one more item to that list of ways to celebrate — stream a film.
Movies are produced to entertain. Films are made to engage and inspire. Now, more than ever, we need both. In times of uncertainty, people often turn to motion pictures to escape, yet seek connection to, the world we live in. Thanks to Netflix, Hulu, and HBO, this new golden age of content is anchored by what I call, cause cinema — films that use socially-relevant storytelling to inspire change. In recent years Participant Media has been a pioneer in the field — producing a number of award-winning documentaries, including An Inconvenient Truth, Last Call at the Oasis, and Citizen Four — and inviting advocacy groups to build action-based campaigns around them.
In celebration on Earth Day, I give you a selection of 10 of the best documentaries on the environment released in the past decade that you can watch online. From climate change to marine life sustainability, from personal journeys to cultural movements, this collection of environmentally focused documentaries promises to engage and inspire.
In the 1960s, a small band of young scientists entered the wilderness, driven by a curiosity about how nature works. From the Arctic Ocean to the Pacific tide pools, from the majestic Serengeti to the Amazon jungle, they encountered a set of rules that govern all life. Now in the twilight of their distinguished careers, these five heroes present the stories of their adventures in the wild, sharing insights on their surprising discoveries. The Serengeti Rules manages to help the viewer to see the beauty of our natural world in the way an ecologist might, while pointing to ideas that can help shape the future.
In this adventure-oriented documentary, five friends embark on a 3-month, 1,200-mile expedition down the Rio Grande to document the borderlands before construction of the US-Mexico border wall changes the landscape. Via canoe, mountain bike, and horseback, these heroes explore how the construction would impact wildlife, immigration, public lands, border security, and landowners. Thanks to beautiful cinematography, we see 1,000-foot high canyons and lush forests in the path of Trump’s proposed wall. By the end of this epic and thoughtful expedition, you’re left with a better understanding of the vast ramifications of this foolhardy enterprise.
Support Sierra Club’s campaign against the wall.
This award-winning film shares the story of one man’s mission to show people the truth about climate change. Director Jeff Orlowski builds the film around National Geographic photographer James Balog’s obsessive determination to collect visual evidence of our changing landscape. Using time-lapse cameras installed at remote locations around Alaska, Montana, Nepal, Iceland, and Greenland, Balog manages to capture the incredible speed at which our ice sheets are melting and raising sea levels. We get scientific proof of climate change with stunning cinematography.
This Sundance Audience Award winner feels more like a fiction thriller than a documentary. We follow undercover investigators, environmentalists, journalists, and the Mexican Navy in their efforts to combat Mexican drug cartels and Chinese traffickers and save the Vaquita, the world’s most endangered cetacean, from extinction. Sea of Shadows demonstrates the impact of man’s desire to ignore fundamental values of marine life, while sharing the bravery of those determined to bring an international crime syndicate to justice.
Actor Leonardo DiCaprio meets with scientists, activists, and world leaders to discuss the dangers of climate change and explore possible solutions. The result of his three-year journey challenges humanity to reverse what many believe to be the most catastrophic problem we’ve ever faced. The filmmakers wanted to provide the viewer with a sense of urgency, and help with suggestions, based on scientific studies. The first half of the film successfully makes its case for the climate change problem, while the second half offers a sense of hope.
Join the movement to keep your community safe from climate impacts.
This powerful documentary presents a unique perspective on climate change, through the lens of national security. Military veterans take viewers beyond the headlines of the conflicts to demonstrate how increased resource scarcity due to climate change drives conflict. Using the conflict in Syria, the social unrest of the Arab Spring, and the consequent European refugee crisis as examples, the film shows how the climate issues continue to elevate cultural tensions. The film uncovers insights and new twists on the global climate change crisis. Thankfully, it offers solutions as to what to do about it.
From the Montana Rockies to the fields of Kansas to the Gulf of Mexico, this groundbreaking documentary showcases the successes of a new crop of conservation heroes. Narrated by veteran journalist Tom Brokaw, Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman is the inspiring story of heartland conservation based on a book by best selling author Miriam Horn of the Environmental Defense Fund. The filmmakers and subjects make a strong case, and offer yet another wake up call, about the state of farming in the United States. Two centuries ago, we’re informed, 80 percent of Americans worked in agricultural sector. Now only 1 percent of the population manages two-thirds of our agricultural land.
From Fiji to the Bahamas, Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of renowned ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, and his children explore the world’s oceans to learn about the threats they faces. Lighter than most social impact films, the family friendly Wonders of the Sea offers an illuminating and enjoyable look at our oceans’ explosive biodiversity and a meditation on our powerful connection to the sea. This feast for the eyes took five years to complete and will certainly help inspire our youth to fall in love with the oceans. We can only hope this will help drive our next generation’s resolve to protect its dwindling resources and endangered eco-balance. After all, oceans provide 50 percent of the oxygen we breathe.
Support Cousteau’s efforts to save the seas via Ocean Futures Society.
This remarkable film takes us into the magical world of fungi, showing us their power to heal, sustain, and contribute to the regeneration of life on Earth. We see an underground network that can heal and save our planet. Through the eyes of renowned scientists and mycologists like Paul Stamets and best-selling authors Michael Pollan, Eugenia Bone, Andrew Weil, and others, we become aware of the beauty, intelligence, and solutions the fungi kingdom offers us to some of our most pressing medical, therapeutic, and environmental challenges. Fantastic Fungi was one of 2019’s most thought provoking and entertaining success stories. Magical indeed, this immersive visual feast has the power to shift our consciousness.
Filmed over the course of eight years, The Biggest Little Farm follows John and Molly Chester, who leave behind their urban life and move into a 200-acre farm. The couple was determined to escape the circus of Los Angeles and live in harmony with nature. We get to watch their rollercoaster ride, as they face the daunting task of creating a biodiverse farm. This little movie, which created a big buzz during its festival run, offers a big dose of inspiration, hope, and a future direction for us to consider. Little Farm offers new strategies for better living through a stronger connection to Mother Earth.
Learn about some of the biggest little ways you can have an impact on your ecosystem.