The US vice-president’s documentary was a watershed moment in bringing eco-issues to the attention of the mainstream, writes Gillian Halliday
It was over 15 years ago when former US vice president Al Gore’s polemic documentary on global warming was released globally in 2006. An Inconvenient Truth featured a slide show that by Gore’s own estimate, he had presented over a thousand times to audiences worldwide.
Its purpose was to educate audiences on what had been, up to then, a niche — obscure even — subject. An Inconvenient Truth confounded all expectations; it pushed the issue of the climate crisis into the mainstream — it was, quite simply, a game-changer.
Since then, online streaming platforms like Netflix devote entire subject categories to the subject — and devote high budgets to producing documentaries on eco subjects.
One of the streaming giant’s most respected titles is Our Planet, made by the team behind Sir David Attenborough’s Planet Earth. Billed as an examination of “how climate change impacts all living creatures”, this ambitious documentary is narrated by the respected award-winning conservationist and veteran broadcaster. It also features Penelope Cruz and has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 93%.
For a documentary series in which Attenborough appears on screen, then try David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet. Critics have touted it as one of the most powerful documentaries on climate change, in which the respected naturalist tells his own story of witnessing remarkable creatures first-hand, but also witnessing the rapid destruction of their natural environments and climates. The series’ message is stark, and frank: if we don’t make dramatic changes soon, then life as we know it will irrevocably change — and not for the better.
Also a click away on Netflix is Brave Blue World, a sustainability documentary about the world’s water crisis with serious star power. It features Matt Damon and Jaden Smith, who each have co-founded non-profits related to water, as well as scientists and pioneers around the world who have taken action to tackle problems of water scarcity and sanitation. Liam Neeson narrated the film, and called it a “must-see”.
This film is great for those looking for a documentary about water shortage that doesn’t shy away from the urgency of this problem, but is also hopeful in tone.
The impact of plastic on marine life is the subject of Netflix’s docu-film, A Plastic Ocean, which tells the story of a journalist whose documentary to film blue whales takes an unexpected turn when they discover the extent of plastic in the water, prompting them to visit dozens of places around the world to investigate how widespread the problem is. A must-watch that will likely make of us think twice about purchasing single-use plastic bottles.
Not surprising given its title, Night on Earth is a six-part Netflix series that captures the planet’s nocturnal activities. Deploying various forms of infrared technology and moonlight camera techniques, the series illuminates different terrains and creatures in never-before-witnessed ways. Narrated by actress Samira Wiley, engaging commentary is added to the description of the behaviours and happenings among the nocturnal beings.
Elsewhere, there are countless podcasts, online resources and TV programmes now all easily accessible, crammed full of facts, figures and (often alarming) statistics.
Sky News has produced The Plastic Nile, an eye-opening investigation (available via Sky or YouTube) about the effect heavy pollution is having on Egypt’s famous River Nile. The broadcaster also has within its catalogue the one-off docu-feature, Swapping Rubbish for Plants, that focuses on the story of Fatemah Alzelzela, an electrical engineer determined to persuade Kuwait to deal with its massive rubbish problem.
In the pipeline, Sky is making a series about Greenpeace and Sky Documentaries is producing its original film, Gabon (working title) that will explore the extraordinary story of a scientist from Manchester, who became the environment minister of Central African country Gabon after forming an unlikely friendship with President Ali Bongo. The country, also known as the ‘Earth’s second lung’, is at the heart of the global fight against environmental destruction and climate change. The feature length film will premiere on Sky Documentaries later this year.
But do they make a difference? Do they change people’s behaviour after they switch off? Dr Jean-Baptiste Gouyon, lecturer in science communication at University College London, insists nature documentaries — and in particular figures like Attenborough — have come full circle by embracing once again their environmentalism roots.
“It’s unfair to say they are jumping on the bandwagon, nature documentaries have always been motivated by conservation,” Dr Gouyon told media outlet Euronews.green.
In 2011, Al Gore claimed that An Inconvenient Truth had been watched nearly 9m times in five years. Over 14m people are reported to have tuned into the BBC’s 2017 series, Blue Planet II making it the most-watched TV programme in Britain that year, according to the BBC.
Dr Gouyon, however, says this does not necessary translate into change. “There is no doubt that film as a medium has massive power to elicit an emotional reaction, but there isn’t really any hard evidence to prove this yet.”
Although, it’s worth noting that a survey conducted by supermarket retailer, Waitrose, found in 2018-19 that 88% of people who watched Blue Planet II had changed their behaviour as a result.
The latest in environmentalism is not just confined to our small screens. Any quick glance of bookshelves at a major book retailer and titles based on green issues will jump out. One title full of practical advice and tips is Turning the Tide on Plastic by journalist Lucy Siegle. It’s also full of facts such as enough plastic is thrown away every year to circle the planet four times. And if we don’t take action, there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050. The journalist also believes that if just 12 readers adopt her “reduce, rethink, refill, refuse” approach, it could save up to 15,000 single-use plastic items from landfill every year.
For those interested in reducing their carbon impact should pick up, How Bad are Bananas?: The Carbon Footprint of Everything by Mike Berners-Lee. A decade on from its first publication, this ground-breaking green guide has been fully updated and expanded. Berners-Lee, brother to internet inventor Tim, is an Oxford educated professor of social futures and his book focuses on revealing the effect that everything from Google searches to volcanoes — and, of course, bananas — has on carbon emissions. He outlines to the reader clear figures and tools to help reduce our own carbon footprint.
Also offering practical advice is No More Rubbish Excuses by green activist Martin Dorey Green, the founder of #2minutebeachclean, which encourages beachgoers to spend two minutes picking up all the litter they can see.
His latest book takes this successful approach further, suggesting a host of ideas for making a difference every day, even when you’re busy.
The chapters on where our waste goes, the uncluttered guide to what we can recycle and the suggestions for simple product swaps are particular must-read and must-try tips.
To listen on the go, there are a myriad of podcasts available to stream or download. But it can be difficult to trawl through the dozens of recommendations and lists. A good starting point is the Down to Earth podcast.
Broadcaster Gemma Cairney, described the series as offering “Practical and accessible notes on tackling the environmental crisis made interesting! Thank goodness for this podcast!”
Down to Earth focuses on grassroots activists, communities and people that are working hard and making big changes for their neighbours and for the planet.
Each episode shares a different story from a new voice across the UK and tell us about the unique ways they’re working on improving social and environmental issues where they live.
Another approachable option is Sustainababble, a series that offers a weekly dose of chat about topics spanning environmental news and politics, wildlife, health and everyday sustainable living.
With hosts Ol and Dave, who openly admit their own confusion within the subject, their tongue-in-cheek humour makes for both fun and educational listening. A perfect choice for those who can find the subject of environmentalism heavy and absent of humour. The pair are particularly adept at calling out those who talk ‘eco-guff’ (a term coined proudly by the podcast team), making the murky waters of environmentalism a little bit more accessible.
Fashionistas keen to move away from the world of fast fashion should check out the Wardrobe Crisis podcast. From the author of the book, Wardrobe Crisis: How We Went from Sunday Best to Fast Fashion, Clare Press, the series — which sees episodes uploaded every one to two weeks — features guests from an array of areas within the industry in each episode, and aims to explore and examine the current fashion system and how it impacts the environment and the people around us.
Designers, brand owners, researchers and activists are just a handful of examples of featured guests, and the podcast often features notable sustainable fashion brands and their compelling stories.