Seven Documentaries That Changed How We Interact With Our Planet

Our planet is in trouble. The effects of human impact on the planet are already visible with the melting of ice sheets, increased CO2 in the atmosphere, the potential of a megafauna extinction, and massive garbage patches floating in our oceans. It can all be pretty overwhelming.

So what can we do as individuals? We need transportation. We need food. We need shelter. Longterm solutions often entail a level of sacrifice that most people aren’t willing to make. Whereas short term solutions can feel like putting a Band-Aid on a trauma wound. The situation demands a global shift in mindset.

Enter the documentary film. For decades, documentaries have made a dramatic impact on public opinion across a wide range of topics. In the field of ecology, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth essentially jumpstarted the green movement. In the years since, other documentaries have widened and deepened the conversation.

Are we on path to salvation? Or apocalypse? It’s hard to say these days. Maybe some of these movies can help us find the answers.


Al Gore’s lecture film was a juggernaut that launched a whole genre of climate change documentaries (and, it could be argued, the TED phenomenon). It also won him an Oscar and Nobel Peace Prize (along with every other award).

Ten years later, we seem to have arrived at Gore’s “tipping point.” Is the battle already lost? That’s hard to say. On one hand, parts of the world are being torn apart due to adverse weather caused by global warming. On the other hand, we’ve made incredible advancements in breaking our dependence on fossil fuels.

The fight for our future rages on.


This documentary is a living example of just how shockingly fast ice sheets are melting and plunging into our oceans.

Photographer James Balog tackles this mammoth project to highlight with firsthand observation that the science is correct — the ice is melting. In fact, the Greenland ice sheet is melting so much faster than expected that scientists thought their model was broken. NASA notes that “together, Greenland and Antarctica contain about 75 percent of the world’s fresh water, enough to raise sea level by over 75 meters.”


Speaking of rising water, the Maldives is a very low country sea-level-wise. Their average height above sea-level is 4-foot-11, or one Danny Devito. The Island President asks the world to take into account that the seas are rising and we’re at risk of completely losing an entire nation.

Mohamed Nasheed fights across the world for recognition and action to literally save his country. Given today’s attitude towards refugees fleeing Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Mali, and other countries thrown into turmoil in no small part due to climate change, where are the Maldives’ 400,000 citizens (who are 98.5 percent Muslim) going to go?


Here’s the rub. Climate of Doubt plunges into how the debate over climate change being unassailable was invented and propagated by sections of our government and industry. Nefarious is probably the best word to describe it. Lobby groups and conservatives harnessed the same tactics used by big tobacco to keep the public at best confused, at worst completely in the dark about hard scientific consensus. Journalist John Hockenberry lets both sides state their piece. And he’s not shy about calling out climate change deniers on their bullsh*t. Jon Stewart would be proud.

This documentary offers a stark reminder that — before outside meddling — this wasn’t a political issue. Conservative stalwarts like Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney used to fully engage in bi-partisan solutions to fight the climate change caused by human activity. Then it stopped. Why? This film illuminates that the right’s petty hatred of Al Gore led them to politicize the issue as something the left cared about and, thus, the right should fight.


Working toward a fossil free energy future is a reality. It’s happening now. The Switch examines our love affair with energy and how we can carry on with real resources that are renewable and carbon neutral.

The film also examines our inability to let go of fossil fuel extraction and posits why it is so hard for us to let go…hint, energy lobbies. The film relies heavily on facts and figures that can bog down the narrative (it’s an educational piece after all) but that doesn’t detract from the film’s importance and the huge amount of information it offers the viewer.


It’s paramount to remember that many of the renewable energy companies are just that — companies. Their product may be a net positive for the environment, but that doesn’t mean a profit motive isn’t involved. Windfall follows a small community that was partially hoodwinked into signing up to convert their fallow farms into wind farms. The financial windfall saved many in the community. Then reality set in.

There’s a reason wind farms are generally out at sea or in deserts. They’re dangerous, loud, and cast shadows that can have negative psychological effects. Laura Israel investigates the real impact of wind farms in rural communities in this illuminating documentary of corporate greed versus energy sustainability.


Following up on An Inconvenient Truth, Leonardo DiCaprio’s foray into climate change documentaries explores and deepens many of the threads that came up in Gore’s film. Instead of using the lecture format, The 11th Hour employs 50 experts, including Stephen Hawking, to offer hard science paired with real-world solutions.

Although Leo’s movie lacks the ferocity of Gore’s film, it reminds us that solutions are within our grasp. All we need to do is open our eyes to them.

Check out new, seemingly impossible feats of recycling on the third season of Human Resources premiering on Pivot Friday, August 26 at 7:30e/p.

This article was created as part of our partnership with RECESS.