Essential environmental documentaries that’ll make you want to change the world

The planet is changing – and not for the better. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of information out there. So, to mark the release of 2040, Sarah Ward recommends a bunch of environmental documentaries that explore different aspects of climate change. 

The planet is changing, and not for the better. Indeed, the news keeps worsening. According to the latest data, one million of the planet’s species are at risk of extinction due to human activity and the resulting shifts to the climate, habitats and natural resources that has come with it. It’s a call to action, although it’s not the first – and, as the new Australian documentary 2040 shows, filmmakers are responding.

Written and directed by Damon Gameau, who also features on-screen, 2040 is shaped as a letter to his young daughter, envisaging how the world will look to her in 21 years. As he did with That Sugar Film, the actor-turned-filmmaker makes his quest personal; however science and solutions drive his impassioned documentary. From food production to transportation to energy, Gameau explores how technology that’s available today could change the planet for the better.

Inspiring the audience to follow his lead is part of 2040’s purpose – and if you’re looking for more information, plenty of other films are here to help. From high-profile overviews, to diving deep into the impact of climate change on the oceans and animals, to the environmental cost of the fashion industry, we’ve put together your eco-conscious viewing list.

For the bigger picture

An Inconvenient Truth and An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power

It might be the most famous Powerpoint presentation ever given. Back in 2006, former US Vice President Al Gore drew upon one of his slide shows and made a damning case about the extent of global warming, with An Inconvenient Truth sparking global attention and winning two Academy Awards. A sequel, subtitled Truth to Power, followed eleven years later. Both prove the perfect duo for an engaging big picture look at climate change, its impact and the efforts needed to combat it in a broad sense.

Watch An Inconvenient Truth on Google Play, Kanopy, Microsoft Playstation or iTunes

Watch An Inconvenient Sequel on Google Play, Microsoft or iTunes

For a dive into the ocean

Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral

An array of stunning imagery sits at the heart of Jeff Orlowski’s Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral, which were made five years apart. They jump from above to below the sea’s surface and provide a heartbreaking overview of how the world’s oceans are changing. The sight of glaciers calving and coral fading isn’t easily forgotten – and speaks as loudly about the impact of global warming as facts and figures. Indeed, to revel in the visual beauty of the documentarian’s films is to stare directly at the planet’s environmental devastation.

Watch Chasing Ice on Netflix, Google Play or iTunes

Watch Chasing Coral on Netflix

For animal lovers

Racing Extinction

After exploring the Japanese dolphin-hunting industry in Oscar-winning documentary The Cove, filmmaker Louie Psihoyos broadened his focus, examining the impact of humanity upon earth’s animal population. Urgent and earnest, Racing Extinction provides a thorough snapshot of not only the consequences of global warming, but of agriculture, fishing and the illegal wildlife trade. The result remains eye-opening, even as it covers well-known ground.

Watch Racing Extinction on Google Play

For humanity’s waste problem

Waste Land

Nearly a decade after its release, Lucy Walker’s Waste Land still holds up as a testament to one of the biggest physical markers of human civilisation. As a species, it’s not just what we built that’s important, but also what we use, discard and leave behind. Like the artist at its centre, Vik Muniz, this documentary finds inspiration and hope in mountains of waste; however the film still offers an astounding exploration of the world’s largest garbage dump in Brazil. It proves the case in many environmental docos, but it’s still true here: seeing is believing.

Watch Wasteland on YouTube

For examination of air pollution

Under the Dome

Self-financed by a former China Central Television journalist, Under the Dome has been called the country’s answer to An Inconvenient Truth. That applies both to its lecture style and its environmental content, exposing the extent of the country’s air pollution levels. Any film on the subject was never going to paint a pretty picture, and the message of Chai Jing’s comprehensive documentary is indeed bleak. After more than 300 million views in less than a week after its 2015 release, the film proved so inconvenient for the Chinese government that they had it removed.

Watch Under the Dome on

For fast-fashion junkines

The True Cost

The glamorous side of fashion earns ample attention. The toll, not only on garment industry workers but on the environment, is only just starting to receive considerable focus. The True Cost hones its gaze on the cheap, seasonal items that grace many retailers shelves, aka fast fashion. Director Andrew Morgan dissects the wholesale shift towards manufacturing in developing countries, the poor labour conditions and practices, and the ecological toll – as well as the trend cycle that drives western consumers to endlessly covet the latest looks in a disposable manner.

Watch The True Cost on Netflix or iTunes

For a look at our food habits

Food, Inc

If we are what we eat, then much of the world is a swirling mass of problems – or so Food, Inc posits. Exposing the practices at the heart of the modern food industry, this documentary isn’t recommended viewing over dinner – and it’ll likely influence what you eat for some time afterwards. Filmmaker Robert Kenner doesn’t only focus on the environmental ramifications of agriculture, including livestock farming and grain and vegetable production; however investigating the subject and pondering the planet are impossible to separate.

Watch Food, Inc on Google Play

For an exploration of energy

To the Ends of the Earth

With Oscar-winner Emma Thompson lending the film her melodious vocal tones, The Ends of the Earth examines humanity’s energy needs – historically, at present and from this point onwards. Unsurprisingly, fossil fuels are in the spotlight, in a documentary that doesn’t hide its fondness for a radically different future. Personal tales assist, spanning the impact of oil drilling on Inuit villages, the disrupting effects of shale projects and the increasing toll of relying upon oil, coal and gas.

Watch To the Ends of the Earth no Vimeo or Kanopy