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Environmental documentaries we all need to see

We take a look at some of the vital climate films shocking people into action

While the pioneering underwater filmmaker Jacques Cousteau opened our eyes to new subaquatic spectacles and decades of David Attenborough environmental documentaries have demonstrated the variety and wealth of biodiversity, the climate emergency means that simply showing people the marvels of nature isn’t enough. Showing ecosystems under threat isn’t even enough. They outline the problems and emphasise how we can and must help.

Here are some of the best and most urgent environmental documentaries making people think about their behaviour for the better. These films show the causes and chilling effects of plastic pollution while also shining a light on how the climate emergency can be avoided.

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Blue Planet 2 

The landmark television shows voiced by David Attenborough from Life on Earth to A Perfect Planet have, at various times, reflected, lagged behind and driven public opinion on environmental matters in the UK.

As far back as 1984, The Living Planet felt ahead of the curve in the way it explored the impact of humans on the environment. But by 2017, there was a demand for much more. And Blue Planet 2 was a gamechanger.

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When episode four aired, footage of a pilot whale carrying its dead newborn calf hit viewers hard, with the knowledge that the likely cause of death was toxic levels of plastic in its mother’s milk particularly hard to stomach.

David Attenborough‘s voiceover then explains just how much plastic is present in our oceans and what this could mean in the future unless human behaviour changed and plastic consumption was rapidly reduced.

By the time we saw albatross chicks being fed plastic and a hawksbill turtle caught up and unable to feed, millions were pledging to change their consumption habits. Powerful storytelling, brilliant cinematography, with a new and much-needed political edge.

Watch now on iPlayer

The Mermaid’s Tears: Oceans of Plastic

It has taken just three generations to pollute our oceans for centuries to come. That is the frightening conclusion drawn by this vital documentary – which lays out precisely and brilliantly the impact of plastic pollution on the world’s oceans.

From bottles bobbing up and down on the sea’s surface to tiny particles on the sea bed 1000m below, plastic is everywhere now. And the darker and colder the ocean, the longer this pollution will linger and the more it will infiltrate all aspects of marine life.

This brilliant film, available on The Big Issue TV, shows how it gets there – with cameras tracking trash floating down Compton Creek, which feeds into the Los Angeles river before heading out into the Pacific Ocean — the damage done by plastic to marine life across the globe, and what we can do to fix it. The chilling effect of plastic pollution has never been better explained.

Watch now on The Big Issue TV

The Story of Plastic

This terrific film premiered on the Discovery Channel last Earth Day and is a devastating expose of the truth about plastic pollution and the inadequacy of global plastic recycling efforts.

How else to explain these damning stats: a whopping 32% of plastic packaging ends up littering the environment and 40 per cent ends up in landfill. The rest is evenly split between incineration and recycling, though only 2 per cent of plastic is effectively recycled.

Global Recycling Day, or indeed any day, could be the right time to get clued up and think again about how we can move beyond plastic. The idea that recycling plastic is as good as reducing our usage of plastic is false. This Discovery Channel film, by highlighting human rights abuses as well as the environmental damage produced by plastic and its disposal, makes a compelling case for attempting to go zero waste.

Watch now on NowTV until June 1

There’s Something In The Water

Directed by brilliant Canadian actor Elliot Page, this Netflix documentary asks who is most harmed by environmental catastrophe and finds, not for the first time, that it is minority communities and people living in poverty that are most at risk.

The film begins by showing how black and First Nations communities are so often situated closest to toxic, polluting industries and landfill sites in Page’s home province of Nova Scotia – known as Canada’s ocean playground. It shows how high levels of cancer in a black community there went unaddressed. And speaks to activists and marginalised communities in search of answers.

The film suggests that, if even a self-proclaimed and proudly progressive country like Canada has serious issues with environmental racism, we can be sure it is as bad or worse elsewhere. A desperate plea for profound change, based on an original book by Dr Ingrid Waldron.

Watch now on Netflix

Smoke and Fumes: The Climate Change Cover-Up 

This vital film exposes six decades of climate change cover-up, revealing how huge corporations funded campaigns and scientific studies tasked with talking down the climate change emergency.

The methods used are frightening. As the film shows, since 1957 companies such as Exxon and Shell have known that burning fossil fuels sparks climate change – and as well as suppressing this information, they actively prepared for a warmer world, building oil rigs to withstand rising sea levels and Arctic pipelines to withstand melting permafrost.

“For me, this is the biggest scandal in human history” says one high-ranking environmental lawyer in Washington. It’s hard to argue with him.

Taking the story from the 1950s right up to the Trump presidency, this film exposes why climate change denial remains big business, and how climate change deniers became so entrenched in their worldview. It’s so important to know your enemy. And this film is an ideal place to begin the fightback against disinformation.

Watch now on The Big Issue TV

Trashed

Top actor Jeremy Irons looks at consumption and pollution in this documentary that, again, calls for an urgent move towards zero waste and properly sustainable levels of consumption.

The film visits sites in Yorkshire and Gloucestershire where toxic landfill is causing serious health issues, and travels as far afield as Iceland to a garbage incinerator whose filters failed, mountains of plastic waste in Lebanon and compares the relative success of San Francisco in comparison to New York when it comes to recycling and reduction of waste.

When there is more trash than life in the deep ocean, the environment is in big trouble. Have the warnings been heeded? No they have not, meaning Irons’ film is almost a decade more vital and urgent now than when it was made.

Watch now on Vimeo

My Octopus Teacher

Marrying the Cousteau tradition of celebrating the other with an impassioned plea for us to connect to nature for mutually beneficial results, My Octopus Teacher sees South African filmmaker Craig Foster, dealing with mental health struggles, begin diving in the same spot near his home. One day he had a close encounter with a remarkable octopus.

Documenting the triumphs and tragedies of this extraordinary cephalopod became an obsession. He returned to the same spot every day for over a year and the footage is jaw-droppingly astounding.

Not only will My Octopus Teacher change your view on what intelligent life on Earth truly means, but it is also one of the most moving, heartening and heartbreaking love stories over caught on film. Yes, really.

Watch now on Netflix

The Race to Save the World

Rather than focusing on frightening statistics and abstract predictions, The Race to Save the World follows the humans prepared to sacrifice everything for humanity.

Interviewing environmental campaigners on the front line, the film follows their lives through protests and arrests, courtroom dramas and family turmoil, finding out why they risk relationships, careers and often their freedom.

At its heart, the film is an inspiring call to action, urging each one of us to get involved and make our voices heard before it’s too late.

Watch now on theracetosavetheworld.com

Seaspiracy

Few films have generated as much debate and controversy than Ali Tabrizi’s Seaspiracy.

Some of the stats used may be outdated, some quotes from contributors taken out of context, but Seaspiracy’s conclusion that we have to eat less fish is impossible to deny.

Five million fish are caught and killed every minute. While 25 million acres of forest are destroyed on land each year, 3.9 billion acres of crucial seafloor habitat is decimated by bottom trawling. Bycatch and modern slavery are massive issues. The notion of sustainable fishing or dolphin-safe products is a myth.

Think we’ve made a positive impact by banning plastic straws? An estimated 0.03 per cent of plastic in the ocean are straws, while 46 per cent of waste floating in the Great Pacific garbage patch comes from the fishing industry. Around 1,000 turtles are killed by plastic each year, around 250,000 are killed in fishing nets.

A film guaranteed to stir debate and ruin your next fish supper.

Watch now on Netflix

The Year Earth Changed

We’re very aware of the overnight evolution we had to make when Covid reached our shores, but humans weren’t 
the only ones who had to adapt over the last year.

The Year Earth Changed explores a welcome silver lining to this very cloudy time as changes in our behaviour – reducing cruise ship traffic, closing beaches for periods – had a positive impact on nature.

From being able to hear birdsong better in deserted cities, to encountering capybaras in South American suburbs, the benefits in the natural world brought benefits to us.

The ways nature bounced back can give us hope for the future, and if that’s not heartwarming enough, the film is narrated by none other than Sir David Attenborough.

Available now on Apple TV+

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