Today, Thursday 22 April, is also known as Earth Day 2021—a day to take action, learn more about the state of our planet, and read listicles on five ways to help save it. While there’s nothing wrong with trying to have an impact in the fight to protect our environment—on the contrary, we’re the first to delve into topics such as climate fear and low carbon travelling, among many others—we also understand that sometimes, the best way to get involved is to watch a poignant and eye-opening documentary. That’s why, to celebrate this year’s Earth Day, we listed 15 must-watch documentaries on nature and climate change based on the top fan ratings on IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes.
If you didn’t expect this little gem to rank first, then I don’t know what to tell you. David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet is the best nature documentary according to IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes fans, with an impressive average rating of 9.3 out of a possible 10. Known for voicing environmental issues throughout the decades, the British natural historian Sir David Attenborough shares his concerns about humanity’s harmful impacts on nature and his hopes for the future of our planet. Available on Netflix.
Also narrated by broadcasting veteran Sir David Attenborough, Netflix’s first nature documentary series Our Planet and Africa come in joint second place with an average rating of 9.2 out of 10. Both series focus on wildlife and habitats, with Our Planet also revealing the impacts of climate change in species and ecosystems.
Kiss the Ground claims third place with an average rating of 9.1 out of 10. Narrated by Woody Harrelson and featuring celebrities such as Gisele Bündchen, Tom Brady and Patricia Arquette, the film turns the spotlight on regenerative agriculture and the potential benefits of this alternative farming on our fight against climate change.
A follow-up to the 2001 award-winning show The Blue Planet, this natural history series sees Sir David Attenborough (yes, again) return as narrator and host. A breathtaking exploration of the world’s vast oceans, its hour-long episodes capture animals and other living organisms in their natural habitat—presenting viewers with a fascinating insight into what life is like underwater. From tropical seas to the harsh conditions of the Arctic, the makers of Blue Planet II use modern filming equipment and techniques to shine a light on areas of the planet that humans have never seen before.
“A distinctive and memorable tale of how a filmmaker formed an unusual friendship with an octopus that taught him more about life than he expected. It’s a movie that’s unabashedly sentimental but also thoroughly entertaining and educational,” reads a Rotten Tomatoes review.
This documentary film directed by Orlando von Einsiedel and produced by Leonardo DiCaprio is not for the faint of heart. Expect some crying, like a lot of it. Virunga tells the story of four characters fighting to protect Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, home to the world’s last mountain gorillas, from war, poaching, and the threat of oil exploration. Truly heartbreaking.
As soon as this Netflix documentary about the environmental impact of fishing directed by and starring British filmmaker Ali Tabrizi premiered on the streaming platform in March, it garnered immediate attention in several countries. If you enjoyed the award-winning 2014 film Cowspiracy, then you’ll want to watch Seaspiracy.
Coral reefs around the world are vanishing at an unprecedented rate. Divers, photographers and scientists set out on an ocean adventure to discover why the reefs are disappearing and to reveal the underwater mystery to the world. You get the idea, that’s a classic.
Racing Extinction is a documentary about the ongoing Anthropogenic mass extinction of species and the efforts from scientists, activists and journalists to document it by Oscar-winning director Louie Psihoyos, who also directed the documentary The Cove (2009). Don’t freak out, but those scientists believe we have entered the sixth major extinction event in Earth’s history.
This one follows Doctor Sylvia Earle on her quest trying to protect the ocean from threats as pollution, overfishing and climate change.
When he discovers the world’s oceans brimming with plastic waste, a documentary filmmaker investigates the pollution’s environmental impacts.
Leonardo DiCaprio meets with scientists, activists and world leaders to discuss the dangers of climate change and its possible solutions. Martin Scorsese is also an executive producer.
Ivory remains a prized status symbol for middle-class Chinese, and poachers in pursuit of white gold are slaughtering African elephants in record numbers. This documentary’s filmmakers went undercover for 16 months, infiltrating and documenting the deep-rooted corruption at the heart of the global ivory trafficking crisis.
Directed by Elliot Page and Ian Daniel, There’s Something In The Water comes towards the bottom of the list with an average rating of 7.45 out of 10. The Canadian documentary sheds light on the little known issue of environmental racism suffered by the black Canadian and First Nations communities in Nova Scotia (Canada). Still a must watch!
Last but no less important is the documentary RiverBlue in 15th place with an average rating of 6.45 out of 10. The film explores the paddler and conservationist Mark Angelo’s river journey around the world that uncovered the pollution impacts that the global fashion industry has on our planet.
“I feel so guilty.”
I’m on a video call with a friend, let’s call him Sid, who works as cabin crew for a major airline. He’s generation Z and has a plant-based diet. He tells me he tried to eat scallops the other night when he landed late in France. He couldn’t do it, felt too bad. Instead, he picked at the carrot puree underneath and forgot about the seafood. Sid feels bad about consuming animal products, and about contributing to food waste, but he feels worse about his carbon-intensive job. It’s an inescapable web of shame.
“I do feel guilty that flying is just doing so much damage. I always think, when we’re coming into land and we have to wait for half an hour while we loop around a holding pattern…how much fuel is this burning?”
Sid wanted to vote for the Green Party in the upcoming European Parliament elections, until he heard the party recommend that people limit themselves to one flight a year. “I just can’t get behind that”, he sighs.
Taking climate action means readdressing the foundations of our identities. It starts with flying. When I was growing up I was told that travelling would make me a well-rounded, employable person. I was promised that the only way to truly understand a culture or to learn a language was by jumping on a plane to whichever destination I felt inclined towards. If there were one thing I knew I wanted when I grew up, it was to feel the glamour of being a frequent flyer. It was the narrative of the educated and of the well-to-do. Arriving by plane makes any entrance grander. Planes make people feel important.
Now the narrative has, rightly so, shifted dramatically. Our educated friends in Sweden have begun a phenomenon called ‘flygskam’ or ‘flying shame’. Social stigma in Sweden surrounding flying has led to a sharp drop in the number of aeroplane passengers in recent months, prompting airlines to up their efforts to reduce emissions, or at least pretend to, as all the best green-washing corporations do.
I’m not here to talk economics, although the sheer financial fuckery of a world where rich people have decided flying isn’t cool anymore hits me when Sid suggests I Google ‘flightradar24’. It’s a web tracking tool which shows all the flights in the world in real-time. Thousands of pixelated yellow planes shuffle and stutter over a green and blue map of the world. It’s astounding to think of all those goods and people above us, whose livelihoods depend on fuel-guzzling jumbo jets.
Climate change is hard for Sid and I to talk about. I’m a climate researcher with the luxury of taking the moral high-ground because my job allows me to do so. Frequent flying has been a part of my social makeup, but I’m leaving it behind. I’ve stopped taking weekend trips and city breaks that rely on short-haul flights. Where I can, I take the train, even though it is often more expensive to do so. I console Sid by telling him I had a beef roast the other Sunday.
I ask him, aside from guilt and shame, how the recent school strikes and Extinction Rebellion protests made him feel. He tells me that during the protests there had been a rumour one morning that activists were going to chain themselves to the runway. As Sid belted himself in, ready for take-off, he prayed silently for the activists to go ahead and lie down on the tarmac to halt the take-off. I see that the idea of just one day without flights emissions from Heathrow fills him with a feeling of relief and hope. Sid’s colleagues apparently grumbled at the protests, found them pesky, but I wonder how many of them also turned secret wishes for the environment over in their minds as they ascended towards the sky.
This week, climate activist and journalist Naomi Klein tweeted powerfully in response to Democrat Joe Biden’s plans to craft a middle-ground climate policy: “No Joe, there is no ‘middle ground’ on climate breakdown—there is bold, transformative action or there is sinking ground, burning ground and churning ground.”
There is no middle ground. We have to change today, but that means continuing to open up dialogue, especially with people whose jobs prevent them from taking the type of climate action they’d like to. If we can’t have middle of the ground solutions then perhaps we can have middle of the ground listening. Sid’s grateful for the climate strikes, if activists hadn’t taken bold action, he points out, we wouldn’t be having this difficult discussion.
Shame locks lips and stifles empathy. Shaming is often a pastime of the most privileged. For many, it’s not that they won’t change, it’s that they can’t, yet. Sid loves the earth, but he loves his livelihood too. It’s not about greed for Sid, it’s about putting plant-based food on the plate.