Top 3 Environmental Documentaries You Need to Watch

Red Summit Productions
6 min readJul 26, 2021


Image by PCI Magazine

Environmental documentaries produced today are created with evermore increasing urgency. The irreversible climate deadline of 2028 looms over our heads, and yet governments and policy makers refuse to enact crucial change that would save our planet as we know it. We rely on the media to create a responsible social climate, and environmental documentaries push a critical call to action. While documentaries can have a domino-like effect in the way they enact law and policy change, they are also vital to our culture, and evolving views and behaviors. Imagine the possibilities if enough people were inspired by an environmental documentary to protest polluting corporations; or if the CEO of BP Oil were to watch a documentary on their destruction, and be emotionally moved to incorporate sustainable practices. The social response to these documentaries is up to us — staying informed is important, but what we do with the information matters even more. In this age of media abundance it can be difficult to sort through the multitudes of environmental documentaries to find the ones that will be truly impactful. As a documentary lover and self proclaimed tree-hugger, I’ve spent a lot of time watching environmental films, and these are my favorites — hopefully this list provides you with a good place to begin.

Image by Connor McDonnell WWF / UK

David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet (2020)

* Rated PG

Runtime: 1h 54m

Where to watch: Netflix (exclusive)

Like most, I am a huge fan of David Attenborough; his iconic voice has led me through hours of beautiful National Geographic documentaries, and his conservation efforts have echoed throughout the world. This film is unique in that Attenborough talks directly to us; describing to the viewer the forests of his childhood, the jungles and deserts and plains he visited as a young adult, and the current state of nature now, at his ripe age of 95. A life on Our Planet is a fantastic retelling of Attenborough’s career framed by the perspective of our rapidly increasing environmental destruction. Contrasting Attenborough’s old footage with modern day reality, the documentary presents the difficult truth of accepting the destruction we’ve caused. The film is interspersed with text noting environmental data of that specific year; as the film progresses and moves into present day, the population and atmospheric carbon levels skyrocket, while the percentage of remaining wilderness falls lower and lower. The tangible data is a great complement to the fantastic wildlife scenery that you can expect from any Nat Geo production, and with Attenborough’s focus on biodiversity it feels especially heartbreaking.
Preaching awareness for the environmental destruction we’ve caused does nothing if we have no way to fix it. The last half hour of A Life on Our Planet is uplifting and almost hopeful; Attenborough presents clear, tangible solutions that could help to ease our climate crisis: sustainable plant based diets to reduce methane emissions and land use, smaller family sizes to accommodate for food, water, and power shortages, a complete transition to renewable energy and no fish zones combined with sustainable farming practices.

Attenborough provides us with stunningly haunting images of the destruction in our world, and makes it impossible to ignore the reality of our failure to do our humanly duty for the planet.

Image from 2040

2040 (2019)

** Rated G

Runtime: 1h 32m

Where to watch: Google Play & Youtube, Apple TV, Vudu

Instead of focusing on the destruction, death, and hardships that climate change has brought, Damon Gameau takes us on a journey across the globe in search of solutions to return Earth to a stable and livable planet. Worried for the future of his child in an increasingly horrific environmental climate, Gameau explores solutions and envisions how they would be incorporated in the future. The imagined scenes are complete with amazing visual effects that propose a new and hopeful future; one where people can buy and share renewable energy from their own solar panels, rent a self driving car instead of regular ownership, or even participate in nationwide resource use competitions. Gameau also visits locations around the world where these solutions are already implemented, such as the micro solar grids in Bangladesh that bring power to small villages, allowing money to stay in the community through energy sharing. 2040 is a wonderful break from the average environmental film that focuses on the severity of the destruction we have caused, and instead plays into a more inspiring, hopeful, and optimistic story of how we can right our wrongs.

Featuring the faces and voices of young school aged children politely demanding that we protect our Earth, Gameau brings the issue of climate change even closer to home, demonstrating the severity and urgency with which we need to fix the planet for future generations. 2040 is a must watch for those who want to start or continue their environmental activism journey, or those who just want to be a bit more environmentally conscious.

Image by Plastic Oceans

A Plastic Ocean (2016)

**Rated PG (recommended)

Runtime: 1h 42m

Where to watch: Netflix, Google Play & Youtube, Vudu

Directed by Craig Leeson, and featuring the champion freediver Tanya Streeter, A Plastic Ocean documents the destruction of our oceans, along with ongoing and possible solutions. Leeson began the documentary intending to film and study the fantastic blue whale, but their expedition led them to change paths upon the discovery of severe plastic and oil pollution in an area that should’ve been pristine. The film goes on to explain the causes of the ocean’s slow death; mentioning extreme landfills, leaching microplastics, atmospheric carbon levels, and overfishing, among others. Leeson and Streeter explore the severity of ocean pollution, returning with horrific findings of marine life filled to the brim with plastics, food grade fish testing positive for plastics and textile fibers, and landfills bleeding into the ocean. While a difficult film to get through because of the images of suffering, A Plastic Ocean is not entirely pessimistic, and offers stories of success that may inspire us to incorporate solutions on a larger scale. Documenting the Manila Canal bioremediation, a giant microplastic spill cleanup, wildlife rehabilitation, and new plastic recycling technology, the film also gives us a glimpse at what a future could look like with healthy oceans.

A Plastic Ocean is an exceptional film that documents the exact reality of our current situation. It does not shy away from the tragedies we’ve caused, and instead forces us to own up to our own mistakes and advocate for the correct solutions. The film leaves us with a simple, but lasting message that everyone can incorporate into their lives: say no to single use plastics.

Environmental documentaries can be taxing to watch; the stress of our planet’s possible demise and the guilt of our contribution can be overwhelming, and it’s important to remember to treat yourself kindly. What most documentaries fail to note, or hide in plain sight, is that corporations are responsible for the majority of our planet’s destruction, and it is entirely unfair to the general population to allow them to believe that their plastic straws contribute to most of the damage. While it is crucial that we all transition away from single use plastics and incorporate other sustainable practices, we must also demand that corporations take responsibility and action towards reversing the effects of climate change. Audiences of environmental documentaries will continue to expand as climate change progresses, and it is vital that they reach the corporations who have caused the destruction, before it is too late.

Written by Cali Cardenas



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