How documentaries make us aware of our planet and its changing climate

Picture of By Kim Bron

By Kim Bron

“If we take care of nature, nature will take care of us.” – Sir David Attenborough in A Life on Our Planet. Documentaries about nature and climate change such as Seaspiracy, Breaking Boundaries or A Life on Our Planet are increasingly produced and gain a lot of attention on (social) media. Not only are audience ratings on, for instance, Netflix high, but the movie releases also provide a topic of discussion on platforms such as Instagram. Does this enthusiasm result in awareness and environmentally friendly acts, or do people merely appreciate the docs themselves? 

Alright, perhaps it is partly due to my viewing history that Netflix often recommends the latest climate change documentaries to me, and even some older ones once in a while. I cannot blame them since nature documentaries played a role in my thesis, and I happen to like them as well. However, it appears as if there is some kind of shift of themes within these films from nature to protecting nature. On top of that, movies and documentaries about climate change seem to be increasingly produced and broadcast. After Our Planet (2019) was released, A Life on Our Planet (2020) and Breaking Boundaries (2021) followed up quickly; and those are just David Attenborough documentaries. 

The work of Sir David Attenborough 

His films may not be the first to discuss climate change, but they most certainly are among the most influential and awareness-raising. The series Our Planet is one of the most popular shows on Netflix according to the broadcaster. When A Life on Our Planet was released one year later, Sir Attenborough’s then newly created Instagram account saw the fastest-growing number of followers in the history of the platform. Although this is no evidence for actual improvement of the environment, it does indicate that many people are at least made aware of the changing world around us. And awareness is an important step in stimulating behavioural change, so this is promising. 

Seaspiracy, another ‘hot topic’ documentary

Paul McCartney and Bryan Adams have recommended people to watch it.

One could say that Seaspiracy is another recent must-watch documentary. In this film, we see Ali Tabrizi on a mission to investigate all wrongdoing to our oceans and how we people could help make them clean and healthy again. Unlike Attenborough-voiced documentaries, which have a more ‘classic’ nature film feel to them, Seaspiracy shows us lots of facts and numbers and makes daring statements about fishing industries and even climate change-related organizations who are supposedly not doing all the good they can. The movie did receive some negative feedback, as some of its claims could be misleading. Nevertheless, the film makes a strong statement about how we must save the oceans, and celebrities including Paul McCartney and Bryan Adams have recommended people to watch it. And of course, even if they say so, it is still not a requirement for everyone to watch it, but the positive reviews and attention suggest that it is worth a watch.

Celebrities in and about documentaries

Famous people are often seen and heard on the topic of documentaries, whether it is their voices as they narrate the documentary, or their opinions on a documentary afterwards, in interviews or on their social media. Leonardo Dicaprio is a well-known celebrity whose name is regularly associated with the protection of biodiversity. In 2016 he was the star in Before the Flood, and since then he has praised other films such as A Life On Our Planet. Zac Efron, a name that might bring Millennials back to High School Musical, began a sustainable journey in the series Down to Earth with Zac Efron (on Netflix). These are just a few examples, but they show how celebrities often use their name and fame to advocate for nature, the changing climate and the environment.

(How) do these films influence us?

As mentioned, for my thesis study I have tried to see if these climate change documentaries that make people aware of global warming and the changing environment on earth could cause people to act more environmentally friendly. People in this study watched either a fragment of Making Our Planet or A Life on Our Planet. Though no big differences were found, it turned out that especially people who eat less or no meat for some reason (for instance, flexitarians or vegans) want to do more for the environment after watching the climate change film A Life on Our Planet. Overall, there were intentions to tackle climate change in some way after watching either of the fragments, which made me wonder if the pretty nature scenes or shots of animals contributed to that. 

It appears that people have quite some different intentions to do something for the environment or were already taking action. Some people mentioned that they mostly bought second-hand items, sold their car, helped in cleaning days or were politically active. Although not everyone intended to behave more climate-friendly, and intentions are no guarantee for actual action, the sometimes surprisingly motivated answers did look promising. And if some people act, maybe more will follow.

Another interesting finding of the study was that the film music in the documentaries increased peoples’ willingness to take action. This suggests that these kinds of cinematic features not only make the documentaries more enjoyable but also increase their influence.

Still, work to do

Overall, they teach us a valuable lesson.

Climate change is, still, one of the world’s biggest problems and the fact that all these films have to show this to us is maybe not always a good sign. However, it is through these kinds of media that people can educate themselves in a fun and interesting way, by having a nice evening of Netflix. And if we do this, maybe we will unconsciously change our behaviour along the way, or at least think about our actions more often. The popularity and (social) media attention could already be a sign of awareness, and besides that, it shows just how professionally the films are made. It is thus no surprise that the ratings for these films are high, and I can also personally recommend watching some of the titles mentioned in this article. Perhaps some of them are a bit dramatized, or some statements could seem misleading but overall, they teach us a valuable lesson. Let the voice of Sir David Attenborough speak to you, and let the beautifully filmed nature scenes speak for themselves. Enjoy those shows, and take home their message.

Cover: Andre Mouton 

Edited by: Yili Char and Kim Bron

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