Accompanied by suitably intense music, a baby iguana sprints across a beach, relentlessly pursued by a nest of snakes. It’s hard not to breathe a sigh of relief when the iguana narrowly escapes death and finally makes it to safety. If you thought you couldn’t care less about the first steps of an iguana hatchling, prepare to have your mind changed. With the right storytelling and soundtrack, a seemingly small and insignificant moment has become a gripping life or death struggle watched by millions. This is the beauty of nature filmmaking, which has the ability to both educate and entertain in equal measure.
With Earth day on the 22nd of April fast approaching, it seems an appropriate time to look back at some of the biggest recent environmental documentaries and films. In the last few years, our screens have been inundated with media exploring the ever more urgent issue of climate change. From TV screens to the big screen, filmmakers and celebrities are attempting to persuade us of the looming danger to the planet. It would seem that imminent disaster makes for good entertainment because we’re clearly lapping it up. Netflix documentary Seaspiracy immediately leapt into the top 10 when it was released in March 2021, generating widespread interest on social media. Adam McKay’s dark satirical comedy Don't Look Up did evenbetter, becoming the second most watched film on Netflix and receiving four academy award nominations. And of course, who could forget everyone’s favourite TV personality, Sir David Attenborough, who seems to have an endless supply of cinematic nature documentaries up his sleeve. His 2019 series Our Planet has been watched by over 100 million people on Netflix, almost half of all subscribers.
When it comes to films and TV series on the topic of climate change, we’re clearly obsessed, but do viewing statistics translate into action to protect the environment? Studies have suggested that although watching nature documentaries can raise our awareness of climate issues, it doesn’t necessarily translate into action. For instance, claims that people who watched Blue Planet were less likely to choose products packaged in single-use plastic (the so-called ‘blue planet effect’) were proven false. Although people were aware of the harmful effects of plastic, it was not enough to change their habits. Our lack of action is a risky move to say the least. An IPCC report from February warned that many of the impacts of climate change are now ‘irreversible,’ with only a short period of time left to avoid reaching the dreaded 1.5 ̊c rise in temperature. Only a couple of weeks ago it was confirmed that the great barrier reef had been hit by a sixth mass coral bleaching event caused by warmer waters. Although some people might be inspired to take action after watching a film or documentary, it would seem that so far it has not been enough.
If all this has left you feeling somewhat pessimistic about the future of the planet, perhaps we can take some comfort in the words of Mr Attenborough himself. “It’s not all doom and gloom. There’s a chance for us to make amends... all we need is the will to do so.” It’s all very well to be entertained by a wildlife documentary or Hollywood movie, but in doing so we shouldn’t miss the point that it’s trying to make. There is a long way to go to combat climate change, but if we all take action now, there is still hope that a better future is possible.