12 Essential environmental films and podcasts

If you really do get out what you put in, make sure you are feeding your brain the right stuff to make good environmental choices.

Wading through reports is one way to get information, but watching the ideas come to life in story form can make many of the concepts easier to grasp and more relatable. So if you need to consume something, make sure its something from the list below.

1. Seedpod 

The host of this podcast, Lee Rael shares his honest conversations with South Africans who are making exciting environmental improvements in the country. It’s a local environmental education of sorts and a great reminder that there really are a lot of people working towards making positive impacts locally. This podcast lets us get to know these people a little better.

Start with this recent one with Tracey Davies, from the Centre for Environmental Rights, a group that is doing incredibly important work in SA, and has also started JustShare, which is absolutely worth learning more about. Tracey also reminds us to be less judgemental when we are engaging with those who we sometimes perceive as the ‘enemy’.

Or this conversation with Sally-Anne Kasner of Circular Vision was also a fascinating one, as was this discussion with the very interesting Deon Robbertze of the Change Agent Collective.

2. Chasing coral

Available on Netflix, this documentary is a gorgeously technicolor showcase of transfixing dancing coral. It highlights technological triumphs, symbiosis, how coral reefs are like cities and coral bleaching. It moves through the classic dramatic elements of situation, crisis and resolution. It will give you an appreciation of what’s below the surface and highlights the less in-your-face impacts of a warming world and warming oceans, and why we need to protect the seas.

3. Planet Money podcast

The journalists at Planet Money have a fantastic way of stripping business and financial issues down into completely relatable and enjoyable stories. And when they look at the business of environmental issues this is particularly interesting.

These two episodes on recycling are a must-listen: Start with Recycling and the mob and then jump into China’s new recycling policy could give us an opportunity to rethink its process. And then starting thinking about and questioning how things may be operating in South Africa.

If you are interested in renewable energy, particularly solar power, you might enjoy these episodes from Planet Money: Das Green Old Deal and How Solar got cheap.

4. Minimalism

This documentary reminds us to focus on the important things in life, live more simply and with intention. Less focus on stuff and more on what we really need. It’s available on Netflix or on the minimalists website, along with a few other resources including the Minimalist Rulebook: 16 Rules for living with less, and the Simples animated series.

This film is well followed up with a little Tidying Up with Marie Kondo (also available on Netflix) who actually gives lessons on decluttering and focus on keeping only items that you truly cherish and which spark joy.

5. Under the skin 

Russell Brand presents a fast-paced, sometimes hilarious, sometimes overwhelming analysis of the world we are living in and the systems we are working within, through discussions with intriguing people. Start with this conversation with David Rushkoff, whose book Team Human highlights that “we have set in place an economic system whose growth works against our own prosperity”. He has some good ideas on how things could work differently in the future.

6. Story of stuff

Available freely online, this is the rather scary 20-minute movie that started a movement, and should probably be shown at all schools and even companies. It’s heavy, but important and succinctly explains terms like ‘externalities’, as well as the design of consumerism and obsolescence. Trigger warning: this will highlight the absurdity of the world we live in. The scariest thing is that it was released in 2007… What a politically charged, policy wrangled, naturally disastrous and economically tumultuous rollercoaster the world has been on in those 12+ years.

The story of stuff project has gone on the produce many more videos worth watching, including change and solutions, which give some hope and ideas on changes that can affect the system.

7. One strange rock

Will Smith may be an unlikely host, but he teams up with astronauts who have seen planet Earth from afar and have a distinct perspective and appreciation for it. The National Geographic series highlights some of the more amazing and wonderful things that happen on Earth and really emphasises the interconnectedness of everything.

Telling the stories through rock climbers at Angel Falls in Venezuela to salt miners in the Danakil Desert in East Africa (Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti), the beautiful cinematography in this series is a vivid visual reminder of all that is at risk in our changing climate and through our exploitation of natural resources.

It’s available on Netflix.

8. Captain fantastic

This is an enjoyable and fictional story of a father who made a decision to raise his family in the forest in North America, and what happens when the family interacts with ‘civilised’ society. It deals with issues of parenting and family in the modern world, off-grid living and sustainability. At times hilarious and joyful, but also sombre and tear-jerking.

9. Drawdown

Okay so this one is a book rather than something that can be consumed through audio or video, but its an important one, so here is a link to a video giving an indication of what it is about. Don’t let the super-peppy presentation fool you, this is a good look at the book Drawdown, which is a hope-inspiring look into the practices and technologies that we can use right now to limit greenhouse gas emissions and get them to a point where they can actually decline. The solutions exist. “We have an opportunity to build a better world in the process of addressing emissions,” says Katharine Wilkinson from Project Drawdown.

In fact, the host of the above-mentioned video link – Lucy Biggers from One Small Step, is having important conversations, like this one with Naomi Klein, and her channel is worth keeping an eye on. Klein’s new book On fire: the burning case for a green new deal was released in September 2019.

10. Game Changers

If you’re still struggling to change your diet for environmental reasons (remember Drawdown has ‘reducing food waste’ and ‘eating a plant-rich diet’ both in the top 4 of actions we can take now to decrease greenhouse gas emissions), then this documentary might convince you to eat less meat purely for the health and performance reasons. The focus is definitely on health but there is also reference to the bigger picture. The website also has resources and tips to help make the transition to eating less meat, from shopping to recipes and general tips.

It’s available on Netflix.

11. The true cost 

A documentary focusing on fast fashion and the impact that this is having on people and the environment. It’s another look at production methods and the values that consumerism has prioritised and normalised.

Here it’s also worth noting that there are many people now promoting more sustainable fashion, and locally, twyg in particular puts the spotlight on modern sustainable living and is spurring innovation through their Sustainable Fashion Awards.

12. The Lorax

This fictional tale is a Dr. Seuss classic, but for those who can’t bear to read a book (although it really really is recommended as a must-read with children!), there is a movie. And it’s available on Netflix locally too. It’s a humorous highlight of the absurdity of consumerism and the environmental impact that this has.

Spoiler alert, it ends with the same focus as the book, on the word ‘unless’.

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not.” – Dr. Seuss.

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