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43,000-year-old paintings etched across Indonesian cave walls are some of the earliest known representations of human storytelling. So we know that humans have been telling stories for over 40,000 years.

Childhood tales, such as The Story of Ferdinand convey culture, values and ideas of right and wrong. We listen to stories throughout our lives, these are tales that connect society, teach social norms, and provide community support.

The influence of narrative on human behavior is strong. And it’s with this knowledge that we can apply storytelling to create a societal and business shift towards sustainability.

Creators around the globe are melding ancient storytelling techniques with contemporary, digital forms of communication. Multimedia tools, such as videos, blogs, and podcasts bring narratives to life. This is called digital storytelling, of which video storytelling is arguably the most engaging medium.

With this in mind, this article presents the 20 best climate change and sustainability documentaries. These documentaries exhibit how video storytelling can be used to promote sustainability and climate action.

Why is video storytelling highly engaging?

Vision is the dominant human sense. 90% of information transmitted in our brain is visual information. Our brains process these visuals 60,000x faster than text. This explains why we remember 30% of what we see compared to 20% of what we hear, according to Edgar Dale’s Cone of Experience.

Yet, by stimulating both sight and audio senses, humans can remember 50% of what we see and hear. This is why video is more engaging than say a podcast, radio, or this article.

“A minute of video is worth 1.8 million words.”Dr. James McQuivey, Forrester Research

The art of video creation takes both time and skill to craft a truly engaging story. Here, we’re talking about engaging the audience with the issue of climate change and unsustainability, to inspire action and mitigate impending environmental destruction.

Summarized below are 20 of the best climate change and sustainability documentaries. They are communicating science by telling a story.

20 best climate change and sustainability documentaries

#1: Home

Home is a 2009 French documentary film directed by Yann Arthus-Bertrand. The film is almost entirely composed of aerial shots of various places on Earth. The aim is to show the diversity of life on our planet and how humanity is threatening Earth’s delicate ecological balance.

The film begins humanity’s story from the beginning, some 4 billion years ago when life began. We’re guided through life’s evolution until we arrive at today, in the Anthropocene. This period is marked by our industrial revolution with the discovery of fossil fuel gold and its sinister implications.

Length: 2 hours

Where to watch: Available on Amazon Prime and Youtube

#2: 2040

The award-winning director Damon Gameau is motivated by the planetary concerns his daughter will inherit. Rather than focusing on the problem, 2040 is a motivating story of action. Damon embarks on a global journey to find sustainable solutions. He meets with innovators and change-makers in technology, civil society, agriculture, education, and sustainability.

2040 is a story of hope, finding opportunities that can mitigate climate change, and improve the lives of many. From renewable energy projects to marine permaculture, this is a film showing what humanity can achieve. 2040 is a refreshing change from the usual ‘unhappy ever after’ dystopian endings.

Length: 1 hour 32 minutes

Where to watch: Find out where to watch 2040 here.

#3: A Life On Our Planet

Sir David Attenborough brought this stunning documentary film in 2020. Life On Our Planet is Attenborough’s witness statement as he communicates the extent of the environmental degradation that has occurred in his lifetime. We’re also taken forward in time to 2100, where Attenborough uses scientific know-how to project the future degradation of our planet if humanity continues as normal.

The documentary does close on a happier note, presenting green changes happening today, such as human diet changes – eating less meat – and government intervention reversing deforestation in Costa Rica. Attenborough closes with his hopes for the future, to inspire action today.

Length: 1 hour 23 minutes

Where to watch: Available on Netflix

#4: Breaking Boundaries

There are nine planetary boundaries that keep Earth stable. These include climate change, biosphere integrity (functional and generic), land-system change, freshwater use, biogeochemical flows (nitrogen and phosphorus), ocean acidification, atmospheric aerosol pollution, stratospheric ozone depletion, and the release of novel chemicals.

Breaking Boundaries looks at how humanity is pushing our planet beyond these nine boundaries, which have kept the Earth stable for 10,000 years. This is a 75-minute film that tells a story of discovery, looking at the planetary thresholds we must not exceed. The film offers solutions we can put in place today, to protect Earth’s life support system.

Length: 1 hour 13 minutes

Where to watch: Available on Netflix

#5: Public Trust

Public Trust is a documentary that tells the story of indigenous American peoples.The film shows how important it is (for people and our planet) that public lands are protected. This includes protecting the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This documentary was created in reaction to the Trump administration’s slashing of the laws protecting these public lands.

Climate change, biodiversity loss, and ecological disruption are global threats to humanity. Hence, the stories and lessons presented in this documentary are relevant to everyone.

Length: 1 hour 38 minutes

Where to watch: Available on Patagonia films

#6: Kiss the Ground

Narrated by Woody Harrelson, Kiss the Ground presents Harrelson’s story of discovery as he looks into regenerative agriculture and how it can be used to mitigate our climate and environmental crises.

Regenerative agriculture is a conservation and rehabilitation approach to food and farming systems. The approach focuses on topsoil regeneration to increase biodiversity, improve water recycling, and support carbon capture by biosequestration.

Through regenerative agriculture we have hope, hope that farming can be used to balance our climate, replenish our vast water supplies and feed the world.

Length: 1 hour 24 minutes

Where to watch: Available on Netflix

#7: I Am Greta

Named after the young activist Greta Thunberg, I Am Greta tells Greta’s story as she demands climate justice. This documentary inspires both younger and older generations to care for our planet, showing age is not a prerequisite for sustainability. The documentary follows Greta as she takes it upon herself to get people to take climate discussions seriously.

Greta gained public attention after organizing a one-person strike at her school to demand climate justice. In this documentary, we see how Greta has grown from here. Today Greta is a significant voice at gatherings such as the UN Climate Action Summit.

The documentary finalizes by presenting us, the audience, with choices. These choices demand self-reflection regarding our fossil fuel use and what we eat. By examining our choices, we can dissect whether they are sustainable or not.

Length: 1 hour 37 minutes

Where to watch: Available on Amazon Prime and Hulu

#8: Generation Green New Deal

For decades, the American political system has seemed incapable of addressing climate change on the scale necessary. In November 2018, the youth-led organization Sunrise Movement, with the support of congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, demanded a new Green Deal. This deal set off a firestorm of intense opposition.

Generation Green New Deal is a feature documentary telling the story of these young activists supporting this new Green Deal. These activists are leading a movement fighting our climate crisis and economic inequality amidst fierce opposition.

This documentary digs deep into the civic movement supporting the Green Deal which is a proposed package of social and economic reform to mitigate climate change and promote economic injustice.

Length: 24 mins

Where to watch: Available on Vimeo

#9: The Reluctant Radical

The Reluctant Radical is a story about activist Ken Ward as he puts himself in the direct path of our fossil fuel industry to combat climate change. Ken breaks the law as a last resort, posing the question to viewers: If a crime is committed in order to prevent a greater crime, is it forgivable?

The Reluctant Radical questions the law and what society deems as right and wrong. Ken breaks the law as a last resort, in what he sees as an attempt to protect future generations. For a year and a half, Ken worked to shut down all U.S. tar sand oil pipelines on October 11, 2016. In doing so, Ken breaks the law, and we’re left to question if Ken is out of touch with reality, or whether the rest of society is delusional for not acting.

Length: 1 hour 17 minutes

Where to watch: Available on The Reluctant Radical Movie

#10: We the Power – The Future of Energy is Community-Owned

We the Power is a 2021 documentary on climate change. This is the latest film from Patagonia and it highlights a citizen-led community-energy movement across Europe. The film tells the story of those pioneering community energy. Community energy programs are designed to take back the power from big energy companies and put this energy into the hands of locals.

We the Power is an inspiring documentary that displays the true power of community action. The documentary shows how community energy can benefit our environment, and build healthier, financially stable communities.

Length: 38 minutes

Where to watch: Available on Patagonia films

#11: Fire in Paradise

On the 8th of November, 2018, we saw colossal fires ravage across California near the town of Paradise. Over a few days, an innocent campfire grew into the country’s deadliest wildfire in over a century.

Fire In Paradise uses first-hand footage of the disaster with interviews of survivors and responders. Directed by Zackary Canepari and Drea Cooper, starring Joy Beeson, Beth Bowersox, and Abbie Davis Hiyori Kon, this documentary gives the fire’s survivors a voice. This is a story of true survival against environmental destruction.

Length: 39 minutes

Where to watch:  Available on Netflix. A different film with the same name is on YouTube.

#12: Minimalism

How much stuff do we need, really?

The documentary Minimalism tells Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus’ story as they create a new way of living, that is, to live as minimalists. Today, minimalism has helped over 20 million Americans live more meaningful lives with fewer things. With fewer things, people can work less, meaning they have more time to create memories, build meaningful relationships, and do the things they love. This documentary is for those who feel they’re on a constant conveyor belt of saving for the next best thing.

Living with less benefits both us and our planet. It’s a way of life that promotes sustainability and improved wellbeing. Minimalism is the paradigm shift society needs to start living with less.

Length: 1 hour 19 minutes

Where to watch: Available on Netflix 

#13: Planetary

Amid our global environmental crises, PLANETARY brings us a stark reminder that everything on Earth is connected. By disrupting our planet’s natural cycle, we’re pushing ourselves into the unknown.

PLANETARY is a provocative and breathtaking wake-up call and serves as a humbling reminder that today is the time to shift our perspective to look after our planet and live sustainably. The documentary asks us to rethink who we are, and reconsider the relationship we have with ourselves, each other, and the world around us.

Length: 1 hour 25 minutes

Where to watch: Available on Vimeo and We Are Planetary

#14: The Condor and the Eagle

The Condor and the Eagle describes the fossil fuel industry as a key contributor to climate change, with a negative and disproportionate impact on indigenous communities. The documentary tells the story of indigenous leaders, activists, and organizers to communicate the impact of the coal and oil industry on First Nations communities.

The Condor and the Eagle details a lack of consultation with local communities from exploitative, unchecked fossil fuel companies. The documentary follows local groups as they speak to one another and resist fossil fuel development. The Condor and the Eagle gives us hope by heralding the need for inclusive solutions to our global climate crisis.

Length: 1 hour 22 minutes

Where to watch: Available on Films for Action and on The Condor and the Eagle

#15: The Art of Protest

The Art of Protest is a documentary telling the story of individuals using art in social movements, including Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, plus new digital and social media forms of cultural resistance.

Ten key progressive movements followed in post-war America, from the African American struggle for civil rights at the beginning of 1950 to Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter movements in the twenty-first century. Director Colin Day focuses on the artistic activities of these protests, framing progressive social change and cultural legacies.

Length: 45 minutes

Where to watch: Available on RollingStone

#16: Before the Flood

Before the Flood is a documentary film presented by U.N Messenger of Peace, Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio uses his star power and sizable budget to tell his story, to draw attention to our climate crisis. The documentary film encourages people to admit what they don’t know and make a decision to get educated.

“The truth is, the more I learned about this issue and everything that contributes to the problem, the more I realize how much I don’t know.”  – Leonardo DiCaprio

This documentary film was made in conjunction with the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement, but frustratingly the arguments remain the same today.

Length: 1 hour 36 minutes

Where to watch: Available on Amazon Prime

#17: The Biggest Little Farm

City-lovers John and Molly Chester trade city living for 200 acres of barren farmland in their dream to harvest in harmony with nature. The Biggest Little Farm is a documentary film that tells the story of these two farmers, who are on a quest to show the world what sustainable agriculture looks like.

John and Molly spend seven years transforming the arid landscape into a fully functional farm and biodiverse habitat for neighboring flora and fauna. They face difficulties along the way, from wildfires to pest outbreaks. The documentary film is, however, an uplifting story showing how human happiness lies in our harmonious relationship with nature.

Length: 1 hour 31 minutes

Where to watch: Available on Amazon Prime

#18: This Changes Everything

Directed by Avi Lewis and inspired by Naomi Klein’s nonfiction book, This Changes Everything is a documentary that visits communities on the front lines of climate change. Filming took place over 211 shoot days, in nine countries, across five continents, in over four years. The aim was to tell the story of those demanding change from those in power. This includes First Nations communities around the Alberta Tar Sands; farmers in Montana’s Powder River Basin; anti-gold mine protests in Halkidiki, Greece; and communities protesting in wetlands in Sompeta, Andhra Pradesh, as well as those living through air pollution in China’s cities.

This Changes Everything highlights the effects of government inaction on climate change and the importance of driving pressure for change from below.

Length: 1 hour 30 minutes

Where to watch:  Available on Amazon Prime

#19: Catching the Sun

Catching the Sun is an optimistic documentary that glimpses into the renewable energy industry, portraying unemployed workers in Richmond, Northern California, who engage in green-collar job training and work in the field of solar installation.

In this documentary, the story of solar technology in the U.S., and the success stories of German and Indian clean energy businesses, are told. Catching the Sun debunks the misconception that renewable energy demands the sacrifice of economic prosperity. Instead, these solutions are becoming more affordable, hopefully paving the way for a cleaner and greener future.

Length: 1 hour 15 minutes

Where to watch: Available on Amazon Prime

#20: Anthropocene: The Human Epoch

In 2016, a group of scientists – named the Anthropocene Working Group – declared the start of a new period on Earth, the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is a new geological age marked as the period where human activity is the dominant influence on our climate and the environment.

This term inspired Jennifer Bichwal, Nicholas de Pencier, and Edward Burtynsky to make this documentary, telling Earth’s story and humanity’s massive reengineering of our planet. Anthropocene: The Human Epoch takes a look at how much human activity has permanently impacted our natural world. This is a story where we can write the end with our actions today.

Length: 1 hour 27 minutes

Where to watch: Available on Google Play and The Vore

How to tell the sustainability story of your business using film 

Sustainability is becoming a mainstream business concern.

For instance, an interview of 70 senior executives at 43 global institutional investing firms – including BlackRock, Vanguard, and State Street – concluded that environmental and social responsibility was foremost in their minds.

This change in stakeholder interest – investors, governments, and consumers – demands that businesses communicate their sustainability stories.

Leading businesses are open about the challenges they face, and explain the important work they do to address complex social and environmental issues.

If you’ve worked hard to green up your business, you’ll want to effectively communicate your efforts. Tell your sustainability story using video, celebrate your successes and communicate your ongoing sustainability goals and challenges.

Use the below top tips, along with these 20 best climate change and sustainability documentaries as a reference, to create your video story.

7 top tips to tell effective digital stories using film

  • Embrace accountability: You want your organization’s sustainability data and information to be accessible, easy to analyze, and available in real-time. Use GBB certification and sustainability scorecard to summarize your company’s current progress, online and in real-time. This ensures your communications are accurate and avoids exaggerated claims.
  • Get certified: Gain the seal of approval your sustainability efforts deserve. Turn to well-regarded green credentials such as GBB, LEED, ISO, GRI.
  • Communicate your story’s purpose and desire: The driving factor of any story is the main character’s desire. You want your audience to desire sustainability as you do, so show this desire using your main characters. Communicate how non-desire for sustainability negatively impacts your business and society.
  • Communicate the problem: The problem is the need and where to build tension in your story. Environmental degradation and our climate crisis are the problems to be communicated.
  • Communicate your story’s opponents: This is what your business is up against, which includes the challenges you’ve overcome. Communicate your purpose as a business, which is your desire to be environmentally and socially responsible. Show how your business rectifies sustainable solutions. Show your customers their opponents and problems, and how your business can solve these sustainably.
  • Explain your sustainability plan: This is your action plan to overcome challenges. It is for your customers and your business. At this point you can show off your efforts, your executed sustainability plan, and your overall progress regarding your sustainability program.
  • Finalize an equilibrium: The equilibrium is often termed self-revelation. This is when your character’s needs are met, and they’ve developed a new belief system involving a lifestyle that’s more sustainable. Communicate your future sustainability goals for continued external and internal support for your journey towards business sustainability.

Start writing your sustainability story today, for your business and for our planet. In this article, you’ve seen how stories for sustainability can be told using video, but you can also use other digital storytelling techniques such as blogs, podcasts, and social media marketing to promote sustainability through storytelling.

Once upon a time…we can start to rewrite our future.

About the Author

Jane Courtnell is a Content Writer for Process Street. With a Biology degree from Imperial College London and further studies at Imperial College’s Business School, Jane has an enthusiasm for science communication and how biology can be used to solve business issues, such as employee wellbeing, culture, and business sustainability.

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