11 Powerful Netflix Documentaries That Will Change How You Think About the Planet


The changes to our environment are happening whether we want to admit it or not. We just experienced one of the worst winters in recorded history, and summer predictions aren't looking much gentler. Natural resources are dwindling, weather is wilder and the bees are still disappearing (and not into the Medusa Cascade.)

It's 2014 and the environment is a big issue, but let's be honest: Until somebody sits you down and tells you what's happening, it can be hard to picture something as big as the collapse of the world ecosystem and civilization as we know it.

1. 'Food, Inc.'

There are no seasons in the modern supermarket, nor bones in the modern supermarket meat joint, plus farmers seem to have helped create the most "convenient" food products the world has ever known. In 50 years, the way we eat has changed more than in the previous 10,000, and yet the agricultural imagery we are peddled remains the same.

2. 'TEDTalks: Environment: Project Makeover'

As per TED's usual mix of positive constructivism, life advice and personal anecdote, the talks gathered in this film discuss means already in development to fix a dying ecology. Revolutionary recycling plants and fungus-based packaging materials are just some of the ideas bounced around throughout this fascinating series of lectures.

3. 'General Orders No. 9'

Not quite like anything you've ever seen, General Orders No. 9 is a look at how modernity and its toxic trends are destroying flora, fauna and human culture. The phantasmagorical collages of images and elegiac pace make it less didactic than some (the New York Times called it "tone poem laid over 72 minutes’ worth of images"), but if you're looking for a mellower wake-up call, this one's for you.

4. 'Tapped'

The big business of bottled water is broken down and carefully examined by Stephanie Soechtig, showing how it's an industry effectively commodifying a basic human right. From production of the bottles to the oceans filled with discarded vessels, this is an excellent exploration of a little-discussed topic. You can even help join the cause on the documentary's website.

5. 'Dirty Business'

Coal is the single largest source of greenhouse gases. It's also the way we get most of our electricity. Dirty Business explores the global coal industry and technologies proclaiming the birth of "clean coal." The news isn't all negative: The film also explores modern alternatives that are more renewable and sustainable than those we've known before.

6. 'Gasland'

Thought that was it for fossil fuel analysis? Oh, how wrong you were, readers. What list of environmental documentaries would be complete without the Academy Award-nominated Gasland?

A close look at how communities are affected by natural gas drilling and the fracking process, it's the best way to learn how to talk about hydraulic fracturing at your next dinner party/in front of the water cooler/to seduce a political science major.

7. 'Yert'

Three friends go on a road trip in a hybrid car to explore how Americans are combating environmental calamity. Whether it's dumpster diving, carbon-neutral housing or a decrease in meat consumption, Yert tells a distinctly human story of struggles to help the world, and provides examples of people making do with what may seem like major sacrifices to their lifestyles.

8. 'A Fierce Green Fire'

If you thought the environmental movement was a new thing, think again: A Fierce Green Fire looks at half a century of green thinking, both on a grassroots and global scale. Directed by Academy Award nominee Mark Kitchell, there are few better summations of environmental activist history. Also, it's narrated in part by Meryl Streep, so it's got to be worth a watch.

9. 'More Than Honey'

Earlier this year the federal government announced a $3 million program to support bee colony growth in the United States, and just this week my entire Facebook feed exploded again with petitions and posts about the collapse of the bee population. Since 2006, our yellow-and-black-striped frenemies have become scarcer and scarcer; if you want to start understanding why, this documentary is the place to start.

10. 'Chasing Ice'

Some of the most startling evidence of climate change can be found in the world's least accessible places; the destruction of ice formations at the poles. Of course, this destruction can be difficult to see if you're not an adventurer with a cavalier attitude toward mortality.

Enter James Balog. Incensed after being sent to photograph the Arctic for National Geographic, he began what he called "the Extreme Ice Survey," using untested technology to create time-lapse footage of the Arctic's disappearance. This documentary not only contains this amazing footage, but also explains the perils both Balog and the Earth face as a result of the research.

11. 'The Blue Planet'

While not necessarily an environmental documentary in the activist sense, The Blue Planet makes possibly the strongest case for a greater concern for our ocean's welfare. Made by the same people who later created Planet Earth, Sir David Attenborough narrates never-before-seen marine life in one of the BBC's most spectacular pieces of documentary filmmaking. If dumping waste into the oceans, overfishing and oil spills did not seem like issues to you before, take a look at the natural beauty being destroyed and then try not to care.