Environmental Science Movies
There is a wide variety of movie and documentary titles available to use in the environmental science classroom. Many have come out only in the last few years, as film is increasingly used as a platform for activism, or a way to call people's attention to a specific problem. Every movie or documentary in this list is one that I have previewed and used in some way in my class, either by showing a clip or the film in its entirety. I teach at both at the high school and introductory college level, and these movies are appropriate for both.
f you have any suggestions for movies that I don't have listed here, please email me. Click on the picture next to each documentary to see its page on Amazon, including reviews and purchase price.
The Yes Men Fix the World
Length: 87 minutes
Description: Chronicles of the efforts of Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, otherwise known as the "Yes Men" as they attempt to bring attention to the actions of large corporations including Dow Chemical, Halliburtan, Exxon, and others. The first segment, most relevant to environmental ethics, has them impersonate a DOW Chemical executive, announcing on a BBC News live broadcast that they have agreed to fully compensate all of the victims affected by the Bhopal pesticide plant explosion in India. This causes a public relations embarassment for the chemical company and a rapid drop in the public stock price. This is followed by a discussion with a day trader about why the investors reacted in this way.
Length: 90 minutes
Description: Blackfish is a documentary that exposes the moral and ethical issues of capturing and raising large aquatic mammals, particularly killer whales, in captivity. The recent death of a trainer at Seaworld in 2010 by a male orca named Tilikum is investigated, beginning with his capture, the abuse he endured while sharing a tank with female orcas, and his subsequent aggressive and unpredictable behavior. Many have sworn off visiting large oceanariums such as Seaworld as a result of seeing this documentary.
Mythbusters: Who Gets Wetter?
Length: 20 minutes
Description: In general, many of the episodes of the Mythbusters TV show are good for illustrating the scientific method. However, the "Who Gets Wetter" segment from their first episode is my personal favorite. Jamie and Adam discuss how to design a controlled experiment, including replicating all of the variables present in a rain storm. The raw data they collect is shown, and related to their conclusion. There is also a follow-up segment in Season 3 where they revisit the myth, re-do the experiment based on feedback from the audience, and get very different results!
The Eyes of Nye: Pseudoscience
Length: 30 minutes
Description: This episode of the 'Eyes of Nye' series attempts to debunk multiple examples of pseudoscience (false science) practices that appear or claim to be scientific, but are really not at all. Examples include psychics, palm reading, and firewalking. Science is an incredibly important concept to understand. As Nye explains, any extraordinary claim should be documented and the conditions or experiment that produced it be repeatable. If a claim does not meet these standards, it is not science.
PBS NOVA: Secrets of the Psychics
Length: 60 minutes
Description: This episode of the PBS NOVA series is a little dated, having first aired in 1999, but is still very relevant in exposing pseudoscience. James Randi, a former magician, effectively applies the scientific method as he debunks faith healers, astrology, mind readers, and even spirital health psychics. One of the best segments, towards the end of the episode, has Randi design a double-blind experiment to cast doubt on the claimed ability of a psychic to control a patient's blood pressure and brain waves.
PBS Evolution Series - Why Sex?
Length: 60 minutes
Description: The PBS Evolution series, released in 2001, provides an unparalleled primer to some of the major themes of the theory of evolution. This specific episode focuses on the role that sexual selection can play in the emergence of traits, and eventually, new species. There is one section in particular that discusses the potential divergence of humans and our two closest relatives -- chimpanzees and bonobos, which is an excellent discussion starter.
BBC Blue Planet - Coral Seas
Length: 50 minutes
Description: The BBC Blue Planet series, similar to Planet Earth, covers different types of ecosystems within the world's oceans. As coral reefs have some of the greatest amounts of diversity and abundance of life in the entire world, they are excellent places to study the different relationships that living organisms have each other. Within just this episode, students will see examples of symbiosis, predation, competition, and natural selection.
BBC Life in the Undergrowth - Intimate Relations
Length: 50 minutes
Description: Another good documentary to show examples of symbiosis, this is part of a BBC series covering the ecology of insects and other small invertebrates. Students will see parasitism, commensalism, and mutualism between insects and plants.
Length: 89 minutes
Description: Sharkwater is a documentary about the misconceptions we have about sharks, the overharvesting of sharks (particularly for shark fin soup), and how the plummeting shark population is affecting ocean food webs worldwide. Sharks are top predators, occupying the highest level on many food chains. When sharks are removed from aquatic communities, the prey species underneath them can overpopulate. This throws the entire food web into flux, leading to its potential collapse.
Length: 50 minutes per episode
Description: A groundbreaking BBC documentary series that covers different types of biomes, or land-based ecoystems in each episode. The biodiversity of each biome is sampled, as well as some of the geologic processes that led to its formation. Ecosystems covered include deserts, grasslands, temperate forests, rainforests, deep oceans, shallow seas, fresh water, and caves. Great for integrating some of the biotic factors from the ecology unit with the abiotic factors covered in the ecosystems unit.
Length: 50 minutes per episode
Description: In many ways a prequel to the more well-known Planet Earth series, Blue Planet focuses completely on aquatic ecosystems in much greater detail. Episodes can be used to contrast ecosystems along the shore (tidal seas, coastal seas, coral seas), in the midst of the ocean (seasonal seas, open ocean, frozen seas), or even at the very bottom (ocean deep).
World in the Balance: The People Paradox
Length: 50 minutes
Description: This episode of the PBS NOVA series delves into some of the demographic differences between developed and developing countries. In the beginning, India is shown as a case study of a country in transition and struggling to slow its fertility rate and population growth. Societal issues, such as the son preference, sex-selective abortion, and lack of reproductive freedom for women, are discussed. This contrasted by Japan, which is a country in a post-industrial stage, seeing its fertility rate drop far below replacement level. The impact of AIDS on Africa's population makes up the last segment.
Eyes of Nye: Human Population
Length: 25 minutes
Description: Although nearly another billion people has been added to the world since this episode of the Eyes of Nye was produced, it still covers a lot of the major issues surrounding human overpopulation. Cultural issues arising from population are studied in India and China. The resource consumption between developed and developing countries is also compared.
It's a Girl: The Three Deadliest Words In The World
Length: 63 minutes
Description: It's A Girl is a documentary about the "missing" females in countries like China and India, where societal pressures have created a society with a disproportionate number of males compared to females. The practices of infanticide and gender-specific abortion are explored, as well as how the one-child policy in China and dowry system in India have created the problem.
Length: 94 minutes
Description: This 2009 documentary by Eric Schlosser covers many of the unseen consequences of the industrialized agriculture system. The first segment explores the underside of factory farms and meat processing plants. Poultry farmers working for Tyson and Perdue are interviewed, although little access is granted to the actual operations. The second segment looks at the effects of a diet heavy in processed foods on human health. The story of a woman whose 2 year-old son died from E. coli food poisoning is given, along with her efforts to lobby for improved food regulations. The epidemic of diabetes in the United States is related to the proliferation of cheap, unhealthy foods. Finally, Food, Inc. visits with organic food manufacturers and discusses the growth of the industry.
Length: 72 minutes
Description: Many of the documentaries covering issues relating to food and agriculture tend to be very negative, foreboding, and gruesome. Movies such as Food, Inc and others tend to focus mainly on issues relating to animal welfare in the factory farm setting. Fresh is a good counter to these types of documentaries. This movie is much more positive and uplifting. Specific examples of farms and farmers, such as Joel Salatin, that have opted out of the industrialized system in favor of free-range organic practices are showcased. Students who feel turned off and repulsed by farming after learning the details of factory farming will feel the positive impact of small and medium free-range agriculture.
Length: 88 minutes
Description: This documentary explores the changes that have occured in plant agriculture since the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, and how government subsidy programs have influenced our entire food system. Two friends go to Iowa and lease an acre of farmland to grow their own corn. In the process, the learn about fertilizer, tractors, herbicides, and the eventual fate of the corn they produce -- likely as animal feed or a sweetener called high fructose corn syrup. The subsidies that support this practice have in turn created an abundance of artificially sweetened foods and a national with an exceptionally high rate of diabetes.
Ken Burns: The Dust Bowl, Ep. 1 - The Great Plow Up
Length: 112 minutes
Description: A comprehensive and engaging retelling of the Dust Bowl by director Ken Burns. This is the first episode in a two-part series about the worst ecological disaster ever to face the United States. Students will learn about the irresponsible land management and poor farming practices that led up to the Dust Bowl through interviews and writings from people who lived through it.
Dirt! The Movie
Length: 94 minutes
Description: One of the overlooked aspects of food and agriculture is the importance of soil. A quick glance at a map of the most impaired soils around the world reveals that this is a growing issue, especially in the most productive areas. Multiple famines throughout history, the Dust Bowl being the most famous, are the direct result of the misuse and abuse of soil. This documentary seeks to show students the man's relationship with soil and the importance of caring for soil by giving perspectives of people from multiple different cultures.
The Future of Food
Length: 88 minutes
Description: Genetically modified organisms -- corn, soy, and papaya, have been legal to use in the United States for over 10 years. A lot of questions are still being raised, however, about whether the use of these crops is really beneficial. The Future of Food provides a comprehensive look at this issue, covering every aspect of the issue, including how GMOs are made, whether copyrighting life is ethical, the health and environmental concerns, and the legal troubles that some farmers have come into as the result of growing Monsanto-owned seed.
Death on a Factory Farm
Length: 88 minutes
Description: Startling footage taken from an investigator working undercover at the Wiles Hog Farm in northeast Ohio raises questions about the manner in which we raise animals on factory farms.. The worker, named "Pete", documents several instances of what appear to be cruelty to the piglets and hogs by the workers on the farm. The footage is eventually shown to a district attorney and the owner and operator of the farm is brought to court. The documentary concludes with coverage of the court case and its verdict.
The End of the Line
Length: 85 minutes
Description: Autopsy Life and Death is a follow-up to the Anatomy For Beginner series. In this episode, Dr. von Hagens uses the cadaver of a patient who died of heart disease to examine the anatomical changes that occur in the body as a result of various cardiovascular disorders. Topics covered include embolisms, aneurysms, artherosclerosis, and heart attacks.
Length: 92 minutes
Description: Ric Barry is a former dolphin trainer who worked on the Flipper TV series who now works to put an end to dolphin hunting in Japan. To help him, a film crew sets up multiple hidden cameras around a secret cove that fisherman in the small coastal town of Taiji use to herd and kill dolphins, which they then sell for meat. This documentation is then presented as evidence of Japan's continued hunting of ocean mammals (ceteceans), despite the declaration of a moratorium in the 1980s.
The documentary questions the ethics of the hunting practice itself, whether it is sustainable, and the potential human health issues in regards to the biomagnification of mercury poisoning.
Length: 98 minutes
Description: Switch is an incredibly comprehensive look at energy production across the world. Every major source of energy is covered, including coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, and renewable sources like wind, solar, and geothermal. The advantages and disadvantages of each source are discussed while working towards some combination of energy resources that will reduce our carbon dioxide and other forms of pollution.
30 Days: Working in a Coal Mine
Length: 42 minutes
Description: Originally from the hills of West Virginia, Morgan Spurlock has a close connection to the coal industry, and decides to spend 30 days living and working with the miners of the Double Bonus Coal Company. Students will gain insight into the dangers of underground mining, health risks faced by the long-time workers, and specific techniques used to try to manage the danger. Morgan is also taken on a brief tour of a surface mining operation, and is able to witness a mountaintop explosion while learning about the environmental hazards of this practice.
Length: 107 minutes
Description: When the hydraulic fracturing boom first began in Pennsylvania, Josh Fox was offered nearly $100,000 to lease his land for drilling. Uncomfortable with the impacts this might have on the nearby streams that fed into the Susquehanna River, he travels throughout the United States to learn more about the process of hydraulic fracturing and some of its unseen side effects. Included is a visit to Dimock, Pennsylvania to see the impacts of improper fracking waste water disposal.
Length: 57 minutes
Description: Following World War 2, the Marshall Islands were used by the United States as testing grounds for many new designs of nuclear weapons. This documentary uses declassified footage taken during the first two tests, codenamed "Operation Crossroads", to show the evacuation of native people, the actual nuclear blasts themselves, and the lack of protection and care given to the sailors working in the area.
Length: 60 minutes
Description: When thinking of the current state of the ecosystem surrounding the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant in Ukraine, most people assume it is some sort of wasteland, overrun with diseased and mutated animals. However, as this PBS Nature documentary shows, the communities in this ecosystem are actually thriving due to the complete absence of humans. While wolves are the center focus, other species are also tracked, including plants, fish, birds, and rodents.
An Inconvenient Truth
Length: 118 minutes
Description: The majority of this documentary is a multimedia presentation given by former Vice President Al Gore as he travelled around the world educating people about climate change. While the film has gotten a lot of criticism for being one-sided and having a few errors, overall it provides the most complete explanation for the mechamisms of global warming and the evidence we have that it is happening.
The Island President
Length: 101 minutes
Description: One of the most striking impacts of the sea level rise caused by global warming is the gradual drowing of populations that live near the ocean close to sea level. One of the biggest and most well-known is the Maldives, an island country south of India. This documentary is about Mohammed Nasheed, a former president of the Maldives. He was particularly active in the movement to bring international action to stop carbon dioxide emissions that are causing global warming. His efforts to raise awareness worldwide climaxed with an international summit in Copenhagen, where he pleaded with the world to reign in greenhouse gas emissions.
Frozen Planet: On Thin Ice
Length: 50 minutes
Description: The final episode in the Frozen Planet BBC documentary series is about the impacts of global warming on the ecosystems of the Arctic and Antarctic. David Attenborough travels with scientists who tranquilize a polar bear to study its health and attach a tracking collar. He then moves to Antarctica, where significant changes in pengin colonies are occuring along with a rapid deterioration of ice shelves.
Length: 76 minutes
Description: Water is one of the most basic necessities of life, and has long been treated as a basic human right. However, the growing bottled water industry has turned this resources into a valuable commodity. This documentary looks at the human and environmental impacts of the bottled water industry, from the lack of rules and regulations regarding water withdrawal, to the growing problem of plastic pollution winding back up in the ocean.
Garbage Island: An Ocean Full of Plastic
Length: 67 minutes
Description: The Great Pacific Trash Vortex tends to conjure up images of a giant floating garbage island in the middle of the ocean. However, if you were to actually sail through the area, you might not even realize you were in it. Most of the plastic is either below the surface, or in pieces too small to be immediately visible. This documentary by Vice takes viewers on a tour of the garbage patch, including taking samples of the water and demonstrating the tremendous mass of plastic that is displacing the normal biomass of the water column.
PBS Frontline: Poisoned Waters
Length: 120 minutes
Description: One of the biggest causes of impaired surface waters is nutrient pollution: fertilizer runoff from farms, golf courses, and lawns. This starts a process called cultural eutrophication, which eventually leads to a decrease in water oxygen level. This results in large "dead zones", or areas of water where there the amount of life is greatly diminished. This episode of Frontline focuses on the impacts of runoff pollution on the coastal estuaries of Puget Sound and Chesapeake Bay.