The Rights and Wrongs of Nature Documentaries

The Rights and Wrongs of Nature Documentaries

Photo Credits: CAITLYN SAMPLEY / AGGIE

Can documentaries like “Our Planet” advocate for environmental justice?

The United Nations reported that we have a 12 year window to drastically change the state of the environment before catastrophe strikes. A much more urgent tone warrants reevaluation if the strategies currently used to mitigate climate change impacts aren’t enough.

At the same time, nature documentaries like “Planet Earth,” “Blue Planet” and the more recent “Our Planet” can be viewed as a positive mechanism for change. Visually stunning images of our planet’s natural landscapes, combined with warnings of a potentially disastrous future might make these examples of documentary filmmaking just what the planet needs.

“Media and particularly visual media, is a powerful way to portray messages because people can see with their own eyes and evaluate messages,” said Tracy Winsor, an environmental law lecturer.

Fourth-year marine and coastal sciences major Anya Stajner has personally seen the growing environmental concerns expressed by her students because of the documentary “Blue Planet.”

“I completely think that these types of documentaries are a super important tool in at least triggering environmental change,” Stajner said. “I teach at a local elementary schools in Yolo County, and after ‘Blue Planet’ came out and we were going over the ocean ecosystems lesson, all of the kids wanted to raise their hands. They were stoked to participate.”

Despite their praise, however, there may be flaws in these documentaries. Fran Neil, a second-year sustainable agriculture and food system major, attended the “Environment as Freedom: Racial Capital and Environmental Justice” lecture on April 29 which pinpointed a few of these negative repercussions.

“These documentaries are very ‘Oh nature is go great,’” Neil said. “That is important, but it doesn’t go into much of what needs to be done and problem solving.”

Problem solving, however, may not be the purpose of “Planet Earth,” “Blue Planet,” “Our Planet” and others of the like.

“It is important when we look at these documentaries that we have realistic expectations for them,” Stajner said.

These documentaries’ purposes might simply be to act as the first step in climate change mitigation, rather than calling for direct action.

“In the whole advocacy process, there are a lot of steps you can take that have different implications, purposes and meanings,” said Andrew Isaac, a third-year community and regional development major. “When you are trying to convey the importance of something or getting someone to take action is important. These documentaries are a step in the process of advocacy, but it is no means the end of the road. It gets people engaged and thinking about the animals and environment we are impacting. Without that first step, people will not be inspired to make change or have the mental capacity in understanding the crisis we have on our hands. It is reaching a young base of people and maybe inspiring a few to continue or begin environmental advocacy.”

Presenting the issue of climate change in an open manner might then allow the viewer to take steps to better the environment. In fact, according to Winsor, there is a respected phrase in legal writing that emphasizes this point: “if you keep it simple, people are going to get your message.”

“A lot of times an artist has a message that they want to convey, but then the viewer of the art brings everything that is in their background and experience,” Winsor said. “So it may not be the artist’s intention to have a results oriented message, they just might want to share information and interject it into the world of the viewer and make them think about it. If you try to force someone to accept you view, they may react more negatively to it and see it more like propaganda. If someone thinks about it and talks about it, they may arise to the message the artist is trying to convey but in their own way.”

Therefore, “One Planet” and other documentaries separate themselves from the potential gate-keeping phenomenon that can occur in some advocacy methods.

“I really think that a problem with environmentalism is exclusivity — trying to gate keep people, to say that you’re not enough of an environmentalist,” Stajner said. “And while this documentary has not changed any policy, it gets people excited and I think that’s as much as you can ask a documentary to do.”

Indeed, according to Winsor, legitimate change involves a multitude of interacting bodies and industries

“The arts, including documentaries and media, have been very important to reaching critical turning points,” Winsor said. “Causing change is a collaborative effort that crosses science, politics, the law and policy. I think the arts and media and new is important to raising awareness, but itself is not going to force change.”

Despite its simplicity, however, there may be related areas to environmental justice that are missing from the narrative. Neil noted the social implications of environmental justice that these nature documentaries do not cover.

“They often fail to recognize the impacts on certain peoples,” Neil said. “It is a lot of indigenous people who are impacted by not sustainable forestry, for example. It’s really glossed over, and does not look at the starting problems: the industrialized communities.”

In addition, according to third-year environmental science and management major Jazmine Dahi, the documentaries fail to mention that most environmental damage is created by a select few larger industries.

To Isaac, however, recognizing the social implications of environmental degrade in this format may not be effective due to the filming style of nature documentaries.

“I don’t think that is the right place to address the social inequalities and inequities of climate change,” Isaac said. “I think the purpose of ‘Planet Earth’ is to show the beauty, and that type of documentary film technique is not the right way to show inequities among marginalized communities and the social implications in general of environmental justice. But I do think there should be a documentary that does it.”

Although “Planet Earth,” “Blue Planet” and “Our Planet” may not be able to capture the entire complexity and implications of climate change and environmental degrade, they may act as a first step in taking the urgent action recommended by the United Nations. Perhaps the other implications that are part of the greater picture can be mentioned in another documentary.

Written By: Caroline Rutten — arts@theaggie.org