Nature documentaries fall short of promoting real change


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We’ve all seen an episode of “Planet Earth.” We’ve all sat in a dark theater or stale classroom and observed as the wild, awe-inspiring, natural world unfolds before us. In “March of the Penguins,” Morgan Freeman’s narration drums along with the plight of the adorable black-and-white birds — a milestone film in many of our lives. The haunting realities of “Blackfish” shocked the public when it brought the disdainful treatment of killer whales to light.

There is no shortage of nature documentaries out there. Before us, the silver screen plays out mistreatment, shocking truths and global environmental issues. While it’s hard to watch the unfettered obstacles of global wildlife unfold, we still do.

While we consume these films, the stories of environmental problems that haunt our forests, affect wildlife and increase climate change inspire us to try to find a solution. Our love for our planet is reawakened as montages of the warming sun, furry animals and luscious landscapes mingle around us.

Nature documentaries are powerful. These films possess a unique ability to inform the public of the pressing environmental issues facing our world and its inhabitants. The biggest problem with documentaries like these are that the inspiration they instill in viewers is ultimately short-lived.

Documentaries offer a beautiful opportunity to connect people to ecosystems that they would never be able to otherwise see. It’s a unique look into this chaotic and magnificent world of animal kingdoms, rolling sand dunes and twisting forests. It’s a chance for people to expand their understanding of the world.

This opportunity is lost when people view these documentaries as fantasy rather than reality.

A huge part of the temporary influence of nature documentaries is that the average person’s exposure to wildlife and the natural world is very limited. Not many of us have run with gazelles or watched iguanas hide from predators. Our daily relationship with nature is going to the park, trudging the occasional hike or walking down the street, trees planted on the corners. The animals we see regularly are pigeons pecking for scraps, dogs padding along next to their owners and squirrels slinking up trees.

Those who are not zoologists –– so, the majority of people –– have most likely never had hands-on experience with the kind of environments and organisms that are featured in these documentaries. People see the problems of the Sahara or the rainforest as isolated to those places. Therefore, it is much easier for them to watch these documentaries with the mentality that the narratives at hand and the conflicts represented do not affect them.

While the films may garner sympathy from viewers, people are too disconnected from the stories of the orangutan and her baby or the packs of hyenas to be inspired to champion conservation and promote change with their own actions.

The most powerful nature documentaries address the impact average human actions have upon the featured ecosystems. When the films instead opt to showcase environmental issues — ranging from extinction to climate change — without critiquing their root causes, the films become less impactful and more easy to ignore.



The root cause of most environmental issues is human activity. When humans are cited as the reason that these problems exist, viewers are more invested in fixing them. People feel guilty when documentaries such as “An Inconvenient Truth” and the “Planet Earth” series hold them accountable for their impact on the world, for their failure to take the small steps to toss their cans in the recycling or compost their food scraps. When people feel responsible for these problems, they are more likely to promote change.

Documentary filmmakers have to walk that thin line between calling people out for the ways they negatively impact the world and keeping them interested in the documentary. No one wants to feel attacked while watching a movie, but these documentaries can’t be influential if they don’t demonstrate their audience’s own complicity.

It is easy to watch nature documentaries and feel like you have done your part. Many people come to the conclusion that staying informed about environmental and global issues is enough. And while staying informed is important, knowing that climate change is an issue or that certain animals are facing extinction does not prevent these horrors from coming to fruition. Instead, we are just a community of people, educated on the apocalypse heading our way, watching from the sidelines as it takes its course.

Rather than watch nature documentaries and stop there, people need to feel a call to action to promote conservation and environmental change. Documentary makers must address how humans are at fault for environmental issues — how specific actions can be made to remedy these actions — without turning them off of their films. Through this, audiences can recognize that the ecosystems depicted on the screen are not isolated from their own world.

Maybe then, nature documentaries can be more than just fantasy, more than just the award winners for best cinematography. Maybe then, these documentaries can be truly effective.

Contact Maisy Menzies at [email protected].