Friday, January 6, 2017

10 Sustainability Documentaries

CGEE Student Voice
by Jenni Abere

I watch a lot of documentaries. Here, I've compiled 10 of my favorite documentaries that are about the topic of sustainability in some way. I've subdivided these into three categories: Food and Diet, Climate Change, and Social Justice. There is a lot of overlap between these topics, however, since you can't separate them from each other.

Food and Diet


This documentary has received a lot of attention, and for good reason. It's one of the most persuasive documentaries I've ever seen. Case in point: While I was watching it, I was eating a slice of leftover pepperoni pizza, but I've been a vegetarian ever since.

This documentary covers all the major arguments against large scale animal agriculture: climate change, land use, water pollution, animal cruelty, poverty and hunger, worker conditions, human health. The unique spin of this documentary is that the director, Kip Anderson, is slowly uncovering a vast "cowspiracy" where even environmental advocacy groups are unwilling to name animal agriculture as one of the leading causes of environmental degradation.

A Place at the Table

This documentary is a personal and emotional look at food insecurity in America. It covers both urban and rural "food deserts" and particularly the impact on children.

Forks Over Knives

This documentary focuses mostly on the health aspects of diet. Cowspiracy followed by Forks Over Knives is sort of a one-two punch to becoming vegetarian or vegan. This documentary led to my parents re-thinking the standard American diet, and cutting back on animal products.

A lot of convincing studies are discussed, including the China Study, one of the most in-depth studies of human nutrition ever.

Climate Change

Chasing Ice

This is one of the most famous documentaries of recent years. The cinematography is incredible and it includes some convincing evidence of climate change that you can see with your own eyes, bringing distant phenomena close to home.

When I went to see a showing of this in theaters, it was during an insane blizzard, which is nice irony.

Last Call at the Oasis

This is a comprehensive look at issues of water quality and quantity. It doesn't delve too deeply into any one issue, but it's a good refresher.


This documentary begins with a young man wondering if he should allow a company to frack for natural gas on his property. He quickly goes down a rabbit hole of the devastating impacts of the energy industry on the environment and people.

It's a bit of downer, of course. I watched this with some co-workers in Hamline's Sustainability Office. At the end of the film, my boss said that she used to work for energy sustainability, but it was too depressing, so she started working with the food movement instead.

Social Justice

Poverty, INC 

This documentary challenged a lot of my preconceived notions and led me to think about charity work in a more nuanced and complex way. People who live in developing countries are given a voice in this documentary, and their message basically is: "Why do you assume we need all of this free stuff? Have you ever actually been to this country?"

Indeed, all the free stuff prevents the growth of business and wealth. The local suppliers are put out of business, people grow dependent: only for people to lose interest in a particular charity and leave them high and dry.

This is definitely an uncomfortable subject matter, since people who give to charities and work for charities have nothing but good intentions. The main thesis of this documentary is: Global aid is necessary in times of crisis, but when it becomes a way of life for developing countries, it hurts their ability to grow.

This documentary will help you decide which charitable causes will actually help more than they hurt in the long run.

Trouble the Water

This documentary uses first-hand footage from Hurricane Katrina to paint a disturbing image: People completely abandoned when the storm came. One woman's family is impacted in so many ways. Her grandmother was in a hospital, and was left behind to die in the storm. Her brother was in prison, and all the guards left, without telling them what was happening.

It's important to confront this failure of America to take care of its own people.

The House I Live In

This documentary, about the war on drugs, is one of the most eye-opening I have ever seen. It has both tragic anecdotal stories, and decades of evidence.

One of the most interesting (well, maybe, horrifying) points is that since the war on drugs began, there have been fewer arrests for murders, rapes and robberies. A journalist, the creator of The Wire, said that the war on drugs doesn't reward good police work, and has created police departments that can't solve crimes.

Nixon was the president to begin the war on drugs, but he had a surprisingly progressive approach. He said that drug use was only a symptom of pain and suffering in society, and that people needed help, not jail time. However, this "soft on crime" approach has never been very popular, so publicly he spouted the same old "lock 'em up" rhetoric.

Food Chains 

This documentary deals with migrant farm laborers, so yes it's depressing. But there's light at the end of the tunnel! We follow activists in their work to pressure large purchasers such as Walmart, Taco Bell, and Publix to support humane pay and conditions.

Publix never gave in, but Taco Bell and Walmart were among the first to agree to only purchase tomatoes approved by this workers' rights organization.

I think a lot of people are unaware of the ubiquity of human labor in farm work. Some assume that there are machines that pick apples and other produce. This documentary is a good wake up call, and gives you the resources you need to make the best purchasing decisions.

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