Viewing the Environment: Green Documentaries | Collection Development

Back in 1967, visionary designer Buckminster Fuller employed in his work the metaphor that we are all aboard “Spaceship Earth.” Now that concept seems prophetic, as humans are said to be exceeding the limits of Earth’s resources and carrying capacity. Fuller’s vision helped cause a paradigm shift for me. Like many of us, I have become committed to finding ways to drive less, fly less, and otherwise reduce and offset my own fossil fuel emissions.

So the environment has become an important topic of interest to students and adults alike. That interest is likely to increase as global warming and volatile energy prices continue to affect our lives

Science plays an important role in most green documentaries. Of course, science helped cause today’s environmental problems, too. Still, it’s critical to understanding the complex workings of our biosphere. Scientific evidence is essential to discovering, monitoring, and mitigating the pervasive human impact on the environment, so scientists in relevant fields appear on-screen frequently, making sense of diverse situations and complex topics. A good environmental video collection can support critical thinking about mainstream ad campaigns, global warming denial, or greenwashing (positive PR spin that is not necessarily justified; think “whitewashing”).

Seeing into the future

Environmentalism is a multidisciplinary topic that is global in scope. Aspects that have generated video productions include climate change, energy, food security, land use, pollution, public policy, species extinction, and water security. There are often direct connections among them, such as agricultural chemical runoff affecting regional fish stocks, or higher rates of respiratory problems found in cities with coal-fired power plants.

The medium of video is valuable for its impact on viewers and its capacity to illustrate difficult concepts through live-action or animation. Videos also make use of subtitles or soundtracks in various languages, enhancing their value to the global landscape. While some productions can be accused of oversimplification, video content is certainly accessible. Some of the documentaries listed here are companions to books as well.

A common narrative arc in these films alerts viewers to a potential problem, reveals evidence, and makes predictions, then suggests possible solutions. A grassroots mobilization is often necessary. Viewers may be asked to help by consuming less or supporting specific organizations.

Is there any alternative? Danish economist Bjorn Lomborg makes the case, in the book and film Cool It, that humans on the whole have never had it better. Lomborg claims funds spent on combating global warming are not being used effectively. He would instead put money toward public health improvements for the developing world. Canadian geneticist David Suzuki, in his film Force of Nature, avers that endless growth on one planet is impossible and that whatever we do to the environment, we do to ourselves. In the feature documentary Surviving Progress, Suzuki calls economics a destructive set of values, not a science. Conventional economics ignores the critical services provided by a healthy biosphere, which we need for survival. Hence, we face two conflicting worldviews.

Selections and collections

Most of the DVDs listed below have a global or U.S. national focus. Canada’s tar sands megaproject is included, as the primary source of crude oil for U.S. refineries. China is here as well because policy actions there can have a significant international ­impact.

Many worthy productions are omitted owing to their regional or local focus. For example, a PBS television episode The Big Energy Gamble (LJ 5/1/10) looks at some effects of a low-carbon California state energy policy. Selectors should check with local environmental groups to track such video ­releases.

There are few classics in this field, as science always requires further research and updates. The environment changes, research yields new results, and our perception therefore changes, too. Some references will become dated, and older films may become unavailable. The backlist selections here are limited to videos released in 2005 and later.

Pricing is an issue in building or maintaining any video collection. Television producers usually distribute their own episodes and set a flat price under $30. Major film studios like Paramount do the same with their feature-length productions. However, distributors of independent videos may post several prices, depending on rights offered and the type of customer. There is no obvious difference in production values between them, though some editions offer a menu of bonus features. Your library policy may mandate the purchase of public performance rights (PPR).

Bullfrog Films, a prominent distributor of materials on the environment, has a list price of $250, which includes PPR. Other distributors can charge as much as $400. However, some of the titles are available at lower prices for home use (circulating) only, either from Bullfrog (price not posted, you must inquire) or directly from the producers or other vendors. Distributors like Video Project have varying prices for public/school libraries and academic institutions.

Starred items [starred review star] are core purchases for all collections.


How To Boil a Frog. 87 min. Jon Cooksey, Video Project, 2009. DVD $89; acad. libs. $250. Closed-captioned.

This Canadian video uses irony and satire to point out many aspects of global warming and peak oil, including revitalization of local communities as easy fossil fuel transportation fails.

starred review star An Inconvenient Truth. 100 min. Davis Guggenheim, Paramount Home Video, 2006. DVD $19.99.

This measured presentation by former vice president Al Gore stands as a comprehensive overview of global warming. Some predictions may be debatable, but there are far-reaching consequences to our continuing with business as usual.

starred review star Our Planet: The Past, Present and Future of Earth. 284+ min. New Video, 2011. DVD ISBN 9781422992517. $19.95. Closed-captioned.

Produced by the History Channel, this three-disc epic outlines our entire planetary past and alerts viewers to present global warming. The future is sketchier, and the video focuses on what will happen to our infrastructure if humans suddenly die off. (LJ 6/1/12)

starred review star Surviving Progress. 86+ min. Mathieu Roy & Harold Crooks, First Run Features, Sept. 2012. DVD UPC 720229914994. $27.95; public performance $89; acad. libs. $250.

Inspired by Ronald Wright’s 2005 book A Short History of Progress, this brilliant feature reveals how human nature has caught us in “progress traps” that threaten civilization and the health of our biosphere. (LJ 7/12)


Consumer’s Guide to Alternative Energy. (Future Fuels 1). 39 min. Jeff Cooper, SyndiKast/TerraVision Media, 2009. DVD ISBN 9781607433347. $14.95. Public performance.

Tune in for a brisk tour of ethanol, solar, biodiesel power, plus wind. Also, hybrid vehicles and home energy conservation, shot at various U.S. locations. (LJ 2/1/10)

The Greenest Building. 60 min. Jane Turville, Wagging Tale Prods., 2011. DVD $29.95.

We think of green building as new construction, but renovating existing structures can actually be easier on the environment. Director Turville visits some inspiring ­examples. (LJ 3/1/12)

starred review star Power Surge. 60 min. Doug Hamilton, PBS Video, 2011. DVD ISBN 9781608834723. $24.99. SDH subtitles.

This NOVA episode recruits an expert panel to showcase cleaner alternatives to fossil fuels. There are many options, including energy conservation, but they need to be put into action immediately. (LJ 8/12)

Revenge of the Electric Car. 90 min. Chris Paine, New Video, 2012. DVD ISBN 9781422995003. $29.95. Closed-captioned.

Industrial history is being made as some electric car brands go into mass production. A video crew follows key auto executives during development of the Chevrolet Volt, Nissan Leaf, and Tesla Roadster. (LJ 3/15/12)

Solar Energy: Saved by the Sun. 56 min. Steven Latham, WGBH-Boston, 2007. DVD ISBN 9781593757212. $19.95. Closed-captioned.

This NOVA episode scans solar energy technology, primarily in the United States. (LJ 3/1/08)


Burning the Future: Coal in America. 89 min. David Novack, Docurama Films c/o New Video, 2009. ISBN 9781422940662. DVD $26.95.

This is a powerful testimony against “mountaintop removal” coal mining as practiced in West Virginia. Half of U.S. electricity is still generated by burning coal. (LJ 5/1/10)

starred review star Crude Impact. 97 min. James Jandak Wood, Docurama c/o New Video, 2009. DVD ISBN 9781422936702. $26.95.

This ambitious video tackles peak oil, climate change, and the fate of industrial civilization. Globalized food production and transportation depend on burning staggering amounts of oil every day. Here is a call for individuals and institutions to behave more sustainably. (LJ 5/1/10)

Into Eternity. 75 min. Video Project, 2011. DVD $89; acad. libs. $295. Public performance.

A nuclear power consortium in Finland is building the world’s first permanent repository for its high-level radioactive waste. How will the facility remain safe for 100,000 years? This is a responsibility not yet dealt with by the nuclear power industry.

White Water, Black Gold. 57 min. David Lavallee, Video Project, 2011. DVD. $89; acad. libs. $195. Public performance; closed-captioned.

Canadian wilderness guide Lavallee canoes down Alberta’s Athabasca River to the tar sands, where synthetic crude oil is being produced for U.S. refineries. The native community, suffering an elevated cancer rate, is warned not to eat local fish or wildlife, and oversight of oil corporations is stressed. (LJ 6/15/12)


starred review star The End of the Line: Where Have All the Fish Gone? 83 min. Rupert Murray, New Video, 2010. DVD ISBN 9781422949733. $26.95.

Our oceans are being relentlessly plundered, decimating many iconic stocks like the bluefin tuna. The Atlantic cod has already been fished out. The film urges an increase in marine wildlife reserves, and viewers are implored to buy only species being sustainably caught. (LJ 4/15/10)

Flow: For Love of Water. 84 min. Irena Salina, Oscilloscope, 2008. DVD home version $14.99; public performance $245.

Water megaprojects and privatization are often undertaken by multinational corporations, supported by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Here is a hard look at some of the consequences.

starred review star Food, Inc. color. Robert Kenner, Magnolia Pictures, 2009. DVD UPC 876964002165; Blu-ray UPC 876964002608. $19.99.

Filmmaker Kenner heads an exposé of industrial agriculture, including feedlots, corporate processors, and fast-food chains. It’s not a pastoral scene. Credit is given to some independent farmers, plus a few corporations, for producing and distributing organic foods. (LJ 1/10)

Poisoned Waters. 120 min. Hedrick Smith, PBS Home Video, 2009. DVD ISBN 9780793670680. $24.99.

In this PBS Frontline episode, New York Times journalist Smith investigates the causes and effects of chemical pollution in Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound. Coastal communities, take note.


American Experience: Earth Days. 102 min. Robert Stone, PBS Video, 2010. DVD ISBN 9781608831890. $24.99; Blu-Ray $29.99. Closed-captioned.

This episode of the American Experience follows the environmental movement through the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s. The story is told by Stewart Brand, founder and editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, and fellow activists. (LJ 12/10)

The Clean Bin Project. 50/77 min. Grant Baldwin & Jenny Rustemeyer, Video Project, 2011. DVD $89; acad. libs. $250. Public performance. Closed-captioned.

No garbage for a year! A creative young Canadian couple made a video diary of how they lived without it. They also checked where all their neighborhood garbage is ­going.

Retrofitting Suburbia. (Designing Healthy Communities). 56 min. Media Policy Centre, 2012. DVD $30.

Host Richard Jackson looks at town planning as an aspect of public health. The current obesity epidemic shows we have been on the wrong road as a sprawling car culture. Jackson discovers some promising developments of walkable town centers.

Waking the Green Tiger: The Rise of the Green Movement in China. 78 min. Gary Marcuse, Video Project, 2011. DVD $89; acad. libs. $250. Public performance; closed-captioned.

This subtitled production documents how some dedicated activists and journalists have begun to question centrally planned Chinese power dam construction. Now local populations are said to have veto power on such megaprojects.


Bullfrog Films

Bullfrog is a major video distributor, with a good number of items about the ­environment.

Spread the Word;

Click on the “must watch” tab on this alternative media site for selected videos that may be streamed.

Top Documentary Films

This personal site lists about 70 environmental videos, among many other subjects. Most can be streamed.

Video Project;

A major video distributor, with a specialty in environmental topics. The website may be searched by subject heading. n

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  1. deg farrelly says:

    This article lists the website

    Please note that TopDocumentaryFilms is known for providing links to films that have been posted in violation of copyright, without permission, and has a history of take down notices. The site is very frustrating for legitimate owners of content. There are numerous other sites for legitimate free access to content, including (I have no affiliation with Snag).
    One of the best ways to locate quality content in video format is the National Media Market, where @50 distributors, including Bullfrog, VideoProject, NewDay Films, Icarus, Media Education Foundation, Cinema Guild, Filmakers Library, all screen their exceptional videos and media librarians view, share thoughts on titles, and negotiate contracts. More at

  2. This is true, however the real violation is with the people who upload these video’s to the streaming websites such as youtube and vimeo. You can’t blame TopDocumentaryFilms for merely linking to them. In no way or form is it the guys fault.

    • deg farrelly says:

      It certainly *IS* “the guy’s fault” when copyright owner for the content notifies the site that the link is to illegally uploaded content, but the link remains.

      The point is, the site is known to point to illegally available content. That some of it is illegal makes all of it suspect. And it is unethical to knowingly point users to sites that provide access to illegal content.