A deep dive into the -spiracies
A critique of what environmental documentaries are teaching us about the climate crisis.
by Willow Volkert
Documentaries are an easy way to learn new information while essentially doing nothing. I’m not ashamed to say that this is why I love watching them! But in a world where so much misinformation exists, is it a good idea to blindly trust the messages of these movies?
I have recently used environmental documentaries to learn new perspectives on issues I’ve always cared about. However, the more I watched, the more I noticed a certain, somewhat problematic, trend.
Several documentaries dramatize one specific issue and neglect to discuss how that problem is intertwined with many others.
'If you only watch one of these documentaries - as many people do - you are left with a skewed picture of what is causing the climate crisis.'
The danger of this exclusionary narrative is that documentaries risk adding to the misinformation about climate change already present within the general public. They also risk dividing individuals by perpetuating a hard line mentality that ‘the only correct opinion is mine’.
If you only watch one of these documentaries - as many people do - you are left with a skewed picture of what is causing the climate crisis, and almost no understanding of how many issues overlap.
As if sent to further this cloud of misinformation and create another exclusionary environmental narrative, Seaspiracy was released on Netflix last month. This documentary - exposing the fishing industry for its destruction of our climate and its human rights violations - caused a big splash.
In this article, I'll be looking at the sibling documentaries, Seaspiracy and Cowspiracy - perhaps the most notorious environmental documentaries of the last 5-10 years (both produced by American film director Kip Anderson).
What follows is my attempt to critique these popular and influential documentaries in a hope to explain where I think they've gone right, but also where they've gone wrong.
To start with the more recent, Seaspiracy follows the now very familiar; ’dramatic documentary’ style, with near-doom background music, violent, blood-stained cinematography, and a constant smattering of death threats. The movie begins with the narrator, who was involved with many ocean-based non-profits, learning more about how the fishing industry contributes to ocean destruction.
He follows the issue across the world, investigating Japan’s ‘dolphin cove’, whaling in Iceland, commercial fishing off the coast of North Africa, and interviewing men who were enslaved on Chinese fishing boats. Throughout the film, he interviews nonprofits dedicated to ocean conservation and questions them on why they don’t talk about the destruction that commercial fishing causes.
'[Seaspiracy's] decision to make non-profits the bad guys was one I found quite upsetting.'
Although I applaud Seaspiracy’s effort to expose a side of climate destruction that is not nearly heard about enough, its decision to make non-profits the bad guys was one I found quite upsetting.
At a time when we should be supporting underfunded nonprofits, the film creates an animosity towards them. Additionally, many of the nonprofits that were interviewed spoke out after the film was released, saying the interview snippets were taken out of context.
The result? These organizations dipped in popularity, had trouble securing funding, and gave up campaigns due to lack of resources. More personally, the film left me with a feeling of hopelessness - how would we ever achieve a better world if we continue to shut down any imperfect attempts at progress?
Don’t get me wrong, nonprofits definitely need to speak up on the destruction that overfishing can cause, but these organizations still do amazing work. To paint them as ‘evil-doers' for not focusing on this issue creates even more division when what we really need is unity.
Additionally, the film’s sidelining of the plastic crisis is something I found frustrating.
Although they mentioned the negative impacts of plastic pollution in relation to fishing waste, I can’t help but feel like they could have done more to highlight that this is still an issue the public should engage with. For me, this hit home particularly hard when my sister texted me after watching the film to say, in almost a relieved way, that we don’t need to think twice about using plastic bags & straws, we only need to stop eating fish.
Finally, Seaspiracy’s overarching message that ‘eating fish is always bad’ also missed the mark.
For many indigineous coastal communities, seafood is a necessary and vital way of life. It provides a source of nutrition, income, and tradition. I find it unjust to paint these communities as morally wrong for depending on seafood to live.
'the themes and lessons that stay with viewers are not necessarily the ones that will create meaningful positive change.'
A mainstream film dedicated to exposing the harmful practices of commercial fishing is definitely a step in the right direction, but the themes and lessons that stay with viewers are not necessarily the ones that will create meaningful positive change.
Instead, viewers are left with anxiety, confusion, and a sinking feeling in their stomach. In all likelihood, they may be scared of seafood for a few days before returning to their regular diet as the film’s message fades from their mind.
What we really need is a film that helps viewers find practical and impactful changes that they can make in their everyday lifestyle to become more sustainable - whilst also putting pressure on the politicians and industry regulators at the top of the food chain.
Long before Seaspiracy went viral though, many of us will remember Andersen’s first mainstream documentary, Cowspiracy, which was released back in 2015. In this film, he exposed how the animal agriculture industry contributes to climate destruction.
The interviews cut between monologues from outspoken anti-factory farm authors and clips of directors of nonprofits being thrown off when they are asked ‘What about factory farms?’ in relation to climate change. Throughout the film, the viewer is left with the memo that well-known nonprofits are hiding the environmental destruction caused by animal agriculture.
Again, these types of clashing interviews paint nonprofits as the bad guys, but Cowspiracy does do a much better job of explaining why environmental nonprofits tend to avoid the topic of animal agriculture.
Michael Pollan, author of award-winning book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (which I recommend that everyone reads), and Dr. Will Tuttle, an environmental and ethics author, touched on the sad fact that, at the end of the day, linking animal agriculture to climate change is a ‘political loser’.
Pollan states that nonprofits rely on contributions from members to run the organization. Due to this, nonprofits can’t say or do anything that might hurt their fundraising, and raising the alarm on a habit as near and dear to people as meat might just do that.
'Are dramatic documentaries the best way to bring the issue to light?'
‘These organizations don’t go off message because they don’t want to piss off a whole other group of people that will make their lives difficult,’ states Michael Besacon, a former Whole Foods Executive.
This all being so, are dramatic documentaries the best way to bring the issue to light?
How can we make it well-known that eating meat is a large contributor to climate change without the public getting angry and defensive? Is there a way for nonprofits to talk about the issue without losing contributions? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but collectively we must find a solution.
On another note, the interviews throughout Cowspiracy are almost entirely with white men. This raises the question - did Andersen intentionally exclude women and BIPOC? Or, is it just the sad fact of reality that almost all of the higher-ups in the environmental nonprofit world are old, white men?
Either way, it stands as another example of how environmental documentaries can perpetuate an exclusionary narrative and how the environmental movement itself is not as inclusive as it should be.
Perhaps though, the most frustrating thing about the entire film was the quote ‘You can’t eat meat & dairy and continue to be an environmentalist’.
Let me preface this with the fact that I am vegan. However, it took me 4 years to fully transition to this lifestyle because my family did not support it and I had to figure out how to cook all of my own food at the ripe age of 17 if I wanted to make the switch.
'Being vegan should not become a qualifying mark for environmentalists.'
In this day and age, being vegan is truly a privilege. Between inaccessibility to other types of vitamins & nutrients, misinformation on healthy eating, food deserts, the high price of fresh fruit & vegetables, cultural traditions, regional food preferences, family lifestyles, and many many more issues, being vegan should not become a qualifying mark for environmentalists.
It’s frustrating for the movie to promote such a generalized statement that makes environmentalists who don’t have the privilege to eat vegan feel bad about themselves.
Don’t get me wrong, if it’s in the cards for you to go vegan, vegetarian, pescetarian, or even just limit the amount of animal products you eat, definitely do it. Cowspiracy was right that not eating meat is one of the easiest ways to help save the planet - but it presents this fact in an overgeneralized way that doesn’t account for the many factors that may prevent a low-meat diet.
While I agree with the main message of the film, there are many aspects to it which I feel skew the environmental message in a misleading way. This can be said to start from the full title of the film itself, Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret. The name seems to suggest that eliminating meat consumption is, in isolation, the golden ticket to carbon neutrality and zero waste.
The movie did a great job exposing many important connections between animal agriculture and climate change, but similarly to Seaspiracy, did it in a way that left viewers with a pit in their stomach.
'What we do need more of is encouragement and empathy, two things that this film didn’t have nearly enough of.'
We don’t need more guilt-tripping within this field; there’s already plenty of that. What we do need more of is encouragement and empathy, two things that this film didn’t have nearly enough of.
So what have I learned by watching these documentaries back to back?
First off, there is no one issue that contributes the most to climate change: overfishing, animal agriculture, plastic pollution, and commercial agriculture are all interconnected. Fossil fuels, inefficient design, exploitation of natural resources, and the continuous pursuit of profit over people all contribute to the overarching problem in this tangled web as well.
The way in which the -spiracy documentaries contradict each other in what’s most likely to cause climate change and global destruction clearly shows that neither overfishing nor the agricultural industry is the bigger issue.
What’s causing the climate crisis and the slow but steady destruction of our planet is the overlapping of dozens of different ways that humans take from our Earth.
After writing all of this, I’m still left with this coiled pit of conflict in my stomach. Meat is bad, fishing is bad, plastic is bad… It seems like everything everyone does is bad!
'The problem with excess when it comes to humans? Our insatiable desire for ‘growth’'
But that’s because, in all reality, everything in excess is bad. Ev-er-y-thing.
But the problem with excess when it comes to humans? Our insatiable desire for ‘growth’.
If we ever want to be able to stop climate change, we first have to stop thinking growth is always good, because it’s not. Have you ever heard of carrying capacity? It’s a term used for the number of organisms an ecosystem can sustain before it collapses.
As you can see in the graph, that white dot represents where the human race is at in relation to how the Earth can continue to sustain us. We are pretty much at our limit, and if we continue to think ‘endless growth’ is possible, we’ll quickly wipe out half of our population, and probably take most of the species on Earth with us in the process.
To avoid this, we must change our vocabulary. The success of a business should not be defined on growth, but rather sustainability- or even better ‘thriveability’, as the book Cradle to Cradle puts it.
Our first question when we begin to produce something should not be ‘How much can we make and how fast?’, but rather, ‘What are the long-term effects of this production and how will it impact humans and the Earth?’
This is something corporations must begin to take into account. We all know that it’s unlikely that the whole world will stop eating meat and fish, we all still need electricity, and we won’t stop using transportation anytime soon.
'On an individual level, one size does not fit all when it comes to sustainability'
We can’t reverse the path of human progress and head back towards the Neolithic era, but we can fine-tune the instruments we use to be ones that have a positive effect on our environment, instead of a negative one.
On an individual level, one size does not fit all when it comes to sustainability. As mentioned earlier, certain changes are easier or harder for individuals based on their life circumstances and resources.
The message we should really be spreading is, ‘we must all do what we can based on our own situation’.
To finish this review in a more practical, compassionate way (because that’s always something we can use more of!), I’ll leave you with my own lifestyle checklist on how you can minimize your impact on the planet.
Limit your meat consumption to:
Once a week
Only when you’re eating out
Only on weekends
Once a day
Try to find grass-fed meat and free range eggs if you are including animal products in your diet
Don’t eat seafood unless you’re on the coast
Skip the plastic bags
Carry items, bring reusable bags, or ask for paper
Carry a go-bag
Include a reusable water bottle, reusable utensils, metal straw, and anything else you may need while out
Avoid styrofoam at all costs
Try out shampoo, conditioner, and soap bars
Try out toothpaste tabs
I won’t stop watching environmental documentaries anytime soon, but I do now know to take them all with a grain of salt. It doesn’t have to be doom & gloom all the time, and we don’t need to drown ourselves in anxiety over every single issue.
When it comes to individual sustainability just do your best!
As my favorite quote goes, ‘it’s not about a few people doing something perfectly, it’s about a lot of people doing something imperfectly’.
Willow Volkert is an 18 year old environmental activist from Chicago, IL. She is currently on a gap year before heading to Georgetown University in the fall. Willow pursues environmental advocacy due to her passion for the outdoors and desire to protect it, and is the Director of Partnerships at Youth.ify, a youth-led non-profit that works to unify the Gen Z environmental movement. In her free time, Willow loves to run, do yoga, cook, read, and of course watch environmental documentaries! You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions.