The Unshakable Necessity of Nature Documentaries in the Face of Ecological Ruin

We are in the endgame now, so let's capture what we can, for our children to marvel at what once was.

Jamie McPherson/Silverback/Netflix

The natural world is dying. This is an inarguable fact of life and something that the human race must reconcile with. Death may not be immediate and all-consuming like a snap of the finger, but the death of nature is occurring nonetheless in a process that is starting to speed up at an unreasonably alarming rate. From the melting death-march of the polar ice caps to the rampant deforestation at play in the jungles of Borneo, humankind’s hand in the eventual annihilation of the natural world is all too obvious and all too familiar. Capitalism, plain and simple.

Just ask members of the once thriving fishing communities of Newfoundland. In Viceland’s documentary travel series Abandoned, pro-skater Rick McCrank visits abandoned structures throughout the world, and the episode about the abandoned fishing towns along the coast of Newfoundland is the most distressing and saddening episode. These towns used to be thriving nodes of commerce. Fishing boats passed down through familial generations and everyone’s way of life just seemed so matter-of-fact and set-in-stone. And then the commercial fishing ships came. These trawling vessels literally fished up all of the fish.

Canada eventually put a ban on fishing in certain waters, and just like that a way of life was eradicated because of economic demands and little care for nature itself. It is a specific example but one where the direct effects of damning the natural world can be seen so quickly. Now these abandoned houses, like the footage in the episode, act as time capsules for a way of life and a way of community that is now lost to time. Sadly, that is why documenting the natural world, or what is left of it, is as important now as it has ever been.

As I watched Disneynature’s Penguins recently, something clicked in my brain as I left the darkness of the theater and stepped into the sunlight of a nice Atlanta afternoon. This film would not be able to be made, as is, in another decade. Climate change has crossed a threshold into the unstoppable; it is an inevitability that we can only hope to postpone. In August 2018, Michael Le Page wrote in New Scientist, “Even if we manage to limit warming to 2°C by 2100 – we are currently on course for 3 or 4°C by 2100 – warming would continue over the next few centuries even if all our greenhouse gas emissions ceased.”

While many still believe that science can revert or combat the effects of climate change, I am not so optimistic. Time and again, there has been an opportunity for change, for betterment, and still, global economies and political machinations have won out. Just look at the White House’s stance on climate change, for example. So, if the slow but inevitable tumble to ecological ruin is not going to be stopped, then what is left of the natural world must be documented.

That is why Penguins moved me. It left me melancholic and pessimistic that the beauty captured in that documentary is fleeting in the grand timeline of the world, and that one day if I have children, they may look upon that film in wonderment, as if the Arctic is some otherworldly place. And they may ask me what happened to such a beautiful place. There will be only one truthful answer to that question, and I tremble at the thought of it. Hypotheticals such as that are a sad reality for my generation. We will live through the climate decay wrought by the generations before us.

Nature may not persevere, but documentarians can. Capturing and cataloging nature in motion, as it is now in this prescient moment, is necessary. I can’t even find the words to emphasize just how important it is. Netflix’s Our Planet is the first great example of a nature documentary of a world racked by slow natural decay. Yes, the filmmakers still view the various biomes of the Earth with a revery and love that borders on religiosity, but they do not shy away from how fragile that beauty is. Biomes and environments were destroyed over the four years that it took for the series to be filmed, but those destroyed lands have been captured. Though no longer tangible, their presence will live on in an afterlife of the moving image.

Nature documentaries have been creating time capsules ever since travelogues became vogue and popular at the turn of the 20th century. I think back to 1922’s Nanook of the North — ethnographic ethics issues aside — and how, even then, nature is portrayed as a fleeting but tangible force that is slowly but surely slipping through our fingertips into nothingness. “Nanook” was one of the last to lead his specific way of life in the frigid Arctic Circle. And actually, Nanook was already more dramatized re-creation of what once was than a record of how it is at the time of filming.

Still, the character is like the Last Tasmanian Tiger in the grainy black-and-white footage from 1933. Nanook is in captivity, but he does not know it yet. He is held captive by the ever-increasing industrial ways of the western world. The last Tasmanian tiger is wholly captive, stuck in a cage walking back and forth, and eventually, that tiger would die. And just like that, an entire species is gone.

What is important is that footage of it still exists, like that depiction of Nanook’s people’s dying traditions and just recently ceased way of life. These travelogues and ethnographic documentaries are akin to the journals of Charles Darwin. They capture the relative unknown and the beauty of nature in a specific moment in time that, as time continues to pass, will not exist as it is documented on a film reel.

Documentary filmmakers capture reality through a subjective lens, but there is nothing subjective about the destruction of the natural world. It is an objective fact that we will feel the ramifications of for hundreds of years. Sea levels will continue to rise, forests will continue to shrink, the ice caps will crumble into the sea from whence they were born, and it is the nature documentary filmmaker’s job to continue to trek the farthest reaches of the Earth with a camera in hand.

We need documentaries like Penguins and Our Planet now more than ever, for they show beauty and all that the Earth has to offer. But more importantly, they refuse to shy away from the eviscerating truths that we, the human race, are like termites in a rotting wall. Earth is fragile and we are eating it alive and stripping it of all natural resources all in the name of commerce.

Every living and non-living thing must be documented because there will come a day, be it sooner or later, when Earth is utterly unrecognizable, and in the words of the great Werner Herzog, “If we do not develop adequate images we will die out like the dinosaurs.”

(Student/Freelance Writer)

Cole Henry is a media theory and philosophy student at Georgia State University, as well as a freelance writer and editor. He is quite interested in every aspect of documentary cinema, and can usually be found reading, writing, running, adding items to his Criterion Collection shopping cart, and eating tacos.