Can we make eco-documentaries less depressing?

I’ve always hated watching eco-documentaries because more often than not, I end up weeping. It’s emotionally very hard to be confronted by the atrocities we commit in nature, and I have tried to avoid watching these as much as possible. But that doesn’t serve any purpose, does it? Eco-documentaries are fascinating, and they are very important tools with which we can show the world a part of nature that they otherwise would never have experienced…

So, is there a different way to watch eco-documentaries?

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Transcript of the video

Sharks have roamed the Earth’s oceans for almost 450 million years. They were by far the most abundant predators on earth. Until…. 

A new predator began to prey on the sharks. An apex predator that has decimated shark populations by 90% in 30 years. Humans. 

I learnt this watching Sharkwater Extinction, a documentary that explores the shark trade around Central and North America.  

Sharkwater Extinction poster

We kill 150 million sharks every year. Fishermen pull the sharks out of the ocean, cut off its fins and throw the finless sharks – still alive – back into the ocean to bleed to death. 

We do this…mostly…FOR SOUP.  

Sharks are also used in pet food, medicines and even cosmetics. As Rob Stewart, a fantastic ocean conservationist and the director of the documentary puts it, “We are rubbing our faces with dead sharks and we don’t realize it.” 

This is…depressing. Isn’t that the tone of almost every eco-documentary? That’s why I’ve never liked watching them. Of the 4 that I’ve watched, I wept in 3 of them. This is common. I know many people who are very uncomfortable with the tone and the overall effect of these documentaries. 

So, we either avoid watching these documentaries (as I have many times) or we watch them and forget about them as quickly as possible. 

This a problem, because documentaries are great awareness generation tools.

Is there another way? Can we view eco-documentaries with a different perspective and not only make them watchable, but also feel empowered rather than depressed at the end of them? Today, we explore this question using Sharkwater Extinction as an example. 

Trying not to be Agent Smith…

Most eco-documentaries that highlight some or another form of exploitation have an underlying theme: humans are greedy and we’ll do anything for money. Killing sharks and trading its parts is banned in 90 countries. This is an illegal trade that thrives because people have learnt: sharks mean money. 

If we view documentaries from this simplistic greed perspective, we are very quickly going to become Agent Smith from the Matrix. This bleak outlook can be crippling for a viewer like you and me.

Our brains will easily put aside uncomfortable topics that make us look bad and feel guilty.  

Humans have many faults; greed certainly is one of them. But saying all of this is for “money” is very one-dimensional. 

Money is simply a tool for people to get everything else they want: the basic needs of shelter, food, and clothing but also higher psychological needs like self-esteem and social status. 

For example, the documentary is shot in Panama and Costa Rica, where many of the fishermen involved in this trade are barely getting their basic needs met. They just want food, shelter and good health. They need money for that, and they see money in the shark trade. So, they learn to desensitize themselves and kill sharks.  

They probably know it’s wrong; but self-preservation and the security of our tribe/family is the most dominant emotional feeling in humans; even more dominant than empathy and compassion for other living creatures. 

In the first, bleak outlook, I felt so angry and upset and guilty that I felt it’s better if all humans die! But when we look past that “greed” and see the aspirations behind the people involved, our brains can become constructive. We can look for solutions and alternatives. 

There’s an interesting solution on display in Racing Extinction, a documentary about manta ray hunting in the coastal waters of Indonesia. The fishermen knew what they were doing was wrong; they continued anyway because they had to earn a living! Instead of persecuting these fishermen, they were given an alternative livelihood in eco-tourism. Instead of killing manta rays for a living, they were given an opportunity to show people the beauty of these creatures for a living. And the fishermen embraced this with open arms!

Taking responsibility…

Documentaries seem like they are blaming us, personally, for these atrocities. They want us to take individual responsibility. Rob reiterates that we are unaware of what’s happening in the world and that helps us turn a blind eye. I disagree. When you are creating awareness and asking people to take action about something gruesome, the brain’s tendency to ignore uncomfortable topics kicks in. We become aware and choose to turn a blind eye.

With strong mafia groups involved, with corporations and governments unwilling to change the status quo, what can we do by enlightening ourselves about shark exploitation? Even if I wanted to cut every product that has shark extracts from my life, how would I go about doing it? Can I do that in the midst of living my normal life? 

We all have something called a “pool of worry”. This pool consists of everything we care and worry about: health, family, work. This “pool” is finite. We cannot worry about everything happening in the world. 

We don’t want to feel helpless. We would rather not have this enormous responsibility in our pool of worry. So, the minute we see another more pressing, less depressing and easily solvable concern, sharks will leave our pool of worry.

But maybe the point of eco-documentaries isn’t to place responsibility on you as an individual?

I think that individual pools of worry – and the responsibilities attached with it – together create a community pool of worry.

If you care about water conservation and I care about water pollution, together, we address both problems. We can each care about one problem – be it racism, rape, communal divisions, or climate change – and dedicate our lives to fix that. We may be individually tackling one problem, but as a community, we are addressing all problems. 

So, if a documentary can motivate even one person to take up a new cause and dedicate their lives to it, it adds to the community pool of worry. If the cause resonates with you, take it up. Otherwise, support those who do take it up. 

Rob Stewart was one man. He dedicated his life to save sharks from extinction. Did he make a difference on his own? YES! His footage from Sharkwater Extinction of mile-long fishing nets off the coast of LA helped the CA government ban this mode of fishing that is so dangerous to sharks and other marine life.  


Yes, eco-documentaries can be depressing; yes, it’s horrible how we treat the natural world; yes, it feels personal. We need to past these emotions.

Find solutions or alternatives or support those who are doing that.

This perspective will help me sit through any documentary I watch in the future. Do you agree with it? Do you disagree with it? What do you think about eco-documentaries? Let me know in the comments.  

As always, there’s a transcript of this video in the first link in the description. Please like the video, share it with your family and friends and if you haven’t yet, subscribe to the channel and check out some of our other videos. Join us, as we try to make the world ecologically intelligent. 

Author: Saurab Babu

Usually found sitting with a good book, nibbling on a piece of dark chocolate. Always ready for a good story.

8 thoughts

  1. I love the way you’ve portrayed the discussion behind the documentaries! The videos on eco-intelligent are really creative and it’s really fun to watch. This was the best one till now.

    Coming to the discussion, well you’re right. Being a passionate animal lover myself, I tend to run away from documentaries because they scare me. Make me feel helpless that there isn’t enough time or resources to save every species on the planet when there are so many resources for us as human beings in terms of development.

    Unawareness is quite common and people do tend to turn a blind eye towards important but uncomfortable issues so I agree with Rob Stewart. Not everyone wants to deal with the harsh reality if they can do away with it. I’ve seen live examples of people doing that even in my field. Greed is a huge player in every aspect, I agree. If money wasn’t a factor, then food would be or medecine would be other factors wherein sharks or other wildlife were exploited. We are looking for solutions but there are always going to be people who will find a way to do illegal poaching and hunting.

    Apologies for being a downer here, but it just makes me think whether any solution is actually enough or is it even a solution or is it just a fallacy.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for the appreciation!

      Yes, these documentaries can be quite a hard pill to swallow. I know how emotional it can get.

      Well, Rob is right on one hand. Awareness is low. But just putting awareness out there isn’t going to make people care if they are going to feel helpless about it. As you say, not everyone wants to deal with the harsh realities.

      Greed is one factor, especially higher up the value chains. But the lowest actors, fishermen and farmers, control the supply. If we can give them alternatives, its possible for us to constrict the supply. We will need different techniques to dissuade the actors higher up the value chain. Hopeful messages and clear actionable steps embedded in these documentaries will help.

      A solution is a solution. There’s no “perfect solution” but we need to keep trying.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I agree with everything you wrote. Most of the documentaries make me cry or get me angry but I have done some inner work to change the perspective and try to see possibilities. I was thinking about this a lot two weeks ago when I watched “Kiss the Ground”. That was not depressing but full of hope instead!
    There is an abundance of people on this planet who don’t need to do harm to stay alive, get food and shelter and I believe we really should focus on them. It is like we fortunate ones do not recognize our possibilities ( maybe our pool of worry is filled with other things, yes). Thinking about meat and fish consumption for example.
    “We can each care about one problem” Thank You! I have noticed that when we start deeply care about one problem, it opens our hearts and minds to see the other ones too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment! I haven’t watched that documentary. I will definitely put it on my watch list.
      Yes, let’s start with one problem at a time and we can make the world slightly better! Especially people of fortune have the ability to really make a difference 🙂

      Like

    1. Absolutely Elaine. If we are able to focus on the positive things and push for change ourselves, nothing like it. It’s one of the reasons I love your newsletter.

      But documentaries still have a place in the sustainability movement, so perhaps we need to figure how to deal with their emotional toll.

      Like

  3. It is sad to know that sharks are getting & less & less. This eco tourism you mentioned is good to wean away the farmers & give them livelihood.
    Human beings have found so many uses for sharks. Medicines, toiletries, perfumes, manufacturing make up items! Alternatives must be found.
    Videos are depressing but the only way to make people aware.
    Very good write up & video to.
    What other ways can we make people realize that it is wrong to make sharks extinct from the world?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Preeti. Yes, it is very sad indeed.
      I think that we can make people aware by showing these videos AND telling them how to cope/resolve the problem.

      Most of the efforts are at the policy level. Governments need to really take this issue seriously. As far as possible, we should be aware that we shouldn’t have shark extracts in our products.

      Otherwise, I think there is a lot of room for innovation: find alternatives to shark extracts in these products.

      Liked by 1 person

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