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?
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.
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!
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.