Life Changers: The Year’s Best Storytelling for the Planet

If you’ve been looking for a way to manage the overwhelming news about the state of our planet, you could begin by watching a few of the recent films and TV shows that shine a light on some of our biggest issues — and show us what we can do about them.

According to a study by USC’s Norman Lear Center and Good Energy, only 2.8% of scripted entertainment even mentions climate change. Yet stories are often most compelling when they light up our minds, offer insights relevant to our lives, or inspire us to act.

To help shine a brighter spotlight on stories about our planet, the Environmental Media Association (EMA) — which was co-founded by the legendary Norman Lear — has created a kind of “Green Oscars” to honor the stories that raise awareness about sustainability. Held in Los Angeles this year on Saturday, January 27th, below is a breakout of this year’s big contenders, what you might learn from them, and the actions they might inspire.


Best Movies of the Year

White Noise

best enviornmental storytelling

The story:  Based on the 1985 Don DeLillo novel, which won the National Book Award, a college professor (Adam Driver), his wife (Greta Gerwig) and their blended family find their everyday suburban family life upended after a tanker crashes into a freight train near their home, sending a plume of potentially toxic smoke into the air. The “Airborne Toxic Event” forces the family and the residents to evacuate, and as they do, they begin to question everything from religion and mortality to how the media shapes our reactions to a disaster…to our ability to adapt in a crisis.

Why it’s award-worthy:  With an absurdist comedic tone, a nostalgic 80s world, and nods to film classics, White Noise entertains as it probes the environmental and emotional consequences of a man-made disaster, and it works as a kind of psychological survival guide for our worst-case-scenario angst.  The story also proved prescient when a train crashed in Ohio last February, forcing residents to evacuate in a flurry of confusing news. Where to stream it:  Netflix  What it might inspire: How to actually prepare for climate related disasters.


Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

best enviornmental storytelling

The story:  A murder mystery party hosted by tech billionaire Miles (Edward Norton) goes awry when someone dies for real at his luxurious Greek island villa, and famed detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) crashes the party and takes on the case.

Why it’s award-worthy: A shiny blockbuster whodunit, Glass Onion pivots around a climate-friendly technology as a crucial plot device. Miles brags to his friends that his Glass Onion mansion is running entirely on hydrogen. He believes that he can provide a sustainable alternative energy source for fossil fuels to homes all over America.   Where to stream it:  Netflix   What it might inspire:  Learn more about hydrogen and its potential to heat homes.


Avatar: The Way of Water

best enviornmental storytelling
20th Century Studios

The story: Sixteen years after successfully leading the Na’vi in a battle that forced the Resources Development Administration (RDA) out of Pandora, Jake (Sam Worthington) lives peacefully as the chief of the Omatikaya clan, raising his family with Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) in the village. His idyllic life is shattered when the RDA comes back with massive reinforcements to colonize Pandora once and for all. Aware of the dangers that a full-scale armed conflict poses to Omatikaya, Jake decides to flee and relocate his family to Metkayina, a village located in Pandora’s eastern sea that is inhabited by a reef-dwelling clan.

Why it’s award-worthy:  Much like the original Avatar, The Way of Water is an allegory about colonialism and a cautionary tale of how greed and corruption can destroy the environment. The legendary Director James Cameron shared that the goal of the film is to remind us how important nature is and put us back into a kind of childlike wonder, where we reconnect to the natural world. His ultimate aim for the film is to open eyes to the importance of and threats to our oceans, and to inspire people to act. Where to stream it: Disney+   How to act: 10 ways you can help our oceans.


Best TV Comedy Episodes


Unstable – The “Unstable” Episode

best enviornmental storytelling

The story:  When a maverick biotech CEO named Ellis Dragon (Rob Lowe) suffers a nervous breakdown after his wife passes away, his chief financial officer springs into action to convince his estranged son Jackson (real life son John Owen Lowe) to be at his father’s side and help him get his life on track in this ultimately upbeat sitcom.

Why it’s award-worthy: Packed with jokes and father-son bonding, Unstable also introduces planet-saving inventions with a light touch, including carbon-capturing concrete and sugarcane plastic. The offbeat Netflix series gets extra environmental points for revealing the need for more clean-tech companies who can develop innovations that solve climate issues.  Where to stream it:  Netflix   What it might inspire: A guide to climate friendly investing.


Mulligan – “Opening Day”

best enviornmental storytellingThe story:   A working-class man (Nat Faxon) becomes the leader of the human race after he single-handedly defeats alien invaders by imitating fight moves from famous action films. Still reeling from the destruction, Mulligan enlists the help of his de facto first lady Lucy (Chrissy Teigen), and right-hand man Simon (Sam Richardson) to start the difficult, post-apocalyptic rebuilding process. In this episode, Simon and Lucy are convinced that solar power is the key to sustainable development for their newly established society, and they need Mulligan to sign an executive order that commissions a project that would manufacture photovoltaic cells.

Why it’s award-worthy:  The episode shows how renewable energy plays a critical role in reducing our impact by producing safer, cleaner, and more sustainable energy than fossil fuels.   Where to find it:  Netflix  What it might inspire:  How to use more solar energy and what you can gain from it.


Poker Face – “The Stall”

best enviornmental storytellingThe story: After running from a powerful casino owner for exposing an in-house murder plot, Charlie (Natasha Lyonne) finds herself in a Texas BBQ joint, where she befriends a cook and accidentally turns him vegan overnight. When the cook mysteriously ends up dead, she has to use her very particular set of perception skills to get to the truth.

Why it’s award-worthy: One of the more original stories to inspire someone to think about veganism, the episode weaves in the funny and avoids the preach.  Where to find it:  Peacock   What it might inspire: Check out Harvard Med’s guide to how to try veganism.


The Best Documentary Films


Common Ground

best enviornmental storytellingThe story: Following the groundswell of success from their film Kiss the Ground, husband-and-wife documentarians Joshua Tickell and Rebecca Harrell Tickell make their much-anticipated return with Common Ground, an eye-opening documentary that exposes heartwrenching challenges and the inspiring answers that farmers are finding with the ‘Regenerative Movement’ — agricultural methods that produce nutritionally dense food, restore soil health, and help improve the economics of farming.

Why it’s award-worthy:  You may think you don’t want to watch a movie about agriculture, but this one will wake you up and likely change your life. Narrated by people like Jason Momoa, Donald Glover, Ian Somerhelder, Rosario Dawson, Laura Dern — all of whom appear throughout — the doc is a bold film that will make you think carefully about what you’re consuming…and who’s behind it. Common Ground pulls back the curtain on the politics, corruption, health and climate costs of factory farming, and it does so by taking us into the lives of hardworking farmers from different backgrounds who are showing us the way out.  Where to watch it:  Screenings can be found at Common Ground. What it might inspire: Where to buy regeneratively grown foods.


From Devil’s Breath

best enviornmental storytellingThe Story: Co-produced by Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Orlando von Einsiedel (The White Helmets, Virunga), this is the riveting story about the devastating wildfires in Portugal that claimed 120 lives, and how a courageous community of survivors used the lessons they’ve learned to prevent similar tragedies from ever happening again.

Why it’s award-worthy:   With wildfires on the rise all around the globe and their impacts affecting the air we breathe far from their source, From the Devil’s Breath is both an urgent and powerful lesson about the importance of a science-driven restoration — and what it can do to mitigate the sources and impacts of these fires. Where to stream it:  Peacock.  What it might inspire:  Learn more about science-focused restoration.


Deep Rising

best enviornmental storytellingThe story:  Narrated by Jason Mamoa, the thought- provoking doc is a deep dive into the lucrative and highly secretive industry of deep-sea mining and its impact on marine life, the environment, and humanity.

Why it’s award-worthy:  Deep Rising exposes the sneaky geopolitical and business machinations undertaken by the major players in deep-sea mining in their effort to either solve the global mineral shortage or exploit the Earth’s “final frontier” for profit. Where to find it: Go to DeepRising to learn how to host a screening. Film Collaborative   How to go deeper:  The Economist: Five things to know about deep-sea mining.


The Best Documentary Series


Frozen Planet II – “Frozen Worlds”

best enviornmental storytellingThe story: Renowned naturalist Sir David Attenborough takes us back to the coldest regions in the world to meet the animals that live and thrive under extreme conditions in Frozen Planet II, a six-part series that is the long-awaited follow-up to 2011’s groundbreaking Frozen Planet. The journey begins with the episode Frozen Worlds, which highlights the extraordinary ways animals adapt to survive some of the most inhospitable landscapes on Earth.

Why it’s award-worthy:  The episode showcases the stunning beauty and impact of global warming on these icy regions while getting up close to the animals that call them home. It sends a strong message that the world is warming faster than ever while driving home that it’s our responsibility to find a solution before it’s too late.  Where to find it:  Apple TV  What can we do now: Start with this guide for all ages.


Down to Earth with Zac Efron – “Eco Innovators”

best enviornmental storytellingThe story: Emmy Award winner Zac Efron and wellness guru Darin Olien embark on a globe-trotting adventure to learn more about the natural world, renewable energy, and sustainable living practices. In the episode Eco Innovators, the duo travels to Australia to check out the cost-effective methods that experts have come up with to effectively manage some of the complex environmental and social concerns we face today.

Why its award-worthy:  Part nature doc, part cultural exploration, and part how-to guide, Down to Earth nurtures hope with its focus on local solution-seekers who have found healthy and sustainable ways of living.   Where to find itNetflix  What it might inspire:  5 manageable ways to adopt a sustainable lifestyle in 2024 (Fast Company).


Downey’s Dream Cars – “Electric Stingray”

best enviornmental storytellingThe Story: Robert Downey Jr. loves cars, but he’s also a staunch climate advocate.  In Downey’s Dream Cars, he pairs his passions by restoring his beloved vintage cars into more fuel-efficient and faster vehicles. In Electric Stingray, he takes on an ambitious project that converts his pristine all-original ’65 Corvette into an electric vehicle.

Why its award-worthy:  By turning his beloved muscle cars into eco-friendly vehicles, Robert Downey Jr’s docuseries is showing the world how to be a responsible car enthusiast in the face of climate change. Where to find it: Max  What it might inspire: How to turn a classic car into an EV.


 Best Television Drama Episodes


Extrapolations – “Whale Fall”

best enviornmental storytellingThe Story:  An anthology series set in the not-so-distant future, each episode of Extrapolations explores a different way that climate change will impact our livelihood, our families, and our survival. In Whale Fall, a marine biologist (Sienna Miller) is in a race against time to translate a whale’s song into English and form a meaningful connection with the last humpback whale on Earth (voiced by Meryl Streep).

Why its award-worthy:  Aside from its Oscar and Emmy-winning cast, the speculations in Extrapolations are rooted in science — while the narratives each unfold in their own very original way. In this episode, the biologist works for a company that is trying desperately to preserve the genetic footprint of species that are going extinct –– something that is currently underway.  Where to find it:  Apple TV+   What it might inspire:  How to help save the whales.


The Last of Us – “When You’re Lost in the Darkness”

best enviornmental storytellingThe story: Twenty years after a parasitic and virulent fungal outbreak wreaked havoc across the globe, hardened survivors Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Tess (Anna Torv) are sent on a critical mission to protect a special girl named Ellie (Bella Ramsey), who develops an immunity to the infection — and possibly holds the key to finding its cure.

Why it’s award-worthy:  The Emmy-nominated hit series uses climate change as a realistic tool to propel the narrative  — beginning in this first episode. Pascal’s character raises awareness about the role that global warming might play in spreading infection, both in increasing allergens and pollutants while making the human respiratory system an ideal host for fungus and other pathogens. Where to find it: HBO via Max    Go deeper:  A Scientific Investigation of ‘The Last of Us’ Fungal Pandemic.

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