There it is again. It creeps like a shadow and stinks vaguely of something rotting under the floorboards.
That low grade sense of hopelessness pervading our days, making our time spent as human beings feel futile, lulling us into apathy and chronic, emotional fatigue.
I read all the same headlines as you do, and though my belief our planet is headed down an irreversible path towards destruction has not much waned in recent years, my belief in the indefatigable human spirit, for innovation, resourcefulness, and compassion is somehow—inexplicably—waxing.
That’s probably a good thing at this point, and most likely comes as a backlash to impending doom, but hey—if we can strike at the roots of suffering and injustice in this world with overzealous optimism, let us.
But that aside, not just any solutions will do at this point.
Now more than ever our systematic industries of destruction and oppression—capitalism, materialism, speciesism, racism, to name a few—are being called out as not only unethical, but also completely incompatible with any hopes for peace and abundance on Earth.
So, I’ve been down the rabbit hole of our modern society and brought back hidden treasures in the form of five documentaries that will help shift our human consciousness away from destruction and exploitation and instead encourage hopeful, innovative, and compassionate solutions to our worldly travails.
Minimalism: A Documentary about the Important Things
Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus are quickly becoming everyone’s best friends. With their Therouean maxims of mindfulness and minimizing and their offerings of free hugs to all, The Minimalists share helpful advice to those of us looking to learn how to live a greater life with less.
Perhaps the most valuable aspect of the Minimalists is their ability to turn our own nascent desires to declutter and simplify our lives into full blown lifestyle change. Covering topics from debt, investments, relationships, and of course, all of our consumer purchasing and hoarding, The Minimalists provide insights that can be applied to any life stage.
Though I have been minimizing my life for the last four years, the Minimalists have given me—finally!—mindful ways to break through my previously cumbersome sentimentality for “stuff.” In fact, I almost feel addicted to the soaring freedom I experience after donating boxes of used clothing and trinkets. To get my fix I’ve started offering help to friends and family members on the weekends—and I don’t see that ending anytime soon. It’s like I can’t get enough open space and freedom so I must help others create it for themselves.
That’s the beauty of minimalism—once we feel how truly complete we are without all the extraneous material goods weighing us down, we’re free. You can watch their documentary on Netflix or purchase the film on Vimeo and gain access to six plus hours of additional interviews and footage.
The renegade architect and founder of Earthships Biotecture, Michael Reynolds, has been making “life rafts” out of garbage since the 1970s. Life rafts for what? The end of modern civilization as we know it, of course! These life rafts, also known as earthships, are designed to disrupt the entire concept of centralized power and fossil fuels dependency, which is exactly what this world needs. Due to their revolutionary design, earthships work with their specific environment and climate to:
- catch their own water in cisterns
- gather energy from the sun via solar panels
- grow their own food in built in greenhouses
- regulate their own temperatures through strategically designed tricks of physics and thermal mass
- recycle all water, including waste
This concept—of removing housing from the grid economy, making earthships virtually cost-free and carbon zero or neutral—is so simple and yet so outrageous that happening upon this documentary sent me into a crazed, multi-week obsession. (I think I may have even convinced my parents to build one as their retirement home…?)
Reynolds himself remains somewhat of a rebel-rouser, but his contribution to truly conscientious and off-grid living as a solution to climate change and fossil fuel addiction cannot be overstated. That earthships are made from discarded materials such as tires, glass bottles, and aluminum cans makes these buildings so much more than houses—it makes them a vessel to carry us into the next generation where living with the earth is not our only option, but our best option. Garbage Warrior follows Reynolds and his team everywhere from the trials of reforming New Mexico’s housing codes to disaster-stricken areas around the world. You can rent Garbage Warrior on Vimeo.
Wealth from Waste: How Business is Creating a Circular Economy
“Most of what we waste and send to landfill are materials that we’ve been told are OK to waste. And I think it’s time to tell a new story,” says Candy Castellanos, Waste Diversion Project Manager of CleanScapes in Seattle, Washington. According to this documentary, wherein we hear about formal upcycling, recycling, and zero waste efforts at various Washington state municipalities and organizations, consumer waste is a relatively recent human construct that practically did not exist until about 100 years ago.
Wealth from Waste features some of the brightest minds in modern waste management dedicated to tackling this issue through innovative, resourceful community efforts, such as a biodiesel company that collects cooking oil and grease from restaurants, and a football stadium that is moving towards zero waste.
The truly unfathomable part comes when we realize we’ve ravaged the earth to create throw away material items such as spoons, forks, toys, and plastic bottles, which will take a thousand years to biodegrade—if ever. There simply is no “away.” This movie gives us hope that we can yet transform not only our wasteful ways but also our global ethos surrounding waste, resources, and economy. You can watch this documentary for free on YouTube.
Escape! from the Cult of Materialism
If the Minimalists and their documentary give us some of the best tools to declutter and minimize our lives, “Escape! from the Cult of Materialism” explains, from a historical perspective, why we as a society have gotten to this particular juncture where the accumulation of goods is our primary focus.
The film presents a straightforward account of the history of consumerism in the western world and how it threatens to drown our human experience in literal heaps of material items. Composed of stock footage laced with actual movie clips, which offer welcome comic relief to the stoic narration, the film traces the impacts of materialism from cradle to grave, interweaving inspiring incantations of a world unencumbered by our obsession with accumulating “stuff.”
Like Minimalism the documentary, this film reminds us that we the people have the power to create the world we want, to design a world that reflects our deepest values and highest aspirations. Materialism and its associated baggage will not deliver the ideal world we all hope for. Luckily, we already know the answer and the way forward—it’s been here all along. We simply have to let go the fetters, our desire for collecting stuff, and accept that we are already whole. No ceramic wall decorations, seasonal stationery, or color coordinated sheet sets can ever fill a void we do not possess. You can watch this documentary for free on YouTube.
Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story
Could there be anything more frustrating and egregious than food waste? Canadian filmmaking couple Grant Baldwin and Jenny Rustemayer pose that question and many more as they hover at the edges of an eight-foot-deep by 20-foot-long dumpster brimming with untouched plastic packages of hummus.
This scenario, one of many along the way as these two commit to eating only discarded foods for six months, typifies our modern society’s complete inability to distribute food properly. Bogged down by outrageous bureaucratic regulations with “sell by” and “use by” dates confusing both consumers and food stock managers, our food system is completely unhinged. Jenny and Grant set out to show us just how much food is sent, perfectly edible, straight into landfill.
Though they are only able to capture a minute portion of the 40% of food wasted the globe over, these two are willing to face the magnitude of the issue right in their hometown of Vancouver, BC. While most would assume dumpster diving entails living off gnawed-upon food scraps, Just Eat It shows us how obscene food waste really is. Gnawed-upon food scraps would be fine if they ended up in a dumpster, but that hundreds of pounds of packaged, edible food daily ends up in dumpsters—obscene is really the only word that comes close to capturing it.
At one point, Jenny and Grant consider community solutions to food waste and improper distribution, noting that most grocers by law must adhere to very strict standards of size, color, and shape of fruits and vegetables allowed to be presented to consumers. When speaking with managers of these markets, Jenny is told repeatedly that they cannot donate the food items as it exposes the company to too much liability. This claim, aside from never having actually happened, is entirely false.
In 1996 President Bill Clinton enacted the Federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, which protects anyone, including big food companies, from liability even if the products donated eventually cause harm or death to the recipients (unless of course the person or company intended to cause harm). Canada established the Donation of Food Act in 1994 that says, “A person who donates food or who distributes donated food to another person is not liable for damages resulting from injuries or death caused by the consumption of the food,” unless that person intended to cause harm, or the products donated were knowingly rotten or unfit for human consumption.
Just Eat It interviews a few key environmentalists and waste specialists, and they speculate that big food companies shout liability as a reaction to the deep shame associated with their disposal of perfectly edible food. These donation laws are in place specifically to encourage food waste repurposing.
Bottom line? Eat all the food you buy. Buy less food. Cook at home more. Share food. Donate food. Ask to purchase fruits and veggies from “culled” products often held in the back of the stores. Get to know your market managers. Shop towards the later hours of farmers’ markets to get free or super cheap (and otherwise discarded) foods. Dumpster dive and share the wealth. And then, share the knowledge with everyone you know. You can watch Just Eat It for a small rental fee on YouTube.
Have you watched any of these documentaries? What hopeful or innovative films do you recommend?