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Film Finders: Exploring Special Topics

Under a White Sky

Book cover art for Under a White SkyExplore themes from 2021's First Year Common Reader selection, Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future, via documentaries and films from the Film & Video Collection.

Elizabeth Kolbert presents readers with what she calls the "Anthropocene irony." After all that humans have done to destroy nature, is ingenuity now its only hope of survival? A search for answers sends her packing from the Moku o' Lo'e to the Mojave Desert to Melbourne and other places in between. In a grand display of human hubris, Kolbert finds engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs trapped in an infinite cycle of inventing new solutions to the problems created by old ones. With a whole lot of imagination, it might work. One thing's for certain -- there's no going back now.  It's a new kind of world.

Global Environmental Justice Collection

Banner image for the Global Environmental Justice streaming media collection, with multiple DVD cover images including Come Hell or High Water, Plastic China, and Waking the Green Tiger

Elizabeth Kolbert aptly quotes philosophers and scientists, whose words echo through the Anthropocene as we struggle to cope with the challenges facing our natural world, throughout Under a White Sky. Horace explains, “You may drive out Nature with a pitchfork, yet she still will hurry back.” Albert Einstein cautions, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking used as we created them.” These two quotes frame many of the struggles various communities across the globe are navigating today.  The Global Environmental Justice Collection contains 36 documentary films, giving voice to indigenous communities and oppressed peoples as they struggle with forces as varied as industrial agriculture, textile industries, pollution and more.

Anthropocene (2015)

Poster for the film Anthropocene depicting a city landscape carved into the side of a mountainIn Under a White Sky, Elizabeth Kolbert grapples with humankind’s role as the most powerful force shaping the Earth's evolution:  “In the age of man, there is nowhere to go, and this includes the deepest trenches of the oceans and the middle of the Antarctic ice sheet, that does not already bear our Friday-like footprints."

In this documentary, a working group of international scientists is deciding whether to declare a new geological epoch -- the Anthropocene -- with the Earth shaped more by mankind than nature. Its members tell the story of the Anthropocene and argue whether it's a tragedy, a comedy, or something more surreal.

Available on DVD and eVideo

Human Nature (2019)

Poster image for the film with the text "The Story of CRISPR. The most important scientific discovery of the 21st century." above a microscopic image of a cluster of DNAKolbert discusses a breakthrough in genomics called CRISPR, which has given us unprecedented control over the basic building blocks of life. It opens the door to curing diseases, reshaping the biosphere, and designing our own children. Human Nature explores CRISPR's far-reaching implications, through the eyes of the scientists who discovered it, the families it's affecting, and the bioengineers who are testing its limits. How will this new power change our relationship with nature? What will it mean for human evolution? To begin to answer these questions we must look back billions of years and peer into an uncertain future.

Available as eVideo

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

Image of Poster for the film Beasts ot the Southern Wild, showing the a young black girl holding sparklers running through the Louisiana bayou at night while fireworks appear in the sky behind herElizabeth Kolbert discusses how land erosion affects citizens in the Mississippi Delta.  In this imaginative, fantastical feature film, six-year-old Hushpuppy lives with her father, Wink, in a remote Delta community isolated by levees offshore from New Orleans called the Bathtub. Wink is a stern taskmaster, but he is preparing his young daughter for the end of the world. When Wink falls mysteriously ill, nature seems to fall ill with him. Temperatures rise, the ice caps melt and fearsome prehistoric beasts called aurochs run loose. Rising waters threaten to engulf their community, sending Hushpuppy in search of her long-lost mother.

Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Rodents of Unusual Size (2018)

Poster image for film with a close up photo of a nutria's face, showcasing its prominent orange teethThis documentary explores the intersection of two themes explored in Kolbert's book: the impact of invasive species, and human ingenuity in coping with their damaging effects. Louisiana has suffered from hurricanes, flooding and oil spills, but one of its most insidious threats is an invasive rodent introduced by fur traders in 1899 -- the nutria. This giant swamp rat, known for its distinctive orange buckteeth, is prone to tunneling and eating plant roots, threatening the region's fragile wetlands with erosion and damaging roadways and other structures. This documentary follows fisherman-turned-bounty hunter Thomas Gonzales and other colorful Gulf residents, from hunters and trappers to furriers and chefs, as they seek innovative ways to defend their imperiled land from this invasive species.

Available on DVD

Reef Rescue (2021)

Title (Reef Rescue) in yellow letters above colorful fish swimming through a coral reefElizabeth Kolbert describes the work of scientists who fight to save coral reefs, which are at risk of disappearing completely by the end of the century in the face of overfishing, pollution, and catastrophic rising water temperatures due to climate change.  This film follows a pioneering group of scientists, including Ruth Gates, who are taking action to try and save these precious reefs. 

Ruth Gates, profiled in Under a White Sky, was the Director of the Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology and the first woman to be President of the International Society for Reef Studies.  Described as a pioneer of assisted evolution, the film features her as a inspiring figure amongst scientists unlocking the secrets of coral evolution that's unfolded over millions of years.  These scientists attempt to use that knowledge to save the nursery of the ocean and reproduce super corals that could resurrect dead or dying reefs across the world.

Available on eVideo

Video Games

Cover art for PS4 version of Civilization VI featuring a graphic of three historical leaders and landmarks including the Eiffel Tower and the Roman ColoseumCover image for XBox One version of Stardew Valley, featuring a farm scene in computer graphicsCover image for PS4 version of Horison Zero Dawn featuring a graphic of a young female fighter in armor engaged in combat with a towering mechanical enemy in a mountain landscape

Video games often explore themes related to technological advancement. In Civilization VI, you can guide an expanding civilization from the Stone Age through the modern era, choosing technologies to develop and coping with the global effects of advancements. On a smaller yet equally expansive scale, Stardew Valley allows you to decide how to develop an inherited farmstead – and fish for carp! (We’re not sure these are the flying variety, though.) Horizon Zero Dawn is set in a post-apocalyptic future, where nature has reclaimed a lost civilization. Play as a young hunter, Aloy, who must fight machines and discover artifacts to help her reconstruct her past. 

A Sense of Wonder: Two Interviews with Rachel Carson (2009)

Poster design for the film A Sense of Wonder, with watercolor illustration of trees along a lakeside shorelineWhen pioneering environmentalist Rachel Carson published 'Silent Spring' in 1962, the backlash from her critics thrust her into the center of a political maelstrom. Despite her private persona, her convictions about the risks posed by chemical pesticides forced her into the role of controversial public figure.

Using many of Miss Carson's own words, actress Kaiulani Lee depicts Carson in the final year of her life. Struggling with cancer, Carson recounts with both humor and anger the attacks by the chemical industry, the government and the press as she focuses her limited energy to get her message to Congress and the American people. Shot at Carson's cottage in Maine and based on Lee’s play of the same name, the film is an intimate and poignant portrait of Carson's life as she emerges as a powerful advocate for the natural world.

Carson’s prescient words echo many of the concerns that Kolbert explores in Under a White Sky:

“Mankind has gone very far into an artificial world of his own creation. He has sought to insulate himself in his cities of steel and concrete away from the realities of earth, water, the growing seed and intoxicated with the sense of his own power, he seems to be going farther and farther into experiments toward the destruction of himself and his world. There is certainly no single remedy for this condition and I can offer no panacea, but it seems reasonable to believe and I do believe that the more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and the realities of this universe about us, the less taste we shall have for its destruction.”

Available on DVD and eVideo

Waterlife (2010)

Image of DVD case for the film Waterlife, which combines an image of sunlight streaming through a body of water with a satellite image of the Great Lakes

This documentary tells the epic story of the Great Lakes by following the cascade of its water from northern Lake Superior to the Atlantic Ocean, through the lives of some of the 35 million people who rely on the lake for survival. Providing earth with 20% of its surface fresh water and its third largest industrial economy, the Great Lakes are a unique and precious resource threatened by toxins, sewage, invasive species, evaporating water and apathy.

In Under a White Sky, Kolbert vividly describes the power of jumping carp that have invaded Midwestern waterways. Viewers can watch footage of this phenomena as townspeople compete to net the fish out of the air at the film’s 30-minute mark.

Kolbert discusses how native peoples adapted to changes in the landscape prior to large-scale settlement.  In this film, a First Nations elder talks about his peoples’ concern for the future, embedded in the philosophical underpinnings of their society:

“The Great Law is when one must take into consideration the needs not only of the people who have different values, but also the continuing needs from the one generation to the next. The expression usually used is ‘seven generations into the future’. The Great Law, if adhered to, I believe would change the course of history. There are still those that know the Great Law.”

Available on eVideo

Alien Invasion, The Aliens Have Landed, and Coral Cashpoint (2009)

Image of the title of the documentary series, Nature, Inc., on a pricetag.  Blue butterflies have landed on the pricetag, and a buck stands in the foreground.  A red and black barcode looms in the background.

These three episodes of the series Nature, Inc. explore the enormous economic impact of nature, from invasive species (The Aliens Have Landed) and various tactics that governments and scientists have employed to battle them (Alien Invasion), to the $30 billion estimated worth of threatened coral reef ecosystems, which provide food and work for a half billion people (Coral Cashpoint).

Mirroring discussions in Under a White Sky, these programs address Australia’s Cane toad epidemic, how and why invasive species create problems in the ecosystems into which they are displaced, and the precarious situation facing the Great Barrier Reef.

Available as eVideos: The Aliens Have Landed, Alien Invasion, and Coral Cashpoint

Gattaca (1997)

A poster image for the film with the faces of the three main characters centered behind a DNA double helixThis feature film begins with two quotes that echo themes examined in Under a White Sky

Consider God's handiwork: who can straighten what He hath made crooked?  (Ecclesiastes 7:13)

I not only think that we will tamper with Mother Nature, I think Mother wants us to.  (Willard Gaylin, bioethicist)

Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) has always fantasized about traveling into outer space, but is grounded by his status as a genetically inferior "in-valid." He decides to fight his fate by purchasing the genes of Jerome Morrow (Jude Law), a laboratory-engineered "valid." He assumes Jerome's DNA identity and joins the Gattaca space program, where he falls in love with Irene (Uma Thurman). An investigation into the death of a Gattaca officer complicates Vincent's plans.

This forward-thinking feature film presents a vision of a society driven by eugenics where potential children are conceived through genetic selection to ensure they possess the best hereditary traits of their parents. The rare thriller that is thoughtful as well as entertaining, Gattaca inspires reflection on the potential consequences of reproductive technologies and genetic discrimination. 

Available on DVD and eVideo

Troubled Waters: A Mississippi River Story (2010)

Title of documentary over a sky-view photo of the Mississippi River bordered by verdant delta landscapesIn describing the Mississippi River, Kolbert quotes T. S. Eliot’s 1941 poem The Dry Salvages: “I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river is a strong brown god - sullen, untamed and intractable.” Thanks to the Mississippi River, the American Midwest boasts some of the world's most productive farmland, but this bounty comes with a price. Excess nitrogen and phosphorous, fertilizers essential to the growth of plants, are contaminating the nation's rivers, lakes and aquifers at the same time as precious soils wash away. Troubled Waters tells the story of changes on the land and the initiatives people are taking to ensure a more sustainable food production system.

Available on DVD and eVideo

Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time (2011)

Poster image for the film, with a man sitting on top of a hillside gazing over a field.  The top half of the image is a portion of the globe cast in a green light.As she discusses the precarious situation facing the Devil’s Hole pupfish, Kolbert refers to Aldo Leopold, widely regarded as the father of the wildlife conservation movement in America, and his essay on the now-extinct Passenger Pigeon that was once so numerous it darkened the skies.  Green Fire examines Leopold's thinking, renewing his idea of a land ethic for a population facing 21st century ecological challenges. Leopold's biographer, conservation biologist Dr. Curt Meine, serves as the film's on-screen guide. Green Fire describes the formation of Leopold's idea, exploring how it changed one man and later permeated through all arenas of conservation. “Acts of creation are ordinarily reserved for gods and poets,” he wrote, “but humbler folk may circumvent this restriction if they know how.  To plant a pine, for example, one need be neither god nor poet – one need only own a good shovel.”  The film explores Leopold's life and experiences, and the deep impact of his thinking on conservation projects around the world today.

Available on DVD and eVideo

Blade Runner (1982)

Movie poster image for film showing Harrison Ford's character holding a futuristic gun, a female replicant smoking a cigarette, and a futuristic cityscapeIn her discussion of ‘technofatalism’, Kolbert quotes Zhora in Blade Runner:  “You think I’d be working in a place like this if I could afford a real snake?” In this sci-fi classic set in a dystopian Los Angeles in 2019, Rick Deckard of the LAPD's Blade Runner unit prowls the steel & microchip jungle of the 21st century. His job is to track down and eliminate assumed humanoids known as 'replicants’, which were declared illegal after a bloody mutiny on an Off-World Colony. He wants to get out of the force, but is drawn back in when 6 "skin jobs," the slang for replicants, hijack a ship back to Earth.  Deckard searches for his prey in a sprawling, dark vision of the future, ultimately questioning and confronting his own identity.

Available on Blu-ray, DVD and eVideo

Kiss the Ground (2020)

Poster image for the film with a tree foregrounded against a pastoral background and roots stretching below the Earth's surface, with the tagline, "The solution is right at our feet"Narrated by Woody Harrelson, this lively and engaging documentary follows a group of activists, scientists, farmers, and politicians who band together in a global movement of ‘Regenerative Agriculture’, exploring how its practice could balance our climate, replenish our vast water supplies, and feed the world.  In what could be viewed as a ‘bonus chapter’ to Under a White Sky, the filmmakers examine the roots of industrial agriculture in war, showing how new techniques based in science and the ecologies of pre-industrialized soil systems can reverse the damage done.

Available as eVideo

How We Got To Now (2014)

Promotional image for the video series with a headshot of author Steven Johnson

This six-part series reveals the story behind the remarkable ideas that made modern life possible; the unsung heroes that brought them into the world – and the unexpected and bizarre consequences each of these innovations has triggered. It's a journey that takes author Steven Johnson to meet penguins in the middle of the desert, deep into the sewers of San Francisco and to the frozen wastes of the Arctic to fish with the Inuit.

Episodes include explorations of innovations related to the following ideas:  Clean, Time, Glass, Light, Cold and Sound.

Available on DVD and eVideo

Coral Reefs (Blue Planet II) (2017)

Photo of a sea turtle and fish swimming around a coral reefKolbert discusses efforts to breed hardier corals to cope with mass coral bleaching events affecting the oceans’ biospheres.  Explore the dynamic ecosystems corals create in Coral Reefs, an episode of the acclaimed nature series Blue Planet IIReefs occupy less than one tenth of one percent of the ocean floor, yet they are home to a quarter of all known marine species. Despite their longevity and resilience, increasing ocean temperatures have put coral reefs under unprecedented pressure.

Available on DVD and eVideo

This Changes Everything (2015)

Poster image for the film, which includes a graphical depiction of a yellow globe on fire“Is it really possible to be bored by the end of the world?” asks Naomi Klein, who authored a book of the same name as this documentary.  Filmed in nine countries and five continents over four years, this documentary reimagines the vast challenge of climate change by presenting seven portraits of communities and activists on the front lines, from Montana's Powder River Basin to the Alberta Tar Sands, from the coast of South India to Beijing and beyond. Interwoven with these stories of struggle is Klein's narration, connecting the carbon in the air with the economic system that put it there.  The film concentrates in particular on First Nations and indigenous activists, and the subjects’ struggle to assert their right to care for their land.

Available on DVD and eVideo