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There are numerous films — some of which are relatively recent — that contain hidden messages about climate change; of course, oftentimes, these messages are more overt than at other times. Yet, as Climate change worsens and threatens our very way of life, we’ll evidently see more movies about and related to this issue.
The 10 films listed below are just a sampling of narrative-driven films containing hidden (and not-so-hidden) messages about climate change, and this list also specifies where and how to watch each film; in the age of streaming services, it’s easier now more than ever to catch up on films such as these. Certain films on this list, such as “Interstellar,” could be classified as “cli-fi” — or, rather, climate fiction. Of course, there are also plenty of documentaries that are about Climate change, such as noted climate activist David Attenborough‘s “A Life On Our Planet,” “Chasing Coral,” and “Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret.”
Warning: Descriptions of the films below do include some spoilers.
1. Avatar and Avatar: The Way of Water
Source: National Geographic/YouTube
Writer-director James Cameron‘s “Avatar” franchise — which began in 2009, was followed up in 2022 by its sequel, and will consist of several more films within the next decade or so — is one of the highest-grossing ones of all time. Cameron’s previous film, 1997’s “Titanic,” also became a critical and audience favorite, winning multiple Oscars, including Best Director for Cameron. The original “Avatar” was such a game-changer when it came to new, unique technology that involved such things as performances via revelatory motion capture and cinematography meant for 3D viewing.
The follow-up film, “Avatar: The Way of Water,” was released last December, featured even more innovative technology and filming techniques, and picked up an Oscar last month for Best Visual Effects. However, praise was far from unanimous for the sequel, as some critics claimed that it was merely rehashing “climate cliches” from the first film, and that the principal difference with the sequel is that it had an even higher budget (including more CGI) and a longer runtime. In both films, Cameron focuses on the important (and often emotional) relationship between the Na’avi — the native people who reside on the faraway fictional planet of Pandora — and nature, including various animals and magical plants. The Na’avi are clearly the heroes of the franchise, and are obviously similar to climate activists and the ways in which they protest Climate change inaction. The first film, in particular, is centered on the “plight of the world’s rainforests at the hands of greedy humans,” as the so-called “sky people” are the ones exploiting the planet of Pandora for its natural resources and, henceforth, are the villains of the story. What’s especially noticeable in the second film is the fact that these humans not only don’t care about the damage they’re inflicting upon the oceans and its inhabitants, but also that they might be enjoying it.
Cameron — who, like his wife, Suzy Amis Cameron, is a noted environmentalist and vegan — also executive-produced 2014’s “Years of Living Dangerously,” a Showtime documentary series about Climate change. He recognizes the fact that documentaries such as these tend to “preach to the choir,” whereas the “Avatar” films clearly reach many more people worldwide — even though the future-set franchise contains a “much softer and diffused message,” which he has claimed to be more of a “feeling that you needed to connect better with nature.”
That said, Cameron is aware that these films don’t give viewers specific instructions or details regarding the climate crisis, and even though the second film brings with it an immense appreciation for the world’s oceans, he asserts that the “Avatar” films are “meant to create a sense of wonder and connection to the natural world.” And yet, in both films, we see the literal destruction of a planet and its resources — hardly a subtle reference to the destruction of the Earth. Also, Cameron himself has been involved in ocean-related issues for quite some time, such as with “Titanic,” when he used state-of-the-art technology to explore the real-life wreckage of the 1912 ocean liner, and has been scuba diving since he was 16. He and Suzy are focused on the importance of adopting plant-based diets primarily for environmental reasons. “The Way of Water” takes the time to showcase the beauty of the ocean and the intelligent animals who call it home. In regards to the impacts of Climate change on ocean environments — including the animals and plants who reside in them — when thinking “that all of that could be literally gone” in his children’s lifetime, “that is shocking.” He once said that the “ocean has become the toilet of human civilization.” However, Cameron remains hopeful that we can still enact change.
Where to watch: 2009’s “Avatar” is streaming on Disney+, whereas “Avatar: The Way of Water” is currently only available to rent/buy on demand.
2. Beasts of the Southern Wild
2012’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is an Oscar-nominated film about an ever-changing world told through the eyes of 6-year-old Hushpuppy, played by Quvenzhané Wallis, who — at 9 years old — became the youngest person ever nominated for Best Actress. The film primarily takes place in a relatively small community in the Louisiana Bayou, and focuses on the difficulties faced by young Hushpuppy — particularly, her ailing father and the melting ice caps flooding her home. In addition to other Climate change-related events such as rising temperatures, prehistoric creatures known as aurochs start attacking. Water and energy are inherently connected, which makes the flooding in the film obviously relevant to Climate change; global warming typically is manifested “through distortions to the global water cycle,” leading to more frequent and extreme flooding and droughts. The film was directed by Benh Zeitlin, who wrote the script with Lucy Alibar, whose play “Juicy and Delicious” was the basis for “Beasts.”
The aurochs are clearly visual metaphoric manifestations of Climate change; it’s through the fantastical and mythical elements of the story that we are able to see things such as Climate change, community, death, myth, and poverty in a unique manner. Some things are never truly explained, and we also don’t know whether or not the aurochs are real or if they are figments of the people’s imagination. The aurochs were real creatures — a species of wild ox — and lived in Europe until about the 17th century; the point made by the teacher, Miss Bathsheba, that these animals became frozen during the Ice Age, is clearly a falsification. “Beasts” producer Michael Gottwald said that Zeitlin, was inspired by cave paintings he saw in France. The aurochs’ mythical presence helps Hushpuppy to “make sense of the world collapsing around her.”
While Hushpuppy originally has trouble understanding these creatures, yet by the end she comes to the realization that she and the aurochs have more in common than she’d previously thought. The humans’ and aurochs’ lives have been adversely affected by Climate change, yet both species have been strong enough to survive these challenging conditions. Yes, Hushpuppy’s community is a fictional one, yet there are obvious parallels to coastal modern-day Louisiana. It’s evident that “Beasts” was meant to be a response to Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and the surrounding area not long before Zeitlin and Alibar wrote the script.
Where to watch: “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is currently only available to rent/buy on demand.
3. The Day After Tomorrow
Source: Climate Alert/YouTube
“The Day After Tomorrow” is a 2004 disaster-driven film that is hardly subtle when it comes to its message(s) regarding Climate change. In the film, ocean currents in the Atlantic come to a standstill, thereby causing a 21st-century ice age. Dennis Quaid’s climatologist frequently talks about Global warming, and warns that human-caused Climate change could lead to a life-altering ice age. And, then it happens — at which point temperatures decrease to 150 degrees (Fahrenheit), causing people to freeze to death and a huge tidal wave to cause destruction in New York City. The film does contain some relevance today, nearly 20 years after its release: for one, Quaid’s character’s data regarding Climate change is noticeably questioned and he is even called a “sensationalist.” This brings to mind the prevalence of climate change deniers, who question and/or are skeptical about the Climate change-related data provided by scientists. The 2004 release date of “The Day After Tomorrow” occurred at a time when the Bush Administration was continually denying and manipulating the facts surrounding Climate change, going so far as to “distance itself from any reports on emissions and human impacts on the environment, while also admitting that the climate would be changing the face of the US in the coming years.” In fact, director Roland Emmerich has admitted that the characters of the president and vice president in the film are stand-ins for the real-life President and Vice President (George W. Bush and Dick Cheney).
15 years after the film’s release, people examined what it got wrong and right in regard to climate shifts. For example, if the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) — which is the ocean’s current system — slows down considerably as a result of melting ice getting into the AMOC, then the Northern Hemisphere could experience more extreme weather events and signal future (and abrupt) climate shifts. Of course, the effects of these possible shifts are heavily dramatized in the film, as is often the case with disaster-driven films. In addition, scientists find it highly unlikely that the melting ice would be enough to trigger conditions akin to what transpired some 13,000 years ago; however, these types of climate shifts occurred rather quickly, essentially within the span of a lifetime. In addition, the intersectionality of Climate change and politics is still present today; this was most visible during the previous administration, who denied the validity of (or outright denied the existence) Climate change, promised to get more coal mining jobs, and left the Paris Climate Agreement (which the Biden administration then re-joined).
Where to watch: “The Day After Tomorrow” is currently available to stream on fuboTV and Cinemax, and to rent/buy on demand.
4. Don’t Look Up
Adam McKay’s 2021 Netflix comedy “Don’t Look Up” is far from subtle in regard to Climate change and others’ varying reactions to Global warming and the like. The large ensemble-filled film — which includes Oscar winners Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, and Cate Blanchett — follows a group of scientists who discover that there’s a comet headed straight toward Earth. And, as it turns out, few are concerned with the fact that this will be an extinction-level event, with the conservative president (Meryl Streep) and others telling people “don’t look up” — to, in other words, ignore the problem. As such, the film is hardly uplifting and one might leave the film with an impending sense of doom regarding the real-life impacts of Climate change. The movie skewers the mainstream media and the ways in which it covers Climate change, which has long frustrated scientists and climate activists. The morning show portrayed here clearly resembles the real-life “Morning Joe” show, and this one shows the co-hosts as being shallow and completely disinterested. Lawrence’s character’s on-camera response to their apathy is understandably angry and confused. In addition, Streep’s president nixes government plans to address the comet problem and instead partners with a company of a political donor — opting to make money instead of to save the planet.
McKay, who wrote the screenplay with journalist David Sirota, has said that he’s “really terrified about the climate” and “the collapse of the livable atmosphere.” And, yet, he notes that, “for some reason, it’s not penetrating our culture.” While the comet is obviously not caused by humans, there are clear parallels to today’s society and individuals’ responses to the climate crisis. Also, unlike other disaster-driven films such as “The Day After Tomorrow” and “2012,” McKay’s Oscar-nominated film doesn’t feature people surviving against all odds; in “Don’t Look Up,” everyone dies except a few fortunate individuals who escaped just in time. Also, unlike those other disaster films, this one does not provide escapism via lots of action; instead, McKay and Sirota find the comedy (and the drama) in the fact that Climate change is now part of our everyday lives. And, whereas similarly-themed movies rarely show the aftermath of these types of natural disasters, “Don’t Look Up” doesn’t shy away from the devastation caused by the comet. As the comet nears its path of destruction DiCaprio’s character says, “we really did have everything, didn’t we?” Even though Climate change will unlikely lead to an extinction-level event like the comet, this is a great reminder to not take our presence here on this Earth for granted.
Where to watch: “Don’t Look Up” is currently available to stream on Netflix.
5. First Reformed
Source: Art tailored/YouTube
Writer-director Paul Schrader’s 2017 film, “First Reformed,” features a rather bleak and depressing look at Climate change: through the eyes of an alcoholic priest, played excellently by Ethan Hawke; the screenplay was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. After a local, highly radical environmentalist commits suicide, the priest “spirals into despair” and becomes “consumed by the prospect of devastating Climate change,” which eventually leads him to a violent plan. Yes, the movie does imply that salvation is possible, yet “First Reformed” has no easy answers in regard to the environment and Climate change. The priest’s struggles with his heavy drinking, with his son’s death in the Iraq War, and with comprehending Climate change are clearly intertwined with his struggle surrounding his Protestant faith. He first meets the young wife of the environmentalist who ends up killing himself, as she is seeing counsel for his husband’s beliefs, which are quite different from her own; for example, the husband wants his pregnant wife to get an abortion, as he is firmly opposed to bringing a child into a world that will become severely impacted by Climate change. After gaining access to the environmentalist’s laptop, the priest researches the issues that kept the young man up at night, and eventually finds himself participating in a rite alongside the man’s widow.
In interviews after the film’s release, Schrader talked about the story is, essentially, a reflection of his and others’ collective despair about Climate change. “It is very easy to fall into despair, and you have to make a decision not to,” he said. Also, he claimed that “anyone who is optimistic at this moment hasn’t been paying attention” to the climate crisis and the ever-changing world around us. Of course, he assured, one can have hope, yet each individual has to make this choice to be hopeful. “First Reformed” was filmed on a budget of approximately $3.5 million and was shot in only 20 days — in a way, mimicking, the rapid nature in which the priest’s psyche spirals and takes a sharp downturn. In fact, the ending sequence may be a figment of the main character’s imagination, considering the fantastical nature of it all, an ambiguity that was evidently deliberate on Schrader’s part. It could also be said that all humans are meant to be the villains here, as they are the catalysts for Climate change; this is in tune with the self-destructive tendencies of characters like the priest and the environmentalist who committed suicide. Lastly, there’s some contradiction present, namely in the fact that the priest, as a man of faith, should be all about the purification of the body; and yet, he continues to poison his body with alcohol. This can relate to the fact that environmentalists are concerned with the purification of the earth, yet many will poison the Earth with pollutants and will continue eating in a manner that is not sustainable (in other words, a diet consisting of animal products).
Where to watch: “First Reformed” is currently available to stream on HBO/HBO Max and Showtime.
Christopher Nolan’s 2014 film “Interstellar,” despite being released nearly 10 years ago, is still relevant today — even though it takes place in the future. In the film, Matthew McConaughey’s pilot is tasked with helping to save humanity by finding a new home (i.e. a new planet), thanks to the increasingly uninhabitable nature of Earth. At this point in our society, Climate change has wrought immense destruction that has forced NASA to look elsewhere for solutions; instead of being a call to action regarding climate issues, “Interstellar” shows what happens when humankind has lost the battle against Climate change. In this instance, Earth is shown to be rampant with dust storms, failing crops, and fungi that cause blight. This type of climate fiction makes us wonder how humans would react to a global food shortage, and how this would affect our daily lives. At the farm where McConaughey’s character and his family live, the frequent dust scenes are reminiscent of the 1930s North American Dust Bowl, even though seeing this on a global scale seems somewhat farfetched. Like “Don’t Look Up,” Nolan’s film seems to reject what is known as Climate change hysteria. It is, as Nolan has said, “about the way in which human beings adapt and transcend natural movements—apocalyptic-type movements.” In that sense, the film is more concerned with Climate change not specifically caused by humans, although the poor farming methods depicted in the film are clearly the humans’ fault. And yet, the character of Dr. Mann — played by environmentalist Matt Damon — is sent to an ice-filled planet, and is then portrayed to be a liar “with delusions of grandeur.”
McConaughey’s character’s mentor is played by Michael Caine, whose character is loosely based on Kip Thorne, an astrophysicist. Prior to participating in the film, Caine admitted, he did not truly believe in Global warming; yet, fortunately, his involvement in “Interstellar” made me think more seriously about Climate change and its effects on the planet. While Caine did not necessarily end up doing anything else as a result of this revelation, other cast-mates lived more eco-friendly lives. For example, Jessica Chastain — who is a longtime vegan — advocated for “meat-free Mondays” on set; also, Anne Hathaway made it a point to Support smaller, more ethical businesses and to time her showers. While McConaughey, Chastain, and Nolan have all exhibited optimistic attitudes about the future of Earth (and, in essence, humanity), Caine said he felt more skeptical: “If Earth screws up, I think we all go.” Writer-director Nolan said that one of his inspirations for the film was “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” shouting out its speculation regarding humans’ place in the universe. In essence, “Interstellar” — apart from being a touching film about family — is about humans vs. themselves in the guise of nature vs. humans. Just because the apocalyptic world depicted in the film leads people to desperate measures doesn’t mean we, here in 2023, should give up hope.
Where to watch: “Interstellar” is currently available to stream on Paramount+.
Source: Universal Pictures/YouTube
“Nope” is the third film by Oscar-winning writer-director Jordan Peele — after “Get Out” and “Us” — and is perhaps his most ambiguous and head-scratching one yet, as it leaves numerous questions unanswered. Sure, Peele’s third outing could be little more than a sci-fi monster movie, one that focuses on humans’ obsession with spectacle. Or, maybe it’s about the documentation of black history, or a critique of surveillance culture, or a love letter to the power of cinemas, or a commentary on capitalism. Another possibility is that the faceless monster — which the main characters name “Jean Jacket” — is a surrogate for Global warming. Regardless, it’s clear that Peele is open to all sorts of interpretations, no matter how extreme or farfetched. The Climate change-related message in “Nope” is more hidden than it is in some other movies on this list, although it can be said that the effects of Jean Jacket’s presence on the characters in the film could almost mirror the effects of Climate change on our daily lives. For example, the Haywood siblings — played by Keke Palmer and Daniel Kaluuya — notice objects falling out of the sky and the electricity on their property fluctuating as a result of Jean Jacket’s appearance, which causes their horses to react violently and to even mysteriously vanish; this could be akin to the way in which more bizarre and frequently changing weather patterns lead to disaster and confusion for both humans and animals alike. Also, the element of the spectacle in “Nope” and how certain people — like Steven Yeun’s Jupe — react to something dangerous and unknown is similar to how some people may react to catastrophic events and even natural disasters. Like in “Don’t Look Up,” (see above) some characters in “Nope” are more likely to take advantage of this new anomaly for their own personal gains.
Where to watch: “Nope” is currently available to stream on Prime Video.
Source: Katie Vicente/YouTube
2019’s “Parasite” — Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece that took the world by storm shortly before COVID interrupted our lives — was the first film not in English to win Best Picture. In addition to depicting neoliberalism in South Korea, the film shows the effects of Climate change in an honest manner, especially as it relates to class differences in the country. Unlike other movies on this list, “Parasite” is not a disaster-driven movie, although there are a couple of scenes that one might normally find in that type of movie; for the remainder of the film, this crisis lurks in the background, ready to drastically and rapidly change characters’ lives. This is perhaps a much more realistic portrayal of events such as severe rains and flooding — which are featured in the film — as it is something to which other people can relate. The climate crisis is woven into the lower-class family’s (the Kims) daily life, just as it is in many people’s lives around the world. By the time the intense flooding occurs and the family is rendered homeless, we’ve come to know every member of the family well enough to empathize with them and to understand their character motivations.
While the rich family they’ve infiltrated (the Parks) has only been slightly inconvenienced, the Kims are forced to leave their apartment when sewage water overtakes it, leading to a way overcrowded gymnasium that has become an emergency shelter. What is presented in “Parasite” is actually fairly accurate, as the climate crisis has led to more (and heavier) rain in South Korea; in 2018, flooding destroyed 800+ buildings and killed 76+ people, most of whom lived in areas of lower elevation similar to where the Kims lived. At one point, the worst basement apartments in Seoul were deemed illegal to rent out, due to their unsafe nature and the flooding vulnerabilities. And, instead of films like “The Day After Tomorrow” that feature wide-ranging and cataclysmic events, “Parasite” shows how these types of climate-driven events occur simultaneously worldwide and affect different people in different ways. It’s unfair, too, that, while the poorest individuals are least responsible for climate events, they end up being affected by them the most — as we see with the Kim family in “Parasite.”
Where to watch: “Parasite” is currently available to stream on Kanopy.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that Oscar winner Bong Joon-ho has another film on this list, although 2013’s “Snowpiercer” was released several years before “Parasite.” Unlike “Parasite,” “Snowpiercer” is concerned with more severe Climate change-driven effects, as the entirety of the film takes place in an apocalyptic society. The film, which is based on a graphic novel and then later became an HBO series, is about people who live on a train traveling around the world because Earth became covered with ice and, thus, inhabitable. What caused this was geoengineering, which was meant to reverse Global warming but clearly backfired. The story takes place 17 years after most people froze to death, at which point people had to either buy tickets or push their way in order to hop aboard the train. The film does not shy away from other complex issues, like economic disparity, class issues, and everything in between. Clearly, “Snowpiercer” highlights the interconnected nature of capitalism and the climate crisis; as with “Parasite,” the poorest people tend to suffer the most from Climate change. The movie also very obviously references Noah’s Ark, as the train was created — and is currently run by — a mysterious man named Mr. Wilford.
So, could something like what happens in “Snowpiercer” actually happen? Well, geoengineering is certainly plausible, and might be a necessary action we need to think about in order to change Earth’s climate. This would be a purposeful act of attempting to cool the planet, in hopes of countering human-caused Global warming. The type of geoengineering mentioned in “Snowpiercer” is known as “solar radiation management,” which consists of altering the amount of sunlight that the Earth can reflect. This would involve adding aerosols — aka “fine particles or droplets suspended in gas” — to our atmosphere. Then, the aerosols would deflect the light from the sun into space, with the hopes of reducing Climate change-driven impacts. It’s actually more likely that this type of geoengineering would be effective as opposed to having it completely backfire, as in “Snowpiercer.” According to climate expert Dr. Douglas MacMartin, it would be difficult to “overshoot” our efforts with this action, as there would have to be “a very deliberate, sustained, collective effort, sustained over generations, to put vastly more into the stratosphere than you need to restore our climate.” So, while geoengineering is unlikely to lead to an apocalyptic-level event as seen in “Snowpiercer,” this process could still be detrimental in a number of other ways. For one, rain patterns could affect farmers’ ability to grow crops, and the aerosols added to the atmosphere could cause damage to the ozone layer.
Where to watch: “Snowpiercer” is currently available to stream on Showtime.
Source: Bloomberg Quicktake/YouTube
Pixar’s clever and beautiful film, 2008’s “WALL-E,” is hardly subtle when it comes to its depiction of the effects of Climate change. The Oscar-winning animated film takes place in the future (in the year 2805), long after the Earth has been riddled (and ruined) with trash. The movie shows life — or rather, lack thereof — both on the planet and on the spaceship where all of humanity currently lives, spending their days glued to their screens and barely moving. One robot, named WALL-E, has been left behind to clean up the trash amid frequent sandstorms. At the time of “WALL-E’s” release, director Andrew Stanton claimed that there was no environmentalist message, although it’s hard to deny the fact that the film showcases the Earth’s increasingly noticeable problems with waste and Pollution.
The humans aboard the ship are a visual metaphor for the laziness that evidently destroyed the planet — and that is destroying Earth as we speak — as these people are “literally too lazy to carry their own weight.” In one memorable scene, we see photos of captains of the ship throughout the years, and these people became increasingly heavier, to the point that the current captain has difficulty standing. Despite having been released 15 years ago, “WALL-E” is still incredibly relevant, and could even be considered to be prescient; in 2023, people are more addicted to their devices and to streaming entertainment than ever, which is shown to be a popular activity onboard the ship in the film. Also, we learn that megacorporation Buy-N-Large is largely responsible for the essential destruction of the Earth, which is similar to the way in which major corporations have been careless when it comes to the environment. And, yet, the movie contains — and ends with — a message of hope, as WALL-E finds a companion, as well as a tiny plant sprig. As opposed to the humans aboard the ship who are apathetic toward each other and live in isolation, the character of WALL-E showcases the magical nature of Earth. As the last individual on the planet, he is the only one shown to have aspirations, desires, and dreams, exemplified by his admiration for the film “Hello Dolly” and his inherent curiosity. Thus, there is hope for both humanity and robots like WALL-E.
Where to watch: “WALL-E” is currently available to stream on Disney+.
At the current rate of Climate change — exacerbated by human-caused greenhouse gasses being released into the atmosphere — we could see an increased likelihood of downpours, higher sea levels, more intense and more frequent heat waves, and wildfires. It’s not too late to adopt more climate-friendly habits (see below). Also, after watching any of the films listed above, try having a conversation with friends, family, etc. about what the film means to you personally and what (if anything) it has inspired you to do going forward. Will you make a change in your life, as a result of having seen the film?
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