Six Netflix documentaries that speak to the human condition in 2020

Social media, climate change, pandemics, and burnout. Here are six documentaries about the contemporary challenges we face. (Image source:  Mollie Sivaram on Unsplash)

By Jordan White | @JordanBWhite1

It goes without saying that 2020 has been a wild ride so far. Sometimes, sitting down to catch up on a documentary (or two) is the perfect way to distract your mind for a while.

Documentaries are the perfect balance between studying and watching How I Met Your Mother, until Netflix must make sure you’re still alive – ‘are you still watching?’.

They’re entertaining, boost general knowledge, teach you about the world, and present new and challenging ideas.

73 per cent of Netflix subscribers watched at least one documentary in 2016, according to Business Insider.

Part of their popularity is the variety of choice subscribers have. From octopuses to tigers, Nazis to baking, there’s a documentary for everyone on Netflix.

A report, Surviving and Thriving in the 21st Century, released earlier this year by the Commission for the Human Future, identifies the ten greatest contemporary threats to humanity’s survival.

Six are climate-change related (think collapsing ecosystems, food insecurity, and declining natural resources – lovely) while others include weapons of mass destruction, pandemics, and “the advent of a powerful, uncontrolled news technology”.

The last and most concerning item to make the list? “National and global failure to understand and act preventatively on these risks.”

People cannot strive to solve an issue if they don’t understand its consequences. There is hope, though, with the number of US climate-change stories rivalling those about the economy in 2019.

The media we consume plays a huge role in how we understand the world. If we want to understand (and perhaps one day solve) these issues, we need to inform ourselves.

Here are six Netflix documentaries that explore themes eerily relevant to the Surviving and Thriving in the 21st Century report.

This is no exhaustive list; the possibilities are seemingly endless with Netflix set to spend US $17 billion on content this year. But it’s a good place to pique an appetite for your next documentary binge.

Our Planet (2019)

Our Planet explores the impact of climate change on animals and biodiversity while highlighting the urgent need for greater conservation efforts.

Over eight episodes, viewers get to explore all the wonder of our oceans, forests, jungles, and so much more.

With ten Emmy nominations, narration from David Attenborough, and a magical musical score, this sobering yet inspiring documentary is a must-watch.

Once you’ve finished Our Planet, be sure to check out the recent David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet – a similar, yet more hopeful, documentary.

Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things (2015)

From The Minimalists and YouTuber Matt D’avella, Minimalism follows the lives of people seeking to live more meaningfully with less.

(Image source: YouTube)

Don’t worry. You’re allowed to watch Minimalism without throwing out all your belongings. Minimalist or not, this documentary has something for everyone.

It explores happiness in a materialistic society, coping with the perils of work through meditation, and living without social media – many themes which became a part of our lives during lockdown.

The Social Dilemma (2020)

The Social Dilemma is about social media algorithms and the potential addiction this causes. It also deals with privacy and the selling of people’s data – a hot topic despite remaining largely unregulated

The Social Dilemma includes rare and candid insights from ex Silicon Valley and social media employees. Viewers also get to see social media addiction through a dramatic, fictional story.

While these scenes are engaging, some have criticised it for sensationalising the issue. Other critics have pointed out the hypocrisy of a Netflix show, which uses similar algorithms to maximise watch time, criticising social media for doing the same.

A large issue is that The Social Dilemma doesn’t offer any solutions to the problems it so brilliantly stresses. It shows an important issue engagingly, but explores no potential remedies.

Despite its shortfalls, The Social Dilemma is still a worthwhile watch that will make you mindful of how much time you spend scrolling through social media.

2040 (2019)

Someone recommended I watch 2040 in January this year after I spoke of my pessimism about the Black Summer bushfires, and climate change by extension. Safe to say 2040 shifted my perspective for the better.

Structured as a letter to his 4-year-old daughter, a father sets out to explore the world and see what Earth would look like in 2040 if we embraced contemporary technologies and solutions.

2040 looks at fleets of self-driving cars, a radical re-use of urban space to create community gardens, marine permaculture, and so much more.

See: 2040: How giant seaweed could be an important tool in our climate affected future

Uplifting and hopeful, it’s the perfect watch for anyone feeling overwhelmed by the state of our environment. 

Vox’s Explained (2018)

Vox’s Explained is a docuseries about a wide range of topics released in short weekly episodes. It explores the brain, cryptocurrencies, diamonds, marijuana, billionaires, and so much more in bite-sized episodes.

In twenty minutes, Explained can teach you so much without telling you what you already know. Its fascinating topics and fast-pace storytelling will leave you google searching for hours. 

Inside Bill’s Mind: Decoding Bill Gates (2019)

(Image source: The Verge)

Inside Bill’s Mind is about billionaire, and Microsoft founder, Bill Gates. The three-part series explores his life, time at Microsoft, and his work with The Gates Foundation.

Lots of screen time is dedicated to the work of the foundation. Viewers get to see philanthropy work and Bill’s crazy schedule while learning about eradicating diseases, and improving sanitation in developing nations.

Whether you’re fascinated by how Bill’s brain works, the Gates Foundation and its work, or want to see the Gates’ crazy mansion, you’ll enjoy this docuseries.

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