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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


September 2007

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Bytes of Note - Environment on Film

To a generation of environmental leaders raised on National Geographic specials, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, and The Undersea World of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, it should come as no surprise that today’s students and young professionals also find themselves enlightened and inspired by the moving image. An Inconvenient Truth, featuring Al Gore, has shown the power of film to put environmental consciousness into the mainstream. The Web makes it easier than ever to find and view blockbuster and obscure film titles, so educators, activists, librarians, lobbyists, researchers, and film connoisseurs alike should know how to find just the right movie, news clip, or video to explore a topic, make a point, or simply entertain.

The best-known Web sites for finding films and information about films include the commercial sites and These sites are great for renting and buying known films of a certain popularity, and they can even be a good way to locate a film synopsis. To get more detailed information on mainstream movies, however, everyone should know about the Internet Movie Database (IMDB). IMDB lists credits and storylines and cross-references cast and crew members, so users can scan the titles of every movie that Burt Lancaster ever made in hopes of remembering the one in which he plays an oil baron attempting to replace a Scottish village with an oil refinery.

These sites are not yet very useful for finding an unknown documentary film on a desired environmental topic. Fortunately, librarians already have that covered with WorldCat, the largest aggregation of library catalogs. WorldCat allows users to “search many libraries at once for an item and then locate it in a library nearby.” The procedure for using WorldCat is very simple: To find a film on a topic such as grazing in India, the user can click on “advanced search” just below the basic search entry blank. On the advanced search screen, the user can limit results to the format “visual material” and complete the search by typing in the keywords, for example, <grazing India>. Searching for “visual material” on WorldCat locates still images as well as video. At this writing, the <grazing India> search experiment yields two DVDs, two VHS tapes, and two photographs, including a DVD of Thirsty Planet: Water for the Fields. The user can find out more about a title in the search results set by clicking on it and scrolling down to find out which libraries own the item. By putting a U.S. or Canadian postal code or a country name in the blank at “enter location information,” the user can find the closest library with the film. Many public and academic libraries participate in “interlibrary loan” programs and may be able to borrow films for a patron if they are not in the local library’s collection. To find out more about a film that was found using WorldCat, the user can find the movie’s “publisher” in the detail screen.

If borrowing is not an option, there are many distributors that sell environmental DVDs. Bullfrog Films is the best known of these, and Appalshop has a significant environmental catalog as well. lists many distributors of environmentally relevant films that give nuanced attention to people and culture, an angle often missing from “chase ‘em and wrassle ‘em” animal documentaries. In a similar vein, the African Media Program at Michigan State University aims to fill in those gaps with a “Curricular Guide for Using African Film and Video to Teach about the Environment in the Social Sciences, Natural Science and Humanities Curriculum.”

Environmental film festival Web sites can also be a good way of exploring the range of films available. The Hazel Wolf Environmental Film Network and the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital are two of many in the United States. The European Environmental Film Festivals Network links to several in Europe. The archives of these sites often list the films from past festival years.

Besides documentary and feature films, other forms of the moving image are showing up more and more on the Web. YouTube is a free Web service that makes it easy for individuals to share short and grainy versions of their favorite video clips and do-it-yourself movies and to do quick searches for bits of news and entertainment programs that others may have copied and posted. The environmental clips on YouTube are a hodgepodge, but a hodgepodge that contains many useful items. A recent search for environmental content yielded BBC news clips; TV comedy including environmental bits from the TV series "Futurama" and "In Living Color;" homegrown high school projects and personal stories; U.S. Congressional hearings from C-Span, plus plenty of irrelevant material.

If there is a news clip of interest on YouTube, a higher quality version can often be found by going directly to the news network’s home page. Recent public affairs programming from the C-Span network (including U.S. Congressional speeches and hearings) can be viewed for free at C-Span’s Science/Technology “video library” has a lot of environmental policymaking footage. Older, archival footage is indexed and can be purchased for a fee. Environmental programming from CNN can be found at News aggregators, such as Yahoo, which has a good number of CBC and BBC clips, can also be helpful.

While some people go to the networks and news aggregators on the Web, others prefer to have the news come to them. RSS (really simple syndication) feeds allow users to insert constantly updated news headlines and links to text and video directly into their own Web pages, including personal blogs. Reuters’ environmental news video RSS feed is a prime example.

GEORGE E. CLARK is the environmental resources librarian at the Harvard College Library. Material for Bytes of Note may be directed to him at

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