Throughout her time as a documentary producer at Off the Fence, the production company she founded, Ellen Windemuth consistently heard the same refrain: “You can’t say that, because it won’t get ratings,” she says, “or you can’t film that because our advertisers won’t like it.” Feeling constrained as she sought to make more pressing content about the Earth and its survival, she decided to launch a streaming startup, offering users on-demand environmental programming—for free.
Windemuth joins us on this week’s episode of the World Changing Ideas podcast to discuss that streaming service, WaterBear, which launched in January. “If your passion is whales, or giraffes, or climate change, or ocean plastics,” she says, “you can watch something about it.” The site features such programs as The Breakdown, an explainer series on climate change for the previously unprimed; Mother of the Sea, a story told by Inuits in Greenland that warns about the perils of Mother Nature; and The True Cost, about the human and environmental tolls of our fashion choices.
The backbone of all the stories is the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. “These are 17 words that good storytelling can turn into real values,” Windemuth says. The new programming streaming in each quarter in 2021 is dedicated to a different segment of Earth stories: First up was biodiversity, then climate, followed by circularity, and community. “After four quarters of WaterBear, we will have told stories pertaining to all 17 Sustainable Development Goals,” she says, “and I think people will have a really thorough grasp of what they mean.”
Before WaterBear, Windemuth’s Off the Fence executive produced the Oscar-winning Netflix documentary feature My Octopus Teacher, about a South African man, Craig Foster, who forges a powerful bond with an octopus in the deep Atlantic waters near his home in Cape Town. Windemuth, an old friend of Foster’s, had been visiting him and “one day he said to me, ‘I just met a baby octopus, and it’s mind-blowing.'”
What was so effective about that movie, she says, is the notion of “emotional ecology”: that it convincingly told a moving story about ecology and biodiversity using characters and plot—instead of simply showing “a scientist talking down to you,” she says. “I think that storytelling is way faster [at influencing audiences] than showing people PowerPoints or pie charts.”
She hopes these kinds of stories on WaterBear can spur viewers to action—and that’s an equally important part of the streaming service. “It’s a community that is action-oriented, rather than just leaning back and watching content,” she says. WaterBear has onboarded more than 100 nongovernmental organizations, including Greenpeace, the Jane Goodall Institute, and Conservation International, with whom they work to tell the stories. If viewers feel impacted, they can stay on the website and donate to the NGOs, or volunteer, or shares posts on social media to raise awareness.
“I believe in this constructive approach to storytelling,” Windemuth says, “because my basic assumption is, and the assumption on which WaterBear operates, is: People do care.”
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