IndieJudge Issue 4 - Ecocinema Front Page

Ecocinema and the Evolution of the Documentary Genre: From The 11th Hour (2007) to the Age of Stupid (2009) and finally The Cove (2009)


Climate change continues to be the source of inspiration for filmmakers. Ecocinema is a film art form that manifests in both fiction and non-fiction with the purpose of educating and disseminating environmentally conscious messages through the use of film. The primary persuasive strategy adopted by ecocinema documentaries is the fear appeal; however, fear appeals require astute attention to their conditional elements and are a challenge for documentarians. This essay distinguishes between the holistic and individualistic ethics, as well as the problems of anthropocentricism. In addition, understanding the tactics used by each ethic provides a framework for analyzing ecocinema. Using three ecological documentaries: 11th Hour (2007), The Age of Stupid (2009), and The Cove (2009), this essay describes the faults in fear appeals and an alternative strategy eco-documentaries can adopt to empower audiences to take proactive action to protect the climate. This essay argues that ecocinema, as an art form, needs to be understood firstly in context with its origins, ethos, the execution of their messages using fear appeals, in order to contextualize the evolution of the documentary form leading to the creation of an ecocinema documentary trend that reflects the growing environmental urgency. In the end, this essay seeks to establish a theoretical framework for deconstructing ecocinema.



Climate change has reached an almost irreversible state, a consequence brought on by a myriad of issues: overconsumption, over-population, unsustainable lifestyles, deforestation, unprecedented land development, air and water pollution, market failure, irresponsible irrigation, toxic pollutants, global warming, the global economy, species extinction, etc… (Donohoe, 2003). An external viewpoint would consider these issues beyond the scope of any solution, the tactile strategies, both pragmatic and theoretic, are beyond the scope of human ingenuity; however, environmentalists unanimously agree that the current, central root problem to the environmental crisis can be resolved by recognizing the futility of the anthropocentric worldview. Anthropocentrism is a view that regards humanity as being the center of all existence. Immanuel Kant, a highly regarded and prominent philosopher, stated, “Man … is the ultimate purpose of creation here on Earth” (Kant, 1914), a viewpoint that has permeated across human consciousness in the form of man and his relationship with nature. Early rationalists like Pythagoras and Plato insisted that humanity and nature needed to be separated, stating that nature was not the source of empirical knowledge and that only through abstract, inductive reasoning can reality be established (Cottingham, 1984). Descartes’s statement “I think, therefore I am” is a manifestation of the individual consciousness existing separately from outside influence and that the outside environment was not necessary to confirm, or validate the man’s own existence. Descartes suggested a dichotomy between mind and matter exists, believing that the mind remains in central focus while externalities (i.e. nature) bore no viable intrinsic value (Gillespie, 2000). Rationalists like Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, and Descartes would lay the foundation for an atomistic view of the world, arguing that reality was composed of an intrinsic logic. Nature was to be understood in mechanical terms, broken down to reveal its internal mechanisms in isolation. Throughout the Enlightenment and Reformation, eminent philosophers and scientists developed synchronous concepts and ideas that would become the basis for scientific research, objectivity and the understanding of the natural world. Under the microscope, the natural world and its secrets would be revealed, analyzing its constituents in isolation for the purpose of extraction, replication, and exploitation. Since nature had no intrinsic value and its existence was merely to serve the needs of humanity, man separated from nature and began to see itself as a superior entity, leading to the development of anthropocentrism. When an individual examines the climate change crisis with an anthropocentric worldview, the problems mentioned earlier appear beyond the scope of resolution, that humanity cannot avoid total environmental destruction—problems will always be seen in isolation, never as whole. In isolation, problems appear grand, impossible, but as a whole examined in relation to other problems linkages can be made and a plan can be devised—this perspective is an ecological paradigm called ecocentrism.

Rapid growth and heavy industrialization have transformed the planet at an unprecedented and alarming speed. While some environmental problems have isolated conditions and can be remedied immediately (i.e. garbage in a lake of a local municipality), other environmental problems, on a global scale caused by the activities of billions of people, are not so easily remedied—the greater the scale of problem, the greater the chance of conflicting interests preventing action.

While this essay is not intended to describe the basic tenants of the environmental movement and its details therein, a brief overview is necessary in order to situate documentaries and their articulation of their most fundamental purpose—to inspire, educate and kindle individual activism. Persistent environmental degradation has negatively impacted human health and well-being, namely through direct and indirect means, as well as immediate and long-term consequences. Immediate and direct effects are visible and localized, meaning that a solution for only that single source of problem may be resolved without the backdrop of other, more enormous problems. Individual health and well-being may be compromised in indirect and immediate ways; for example, environmental degradation may effect crop yields, resulting in food scarcity and locals to relocate (a phenomenon recently described as environmental refugees). Famine, a by-product of both natural and human affected natural disaster (indirect), may result in local disputes, fighting, and even death (immediate). Environmental degradation may also manifest in direct, but long-term (delayed) ways in which environmental consequences reveal themselves slowly throughout time; for example, cancer has largely been examined in relation with both inside and outside influences; outside influences are considered carcinogenic chemical substances and exposure to pesticides released into the air, contaminating water supplies and exposure to ionizing radiation (National Cancer Institute, 2003). Outside influences are under great scrutiny, because it cannot be admittedly held that environmental degradation is a cause of cancer; nevertheless, it is a widely understood that environmental influences play a role in its onset. Environmentalists assert that there is a direct correlation to the increasing degradation of the environment and rising cancer rates, arguing that toxicity levels in both air and water have direct ramifications for public health; a study conducted by the National Cancer Institute (2003) revealed a linkage, or a causal connection, between increasing exposure to chemicals and their capacity to trigger cancer growth; naturally, such certainty provides no closure for skeptics and cancer continues to manifest in delayed, long-term ways. Lastly, environmental threats to human health can occur in indirect, but also long-term ways; for example, the indirect activities performed daily by millions of individuals indirectly causes ozone depletion and global warming leading to droughts, food scarcity, and even rising temperatures. Environmentalists assert the understanding of these aforementioned four manifestations are central to protecting the environment before the impending environmental apocalypse. This understanding is critical for ecological films, because directors may argue any combination of these four direct vs. indirect scenarios.

Ecocinema is a film art form that manifests in both fiction and non-fiction with the purpose of educating and disseminating environmentally conscious messages through the use of film, one of the most easily accessible media forms today. Unlike ecocriticism, analysis of ecological messages embedded in literary texts, ecocinema has largely been ignored in academic research and, consequently, presents a challenge for this undertaking. With certainty there have been few publications that have investigated ecocinema, but none have analysed the evolution of the documentary form leading to the birth of a powerful, highly effective ecocinema experience that this essay argues is a direct manifestation of the urgency and desperation of documentarians to address climate change. The intent of describing those previous four direct vs. indirect arguments were to trace the foundations, and the urgency that these documentarians wish to present.

Ecocinema documentaries attempt to cross a bridge intersecting both traditional and often overtly counter-traditional methods in order to convey its message. This essay will begin examining the traditional documentary form, its purpose, and the messages typically contained in them. All documentarians are driven by a motive; some may be educational, political, or even spiritual and, as such, must be decoded and analyzed as argumentative texts. This essay does not seek to provide the most comprehensive information about the history and development of documentary tradition, except the vital aspects that concern documentary filmmaking, its ethos and its predominant argumentation in relation to ecological cinema (“ecocinema”). This essay begins by charting these documentary traditions using three environmental documentaries: The 11th Hour (2007), The Age of Stupid (2009), and The Cove (2009). By drawing comparisons between these films and how they apply documentary concepts, a link will be drawn to show the ever-evolving documentary genre in favor of more dramatic, thought-provoking representations.

Climate change has encountered a storm of controversy and evident dismissal by skeptics arguing against the core of environmental ethos. Environmental ethics is complex and intricate and cannot be the subject of thorough investigation here; however, a brief overview of its basic tenants will provide valuable insight to the challenges environmental documentarians face as they negotiate between documentary standards and a unifying environmental ethic. This essay will also explore fear appeals using Witte’s (1992) seminal analysis of fear, its messages and its constituents because environmental discourse is rife with fear and if its instrumentation is justifiable. Fear is a powerful emotion and has been the subject of several disciplines, particularly in the public health sector; however, the results of fear appeals have shown less than positive outcomes. Environmentalists need to be understood in context with their driving purpose and motivation as well as the problems they have encountered—simply put, resistance merely compounds their initiative further. This essay argues that ecocinema, as an art form, needs to be understood firstly in context with its origins, ethos, the execution of their messages using fear appeals, in order to contextualize the evolution of the documentary form leading to the creation of an ecocinema documentary trend that reflects the growing environmental urgency.


Documentary Origins

Documentary is a highly reflective genre used to expose truths and describe the intricate world in a comprehensive linear fashion for the audience. Documentary is a discursive text that provides first-hand experience in an engaging way despite the pressures that confound its creation. Documentaries have always been a source of comfort for those seeking the truth for two reasons: the raw textures and sequences in documentaries give the illusion that it is conveying an unaltered world; second, documentaries do not deploy fictionalized elements. Based on this dilemma and relative to debates about the “real”, core beliefs of a documentaries are based on a “fraud”, a false pretense and claim of the real as the ultimate truth despite those dilemmas and moral issues they represent.

In 1921 filmmakers began to record people in the daily routine of their lives, and edited this footage into a coherent way to either produce a story or make an argument. A pioneer in the development of documentary theory, John Grierson (1930-1972) distinguished documentaries existing separately from other factual cinematic forms like scientific/nature films, travelogues, journalistic newsreels (see Citizen Kane [1941]). Grierson theorized that documentaries used a “creative treatment of actuality” (Morris, 1987), meaning that documentaries transcend mere arrangements and descriptions of actuality but that they express aesthetic treatment of its subjects—documentaries do not just mechanically and passively observe the real. With newer technologies, documentaries begin to apply more inventive and aesthetically pleasing ways of dramatizing their argument, often resembling fictional elements in style and technique. Without an inventive storyline and actors, documentaries rely on available technological resources to provide a convincing narrative, the ingenuity of editing and crosscutting to create elaborate juxtapositions and hyperboles.

Equipped with the newly invented 19mm portable lightweight camera, filmmakers began to document their surroundings without predefined goals or preparation whilst adopting a journalistic principle of non-intervention and observation—this became known as the Direct Cinema (aka. “fly on the wall”) tradition (Chapman, 2009). In the 1970s, Direct Cinema was further compounded by the onset of newer technologies allowing more convenient recording, like camcorders and miniaturized equipment that would enable greater mobility and flexibility. As the documentary genre was approaching mass appeal in the late 1990s, television broadcast networks were putting increasing pressure on documentaries by applying stricter rating systems and a scheduling system to reinforce desirable subjects for this genre (Chapman, 2009). In the meantime, filmmakers began to see that a fully impartial technique would not be sufficient and that additional production techniques would permit greater self-reflexivity in the genre—this movement became known as Cinema Verité. Proponents of Cinema Verité argued that the principles of Direct Cinema only made sense in parts of a documentary where it was necessary; additionally, the “fly on the wall” expression can easily be replicated and reproduced (i.e. with available light, shaky camera). With the ongoing boom of television documentaries, the genre itself began to reinforce journalistic practices using eyewitness footage captured by handheld cameras, interview styles—reconstructions and/or elaborate footage with superficial still photography were shunned (Chapman, 2009). Television had conquered documentary practice and caused confusion among filmmakers about which movement they should follow: Direct Cinema vs. Cinema Verité. With television having defined what “documentary” should be, filmmakers sought to deviate away from the Griersonian tradition towards a more reflective contemporary style. Increasing confusion and uncertainty in the definition of documentary itself, documentary’s loose concept has inspired many to experiment with the treatment of so-called “reality”—its demand never waivered.

In many countries, public service broadcasting was used to educate its citizens on a number of subjects and the chosen instrument became documentary. Since its inception, documentaries have been an integral part of public service broadcasting appearing in lecture halls, factories, community centers and other alternative venues (Chapman, 2009)—documentary had a mission to encourage social cohesion and familiarity with the values of a social democratic society. In the view of public service broadcasts (PBS, CBC), documentaries were bounded by journalistic ethics and education as part of a hybridized institutional service called “reportage” (Chapman, 2009). Documentaries have since occupied a valuable space in public discourse.

Documentaries have since manifested in many forms, often becoming indistinguishable whether or not these films can truly be considered “documentary”. For example, television and its constant demands for more attractive documentary formats had reshaped the genre into various subformats: docu-drama, surveillance and undercover shows (COPS), chat shows (Jerry Springer), fact-based drama (Madmen, Band of Brothers), Mockumentary (documentary satirization, e.g. The Office), Reality TV (Big Brother, The Bachelor). These formats have made it increasingly difficult for documentary to allege their truths, and to distinguish themselves from these formats (Chapman, 2009). Documentaries may deploy any number of these formats at any time, where convenient, to create a convincing argument. In the view of documentary theory, non-fiction and fiction are two rigid definitions that cannot be so readily applied. Evidently, defining documentary is a challenging task and the most appealing solution is to define it against what it is not. Ellis (2002) described documentary in relation to fiction: “The gamble is that documentary will appear more real because it is less fictional” (Chapman, 2009: 15). Both non-fiction and fiction films use creative elements, like music arrangements, expositional editing and crosscutting, close-ups for dramatic effect, as well as character development. The minor difference separating documentary from fiction are the indicators of motivation: in fiction, one is exposed to a character’s various internal/external motivations whilst in non-fiction the viewer experiences only available information.

Environmental documentaries follow this tradition and development of documentary theory rather closely and, in some ways, call upon more inventive techniques to attract and engage the audience with environmental concerns. An aspect of environmental documentary that separates itself from others is its application of fear. With the knowledge of documentary theory in hand, observing the way these three documentaries apply fear as an excellent method of determining, partially, the effectiveness of environmentally conscious documentaries.

All documentaries are driven by a purpose and wish to reveal something that the viewer did not know, or did not take enough time to acknowledge. Some environmental documentaries want to expose the intrinsic beauty of nature applying elaborate slow-motion photography, scenic landscape establishing shots and highly dramatic action sequences with the intent of revealing nature’s profound intricacies. Other documentaries are driven by urgency and pressure to make the audience understand and act accordingly. The primary appeal these documentaries use is fear and this will be the focus of this section.

Along the continuum of logical to emotional appeals, fear has been the subject of over 50 years of research because of its capacity to trigger relatively immediate and/or long-term attitudinal behavioural change. Furthermore, the application of fear is highly adaptable to a number of scenarios requiring appropriate behavioral change (i.e. HIV/AIDS campaigns to political fear-inducing campaigns of imminent threats), whether they work or not has been the fundamental concern of this research. With the approaching environmental apocalypse, according to many heavily active environmental agencies, documentaries cannot afford the luxury of any other form of appeal—fear is the most powerful appeal, they believe, capable of great change. This section analyses this appeal and provides a basis for deconstructing the three chosen documentaries. Without an effective use of the fear appeal, environmentalists will only encourage maladaptive behaviors resulting in poor outcomes; instead, ecocinema directors must strategically apply fear for maximum results. Once this brief overview is complete, the following three documentaries will be assessed for the degree to which they use fear appeals.

It is the view of this essay that environmentalists use the fear appeal as a last and final attempt at kindling the fire of progress. Environmentalists have come under attack from all sides, including their ethics, even those who are a part of the environmental movement. In order to contextualize the reason why environmentalists use fear, it will be valuable to assess the core discipline of environmental ethics, ecoterrorism and environmental documentaries. The accumulating dissent and disregard for the environment may have a contributing effect in an ecocinema director’s decision to use a fear appeal.


Environmental Ethics

The following section is an attempt to draw parallels with the accumulating dissent, as described above, in relation to fear appeals and its usage by environmental documentarians.

Eco-documentaries argue that protecting the environment is man’s moral responsibility, to cherish nature for its intrinsic value and beauty that remains inexplicable remaining beyond the dominion of man. Environmental ethics will provide an excellent basis for understanding why fear appeals are so often used in environmental discourse. Environmental ethics has had an old, and timely history, but its prevalence accelerated in philosophy during the 1960s (McShane, 2009). Environmentalists argue that the traditional worldview is maladaptive and a new consciousness and perspective was necessary to deter total environmental apocalypse.

Environmentalists attacked the anthropocentric worldview immediately, a philosophical position arguing that human beings and its interests are absolute above all things. Anthropocentrism is the assumption that human beings and/or their interests are morally more significant than anything else, and that all things matter (morally) only in relation to the way it affects human beings and their interests (McShane, 2009). As described earlier, the anthropocentric worldview has had a long history and hundreds of years of conditioning, reinforced in philosophy and the natural sciences. Anthropocentrism had the tutelage of social Darwinism, an imperialistic and colonialist mindset transferred onto nature—nature and the environment existed only to serve man’s needs. Anthropocentric thought is, environmentalists argue, engrained into the subconscious mind and needs to be remedied before it is too late. Environmentalists needed to prove that nature had an intrinsic value, that is, the natural world had value in its own right independent of human interests—this would become “the defining problem for environmental ethics” (Callicott, 2009: 214). Other proponents argued that it was possible to disavow anthropocentrism but was not necessary to declare that nature had an intrinsic value. Philosophers argued that current theoretical approaches are human-centered, that a human nevertheless must provide value—even if it is implicit, a human was the source of value creation. Others have argued that such an ethical position, as described before, follows a natural reductionist position, assuming that intrinsic value may be applied to nature while ignoring the instrumental web of values that exist (things having value as a means to an end) vs. intrinsic value (that things have value as an end in itself) (McShane, 2009). Intrinsic value and moral value propositions go hand-in-hand with environmental ethics.

There is contention within the environmental community about the ethical path that they should adopt. Some environmentalists follow an individualistic ethic, arguing that: “individual persons, animals, plants etc. are valuable in their own right, while the value of the larger wholes that these individuals comprise—species, ecosystems, the biosphere, etc.—is merely derivative of the value of the individual constituents” (McShane, 2009: 411)—this view is considered biocentric, a view that all living things matter morally in its own right, often adopted by animal rights activists who insist that all animals have rights and seek self-preservation.

Those against individualistic ethics argued that the entire system as a whole become the epicenter of all value and that individual value would be assigned based on the contributions those individuals make to the system—this view became known as holism, or ecocentric environmental ethic (McShane, 2009). Holists argued that individualism would not work in that individualists would have to give equal rights to plants, wild animals, farm and domesticated animals without differentiation, and that this indifference would create a pacifying effect—no individual entity could be protected and differences needed to be made. Individualists sought a counter argument: holists were in fact “eco-fascists,” because they would dare subject a hierarchical order of value judgments on nature and the environment—a human-centered paradigm (McShane, 2009). Furthermore, individual entities give value to the ecosystem, not that the ecosystem gives value to itself. Tensions between individualists and holists are quite intense and persistent even to this day and the differences are clear, as well as the allegiances holists make versus those that individualists have. For example, holists are typically organizational and transnational structures that attempt to devise an ordering system of protection and measures to species, flora, and the general environment whereas individualists typically belong to coalitions of self-operated and small underground sects. Figure 1 describes a brief overview of the two contested positions in environmental ethics:

environmental ethics in contention

Figure 1: environmental ethics in contention

When projected onto current institutions that operate at both biocentric (individualistic) and ecocentric (holistic) arenas, one notices a distinct pattern that separates the ideological positions occupied by both ethical positions. Figure 2, below, illustrates a table of institutions separated by their ideological positions:

holistic vs. biocentric agencies

Figure 2: holistic vs. biocentric agencies

When applying the concepts of holistic and biocentric ethical positions and charting them across environmental documentaries, distinctions become clear. The understanding is that holistic ethical positions use more grand and expansive claims, focus on the whole system and make causal connections on individual events to emphasize their connectedness to the system. In contrast, biocentric (individualistic) ethics suggests that the individual, single entities each have their own right, and purpose, so these documentaries would apply an argument based on the privileges of a single entity and argue for the sake of that entity alone without regard to the system itself.

holistic films vs. biocentric films

Figure 3: holistic films vs. biocentric films

Within these two ethical subdivisions arise several manifestations, ranging from a continuum of heavily active to highly passive, each deploying its own level of “radical environmentalism”. The dissent within these polar ethical positions have given rise to a variety of radical environmentalist movements. The following three documentaries: The 11th Hour (2007), Age of Stupid (2009) and The Cove (2009) each have their own selective ethical positions as well as aspects of radical environmentalism. Taylor (2005) describes environmental radicalism and its manifestations below:

…it is […] important to understand radical environmentalism as a cluster of environmental political philosophies, and corresponding social movements, which claim to understand the roots of the environmental crisis and offer effective solutions to it. In this sense radical environmentalism includes not only groups like EARTH FIRST! AND THE EARTH LIBERATION FRONT, but also bioregionalists and green anarchists, deep ecologists and ecopsychologists, ecofeminists and participants in the feminist spirituality movement, Pagans and Wiccans, antiglobalization protestors and some animal-liberation activists. (p. 1326)

Each of these environmental philosophies and social movements are all reacting to an urgent situation, fuelled by both philosophical and ethical dissent to claim each of their positions as significant. Their corresponding persuasion tactic is typically the fear appeal, but not exclusively. The following section discusses ecoterrorism, a radical strategy adopted by individualists. The following section is crucial, simply because it provides the basis for understanding the urgency and desperate measures taken by radical environmentalists to promote and ignite the environmental movement within passive and typically uninterested public audience.



Environmentalists have sought to inspire the public to take productive action for a long time; however, they have taken measures that may appear, to the outside world, quite detrimental to the environmental movement as a whole. As a matter of perspective, environmentalists consider massive pollution and large-scale genetically modified organisms, laboratory testing, and animal rights abuse as an eco-terrorist act perpetrated by transnational corporations and reinforced by complacent government agencies. On the other hand, these corporations and government agencies view the practices of these highly active environmental coalitions with great suspicion and dread.

Ecological terrorists, or ecoterrorists, are individuals who engage in independent (or within a small cell unit) acts of violence and employ tactics that are commonly used by terrorists for the purpose of securing a sociopolitical agenda in order to protect animal rights and, more generally, the environment (Department of Homeland Security, 2008). The ecoterrorist movement is largely decentralized and transnational, driven by the motives of people around the world who believe that they have a moral obligation to protect the environment by whatever means necessary. They argue that current and traditional methods of environmental conservation and protection have fallen victim to bureaucratic and inefficient means, complicated by procedures and standards, which prevent them from becoming agents of change. Those that employ traditional means of garnering environmental change are typically those that follow the holistic ethic versus those who follow an individual ethic (see Figure 2). Militant ecological and animal rights activists see themselves as the only sources of change and those who stand against them, or are complicit in the destruction of Earth (actively or passively) are considered guilty. According to the United States’s Department of Homeland Security (2008):

Ecoterrorists have perpetrated more illegal acts commonly associated with terrorism on U.S. soil than any other known group, including al-Qaeda and radical Islamic militants. At present, the economic cost of these acts exceeds $100 million and is likely to grow in the future. (p. 1).

The dispersed and ill-coordinated nature of ecoterrorist cells poses a challenge for law enforcement, they see themselves as martyrs for a greater cause and, consequently, their rebellion and capture may often be seen as a reinforcement. With growing environmental disparity and dissent, tactics that ecoterrorist cells may use can range from physical assault to cyber-terrorism. The Animal Liberation Front formed in 1976 is deeply networked with official international and transregional agencies (Greenpeace) and other, less diplomatic agencies (the Sea Shepherds Conservation Society)—they have an operation in more than twenty countries (Department of Homeland Security, 2008). Figure 4 demonstrates the loose interconnectedness of ecoterrorist cells. They may not be in concert with each other; they may not even know what each cell is doing or if they exist, but that they are driven by information they acquire from a “trusted” source. The information source assumes no responsibility, or connection to periphery militia. Furthermore, there is greater decentralization and the overall abolishment of hierarchical structures—because each of them is led by the same cause, it does not matter who has a higher position. Figure 4 illustrates the type of structure and system employed by ecoterrorist militia versus Figure 5 from the Greenpeace Council (page 17).

Leaderless cells and decentralized structure

Figure 4: Leaderless cells and decentralized structure (source:


Greenpeace Council formation (source:

Figure 5: Greenpeace Council formation (source:

A highly decentralized network will provide ecoterrorists with greater movement and flexibility in order to react quickly to environmental trespasses. Greenpeace is an example of an agency with little mobility and reduced reaction time; in addition, they have stakeholders and other interested parties of which they must respect.

The behavior of individualists compared to holists is fundamentally different: holists seek to affect an international scale, provide greater linkages between events and show an interconnectedness between the environment and humans—they are more likely to use fear appeals and appeals to logic in order to convey the urgency of saving the world as a whole, they seek to affect attitudes and change perspectives.

While these distinctions may seem crude, a distinct trend between general pro-environmental documentaries versus activist-driven documentaries is evident. Activist documentaries employ a fluid and flexible technique that may or may not adhere to documentary conventions—they may even overtly, or reflexively, abolish these conventions in favor of more relevant strategies for effective persuasion. Holistic ethical perspectives work within an anthropocentric society, believing that changes can be effected from within and likewise adopt an organizational structure similar to local bureaucracies in order to appeal and solicit other agencies and corporations to adopt environmentally friendly policies; the holistic structure is thereby inflexible, a good example is Greenpeace. An environmental documentary sponsored by an organization with a holistic agenda is likely to follow the rigid structures of traditional documentary practices, due to the expectations from stakeholders and the values they must uphold to the international community. The individualistic ethical perspective is the opposite, operated by grassroots agencies, supported and funded by other grassroots movements within their network. Ecoterrorists have no allegiances, and if they do it is unclaimed. While it would be incorrect to suggest that individualistic ethics and ecoterrorist activities may be interlinked, the tendency is that ecoterrorists adhere to an individualistic ethical philosophy, on the grounds that they wish to protect a single entity among the constellation of species and flora. With only a single focus, an animal liberation grassroots cell is capable of creating a highly controversial and memorable impression in a way that is different, unlike conventional documentary practice.


Anatomy of Fear

While the fear appeal provides a more reactive effect, as filmmakers assume, it is by no means the only appeal filmmakers’ use. Fear is highly complex and has a slightly unpredictable nature; therefore, appeals to fear should be used with caution. Since Witte’s (1992) seminal contribution to fear appeal research, a model was devised based on the collective findings of several studies in an attempt to coherently combine those findings into a pragmatic system. Witte (1992) developed the Extended Parallel Process Model (EPPM) to explain the variations and possibilities of responses people may have to a fear appeal message. The EPPM model categorized responses into three sections: non-response, danger control responses, and fear control responses (Maloney, Lapinski, Witte, 2011). The EPPM model attempted to predict which of these three responses individuals are more likely to adapt based on their interactions between threat perceptions and their perceptions of efficacy to avert that threat (Maloney, Lapinski, Witte, 2011). The EPPM framework provides prediction “about people’s attitudinal, intentional, and behavioral responses to fear appeal messages based on their assessments of two central constructs: threat and efficacy” (Maloney, Lapinski, Witte, 2011: p. 207).

Environmental discourse is riddled with claims to threats, characterized by dangerous or harmful things that exist in the environment whether we know it or not (Witte, Cameron, McKeon & Berkowitz, 1996). According to EPPM, it is not the actual threat, but people’s perception of the threat that impels them to act (Witte, 1992). Threat is composed of two distinct components: perceived severity (one’s belief about the threat’s significance or enormity) and perceived susceptibility (one’s belief about the chance of experiencing the threat) (Witte et al, 1996). Based on the EPPM framework, perceived threat is capable of inciting action insofar as the message is capable of directly affecting threat perceptions and, to be successful, a fear appeal needs to convince the recipient that the likelihood of severe consequences cannot be ignored if they are going to be able to prevent that threat. Figure 6 presents a diagram that Witte (1992) developed in order to visualize potential response behavior.

Extended Parallel Process Model (EPPM) (Witte, 1992)

Figure 6: Extended Parallel Process Model (EPPM) (Witte, 1992)


According to Figure 6, the fear appeal follows a relatively complex process involving various uncertainties. The EPPM framework describes response tendencies; it does not attribute categories of responses in a rigid way. An appropriate threat level coupled with sound secondary components of threat, it is possible that an adequate or desired response can be achieved. Fear appeal messages need to be constructed properly, and, much like a logical syllogism, clear and precise statements are at the heart of an effective message. This essay contends that satirical films (e.g. 2012 (2009)) that take fear appeals lightly may do more harm than actually presenting a sound argument for ecological preservation.

Perceived Efficacy and Perceived Threat

Based on public health research, Witte et al (1996) maintained the effectiveness of a fear appeal message on the grounds of its efficacy. Efficacy means “…the effectiveness, feasibility and ease with which a recommended response impedes or averts a threat” (Witte et al., 1996: 320). Without a recommended action, the threat will have no bearing and effect. Additionally, the response recommendation needs to be within the realm of an individual’s capacity to follow through. According to the EPPM framework, an action-response reaction depends on the message’s ability to increase the perceptions of a threat whereas the actionable response depends on the magnitude of perceived efficacy to deter a threat (Maloney, Lapinski, Witte, 2011). Consequently, the goal of any perceived threat is to encourage and instill a level of confidence that motivates people to engage in the recommended action, and that the recommended behavior is perceived as enough and also effective to avoid the threat. Within perceived efficacy, there are three additional response reactions: 1) non-response, 2) danger control and 3) fear control.

When people are exposed to a message, they begin, almost immediately, to decide whether or not the perceived threat is sufficient or severe enough, and if the likelihood of the threat is great enough to engage in behavioral responses to avert the threat. A minimal/low perceived threat suggests that a person does not experience fear and they will not act to prevent the threat leading to a non-response reaction. On the other hand, higher perceived threat will stimulate an adequate response. If people have enough efficacies to prevent a threat, they will alleviate their fear by adopting danger control responses. If people’s efficacy evaluations result in a reduced self-perception that they cannot avert the threat, they will engage in fear control responses: “coping responses that diminish fear, such as defensive avoidance, denial, and reactance (including issue/message derogation and perceived manipulative intent)” (Witte et al., 1996: 320).

Along the continuum of persuasion tactics, fear is an emotional appeal. Environmental documentaries may or may not use pathos; however, a great deal of documentaries use logical appeal to try and reason with the recipient. This essay argues that the dire environmental circumstances prevent a subtle persuasion appeal and, rather, demands immediate attitudinal changes. The following bar graph (Figure 7) reveals the results of keywords (“Environment”, “Climate Change”, “Ecology”, “Environmental Issue”) taken from the International Movie Database (IMDB) which have provided a set of 630 films based on their year of release, duplicates removed, tallied accordingly and displayed visually. By no means is this an exhaustive representation of all the ecological documentaries in the IMDB, but a visual representation enough to provide a reasonable and accurate depiction of an eco-documentary practice mimicking current climate change graph provided by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (Figure 8). These diagrams below reveal a growing interest and urgency in the environmental movement to address greater global uncertainties.

Environmental Documentaries Released 1949-2013

Figure 7: Environmental Documentaries Released 1949-2013

Global surface warming (IPCC, 2007)

Figure 8: Global surface warming (IPCC, 2007)

There is a great gap between conventional pro-environmental documentaries and non-conventional forms that this essay has suggested lies within the holistic and individualistic ethical positions. Comparatively, documentaries such as Blackfish (2013), The Cove (2009), and Whaledreamers (2006) follow an individualistic ethic versus The 11th Hour (2007), Age of Stupid (2009) and The Inconvenient Truth (2006) are holistic in nature. Without the flexibility offered to individualists, documentaries following a holistic ethic seek greater objectivity and desire to conform to a conventional technique—because of their detachment, this essay argues that they use fear appeals coupled with logical arguments to strengthen their position. On the other hand, individualists use an informal, non-systematic approach, which may not likely have the same devotion to convention and that they may or may not use fear appeals to convey their message; however, individualists may use a highly personal and reflective tone, an empathetic position in order to convince the audience. An analysis of the following three films: The 11th Hour (2007) Age of Stupid (2009), and The Cove (2009) will provide examples for these holistic and individualistic ethical positions and the way in which they use fear appeals, and that, these positions manifest in different ways. The essential idea is to provide a way to assess environmental documentaries categorically.


Unraveling Ecocinema

Environmental discourse in cinema is rife with analysis about Al Gore’s seminal documentary An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and, while Gore’s film is inspiring, it will not provide valuable analysis because it is already quite saturated. An Inconvenient Truth (2006) is often used to compare with other eco-documentaries in terms of style, narrative quality, cinematography, etc; however, it warrants little contributive value when used to compare with films made within unique circumstances and purposes, and, such crude comparisons may circumvent analytical output of the three film analysed below: The 11th Hour (2007) Age of Stupid (2009), and The Cove (2009) in this order. Each film will be analysed respective to their ethical orientation, narrative and story quality, filmically and the way in which they have used fear appeals to deliver their messages. Throughout, this analysis will provide a framework for determining an environmental documentary’s effectiveness and, hopefully, reveal their errors in persuasion.

The 11th Hour (2007) – A Traditional Documentary Expression

The 11th Hour (“Hour”) (2007), released shortly after An Inconvenient Truth (2006), was directed by Nadia Conners and Leila Conners Petersen and co-produced by Leonardo DiCaprio. The intent Hour is to encourage greater environmental awareness and convince the audience to relinquish their complacent attitudes in order to become active participants in environmental conservation. Some critics have argued that Hour is merely a reiteration of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006), except without a personal narrative and more scientific evidence. Al Gore undoubtedly influenced DiCaprio, who, together, were in cooperation fighting a united front demanding environmentally conscious behavior. DiCaprio has always been a hardcore environmentalist and philanthropist, and has amassed tremendous credibility and respect by other environmentalists. For example: DiCaprio donated one million dollars to the Wildlife Conservation Society; he lives environmentally friendly (solar panels, tesla-powered vehicle); he has donated one million to the Haiti relief fund; donated one million to the Elephant Crisis Fund; donated three million to Oceana to protect ocean wildlife, etc… (, 2014). As the narrator of Hour, his credibility is not in question; however, to the average lay-man, his eco-activism may or may not be self-evident. Before the analytical framework is applied, a brief overview of The 11th Hour is necessary.

Several reviews have dubbed Hour as a “talking heads” documentary, arguing that it consisted primarily of interviews, dialogue and discussions interspersed with scenic environmental stock footage. Close to fifty experts were brought together, including the infamous Mikhail Gorbachev (former leader of the Soviet Communist Party) and the world-renowned mycologist Paul Stamets. They revealed intricacies of the ecological problems humans face. All of these scientists took advantage of the opportunity to discuss the significance of their scientific findings, amounting to a colossal 90 minute documentary consisting largely of theory, trivia and contestable claims. The idea of ancient sunlight is one of the most intriguing observations that represent a significant aspect of Hour. The theory of ancient sunlight argues that humans have always been creatures dependent on sunlight as the guiding agent for yielding crops, finding adequate shelter, and overall survival; in addition, all plants store sunlight and humans have always lived on earth’s natural resources (the harvesters of energy)—sadly, humans have set ablaze millions of years of stored energy. Prominent physicist Stephen Hawking described the consequences of man’s uninterrupted ecological as an almost chilling prophecy:

One of the most serious consequences of our actions is global warming brought about by rising levels of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels. The danger is that the temperature increase might become self-sustaining, if it has not done so already. Drought and deforestation are reducing the amount of carbon dioxide recycled into the atmosphere and the warming of the seas may trigger the release of large quantities of CO2 trapped on the ocean floor. ln addition, the melting of the Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets will reduce the amount of solar energy reflected back into space and so increase the temperature further. We don’t know where the global warming would stop, but the worst-case scenario is that Earth would become like its sister planet, Venus with a temperature of 250 centigrade and raining sulfuric acid. The human race could not survive in those conditions. (Stephen Hawking, The 11th Hour).

Statements like these, with a highly linear scientifically constructed logic, are at the heart of Hour. The film is constructed following one logical statement to the next, arguing in a rational systematic way amplified by frightening stock footage. 70 minutes of the 90 minute documentary was dedicated to establishing familiar ground and the importance of an eco-friendly world—only 20 minutes were spent discussing alternative solutions. Connors remarked that she wanted a more extensive environmental documentary covering a variety of topics rather than just climate change. Hour is a thesis building upon Connor’s fear of human extinction. For Connor, time is running out and humankind has a dire fate, “there are tipping points,” she says, “The scary thing for me was discovering how quickly something can collapse and finding out that we’ve come very close to that tipping point and what that means for humanity” (Grady, 2007). To Connor, humanity has already surpassed the tipping point and is confronted with the 11th hour, suggesting that the time for speculation and doubt is over and a renewed invigoration and drive to save the Earth is the only solution. The documentary tirelessly describes such scenarios precisely, that much of what has happened now is irreparable (e.g. ozone depletion, extinction of animal and plant species, etc…). The documentary is an attempt to summarize many environmental problems such as: climate change, deforestation, mass extinction, overconsumption, and total global disharmony; consequently, the target audience becomes those with agency, or individuals within political or international organisations capable of adopting more rigorous policies to protect the environment. Put it simply, the average layman is at a loss to prevent many of these highly interconnected global problems. Hour is a holistic, ethically grounded film, exposing the wider consequences of humankind’s detrimental behavior.

Hour provides a mere 20 minutes to explain why a change in perspective is required above all else. Humanity is essentially doomed and the 11th hour is before us. The ultimate solution is a completely dramatic change in lifestyle, by reverting to eco-friendly living conditions to mimic nature’s perfect energy-storing, waste management creation: a tree. According to the 11th Hour, everyone needs to construct their home in a fully eco-friendly way: install solar panels on a house that recycles stored energy, energy efficient and ecologically stable.

11th Hour and Fear

Hour is certainly thorough, but its informative value is primarily why it was made, not to inspire or encourage change. Fear was the primary instrument that Connor used to elucidate her argument, the idea was clear: to shock the viewer. With an already saturated level of eco-awareness, any more awareness to argue for proactive environmental change is counterproductive. Connor’s poor application of the fear appeal will likely avert spectators rather than encourage them. According to the EPPM model a strategic fear appeal has a symmetric balance between threat and efficacy appraisals. This film is primarily focused on a threat appraisal, having satisfied an inordinate concentration of perceived severity (beliefs concerning the magnitude of threat) and perceived susceptibility (likelihood of experiencing the threat). Climate change concerns have heavily penetrated the public domain and a heavy reiteration of perceived threat that may not have been necessary.

Efficacy appraisals are a significant component of a successful fear appeal and an explanation of how the recipient can act is one of the most challenging aspects of a fear appeal. Most importantly, is it possible for the recipient to make those necessary changes? Are those changes realistic? Hour, with its holistic ethic, has not provided an effective means for a recipient to become encouraged about reinforcing change and adopting an ecologically friendly worldview. Hour is lead by a strong sense of idealism, believing in a theoretical utopia of a world untainted by mass consumerism and ecological destruction:

Instead of being powered by fossil fuels, it’s powered by renewable energy. Instead of having an automobile-centered, transportation system, it will have a much more diversified transport system. Instead of a throwaway economy it will be a reused economy, where everything is reused. (The 11th Hour, 01:08:26,224 – 01:08:41,057).

Using references to ancient sunlight, biomimicry (constructing a house like a tree, sustainable living), alternative fuel sources (biofuel, hybrid vehicles), and reverting back to more natural means of consumption with respect to the ecosystem, humankind may stand a chance of surviving the 11th Hour. An eco-friendly living would require the recipient of this message to relinquish many dependencies in favor of feeling less guilty about their complicity in environmental destruction. Furthermore, Hour suggests that individuals can “vote” on a daily basis to choose alternative environmental products and services; however, Hour spends only a brief moment describing these alternatives. In a sense, Hour has an ideological position referred to as deep ecology, arguing that humans are merely an infectious agent damaging the biosphere, environment, and all forms of life. At this critical stage, humans need to understand their role in the environment and experience themselves as a part of the larger whole. In terms of efficacy, a perspective-change is one of the most important aspects leading to longer-lasting change; however, it is difficult to ascertain the affect idealisms and ideological positions will have on recipients; in addition, this does not comply to tactical physical alternatives and changes needed for an effective efficacy appeal. Put it simply, it is not a feasible solution for recipients to buy biofuel, hybrid vehicles, create a fully sustainable living, and use sunlight for all their needs; such a drastic change would require tremendous financial expenditure and ongoing maintenance. As stated earlier, Hour was primarily created to serve as a means to communicate with environmental agencies and governments to enact pro-environmental policies and to consider a sustainable future.

Age of Stupid (2009) – A Docudrama

Age of Stupid (2009) (“Age”) directed by Franny Armstrong is an expression of highly active groups demanding ecological change. Age is an atypical form of documentary genre, unlike Hour, it is not a “talking heads” documentary. Along the continuum of documentary genres, Age is considered a docudrama, employing a combination of fictional and traditional documentary narratives (see page 6 for details). Age is set after the 11th hour has ended for the last time and has become impossible to affect environmental change; in a way, Age depicts an Earth Stephen Hawking prophesized in Hour. Taking advantage of docudrama, Age experiments with futuristic scenes of an apocalyptic doomed Earth and that it appears only one man is left to preserve the legacy of humans, the archivist. Using a digital monitor, the archivist touches the screen and reminisces the Age of Stupid, man’s pinnacle opportunity for lasting environmental change hindered only by his self-interested stupidity.

Age begins with a montage of sequences depicting total environmental destruction: London is flooded; Las Vegas consumed and covered by the desert, Amazon rainforest is set ablaze, the glaciers have all melted on the Alps, and India has been ravaged by nuclear fallout. The narrator (Pete Postlethwaite), the archivist, enters a facility with records to all of man’s achievements and their respective stories. Taking a seat at a console, the archivist touches a screen to activate the monitor. His touch is also an attempt to activate a passive audience, speaking directly to the audience beginning with a central rhetorical question: “why didn’t we save ourselves when we had the chance?” The answer remains ambiguous throughout the docudrama. Unlike Hour, Age attempts to bind theory, science, and story using six narratives from around the world. The interconnectedness of each story is the most prominent implication Armstrong makes: “An oil geologist could save one hundred people from Hurricane Katrina without acknowledging that his own work produced carbon emissions that caused the extreme weather” (Sluis, 2009). Instead of isolating the source of the problem, Age insists that searching for a definitive cause is futile and narrow-minded—the answer lies in the interconnectedness of seemingly unrelated stories that result in a chain reaction. The scale of this interconnectedness is the challenge for man, the source of man’s stupidity. Age is a bleak and dark on purpose, recognizing these grave circumstances can be alleviated if man realized that climate change is a global initiative.

At the heart of these six stories lies a central theme of contradiction: Piers Guy, a windfarm developer, is prevented by the community from installing windmills for alternative energy because it ruins the landscape; Jeh Wadia, the Indian entrepreneur without regard to the environmental consequences of his business, proceeds his dream of developing the cheapest airline in India to get millions of Indians flying; Alvin Du Verney is helping the Shell oil corporation find sources of oil in New Orleans, even though their activities may have had something to do with Hurricane Katrina (as Age implies); Layefia Malemi, a Nigerian native who must fix the oil-drenched waters for four years before she can raise enough funds to fulfill her dreams of becoming a doctor (the Shell corporation is extracting oil and nothing can be done to prevent water contamination in Nigeria); Jamila Bayyoud, an Iraqi refugee displaced permanently during the 2003 US-led invasion for the pursuit of new sources of oil; Fernand Pareau, a French mountain guide witnesses the receding glaciers. Age focuses on those who have been affected by the aggressive abuse of the environment from the most tragic story (Bayyoud) to the blatant stupidity of a community in England (Guy). Age transitions from story to story with a brief interjection from the archivist to contextualize the global pandemic. By drawing the spectator closer to the tragedy, Armstrong seeks an appeal beyond fear but also to extract compassion from the audience to Bayyoub and Malemi, those innocents being punished on an daily basis forced to survive in inhumane conditions.

Age of Stupid (2009) and Fear

Armstrong uses fear in a more controlled way, but ineffectively. Although fear was not the primary appeal Armstrong used, every transition to the archivist was an intentional strategy designed to invoke for a future that is impossible to change. Every story has an underlying trace that invokes fear; for example, the fear that if the Indian entrepreneur Wadia succeeds, it will mean greater atmospheric and ozone layer depletion. Furthermore, if an invasion could be led so easily for the purposes of finding a new source for oil, how many Bayyouds will exist? In an attempt to draw the spectator closer, the lingering fear of Malemi (a sympathetic ambitious individual) dying from the oil-infested waters of Nigeria is chilling—how many Nigerians died because of water contamination and did the Shell corporation have something to do with it? Whether this lingering dread may or may not be effective remains uncertain, but it is not a clear statement of fear designed to elicit an efficacy response.

Armstrong stated, “only people obsessed with climate change could understand all our subtle links” (Sluis, 2009). Upon closer inspection, all of these subtle links lead to fossil fuel dependency and the impact the oil industry has had around the world. These subtle links are non-descriptive and too indirect. While much of the messages in Age may appear implicit, Age is attempting to invoke attitudinal/behavioral responses using fear combined with a more compassionate approach. According to the EPPM model, two distinct components of threat must be fulfilled: perceived severity and perceived susceptibility (see page 19). Due to the inordinate subtleties, it is unclear whether any messages fulfill basic parameters for establishing fear appeals. Concerning images in the beginning of the docudrama (the destroyed Earth), perceived severity is adequately established—when recipients see apocalyptic images, they may believe in the severity of the emerging threat; however, the stories of distant people may not increase perceived susceptibility: what are the odds that a north American citizen would experience similar conditions as Malemi? In order for perceived susceptibility to effectively influence recipients, the message must be explicitly targeted at the recipient. In other words, fear needs to be personalized (Geller, 2007). Unfortunately, the fear appeals used in Age are secondary, meaning that Armstrong sought to build an understanding for those being affected by environmental degradation.

Although Age was thoughtful, its message is far too grim to instill any form of efficacy in spectators. This docudrama is incomplete, leaving very little room for commentary concerning a critical component of a fear appeal – efficacy (see page 20-21). Age is not intended to be motivational, establishing efficacy was not Armstrong’s primary objective. All six stories create a world of powerless individuals who are unable to overcome their struggles, most notably Piers Guy who is no longer permitted to install windmills on his property—his fight appears impossible to win. The archivist fails to narrate the story with a positive reflection. The spectator merely sits back and remains passive as he struggles with the rhetorical question posited by the archivist in the beginning: “Why didn’t we save ourselves when we had the chance?” As the story proceeds towards its end, the audience answers: “We never had a chance to save the Earth.” Armstrong establishes no lasting efficacy, or any feasible means of averting the climate change threat. Without an adequately established perceived self-efficacy and perceived response efficacy, Age will likely elicit maladaptive coping responses such as denial and avoidance, viewers may even dismiss the message and consider it invalid.

Age is a promising docudrama with a potential to intrigue spectators, but its use of the fear appeal and its passive position may elicit maladaptive responses. This documentary does not perform effectively against critics, or those that it would like to persuade. Instead, the target audience is likely those already heavily convinced about climate change, since Age does not attempt to create an efficacy component—those who are already aware of the significance and danger of climate change do not require any motivation to act.


The Cove (2009) – An Activist Documentary

The Cove (“Cove”) (2009), directed by former National Geographic photographer and the founder of the Oceanic Preservation Society Louis Psihoyos, is a powerful and extremely effective documentary synthesizing elements more than fear. This documentary was chosen for analysis to juxtapose the complications of the fear appeal in the previous aforementioned documentaries, and to provide an alternative persuasion strategy needed to influence the audience. Unlike the holistic perspectives in Age and Hour, Cove is a biocentric film. In addition, Age and Hour are human-centered, meaning that the primary concerns lie within human understanding of climate change and its consequences. Page 14 describes the complex radical environmentalism, particularly the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), and, in some ways, the Oceanic Preservation Society has many characteristics that resemble the ELF. Cove is an activist documentary, applying techniques of investigative journalism appearing in direct contention with established documentary practice. Activists are guided by a powerful compelling urge to fulfill their overall mission, and while DiCaprio and Armstrong are considered activists, Psihoyos and O’Barry fall within an atypical designation: extreme activism bordering on ecoterrorism. Cove, and other activist documentaries like Whaledreamers (2006) and Arid Lands (2007), use other means of persuasion and attempt to draw compassion from the audience in a non-human centered way—through a projection and personification of animals. Cove wants viewers to experience the perspective of a caged intelligent, and sentient being as a reminder of captivity and its unjust consequences. Cove is a deeply motivational documentary with an urgent expression linking the suffering of both man (O’Barry) and animal (dolphin).

In a virtually unknown lagoon in Japan lies one of the most disturbing secrets. Ric O’Barry, known for having captured and trained five dolphins for the hit television series Flipper (1964-1967)      , embarks on a mission of redemption to ensure the safety of every captive dolphin he could find. With the help of Psihoyos, highly advanced cameras, two world-class freedivers, O’Barry journeys to the heart of the “kill zone”. Cove reminds the audience about the significance of their mission and binds them with O’Barry to disclose the unjust slaughter of dolphins. O’Barry must maintain a low profile, although his very presence alerts Taiji authorities. Throughout the documentary, Psihoyos is aware that the consequences of their mission, if apprehended by Taiji authorities, will mean a year in prison. To ensure the success of their mission, Psihoyos enlists Industrial Light and Magic to create camouflaged foliage to protect their cameras from being detected, this way Psihoyos’s team can strategically place their cameras in areas surrounding the “kill zone”. Psihoyos is seen as an ecowarrior, intent to uncover the truth without any regard of their consequences; however, the team is cautious of all the cameras surrounding the kill zone waiting to capture any actionable offense. In a sense, this is an undercover operation planned with the help of a former avionics engineer of the Canadian Air Force.

A parallel story of locals taking an initiative shows teachers refusing to feed children mislabelled dolphin meat. When the most “beautiful” dolphins are captured in the lagoon, they are shipped to recreational parks (i.e. SeaWorld) and those which cannot be shipped away are brutally slaughtered (young or aged dolphines are indiscriminantely slaughtered) and the their meat is sold as mislabelled whale meat (because it is more profitable). Most disturbing, Psihoyos stated, is that the dolphin meat contains lethal concentrations of mercury; the Japanese people are being subjected to uncontrolled doses enough to cause mercury poisoning and death, as well as generational genetic deformities. Cove seeks to appeal to both local residents in Japan, arguing the senselessness of these brutal killings when it does not serve Japanese interests anyway—random people are asked on the street if they even know about the slaughter in Taiji and most respond in shock, if not denial. Cove is an attempt to influence public policy as well as attract international recognition and attention to these inhumane practises.

Cove uses swift transitions to capture an action-packed spy thriller deploying various imaging and filming techniques designed for suspense. Psihoyos uses a combination of personal narratives (the divers, O’Barry, and himself) to encourage familiarity and understanding. Cove is basically a documentary that captures the process by which the team acquired shocking footage and then to play it in public viewing. Cove is not a “fly-on-the-wall” documentary and biases in the director’s perspective is self-evident, unmasked and in plain sight. Psihoyos does not distinguish between the camera and himself, reflecting on the viability of the camera’s ability to capture unquestionable truth. The audience is in effect watching a camera documenting the evidence, under the guiding principle that “seeing is believing”. Psihoyos is convinced that capturing the massacre will be a significant step towards ratifying a strong delegation against Japan’s shameless slaughter. Instead of using stock footage, Psihoyos uses his own captured content interspersed with newly captured footage during the filming—in a sense, Psihoyos remains deliberately disconnected from traditional techniques of adopting voice over narratives and stock footage (hallmark characteristics of traditional documentaries). Psihoyos is willing to sacrifice every single fundamental characteristic that defines documentary in order to express the urgency of his message. When the stakes are high, formalities need to be undercut otherwise it downplays the significance of the message. While fear is not the means at which Cove shaped its messages, the ideas behind Cove follow closely with an ecoterrorist perspective and the hope of “leading by example”—The Cove is the example to mimic behaviors and to aspire towards it, not through fear, as a guiding persuasive strategy.

The Cove (2009) and Ecoterrorism

It is not in the intent of this essay to declare that Psihoyos is an ecoterrorist, rather, explain the tendencies mimicing the characteristics of an ecoterrorist cell. Applying the definition and analysis outlined in pages 15 to 18, Psihoyos and his team can be described within the limits of a cell unit deploying questionable tactics in order to acquire information that would jeopardise daily operations in the kill zone. Each cell has its own leader, but their leadership is not based on a hierarchical structure: each member contributes their talents and skills necessary to fulfill their mission. Their decentralized nature permits the team to move quickly and swiftly through the kill zone terrain, furthermore, they are capable of improvising through the thicket of uncertainty. The first statement in the documentary mimics the attempt of every ecoterrorist cell: “I do want to say that we try to do the story legally” (The Cove, 2009: 00:57 – 01:01). Immediately, Cove transitions to Ric O’Barry as he makes his “getaway”, hiding behind mask to prevent identification by Taiji authorities. O’Barry says, “I’ve got to hunch over and change my shape so they think I’m just old Japanese guy” (The Cove, 2009: 03:22 – 03:27). O’Barry describes the intense paranoia as the shaky camera and swift transitions between scenes already establish the mood: the fear that O’Barry would be caught and prosecuted.

The individual in a cell feels a profound isolation, separating their involvement with others in distinct ways. O’Barry has been arrested countless times struggling with authorities in his pursuit to save every dolphin he could find: “If there’s a dolphin in trouble, anywhere in the world, my phone will ring” (O’Barry, The Cove (2009): 07:17 – 07:23). O’Barry is not concerned about climate change as a whole, but of a single entity in the biosphere. Over time, as his relationship with the dolphins grew, O’Barry recognized an intrinsic significance in dolphin intelligence: “When you become conscious of this nonhuman intelligence, you realize after a while they don’t really belong in captivity,” says O’Barry (The Cove, 2009: 11:30 – 11:37). Ecoterrorists have a strong unbridled bond with animals and the general biosphere, however, those engaged in the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front have personal attachments that are deeply rooted often as a consequence of personal tragedies expeirenced with the animal. For example, O’Barry reminisces a deep tragedy he experienced when training the dolphins for Flipper:

The thing that turned me around was the death of Flipper, of Cathy. She was really depressed. I could feel it. I could see it. And she committed suicide in my arms. That’s a very strong word, suicide. But you have to understand, dolphins and other whales are not automatic air breathers, like we are. Every breath they take is a conscious effort and so they can end their life whenever life becomes too unbearable by not taking the next breath. And it’s in that context I use the word suicide. She did that. She swam into my arms and looked me right in the eye and…took a breath and didn’t take another one. I just let her go, and she sank straight down on her belly to the bottom of the tank. The next day, I was in the Bimini jail for trying to free a dolphin at the Lerner Marine Laboratory. (The Cove, 2009: 16:50 – 17:59)

O’Barry’s painful guilt transcends beyond the screen as he attempts to connect with the audience at a personal level, in order to help the audience visualise the torture of Taiji. When O’Barry describes the deception of the dolphin smile, he begins to personify their torture, a means of connecting with the audience at a familiar level. The individualistic unit is motivated by separate, but merging goals and the methods that a single unit will take is unpredictable—an ecoterrorist makes use of every available option. The divers, after having witnessed the unjust slaughter before their very eyes, moved swiftly to coordinate their efforts with Psihoyos to place cameras underwater. Psihoyos’s team was not in cooperation with any other agency, or other cell, in order to realise the completion of their mission.

Ecoterrorists, like O’Barry, find that the holistic approach and the implicit trust placed in institutions and organisations as detrimental. Paul Watson, co-founder of Greenpeace, explains that the “International Whaling Commission is the only international body dealing with whales that’s officially recognized by the United Nations. It’s basically a toothless organization, but it is the only organization that does exist” (The Cove, 2009: 22:05 – 22:16). Ecoterrorists struggle to find meaning and purpose in organisations like the International Whaling Commission (IWC) when they have little to no influence to show. In essence, O’Barry and Psihoyos run their mission contrary to the observations of the IWC. O’Barry is apprehended by security guards when he attaches a mobile monitor to present Japan’s heinous crimes in front of the IWC. In the following sequence, O’Barry with his mobile monitor stands in the center of a busy intersection and begins to broadcast to the Japanese people the bloody scenes Psihoyos and his team recorded in the kill zone. With the time lapsed sequence, O’Barry is seen isolated despite the countless individuals surrounding him—a feeling reminiscent in members of ecoterrorist cells.

Activist documentaries use a personal approach more engaged into the conflict and the hopeless plight of their situation becomes clear. The goal is to inspire and motivate others in order to take action against what appears to be an obvious crime against the ecology. In this way, Cove seeks to draw sympathy in the audience and to align their intrigue to dolphins with O’Barry. In a sense, when the audience thinks about dolphins, they will be forever reminded of O’Barry and The Cove. The film has a disturbing conclusion, a tragedy designed to elicit a strong repulsion and anger needed to put pressure on Japan and the IWC to prevent ongoing atrocities.

Although Cove does not use fear appeals in the way that 11th Hour and Age of Stupid, the direction of persuasion is similar: a pathos emotionally-driven persuasion strategy. With growing complications and the uncertainty of a fear appeal, Cove is an alternative expression designed to provoke strong emotional reactions not necessarily bound to fear.



This essay was an attempt to describe the complications of the documentary genre, by expounding on the principles of documentary theory in the broader sense and delimiting it within three subcategories: traditional documentaries (The 11th Hour), docudramas (Age of Stupid) and activist documentaries (The Cove). Each documentary genre has its own motivations, but the likelihood of traditional documentaries as well as docudramas to use fear appeals is much greater than activist documentaries. Fear appeals are an emotionally-driven persuasion strategy that are designed to provoke action through a synthesis of threat and efficacy appraisals. To properly analyse the typology of an environmental film, it is necessary to begin decoding the ethical positions, whether it is holistic or individualistic provides a distinct possibility of analysing the director’s motivations. Additionally, environmental documentaries may or may not use fear appeals, especially those which do not subscribe to a holistic ethic (The Cove). The Cove is the evolution of ecocinema, using a strong persuasive strategy designed to influence the individual to take action and to situate a bond between the individual and the entity in question. This essay attempted to chart a framework for understanding and analysing environmental films with the hope of effectively understanding the origins, the motivations, and the results of a pro-environmental message.


Cite this article

Sufi Mohamed: Ecocinema and the Evolution of the Documentary Genre: From The 11th Hour (2007) to the Age of Stupid (2009) and finally The Cove (2009). Published December 15, 2014. Last accessed July 31, 2015.



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Rollo May - Existential Theory
Personality Theory

Rollo May – Existential Theory

Existential psychology began in Europe shortly after World War II and spread to the United States, where Rollo May played a large part in popularizing it. A clinical psychologist by training, May took the view that modern people frequently run away both from making choices and from assuming responsibility.

Biography of Rollo May

Rollo May was born in Ohio in 1909, but grew up in Michigan. After graduating from Oberlin College in 1930, he spent 3 years as an itinerant artist roaming throughout eastern and southern Europe. When he returned to the United States, he entered the Union Theological Seminary, from which he received a Master of Divinity degree. He then served for 2 years as a pastor, but quit in order to pursue a career in psychology. He received a PhD in clinical psychology from Columbia in 1949 at the relatively advanced age of 40. During his professional career, he served as lecturer or visiting professor at a number of universities, conducted a private practice as a psychotherapist, and wrote a number of popular books on the human condition. May died in 1994 at age 85.

Background of Existentialism

Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher and theologian, is usually considered to be the founder of modern existentialism. Like later existentialists, he emphasized a balance between freedom and responsibility. People acquire freedom of action by expanding their self-awareness and by assuming responsibility for their actions. However, this acquisition of freedom and responsibility is achieved at the expense of anxiety and dread.

  • What Is Existentialism?
    • The first tenet of existentialism is that existence takes precedence over essence, meaning that process and growth are more important than product and stagnation. Second, existentialists oppose the artificial split between subject and object. Third, they stress people’s search for meaning in their lives. Fourth, they insist that each of us is responsible for who we are and what we will become. Fifth, most existentialists take an antitheoretical position, believing that theories tend to objectify people.
  • Basic Concepts
    • According to existentialists, a basic unity exists between people and their environments, a unity expressed by the term Dasein, or being-in-the-world. Three simultaneous modes of the world characterize us in our Dasein: Umwelt, or the environment around us; Mitwelt, or our world with other people; and Eigenwelt, or our relationship with our self. People are both aware of themselves as living beings and also aware of the possibility of nonbeing or nothingness. Death is the most obvious form of nonbeing, which can also be experienced as retreat from life’s experiences.

The Case of Philip

Rollo May helped illustrate his concepts of existential theory and therapy by the case of Philip, a successful architect in his mid-50s. Despite his apparent success, Philip experienced severe anxiety when his relationship with Nicole (a writer in her mid-40s) took a puzzling turn. Uncertain of his future and suffering from low self-esteem, Philip went into therapy with Rollo May. Eventually, Philip was able to understand that his difficulties with women were related to his early experiences with a mother who was unpredictable and an older sister who suffered from severe mental disorders. However, he began to recover only after he accepted that his “need” to take care of unpredictable Nicole was merely part of his personal history with unstable women.


People experience anxiety when they become aware that their existence or something identified with it might be destroyed. The acquisition of freedom inevitably leads to anxiety, which can be either pleasurable and constructive or painful and destructive.

  • Normal Anxiety
    • Growth produces normal anxiety, defined as that which is proportionate to the threat, does not involve repression, and can be handled on a conscious level.
  • Neurotic Anxiety
    • Neurotic anxiety is a reaction that is disproportionate to the threat and that leads to repression and defensive behaviors. It is felt whenever one’s values are transformed into dogma. Neurotic anxiety blocks growth and productive action.


Guilt arises whenever people deny their potentialities, fail to accurately perceive the needs of others, or remain blind to their dependence on the natural world. Both anxiety and guilt are ontological; that is, they refer to the nature of being and not to feelings arising from specific situations.


The structure that gives meaning to experience and allows people to make decisions about the future is called intentionality. May believed that intentionality permits people to overcome the dichotomy between subject and object because it enables them to see that their intentions are a function of both themselves and their environment.

Care, Love, and Will

Care is an active process that suggests that things matter. Love means to care, to delight in the presence of another person, and to affirm that person’s value as much as one’s own. Care is also an important ingredient in will, defined as a conscious commitment to action.

  • Union of Love and Will
    • May believe that our modern society has lost sight of the true nature of love and will, equating love with sex and will with will power. He further held that psychologically healthy people are able to combine love and will because both imply care, choice, action, and responsibility.
  • Forms of Love
    • May identified four kinds of love in Western tradition—sex, eros, philia, and agape. He believed that Americans no longer view sex as a natural biological function, but have become preoccupied with it to the point of trivialization. Eros is a psychological desire that seeks an enduring union with a loved one. It may include sex, but it is built on care and tenderness. Philia, an intimate nonsexual friendship between two people, takes time to develop and does not depend on the actions of the other person. Agapeis an altruistic or spiritual love that carries with it the risk of playing God. Agape is undeserved and unconditional.

Freedom and Destiny

Psychologically healthy individuals are comfortable with freedom, able to assume responsibility for their choices, and willing to face their destiny.

  • Freedom Defined
    • Freedom comes from an understanding of our destiny. We are free when we recognize that death is a possibility at any moment and when we are willing to experience changes even in the face of not knowing what those changes will bring.
  • Forms of Freedom
    • May recognized two forms of freedom: (1) freedom of doing or freedom of action, which he called existential freedom, and (2) freedom of being or an inner freedom, which he called essential freedom.
  • Destiny Defined
    • May defined destiny as “the design of the universe speaking through the design of each one of us.” In other words, our destiny includes the limitations of our environment and our personal qualities, including our mortality, gender, and genetic predispositions. Freedom and destiny constitute a paradox because freedom gains vitality from destiny, and destiny gains significance from freedom.
  • Philip’s Destiny
  • After some time in therapy, Philip was able to stop blaming his mother for not doing what he thought she should have done. The objective facts of his childhood had not changed, but Philip’s subjective perceptions had. As he came to terms with his destiny, Philip began to be able to express his anger, to feel less trapped in his relationship with Nicole, and to become more aware of his possibilities. In other words, he gained his freedom of being.

The Power of Myth

According to May, the people of contemporary Western civilization have an urgent need for myths. Because they have lost many of their traditional myths, they turn to religious cults, drugs, and popular culture to fill the vacuum. The Oedipus myth has had a powerful effect on our culture because it deals with such common existential crises as birth, separation from parents, sexual union with one parent and hostility toward the other, independence in one’s search for identity, and finally death.


May saw apathy and emptiness—not anxiety or depression—as the chief existential disorders of our time. People have become alienated from the natural world (Umwelt), from other people (Mitwelt) and from themselves (Eigenwelt). Psychopathology is a lack of connectedness and an inability to fulfill one’s destiny.


The goal of May’s psychotherapy was not to cure patients of any specific disorder, but rather to make them more fully human. May said that the purpose of psychotherapy is to set people free, that is, to allow them to make choices and to assume responsibility for those choices.

Critique of May

May’s psychology has been legitimately criticized as being antitheoretical and unjustly criticized as being anti-intellectual. May’s antitheoretical approach calls for a new kind of science—one that considers uniqueness and personal freedom as crucial concepts. However, according to the criteria of present science, May’s theory rates low on most standards. More specifically, we give it a very low rating on its ability to generate research, to be falsified, and to guide action; low on internal consistency (because it lacks operationally defined terms), average on parsimony, and high on its organizational powers, due to its consideration of a broad scope of the human condition.

Concept of Humanity

May viewed people as complex beings, capable of both tremendous good and immense evil. People have become alienated from the world, from other people, and, most of all, from themselves. On the dimensions of a concept of humanity, May rates high on free choice, teleology, social influences, and uniqueness. On the issue of conscious or unconscious forces, his theory takes a middle position.

Personality Theory, Psychology

Erich Fromm – Humanistic Psychoanalysis

Overview of Fromm’s Humanistic Psychoanalysis

Erich Fromm’s humanistic psychoanalysis looks at people from the perspective of psychology, history, and anthropology. Influenced by Freud and Horney, Fromm developed a more culturally oriented theory than Freud and a much broader theory than Horney.

Biography of Erich Fromm

Erich Fromm was born in Germany in 1900, the only child of orthodox Jewish parents. A thoughtful young man, Fromm was influenced by the bible, Freud, and Marx, as well as by socialist ideology. After receiving his PhD, Fromm began studying psychoanalysis and became an analyst by virtue of being analyzed by Hanns Sachs, a student of Freud. In 1934, Fromm moved to the United States and began a psychoanalytic practice in New York, where he also resumed his friendship with Karen Horney. Much of his later years were spent in Mexico and Switzerland. He died in 1980.

Fromm’s Basic Assumptions

Fromm believed that humans have been torn away from their prehistoric union with nature and left with no powerful instincts to adapt to a changing world. But because humans have acquired the ability to reason, they can think about their isolated condition—a situation Fromm called the human dilemma.

Human Needs

Our human dilemma cannot be solved by satisfying our animal needs. It can only be addressed by fulfilling our uniquely human needs, an accomplishment that moves us toward a reunion with the natural world. Fromm identified five of these distinctively human or existential needs.

  • Relatedness
    • First is relatedness, which can take the form of (1) submission, (2) power, or (3) love. Love, or the ability to unite with another while retaining one’s own individuality and integrity, is the only relatedness need that can solve our basic human dilemma.
  • Transcendence
    • Being thrown into the world without their consent, humans have to transcend their nature by destroying or creating people or things. Humans can destroy through malignant aggression, or killing for reasons other than survival, but they can also create and care about their creations.
  • Rootedness
    • Rootedness is the need to establish roots and to feel at home again in the world. Productively, rootedness enables us to grow beyond the security of our mother and establish ties with the outside world. With the nonproductive strategy, we become fixated and afraid to move beyond the security and safety of our mother or a mother substitute.
  • Sense of Identity
    • The fourth human need is for a sense of identity, or an awareness of ourselves as a separate person. The drive for a sense of identity is expressed nonproductively as conformity to a group and productively as individuality.
  • Frame of Orientation
    • By frame of orientation, Fromm meant a road map or consistent philosophy by which we find our way through the world. This need is expressed nonproductively as a striving for irrational goals and productively as movement toward rational goals.

The Burden of Freedom

As the only animal possessing self-awareness, humans are the freaks of the universe. Historically, as people gained more political freedom, they began to experience more isolation from others and from the world and to feel free from the security of a permanent place in the world. As a result, freedom becomes a burden, and people experience basic anxiety, or a feeling of being alone in the world.

  • Mechanisms of Escape
    • To reduce the frightening sense of isolation and aloneness, people may adopt one of three mechanisms of escape: (1) authoritarianism, or the tendency to give up one’s independence and to unite with a powerful partner; (2) destructiveness, an escape mechanism aimed at doing away with other people or things; and (3) conformity, or surrendering of one’s individuality in order to meet the wishes of others.
  • Positive Freedom
    • The human dilemma can only be solved through positive freedom, which is the spontaneous activity of the whole, integrated personality, and which is achieved when a person becomes reunited with others.

Character Orientations

People relate to the world by acquiring and using things (assimilation) and by relating to self and others (socialization), and they can do so either nonproductively or productively.

  • Nonproductive Orientations
    • Fromm identified four nonproductive strategies that fail to move people closer to positive freedom and self-realization. People with a receptive orientation believe that the source of all good lies outside themselves and that the only way they can relate to the world is to receive things, including love, knowledge, and material objects. People with an exploitative orientation also believe that the source of good lies outside themselves, but they aggressively take what they want rather than passively receiving it. Hoarding characters try to save what they have already obtained, including their opinions, feelings, and material possessions. People with a marketing orientation see themselves as commodities and value themselves against the criterion of their ability to sell themselves. They have fewer positive qualities than the other orientations because they are essentially empty.
  • The Productive Orientation
    • Psychologically healthy people work toward positive freedom through productive work, love. and reasoning. Productive love necessitates a passionate love of all life and is called biophilia.

Personality Disorders

Unhealthy people have nonproductive ways of working, reasoning, and especially loving. Fromm recognized three major personality disorders: (1) necrophilia, or the love of death and the hatred of all humanity; (2) malignant narcissism, or a belief that everything belonging to one’s self is of great value and anything belonging to others is worthless; and incestuous symbiosis, oran extreme dependence on one’s mother or mother surrogate.


The goal of Fromm’s psychotherapy was to work toward satisfaction of the basic human needs of relatedness, transcendence, rootedness, a sense of identity, and a frame of orientation. The therapist tries to accomplish this through shared communication in which the therapist is simply a human being rather than a scientist.

Fromm’s Methods of Investigation

Fromm’s personality theory rests on data he gathered from a variety of sources, including psychotherapy, cultural anthropology, and psychohistory.

  • Social Character in a Mexican Village
    • Fromm and his associates spent several years investigating social character in an isolated farming village in Mexico and found evidence of all the character orientations except the marketing one.
  • A Psychohistorical Study of Hitler
    • Fromm applied the techniques of psychohistory to study several historical people, including Adolf Hitler—the person Fromm regarded as the world’s most conspicuous example of someone with the syndrome of decay, that is, necrophilia, malignant narcissism, and incestuous symbiosis.

Critique of Psychoanalytic Social Theory

The strength of Fromm’s theory is his lucid writings on a broad range of human issues. As a scientific theory, however, Fromm’s theory rates very low on its ability to generate research and to lend itself to falsification; it rates low on usefulness to the practitioner, internal consistency, and parsimony. Because it is quite broad in scope, Fromm’s theory rates high on organizing existing knowledge.

Concept of Humanity

Fromm believed that humans are the “freaks of nature,” because they lack strong animal instincts while possessing the ability to reason. In brief, his view is rated average on free choice, optimism, unconscious influences, and uniqueness; low on causality; and high on social influences.

Carl Rogers - Person Centered Theory
Personality Theory

Carl Rogers – Person-Centered Theory

Overview of Rogers’s Person-Centered Theory

Although Carl Rogers is best known as the founder of client-centered therapy, he also developed an important theory of personality that underscores his approach to therapy.

Biography of Carl Rogers

Carl Rogers was born into a devoutly religious family in a Chicago suburb in 1902. After the family moved to a nearby farm, Carl became interested in scientific farming and learned to appreciate the scientific method. When he graduated from the University of Wisconsin, Rogers intended to become a minister, but he gave up that notion and completed a PhD in psychology from Columbia University in 1931. In 1940, after nearly a dozen years away from an academic life working as a clinician, he took a position at Ohio State University. Later, he held positions at the University of Chicago and the University of Wisconsin. In 1964, he moved to California, where he helped found the Center for Studies of the Person. He died in 1987 at age 85.

Person-Centered Theory

Rogers carefully crafted his person-centered theory of personality to meet his own demands for a structural model that could explain and predict outcomes of client-centered therapy. However, the theory has implications far beyond the therapeutic setting.

Basic Assumptions

Person-centered theory rests on two basic assumptions: (1) the formative tendency that states that all matter, both organic and inorganic, tends to evolve from simpler to more complex forms and (2) an actualizing tendency, which suggests that all living things, including humans, tend to move toward completion, or fulfillment of potentials. However, in order for people (or plants and animals) to become actualized, certain identifiable conditions must be present. For a person, these conditions include a relationship with another person who is genuine, or congruent, and who demonstrates complete acceptance and empathy for that person.

The Self and Self-Actualization

A sense of self or personal identity begins to emerge during infancy, and once established, it allows a person to strive toward self-actualization, which is a subsystem of the actualization tendency and refers to the tendency to actualize the self as perceived in awareness. The self has two subsystems: (1) the self-concept, which includes all those aspects of one’s identity that are perceived in awareness, and (2) the ideal self, or our view of our self as we would like to be or aspire to be. Once formed, the self concept tends to resist change, and gaps between it and the ideal self result in incongruence and various levels of psychopathology.


People are aware of both their self-concept and their ideal self, although awareness need not be accurate. For example, people may have an inflated view of their ideal self but only a vague sense of their self-concept. Rogers saw people as having experiences on three levels of awareness: (1) those that are symbolized below the threshold of awareness and are ignored, denied, or not allowed into the self-concept; (2) those that are distorted or reshaped to fit it into an existing self-concept; and (3) those that are consistent with the self-concept and thus are accurately symbolized and freely admitted to the self-structure. Any experience not consistent with the self-concept—even positive experiences—will be distorted or denied.


The two basic human needs are maintenanceand enhancement, but people also need positive regard and self-regard. Maintenance needs include those for food, air, and safety, but they also include our tendency to resist change and to maintain our self-concept as it is. Enhancement needs include needs to grow and to realize one’s full human potential. As awareness of self emerges, an infant begins to receive positive regard from another person, that is, to be loved or accepted. People naturally value those experiences that satisfy their needs for positive regard, but unfortunately, this value sometimes becomes more powerful than the reward they receive for meeting their organismic needs. This sets up the condition of incongruence, which is experienced when basic organismic needs are denied or distorted in favor of needs to be loved or accepted. As a result of experiences with positive regard, people develop the need for self-regard which they acquire only after they perceive that someone else cares for them and values them. Once established, however, self-regard becomes autonomous and no longer dependent on another person’s continuous positive evaluation.

Conditions of Worth

Most people are not unconditionally accepted. Instead, they receive conditions of worth; that is, they feel that they are loved and accepted only when and if they meet the conditions set by others.

Psychological Stagnation

When the organismic self and the self-concept are at variance with one another, a person may experience incongruence, anxiety, threat, defensiveness, and even disorganization. The greater the incongruence between self-concept and the organismic experience, the more vulnerable that person becomes. Anxiety exists whenever the person becomes dimly aware of the discrepancy between organismic experience and self-concept, whereas threat is experienced whenever the person becomes more clearly aware of this incongruence. To prevent incongruence, people react with defensiveness, typically in the forms of distortion and denial. With distortion, people misinterpret an experience so that it fits into their self-concept; with denial, people refuse to allow the experience into awareness. When people’s defenses fail to operate properly, their behavior becomes disorganized or psychotic. With disorganization, people sometimes behave consistently with their organismic experience, and sometimes in accordance with their shattered self-concept.


For client-centered psychotherapy to be effective, six conditions are necessary: (1) A vulnerable client must (2) have contact of some duration with a counselor who is (3) congruent and who demonstrates (4) unconditional positive regard and who (5) listens with empathy to a client. In addition, the client must (6) perceives the congruence, unconditional positive regard, and empathy. If these conditions are present, then the process of therapy will take place and certain predictable outcomes will result.

  • Conditions
    • Three of these conditions are crucial to client-centered therapy, and Rogers called them the necessary and sufficient conditions for therapeutic growth. The first is counselor congruence, or a therapist whose organismic experiences are matched by an awareness and by the ability and willingness to openly express these feelings. Congruence is more basic than the other two conditions because it is a relatively stable characteristic of the therapist, whereas the other two conditions are limited to a specific therapeutic relationship. Unconditional positive regard exists when the therapist accepts and prizes the client without conditions or qualifications. Empathic listening is the ability of the therapist to sense the feeling of a client and also to communicate these perceptions so that the client knows that another person has entered into his or her world of feelings without prejudice, projection, or evaluation.
  • Process
    • Rogers saw the process of therapeutic change as taking place in seven stages: (1) clients are unwilling to communicate anything about themselves; (2) they discuss only external events and other people; (3) they begin to talk about themselves, but still as an object; (4) they discuss strong emotions that they have felt in the past; (5) they begin to express present feelings; (6) they freely allow into awareness those experiences that were previously denied or distorted; and (7) they experience irreversible change and growth.
  • Outcomes
    • When client-centered therapy is successful, clients become more congruent, less defensive, more open to experience, and more realistic. The gap between their ideal self and their true self narrows and as a consequence, clients experience less physiological and psychological tension. Finally, clients’ interpersonal relationships improve because they are more accepting of self and others.

The Person of Tomorrow

If people receive the three necessary and sufficient conditions for psychological health person, then they will grow toward becoming the “fully functioning person” or the “person of tomorrow.” Rogers listed seven characteristics of the person of tomorrow. First, persons of tomorrow would be more adaptable and more flexible in their thinking. Second, they would be open to their experiences, accurately symbolizing them in awareness rather than denying or distorting them. Persons of tomorrow would listen to themselves and hear their joy, anger, discouragement, fear, and tenderness. A third characteristic would be a tendency to live fully in the moment, experiencing a constant state of fluidity and change. They would see each experience with a new freshness and appreciate it fully in the present moment. Rogers (1961) referred to this tendency to live in the moment as existential living. Fourth, persons of tomorrow would remain confident of their own ability to experience harmonious relations with others. They would feel no need to be liked or loved by everyone, because they would know that they are unconditionally prized and accepted by someone. Fifth, they would be more integrated, more whole, with no artificial boundary between conscious processes and unconscious ones. Because they would be able to accurately symbolize all their experiences in awareness, they would see clearly the difference between what is and what should be. Sixth, persons of tomorrow would have a basic trust of human nature. They would experience anger, frustration, depression, and other negative emotions, but they would be able to express rather than repress these feelings. Finally, because persons of tomorrow are open to all their experiences, they would enjoy a greater richness in life than do other people. They would live in the present and thus participate more richly in the ongoing moment.

Philosophy of Science

Rogers agreed with Maslow that scientists must care about the phenomena they study and that psychologists should limit their objectivity and precision to their methodology, not to the creation of hypotheses or to the communication of research findings.

The Chicago Studies

When he taught at the University of Chicago and again at the University of Wisconsin, Rogers along with colleagues and graduate students conducted an experimental investigation on the effectiveness of psychotherapy. These studies, though now old, remain as some of the best designed and most sophisticated of all such investigations.

  • Hypotheses
    • This study at the University of Chicago tested four broad hypotheses. As a consequence of therapy (1) clients will become more aware of their feelings and experiences, (2) the gap between the real self and the ideal self will lessen; (3) clients’ behavior will become more socialized; and (4) clients will become both more self-accepting and more accepting of others.
  • Method
    • Participants were adults who sought therapy at the University of Chicago counseling center. Experimenters asked half of them to wait 60 days before receiving therapy while beginning therapy with the other half. In addition, they tested a control group of “normals” who were matched with the therapy group. This control group was also divided into a wait group and a non-wait group.
  • Findings
    • Rogers and his associates found that the therapy group—but not the wait group—showed a lessening of the gap between real self and ideal self. They also found that clients who improved during therapy showed changes in social behavior, as reported by their friends.
  • Summary of Results
    • Although client-centered therapy was successful in changing clients, it was not successful in bringing them to the level of the fully functioning persons or even to the level of “normal” psychological health.

Critique of Rogers

Rogers’ person-centered theory is one of the most carefully constructed of all personality theories, and it meets quite well each of the six criteria of a useful theory. It rates very high on internal consistency and parsimony, high on its ability to be falsified and to generate research, and high average on its ability to organize knowledge and to serve as a guide to the practitioner.

Concept of Humanity

Rogers believed that humans have the capacity to change and grow—provided that certain necessary and sufficient conditions are present. Therefore, his theory rates very high on optimism. In addition, it rates high on free choice, teleology, conscious motivation, social influences, and the uniqueness of the individual.