Review: ‘8 Billion Angels,’ starring Jason Hall-Spencer, Vimlendu Jha, Travis Rieder, Stuart Pimm, Shashi Tharoor, Saroj Pachauri and Bill Ryerson

May 8, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jason Hall-Spencer and Silvain Agostini in “8 Billion Angels” (Photo courtesy of 8 Billion Angels Productions/Abramorama)

“8 Billion Angels”

Directed by Victor Velle

Some language in Japanese and French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in the United States, India and Japan, the documentary “8 Billion Angels” features a predominantly white and predominantly male group of people (with some Asians) discussing how the world’s population is having an impact on the Earth’s environment.

Culture Clash: The environmentalists interviewed in the documentary believe that human over-population and harmful uses of resources are the leading causes of environmental problems.

Culture Audience: “8 Billion Angels” will appeal primarily to people who want limited perspectives on global environmental issues.

Brownie Wilson and Bill Mai in “8 Billion Angels” (Photo courtesy of 8 Billion Angels Productions/Abramorama)

If you believed everything that’s presented in “8 Billion Angels,” the horrendously biased and poorly researched documentary about how the world’s population affects environmental problems, the filmmakers make it look like the perspectives of black and Hispanic people don’t matter. There are no black or Hispanic people interviewed in the documentary. Sloppily directed by Victor Velle, “8 Billion Angels” (whose title refers to the approximately 8 billion people living on Earth at the time this documentary was released) only seems to care about what’s going on in North America, Europe and Asia when it comes to discussing the world’s environmental issues. The documentary is filled with people spouting statistics that are unverified and unsourced.

Females are about half of the world’s population (according to Our World in Data) and the gender that can get pregnant and give birth—in other words, female biological functions directly impact the world’s population. But you’d never know it, based on how females are severely underrepresented in “8 Billion Angels,” which only interviewed two women out of the 18 people interviewed in the documentary. For people who don’t want to do the math, only 11% of the people interviewed in this bigoted documentary are women. Most of the interviewees are white men.

What makes this documentary so hypocritical and offensive is that it puts on false airs of being “progressive” and presenting a “global view” of environmental issues. But there’s barely any real world diversity in the people who are interviewed about how the world’s human population is affecting the world’s environment. During the last 20 minutes of this 76-minute documentary, it goes from talking about environmental issues to pushing a political agenda where some of the interviewees advocate for governments stepping in to regulate population control in various ways.

During this preaching about how governments should get involved in people’s family planning, some interviewees in the documentary talk about how patriarchal societies are detrimental because of how they oppress women. The consensus from the interviewees is that the more educated women can be in a society, the more likely women will have more say in their own family planning, and the less likely that the society will experience problems with poverty and overpopulation. And yet, for all this preaching against patriarchy, “8 Billion Angels” couldn’t be bothered to interview more than two women in the entire movie. The hypocrisy is disgusting.

And “8 Billion Angels” is filled with outright racist editing. Every time people in the documentary mention overpopulation problems and poverty, only people who aren’t white (usually Asians and occasionally Latinos) are shown in the footage spliced in as visual examples of overpopulation problems and poverty. It’s as if the filmmakers don’t want to acknowledge that a lot of white people can and do live in poverty and have overpopulation problems in certain areas of the world too. This type of racist filmmaking is wrong and absolutely vile.

Here are the people who were interviewed in the documentary, in alphabetical order:

  • Silvain Augostini, professor at University of Tsukuba in Japan
  • Lon Frahm, owner of Frahm Farmland Inc., a now-shuttered business that was based in Kansas
  • Jason Hall-Spencer, professor of marine biology at University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom.
  • Ben Harvey, Ph.D., marine biologist at Shimoda Marine Research Center in Japan
  • Kazuo Inaba, professor at University of Tsukuba; director of Shimoda Marine Research Center in Japan
  • Vimlendo Jha, environmental activist and founder of Swecha, an environmental group in India
  • Bill Mai, a farmer in Kansas
  • Richard McDonald, naturalist and field biologist at Natural History Center, which gives nature tours in Maine
  • David Montgomery, professor/author “Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations”
  • Bill Mook, CEO of Mook Sea Farm in Maine
  • Saroj Pachauri, M.D., public health physician in India
  • Stuart Pimm, professor of conservation ecology at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina
  • Travis Rieder, Ph.D., bioethicist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore
  • Bill Ryerson, founder and president of Population Media Center, a non-profit group in Vermont
  • Bill Stowe, CEO of Des Moines Waterworks
  • Shashi Tharoor, author and a member of India’s Parliament
  • Zoe Weil, co-founder of Institute for Humane Education, a non-profit group based in Maine
  • Brownie Wilson, manager of Kansas Geological Survey

Even without all the racist and sexist choices that the filmmakers made for this documentary, “8 Billion Angels” presents no new and interesting information that other environmental documentaries haven’t already presented. “8 Billion Angels” is divided into themed chapters, but not all of the chapters stick to their respective themes.

The first chapter, titled “Oceans,” discusses how the world’s oceans (which are the foundation of the world’s ecosystems) have drastically changed in recent decades. Inaba, Harvey, Hall-Spencer and Agostini are interviewed in Japan and talk about how carbon dioxide emissions from larger human populations around the world have resulted in climate change and ocean life disappearing. Hall-Spencer comments: “The waters are getting warmer and more corrosive. Acidification and warming are just two parts of the problem of an increasing human population.”

Mook shows how he raises oysters at his family-owned sea farm and gets emotionally choked up when talking about the environmental fears that he has for his grandson and other people in younger generations. Mook says, “One of the things that’s happening as our populations have increased is that we’re putting more and more excess nitrogen into our coastal waters. Oysters are a good way to combat that.” Environmental problems in the ocean were already covered in a much better way in the far superior 2017 Netflix documentary “Chasing Coral.”

In the chapter titled “Land,” Mai and Wilson are shown testing water levels at a well on Mai’s farm. Mai admits he hasn’t used the well in years. In other words, this testing of the well was staged just for the documentary.

Frahm’s comments are reduced to trite soundbites that reveal nothing new. For example, Frahm says, “Farming has gone from private to corporate. Farming has gone from local to regional to national to worldwide.” He also mentions that his family-owned business has had debt problems, which might be why Frahm Farmland was out of business by the time this documentary was released.

Des Moines Waterworks CEO Stowe says that the concept of U.S. famers “feeding the world” is “disingenous at best.” He also comments: “In central Iowa, water quantity is of very little concern to us. Water quality is a huge concern. It’s driven by land use upstream” and “the effects of livestock raising.”

Stowe adds, “The largest concern for us are nutrients, like nitrogen, are more difficult to remove than either the suspended solids or soils or bacteria.” But the documentary never bothers to ask what exactly is being done about these problems. And the Oscar-winning 2006 environmental documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” already sounded the alarm on how farm practices (especially in the U.S.) can have a domino effect on the world’s environment.

Another bias that “8 Billion Angels” shows is how the farmers who are interviewed (and who all happen to be white men) are allowed to talk about their childhoods and how they decided to go into their line of work. They are the only people interviewed in this documentary who get to expound on their lives in a biographical way, which is somewhat off-topic in this documentary about the world’s environmental problems. The editing in this movie is absolutely atrocious.

The chapter titled “Air and Rivers” spends the entire time talking about India’s environmental problems, as if India is the only country in the world that needed to be singled out for having pollution in air and rivers. Pachauri (one of the two women interviewed in the documentary), Jha and Tharoor express a series of complaints about these problems and discuss at length about how crowded and overpopulated India is. Tharoor says about the pollution in India: “We are in the process of killing ourselves. The great sacred river of the Ganges is a sewer now.”

And the movie even has Jahr going to the Yamuna River in Delhi to make this comment about the river: “It stinks so much. It’s completely black.” And to conjure up more false images that the only poor people in the world are not white, the movie has an extended segment showing poverty-stricken Indian people hanging out on the Yamuna River’s banks (which look like a giant trash dump) and bathing in the toxic water. It’s the type of footage that won’t be boosting India’s tourism economy anytime soon.

The second-to-last chapter in the documentary is titled “Population,” and it’s filled with hypocrisy and contradictions. Rieder (who is American) says, “Overpopulation is a problem of the numbers of people consuming at a certain rate. My child has a very large carbon footprint. If she’s an average American, then she’ll use 16 to 20 metric tons [of carbon dioxide] a year. People in the poorest part of the world emit 0.1 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year.”

Weil comments, “I become concerned when we talk about population growth happening elsewhere in Africa or South Asia, when we [American] consumers have a much, much bigger impact.” Pimm says, “And so, the problem with human numbers can’t simply be a matter of pointing to sub-Saharan Africa and saying, ‘Look, control your families.'”

Rieder adds, “Those of us who are living, for instance, in the U.S. in the 21st century, are pushing forward a process that is an existential threat for the people who are the poorest and the worst off, in the very near future. So, massive injustice is a big worry.”

And yet, even with these experts saying in the documentary that the U.S. has left a large and damaging carbon footprint in the world’s environmental problems, the filmmakers of “8 Billion Angels” completely shut out any investigations into the companies that are the biggest culprits. There’s no mention of corporate responsibilities to the environment and not even any footage of wealthy people on private jets as part of the carbon footprint problem—even though the environmental experts say that the people who can afford to be excessive consumers are the ones who are doing the most environmental damage in the world.

Instead, the documentary makes it look like the poverty-stricken people of the world are the biggest burden on the environment and repeatedly shows non-white people as the only financially poor people in the world. The documentary constantly pushes images of people from countries where the majority of the population isn’t white as the main images of those in the world who are most responsible for environmental damage. It’s such heinous, irresponsible and racist filmmaking.

The last chapter in “8 Billion Angels” is titled “Solutions,” and it’s really just some of the interviewees (such as Rieder, MacDonald and Ryerson) promoting their aforementioned political agendas to endorse ways that governments can convince people to have smaller families. Ryerson claims that his Population Media Center was able to reduce Ethiopia’s fertility rate “by a full child” per family, by distributing in Ethiopia a radio drama series that had a female character who practiced family planning. He never says the name of the radio drama.

Of course, viewers will never really know how true Ryerson’s grandiose claims are about how his company’s radio show supposedly helped lower fertility rates in Ethiopia, since there’s no fact-checking or citing of independent sources in this badly made documentary. And not to mention that it’s incredibly condescending for a media company that’s run by white Americans to think they can manipulate an entire African country’s fertility numbers with a radio drama. There’s more than a whiff of prejudice and patriarchal colonialism when people (who are usually men) single out other countries that need “fixing” with population control.

There’s a doomsday and Big Brother tone to their population control ideas, which promote the fear that the world is going to be a disaster if the human population continues to grow, and the government needs to step in and control human population growth. It’s a contradiction from what Rieder says in another part of the documentary that environmental issues aren’t so much about the number of people on the planet but how people use resources on the planet.

For example, 5 billion people on Earth could conceivably do more environmental damage than 8 billion people on Earth, if the 5 billion people act less responsibly to the environment than the 8 billion people. It’s about quality, not quantity. And in that regard, anyone who cares about watching a scientifically responsible environmental documentary should avoid the low-quality, problematic and terribly biased “8 Billion Angels” at all costs.

Abramorama released “8 Billion Angels” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on April 23, 2021.