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'That's Mother Earth, Bro!': Netflix's 'Down to Earth with Zac Efron' Provides an Affable (Though Too White) Look at Climate Change

By Petr Knava | TV | July 17, 2020 |

By Petr Knava | TV | July 17, 2020 |


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When Netflix announced they were releasing an eight-part climate change/environmental awareness/sustainable living series called Down To Earth I was instantly intrigued. It’s a matrix of topics that for me runs the gamut from interest to unhealthy obsession. When I carried on reading and saw that the full title was Down To Earth with Zac Efron my intrigue curdled into distaste. Because I am a joyless, puritanical lefty who can’t abide the tethering of celebrity ego to vital causes and the dilution of important messaging by emphasising an individual.

And also fun.

I hate fun.

Thing is, I’m also an easily swayed, capricious mug, so all it took was seeing this Tweet the other day,

And on a binge watch of Down To Earth with Zac Efron I went.

So having watched it all now, can I say where between the two poles of ‘selfless public service broadcast’ and ‘ego-driven brand extension’ Down To Earth with Zac Efron lands? To my surprise, it’s closer to the former. Not by a lot. The show is still structured in such a way so as to centre Efron and his co-traveler and their experiences and thoughts much of the time, but the element that I thought would drag the project down more than anything—Efron himself—often ends up being a sort of wildcard, bro-y boon. His raw earnestness is a surprisingly endearing and effective lens through which to view the cross-section of civilization-altering/potentially ending topics under discussion in the show’s eight episodes. Efron’s apparent sincerity, genuine interest, and eagerness to learn are writ large on his expressive face and his glacial blue eyes, and this is something the filmmakers are very much aware of. They certainly make good use of it throughout the show. The ‘Cut To Intense Efron Reaction To Science Face’ tactic is a well that seemingly never runs dry:

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Look, I know very little about Zac Efron. The only films I’ve seen him in are Neighbors and Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, two perfectly acceptable modern American comedies in which Efron plays—so I’ve been told—an exaggerated version of his real life self: Bro-y, maybe a bit simple, yet quite sweet. ‘Himbo-ish’, if that’s still a term that’s used. In Down To Earth with Zac Efron, that character is very much in evidence. And you know what, it kind of works. This isn’t the definitive climate change/environmental awareness/sustainable living statement, but I don’t think it’s trying to be. Efron repeatedly states throughout that he’s grown disillusioned with the trappings of Hollywood life—a ‘treadmill’ as he describes it in one episode—and that he wants to use the power that he’s accumulated to do some good. If that’s his goal—to get even a small segment of the legions of fans he’s built up over his career to watch this show and to care about climate change, pollution, and healthy, sustainable food production—then I would say he is likely to largely succeed. It looks like he genuinely cares, and the show is entertaining and informative enough. It’s also quite funny—and again this largely stems from Efron’s sympathetic, bro-y persona, which he most certainly plays up a little bit for the camera. As an example, there’s a bit where Efron and his more traditionally hippy co-traveler arrive in France and the latter insists that every time he arrives somewhere new he has to go connect flesh on flesh with the grass, Mother Earth, so he feels grounded again. It cuts to Efron looking a bit nonplussed, there’s a beat pause as he thinks, and then he enquires: ‘… Push ups?’ Scripted, maybe, but I snortlaughed.

Down To Earth with Zac Efron starts with an episode about sustainable power generation in Iceland—a country which today in one very important way functions as a model for how every country on Earth should be: It generates 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources. 75 percent of that is from large hydro, and 25 percent from geothermal. Iceland also meets 87 percent of its hot water demand through the use of geothermal energy. Efron and his mate—author, ‘superfoods expert’, and ‘wellness’ guru Darin Olien (who was married to Eliza Coupe for a few years in the 2010s)—spend the episode traveling between geothermal plants, a volcanic water spa, and a quite upmarket-looking restaurant to sample sustainable, responsibly-sourced (often delicious, often very expensive) food. Food is a theme in every episode. They quip and banter, tease each other, and refract their experiences through pop culture (Iceland looks like ‘Mordor’, which leads into duelling Gollum impressions that quickly take on a double entendre flavour; a visual display on a science museum wall demonstrating how much power a human being can generate through physical force alone inevitably leads to a few Force jokes). Their interactions are silly, but not toxic. You get the feeling that the show wants to make the bond between Efron and Olien almost as much of a key ingredient as the substance underpinning the message—or at least a powerful hook to keep you slogging through the science. For me, it was quite the opposite: The science kept me going, and Efron and Olien’s interactions, though by no means unpleasant or boring and often endearing, were more of a sideshow rather than a hook. I’m unsure how I feel about Olien as a whole. He seems a very sincere guy whose apparent beliefs with I align with in many ways, but there was something throughout that kept me from warming to him the way I did with Efron.

Iceland is a volcanic island, of course, and nature has thus granted it a handy shortcut for getting to a place where it can in return spare nature with its energy production. One of the pioneering techniques it has developed is re-injecting the carbon that is created as a byproduct of its energy generation back down into the ground, 2000 metres below the surface, where it binds with porous rock instead of being released into the atmosphere. It is a world leader in geothermal tech and it exports it around the world. It says that it is ready and willing to export it more. But it wasn’t always this way, as the show itself informs us: Just a few decades ago Iceland was almost entirely dependent on imported coal and oil to meet its energy needs. Yes, nature helped, but it was political will that erected the infrastructure that rid Iceland of the Earth-destroying methods it once couldn’t live without. The local sitiation may change around the world, but this political will can be found everywhere. It’s just a question of being able to harness it—or rather free it from the shackles of exploitative capitalism that generates massive profit from its continued imprisonment.

With any show about climate change, I have two main metrics that I measure its success by:

1) Does it sufficiently put across the incredibly dire urgency of the situation?

2) Is it unafraid to point at the finger at the main culprit behind the crisis—industrial capitalism—rather than falling back on the hand-wavey exasperated sigh of ‘humanity’.

On both points, Down To Earth with Zac Efron doesn’t really go as far as it should. Certainly on the latter it remains largely silent. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that this production by a large corporation doesn’t make much of an effort at all to shine a spotlight on the structural blame that can be laid at the feet of capitalism itself, but it’s nevertheless a disappointment. There are plenty of allusions to the harm done by ‘people’ and ‘humanity’, and in fact even a few direct accusations—scenes on the banks of the Thames in London with a volunteer trash pick up crew and a segment on ocean cleaning off the coast of Puerto Rico speak particularly powerfully on this part of the issue—but no real necessary structural analysis of our economic system. As to the former point, again, the show doesn’t go far enough, but it goes further than it does in the other regard. At times, credit where credit is due, it reaches further than most shows of its type, and it actually frames things in a way that is reflective of reality, as at the end of the first episode when Efron’s narration muses that: ‘Long-term survival on this planet for us and all the generations after us would probably be a good idea. Remember that the Earth will probably always be here. We might just not be able to live on it for too long.’ That last part is a dire prognostication, but it is by most accounts now an accurate one. Barring any drastic, miraculously quick action, the very existence of our civilization as we know it is threatened.

After the first episode, which ends with that quite direct addressing of the scale of the problem we face, the show takes a bit of a tonal detour, focusing instead on the positives arising around the world from individuals and groups enacting the kinds of bold, imaginative changes that the world needs to see an infinite constellation of. Efron and Olien visit Paris and learn about water treatment, and how the city government took all water production into public hands, and now has some of the best water in the world, free to drink for all, with thousands of fountains around the city—some of which even serve up a carbonated version. The two also visit Sardinia, where they learn about healthy diets and why the island is one of the handful of ‘blue zones’ around the world—locations with unusually high proportions of centenerians. They go to Lima and learn about rainforest destruction, biodiversity preservation, and biopiracy. There are the aforementioned episodes in London—in which Efron and Olien witness a variety of city-based techniques for ecological support like urban beekeeping—and in Puerto Rico—which probably comes closest to directly addressing the capitalist elephant in the room (Efron: ‘In a way, it can be looked at as a man-made disaster just as much as a natural one.’).

Efron and Olien also visit Costa Rica, and this episode serves as a useful case study for another of the main criticisms I have of the show: It is very white-centred. The main part of the episode involves a trip to a community farm. Several families live there, tending the land and growing food all around them. They also have an innovative community school with non-traditional rules and methods in which the children seem happy, and like they are learning a lot. It’s all quite inspiring until you notice how overwhelmingly white and American the group seems to be—certainly when it comes to the most camera-exposed individuals anyway. At one point the founder of this farm is on a boat ride with Efron and Olien, and he is explaining what got him into this way of life, years and years ago. It involved seeing a group of Indigenous children being sprayed by a banana-dusting plane while he was on a family holiday in Costa Rica. This pulled a handbrake on his life, he says, and from then on he dedicated his life to…buying up some land in Costa Rica and using it to grow food and live well and close to nature with a number of other mostly American immigrants (or ‘expats’ as the show makes a point of calling them, apparently with zero sensisitivy to the debates around the hypocrisy of how those two terms are used and for who around the world). Set in a country in which ‘rights to land and self-determination is still a struggle for the country’s Indigenous population’, the episode makes no effort to interview any Indigenous people, or to foreground their struggle or their part in the story of climate change. The show is mostly like that throughout: More interested in the white ‘innovators’ who are ‘leading’ the charge against climate change and ecological collapse, and garnishing that with Efron and Olien’s reactions to learning about these people and their (still important) successes. So here we have a historically marginalised group, driven to the brink of near extinction in a number of cases by encroaching Western capitalism, who are now at some of the greatest risk of capitalist climate change—and who are actually very often at the forefront of innovation, developing cutting edge techniques of forest preservation, crop resilience, and other means of climate change amelioration within their frontline communities. In this show they are largely reduced to a few background reaction shots. The fact is that sustainability is nothing without de-colonisation, and an acknowledgment of the racist legacies that brought us to where we are now is the basic first step towards that. Down To Earth with Zac Efron clearly has its heart in the right place, but its perspective and focus is often a bit of a shallow and all-too predictable white-centring letdown.

In terms of filmmaking the show as a whole is quite typical TV documentary fare: A lot of picturesque scenery, fast-mo and slo-mo establishing shots, with (often quite good) narration by Efron and a few fourth-wall breaking moments here and there. The writing veers into the clunky now and then (‘The quest to extend life on Earth is as old as the dawn of time’) but it mostly remains quite warm, personable, and informative. The tone, however, can be somewhat jarring. I imagine it’s by design, to get as many people to keep watching as possible, but it’s often quite light, certainly when compared to the hauntingly depressing subject matter being discussed. Humanity’s potential extinction shares space with Efron’s many exclamations of ‘sick!’, ‘stoked’, and ‘whoah!’ (I counted 11 ‘whoah!s’ in just the first episode)—which, again, are endearing, but there is still a tiny whiplash effect to it. It swerves from the jovial interactions between Efron and Olien to dramatic facts and quite plaintive calls for change (‘plaintive’ seems to me these days to be the wrong, too-late tone for where we find ourselves, but again, perhaps that is a calculated move). At times, Down To Earth with Zac Efron attempts to weave together a holistic picture of the state of the industrialised world’s ‘wellness’ by considering the full spectrum of modern human malady—tying in stress, poor diet, lack of exercise, loneliness, the vapidity of celebrity, environmental degradation—and it should be applauded for that. What it doesn’t do—and this is tied to the earlier critique in the review—is explicitly highlight the three factors that dramatically exarcebate all of these things: Race, gender, and class. Perhaps that is too much to ask of Zac Efron’s first climate change/environmental awareness/sustainable living show, and an onscreen opening quote from Fred Hampton or Angela Davis is something we can hope for from the next season. As it is, this one opens with Efron doing a (none too shabby) David Attenborough impression. And maybe that’s a good start? But we are running out of time, and nearer to the finish than the start.


Petr is a staff contributor. You can follow him on Twitter.


Header Image Source: Netflix


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