Down to Earth

An example of Everything Wrong with the Climate Debate
 
Arianne Zajac

 

Down to Earth is a newly-released Netflix documentary series, starring Zac Efron and Darien Olien, that you may have seen while browsing for better things to watch (perhaps you may have watched it yourself). The documentary follows the travels of Zac and Darien focusing on travel, life experiences, green energy, and sustainable living. In reviews, it has been rated mediocre at best and at worst it has been criticised for its ‘ questionable health advice and pseudoscience’. Now, I am not here to discuss its health advice too much, but I am here to criticise this show. Namely, in the ways it has tried to join the climate debate. It has attempted to bring to light many issues the world is facing but has not successfully broken down the problems or presented real solutions. Rather, the show actually perpetuates many of the core problems in the climate change debate.

If you are looking for some light television to watch Down to Earth is probably well suited for you. The show does give a somewhat rounded view on sustainable living, so it can be interesting at times. There are also some shots of beautiful places in the world, such as Iceland, meaning it is quite aesthetically pleasing. However, whether this is enough to balance out its content and make the show worth watching is debatable.

 

“We are constantly being told that we need to stop using this, we need to cut down on that, if we buy something expensive made out of recycled plastic then we’ve effectively saved the planet”

One of the more obvious issues surrounding the fight against climate change is how the narrative has been dominated by neoliberalism. We are constantly being told that we need to stop using this, we need to cut down on that, if we buy something expensive made out of recycled plastic then we’ve effectively saved the planet. Now, obviously, individual choices do make a difference (climate change needs collective action so everyone doing something does help) however, this attitude on its own is simply not enough.

New research has shown that “The wealthiest 1% of the world’s population were responsible for the emission of more than twice as much carbon dioxide as the poorest 50% of the world from 1990 to 2015,” while “100 companies have been the source of over 70% of the world’s carbon emissions since 1988.”

Knowing this, the conversation needs to be yes we can all do stuff personally to make a difference but it will only be successful if we see changes in where the real damage is coming from.

Expectedly, Zac Efron and Darien Olien did not mention at all the major industries which are polluting and destroying the planet. They even failed to bring it up in situations where industry is playing a significant role in harming the planet, such as deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. So the show falls short from the get-go and continues to push the neoliberal agenda of individual action. But sure, were we really expecting anything “radical” from Zac Efron?

Another problem within the climate change debate is that we often have not successfully decolonised our language, thoughts, and actions. This is something that appears in people’s worries of overpopulation impacting climate change. Now, the lack of decolonisation that has taken place in this show is somewhat shocking.

Throughout the documentary people and groups are interviewed across the world about what they are doing to create a sustainable lifestyle. At the very least, this should be positive and give some much-needed publicity to organisations that are doing good work. However, often the people being interviewed are expats and Westerners who have found themselves starting up organisations in these countries. Some are more problematic than others but the interviewers in the Costa Rica episode truly summed up the issues for me. In this episode, a founding member of the eco-village La Eco Via is interviewed. He claims that the village aims to create a sustainable living space, but in reality, it is simply Western escapism for those that can afford it. To be able to live there you must be able to buy a lot priced at $45,000 as well as the costs of moving. What benefit is this for the environment in the long term? How is this collective action going to help anyone apart from rich Westerners who have the privilege to give up their current lifestyle?

 

“What benefit is this for the environment in the long term? How is this collective action going to help anyone apart from rich Westerners who have the privilege to give up their current lifestyle?”

This leads me on to Darien Olien. He is a wellness expert and, according to his website, he has earned the title as the world’s first “superfoods hunter.” Essentially, he travels the world to find unique and local fruits, nuts, plants, that have substantial health properties (although his claims about the effectiveness of these items are dubious at times). Which means that he is taking peoples’ important sources of food and nutrients and marketing them to a Western audience for which he can then charge an extortionate amount of money. It is a form of neo-colonialism based upon white ignorance.

This kind of ignorance that Darien exemplifies really comes to the forefront in the final episode of the show. During filming, California is being ravaged by wildfires, and Darien finds out that his house has been completely destroyed and he has lost everything that he owns. There is no doubt that this is an absolute tragedy primarily caused by the impact of climate change on the world. Which in any case and for anyone this is a distressing prospect to face. 

However, it is only this moment that truly seems to bring Darien any form of awareness of the impacts of climate change, which despite travelling across the world and seeing the impacts of climate poverty first hand, he was so insulated within his privilege.

It was only till it affected him directly he understood the damage that is being caused to the world. Now if this is not bad enough, he then goes on to compare the loss of his home to the destruction of peoples’ homes in Puerto Rico caused by a natural disaster.

 This is inappropriate for various reasons, as he is a wealthy white Westerner that despite the fact he has lost the sentimental value of his home, he has access to support, insurance, savings, the ability to still work and earn a living; the financial detriment is incomparable to people suffering from climate poverty. The fact he even saw it as something comparable is unbelievable, especially when as being a wealthy member of a wealthy nation he is contributing far more to carbon emissions and global warming than any of the Puerto Ricans that they visited.

This truly demonstrates that when talking about the climate debate, we need to assume a system of responsibility. Western nations need to be aware of their history of colonisation, we need to promote action from our governments that will look at curbing our direct impact on the world, such as taxing fossil fuels while subsidising green energy. Moreover, Western nations need to end the exploitation of post-colonial countries which is enabled through globalisation. For example, we need to see the overhauling of the fast fashion industry or ending our appropriation of scarce and significant foodstuffs, minerals, and natural resources, all of which will help build a more sustainable planet.

 

“What is needed is collective and meaningful action …binding agreement of governments to tackle climate change through the main polluters, to change our economy from one based on growth to one that is sustainable, and to ensure that more wealthy countries are contributing their fair share to fighting climate change.”

This brings me on to my final criticism of the show. Zac Efron and Darien Olien obviously felt very proud of what they had achieved; they signed off saying that they hope this brings attention to the issues of climate change. However, attention is not what is needed. The majority of the world’s population understands and recognises the impacts of climate change.

What is needed is collective and meaningful action. A coherent and binding agreement of governments to tackle climate change through the main polluters, to change our economy from one based on growth to one that is sustainable, and to ensure that more wealthy countries are contributing their fair share to fighting climate change – all to build a better future for generations to come. If what is presented in Down to Earth is how we think we will resolve climate change, then we have a rocky road ahead.

 

First published October 2020. Volume 16, Issue 1.