Celebrity climate saviours: are they a crisis themselves?


Zac Efron’s recent foray into environmentalism through his documentary Down To Earth is, in a word, light. The eight-part series sees him exploring diverse global regions, witnessing responses to the climate crisis and environmentally friendly alternatives, to which each are met with choruses of “Wow!” and “Dude!”. For every reference to sustainable action though, there are numerous pseudoscientific claims, questionable ‘experts’ and unsubstantiated ideas, undermining the show’s validity and pointing ultimately to issues with celebrity-led shows on this topic.  

Critics were unimpressed, both by Efron’s simplistic approach and his co-host Darien Olien, whose plugging of his pseudoscientific book Super Life was deemed “gimmicky” and “dangerous” by scientist Jonathan Jarry of the McGill Office for Science. The climate crisis’ severity is diminished, genuine discussions of hydroelectric power in Iceland swiftly segueing into unsubstantiated discussions of “negative ions”. Similarly, discussions of Puerto Rico’s housing crisis and Hurricane Maria’s impacts are closely followed by inaccurate assertions of goats’ milk’s natural pasteurisation, undermining validity for educated viewers and averting attentions of those drawn in by its celebrity host. 

Worryingly, scientific fact is an afterthought. As Olien declares in his book, “I didn’t wait for experts to tell me what to do. I jumped in and figured it out.” This statement encapsulates issues with shows like these. Celebrity culture, the way the media, and us as well, idolise and uplift those in the public eye, imbues popular figures with false feelings of intellectual superiority. Though placing prominent figures at the forefront of shows ensures viewership for streaming services, doing so sacrifices accuracy and experience. We only have to look to Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop Lab, premiered on Netflix in January, as evidence of public figures opportunistically spreading misinformation, capitalising on consumer fears. 

Though placing prominent figures at the forefront of shows ensures viewership for streaming services, doing so sacrifices accuracy and experience.

Down to Earth’s references to purity and diet, though seemingly well-meaning, detract from pressing issues of environmental degradation, with the recommendations pointing to the hosts’ privilege. The conflation of climate change and ‘wellness’ in discussions of water purity and minerals, again unsubstantiated, jars particularly when contextualised with current accessibility. The UN has deemed water the key way climate change’s effects are felt. 1.9 billion people are living in water-scarce areas, potentially rising to 3.2 billion by 2050. When considering that in 20 years, one in four children will be living in areas of extreme water-stress, the harping on about ‘electrolytes’ and imported Slovenian water becomes especially grating. 

Efron himself is not entirely culpable, pseudoscience is sadly endemic to Netflix’s growing original health programming. Meggie Lange, of Vice, points to the service’s “tolerance for scientific illiteracy”, wilfully sowing misinformation to viewers and capitalising on current audience trends. Netflix itself contributes to climate degradation, Greenpeace reports, finding it accounts for a third of North American internet traffic, but, unlike Google and Apple, has done little to increase renewable investments. It has made no commitment to changing energy sources and engaged in no renewable advocacy raising the question, are shows like these intended to educate or simply improve public perceptions?

Both Netflix’s failings to address their energy use and Efron’s recommendation of individual consumption changes, rather than energy reform, fit into wider trends of performative environmentalism. The Guardian’s Martin Lukas argues neoliberal principles render people individualistic, perceiving themselves as consumers and translating dissatisfaction with the climate crisis into spending. Though consumption has effects, environmentally conscious options are available to the minority, individual lifestyle choices easing a wealthy handful’s guilt whilst detracting from industries’ overwhelming impact. As S.E. Smith of Bitchmedia puts it, “the greatest lie people ever sell themselves, is that it’s possible to buy their way out of injustice.” 

Climate change is the greatest issue facing contemporary society and should be a cause to unify and politicise the world’s population.

With each micro-consumerist movement, attention is shifted onto those failing to adjust habits, who often are of lower socio-economic statuses. For instance the straw ban, which minorly reduced ocean pollution but greatly impacted the disabled community, with responses to those requiring plastic straws to consume food reeking of ableism. Even activist group Extinction Rebellion has received criticism for largely white, middle class membership and failure, until last month, to reference colonialism’s effect on climate change. Whilst Extinction Rebellion’s ‘direction action’ last year signalled public anger at inadequate governmental action, it disproportionately affected BAME Londoners, more likely to be reliant on public transport and zero hours contracts, thus compromising economic security. 

Even factual documentaries, such as David Attenborough’s A Life on our Planet, released recently to widespread praise, received criticism for focusing on overpopulation, an argument implicitly laying responsibility for climate change at the global south’s door. This, though impactful, pales when reflecting that the world’s richest one per cent, disproportionately found in the west, are responsible for twice the emissions of the world’s poorest 50 per cent. With 100 firms responsible for 71 per cent of Green-house emissions, this is a story of big business and their unchecked exploitation of the natural world.

Climate change is the greatest issue facing contemporary society and should be a cause to unify and politicise the world’s population. Its face in popular culture though, should not be that of privileged, white celebrities. Though documentaries such as Efron’s may seem harmless enough, it is this light, breezy tone that makes them so insidious. Too often genuine discussions of environmental issues are combined with disputed claims and commercialised activism, allowing elites to profit from viewers’ concerns, rather than incite political action. What is clear throughout the series is that for Efron and his co-hosts, climate change is theoretical, a daunting future state which little impacts their lives, due to their wealth and privilege. For so many people across the globe, however, it is a lived experience, impacting access to water, food and compromising homes and livelihoods. It seems irresponsible therefore, to present it through a light-hearted lens, the hosts’ lack of education decreasing the issues’ complexity and fails to indicate the situation’s severity. Efron’s only qualification is his fame, and in a climate already rife with miseducation and climate change denial, is this enough?

Image: Netflix

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