I must say I have enjoyed seeing a Hollywood actor, with a huge following of young people - use his celebrity to highlight care for the natural world and sustainable development. I was alerted to widespread interest in the new Netflix environmental series 'Down to Earth' by activity on Twitter and just amazed to see issues from Biodiversity and Biopiracy to the sangre de grado tree and a vegan diet investigated by non other than Zac Efron. Who is he? He rose to fame in the early 2000s for his role as Troy Bolton in the 'High School Musical' trilogy series. More recently, Efron starred opposite Hugh Jackman in 'The Greatest Showman'. He has more than 15 million followers on Twitter!
So, his travels to six countries with Darin Olien, a guru of healthy living and superfoods, to learn about sustainable living practices was a welcome surprise. Their eight-episode series has attracted attention way beyond the development and environment experts or creation theologians who live and breathe the concerns highlighted.
Perhaps most intriguing for Catholics was the episode visiting France to look into 'Water'. It started with a look at the Paris water system, where Eau de Paris, a public organization, provides good quality tap water throughout the city, including more than 1,000 public drinking fountains. Then the pair moved to Lourdes to look into healing associated with the spring uncovered by St Bernadette in 1858. "Water can provide more than just hydration," Efron said; "there is also a spiritual aspect to it". Fr Jim Phalan CSC, chaplain at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, told them, "Lourdes is not about magic, it's not about any kind of superstition, it's symbols, through water, through light and a way of making your prayer concrete." After taking part in an evening torchlight procession, Efron reflected "whether or not you believe in the power of prayer, when you witness thousands of people at a candle light vigil like this there's no denying the energy…. I feel like I'm a part of something much greater than myself."
In Iceland, they visited a power station, where hydropower is used to generate electricity. Indeed, it is one of 15 power stations in Iceland that help to generate 75% of the country's electricity. So, the suggestion was that geothermal energy innovations should be used wherever possible rather than fossil fuels.
London featured, with an episode on overcoming pollution. As a Londoner who remembers the London smogs as a child, this has some truth in it, but current findings on air pollution and Efron's visit to the Thames Estuary for a litter pick proved that much still has to be done. Cleaning the riverbank showed the extent of plastic pollution, particularly the tiny pieces ingested by animals. 7,000 volunteers a year work on keeping the Thames and its riverbank clean and the worst culprit is the cotton bud's plastic stick. Efron found it was several hours work just cleaning up the space immediately around him, and he expressed admiration for those who clean up more systematically.
The pair visited the London School of Economics (LSE) which explained how it is trying to equip the next generation of global citizens to live more sustainably and make cities greener. The LSE has a green wall with 6,400 plants and provides natural insulation. There are beehives on the roof because pollinators are central to food security. Some students are working on putting a monetary value on the environment - people seem to understand the value of the natural world through this path even if they are ignorant of its value otherwise. Commodifying the environment is not something I favour, but we are all getting desperate about the turning of Earth into "an immense pile of filth" as Pope Francis put it in Laudato Si'. We didn't hear of it, but let's hope the LSE is also looking into alternative economics! After their day's work the two ate at a restaurant with millet and cauliflower croquet and sweetcorn and truffle on the menu. But was their meal tasty? The comment was, "superfoods have more micronutrients than eating a donut".
Visits to alternative communities included Peru, where villages live directly off the rainforest, and they met a chef who uses only locally sourced food. An "incredible meal" included avocados, fennel leaves and local flowers. Juice came from fruit of the Amazon jungle. Efron and Olien endorsed healthy sustainable eating - knowing where food comes from and food that has a high nutrient value. But they also highlighted the issues of deforestation and biopiracy in eco-regions that are amongst the most biodiverse and vulnerable on the planet. They visited the International Potato Centre in Lima, which has the world's largest collection of potatoes - 4,500 species - and aims to preserve their genetic diversity in case of a catastrophe. Genetic modification (GM) of potatoes was criticised as being unnecessary and creating a less healthy version of the real thing. Corporation- bashing - criticising the GM companies - was subtle but it was there. In the Peruvian Amazon the pair noted how industrial Palm Oil cultivation is linked to deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions. Efron couldn't quite leave Hollywood behind. As they waded through a swamp supposedly looking upwards for camu camu berries and the Una De Gato vine, he was looking downwards, for leeches. "I feel like Jumanji!"
There was an intriguing episode on Longevity, where they visited a village in Sardinia with an extraordinary number of centenarians. Quite apart from the simple living and low-protein diet, Efron was impressed by the families cooking together and then eating together around a table, sometimes three or four generations together. Francesco, 97, took him for one of his daily walks - which ended up in a bar - and Efron reflected that he smiled the whole time, just loving life and living each day to the full. He told 30-year-old Efron to "watch the steps" as they climbed the hilly streets back to his house. Efron's time on the island left him contemplating a break from Hollywood in favour of a life lived like the Sardinians.
In fact, Efron's insights, while not new to experts, might be reaching a new audience. "Famine isn't always about scarcity of food, it's about distribution." "Fossil fuel burning vehicles are a key issue in pollution." "We need to rethink how we consume." He urged people to ride bikes, use renewable mugs, and eat one extra serving of vegetables a day. "I can't look at a bottle of water, or flip on the light switch like I used to" he said; "when I see a concrete wall I want it to be a green wall; when I see a roof I want to see beehives."
The episode 'Surviving a disaster' included a visit to Puerto Rico which is prone to climate-related disasters. They visited a poor community, whose people survived 14 days with water up to the hip after one hurricane, and recovery would mean preparing for severe weather to strike again. People found ways to help each other. Community shelters were built for the most vulnerable areas and community kitchens mushroomed to serve vulnerable individuals and families. Chemical-free farming connected to local restaurants, markets and consumers was discussed. Also, economic livelihoods for fishing communities where produce is consumed locally. Efron reflected that, "as climate changes, so must Puerto Rico."
Little did Orien know that he would soon be learning something about the impact of climate change himself. The filming was in 2018, and the series ended on a sobering note as Olien was personally affected by extreme weather, in the form of wildfires that ravaged his Malibu neighbourhood in Los Angeles. Orien's house was among those burnt to the ground and we saw him return to the smouldering ruins. "Amazon people were saying in the last few days that our planet is different" reflected Orien; "Living in an unsustainable way is affecting people's lives, including mine."
There has been scepticism about two wealthy celebrities from Hollywood travelling the world in search of "healthy and sustainable" practices to import into their own lives. They stayed in Hilton hotels when they were in cities! But 'Down to Earth' dishes out humble pie to anyone who still thinks the United States has a lifestyle to be emulated. Efron talks more than once about leaving Hollywood where he now recognises he has been living an unsustainable and unhealthy lifestyle. His reflections that, "the more you learn the more you realise how vulnerable the planet is" and "we don't understand our massive impact on the world" may sensitise many to key questions of our time. He hopes so: "We've got to take care of this planet, and I want to make a difference."
Down to Earth with Zac Efron - www.netflix.com/gb/title/80230601