Wellness expert Darin Olien (left) and actor Zac Efron in 'Down to Earth with Zac Efron', on Netflix.
The wicked frat boy from Bad Neighbors, the dancing star in Hairspray, creepy Ted Bundy, the veteran who goes in search of that girl in the picture… That’s who I thought Zac Efron was, until I watched this docu series that shows the star learning - with the audience - about living in sync with mother Earth.
Don’t get me wrong, I like air-conditioning as much as anyone, but should Earth Day be just one day in a year? And who are these happy people who live 100% of the time without using fossil fuels, or adding to the already polluted world of ours?
The first episode takes us to Iceland, and within minutes I’m hoping all those Twitter and Instagram chefs who annoyed us all with tales (and endless pictures) of their sourdough breads during the pandemic would see this.
A small town near Reykjavik where you bake bread by the lake by covering the pot up with sand (using geothermal energy). If you’ve watched murder mysteries set in Iceland, you’d think Iceland is covered by snow. It is, mostly. But it is also home to active volcanoes. Aah! Now you can imagine how wonderful it would be if you could dig a hole in the backyard and boil eggs for breakfast! But there’s more and you will run out of exclamation points because you’re stuck living in the city only dreaming about that home in the hills where you’ll live simply.
Season 1, episode 1: the hosts explain how the planet is divided into seven tectonic plates that are "active". These plates are moving apart slowly; the hosts actually take you to a spot in Iceland where you can see the gap widening between two plates - one of the plates supports Europe and Asia and the second one has America on it. There's a drone shot of a bridge between the Eurasian and North American plates - it is so amazing to watch that you will wish you had been taught about it (or paid more attention to it) during geography class.
But we can do one better: I added the bridge between continents to my bucket list. Then I added the magnificent Gullfoss waterfall and chocolates (if friends and relatives arriving from Canada or the US ask, tell them to bring Omnom chocolates).
The second episode takes you to West Hollywood, Paris and Lourdes. And I’m struck at how civilised the city of love is. The water fountains in Paris make sure that everyone has access to drinking water all the time. Let us pause for a moment and think about it. That thought is greater than the miracle at Lourdes, no?
All my life I have seen the power of the dollar ride over local lands, and when ‘privilege’ meets Earth, the people build communes that we often tend to look at and label them ‘hippie expats’. But ever since I began to think about letting go of the big city life (thirty years too late), I have discovered new respect for people who live off the land without leaving a gigantic carbon footprint on the ecology of the land. There are many people and places across India that are attempting to do what these Costa Rican ecovillas are doing. It gives me food for thought. I would still be terrified of monkeys, but shouldn’t more of us think of living in gentler, better environments?
Sardinia for me was something straight out of Asterix comic books and this episode was incredible. This is a village that boasts of more centenarians than anywhere you and I have seen. If people here (and in Okinawa) can live to be happily old, could we? Is it the genes, wine, walking or the food? So the penne carousel looks like an oven baked chapati split, but it made me hungry…
Genetically engineered potatoes? Are we ready for weird French fries? The next episode was much fun. I am not sure if I’d want to try weird food, but let’s explore. Apples grown for love, growing them (growing anything, really) for the future is a mind-blowing episode. This episode takes us to Lima. And we learn about food piracy and saving species of food in case our planet breaks into war and we destroy one another. There are seed labs in many places across the world, saving food for the future. My fervent wish is that some veggies be forever gone…
Puerto Rico, home of the coqui frogs (they will not let you sleep with their incessant call at night) and the magnificent Arecibo observatory that crashed recently has been devastated by hurricanes more often than not. How do they manage to live in such an example of climate change? This episode is as heart-breaking as it is uplifting. It’s a showcase of the true community spirit of the people of Puerto Rico. It made me believe that no matter what disaster strikes, there is a possibility of healing.
‘Come see my river!’ is a dialogue that stems from pride. And the next time we go up to the mountains for a holiday (or anywhere, really) think of how much trash we produce. Are we leaving behind a mountain of packs of empty potato chips, straws, plastic cups behind us? These conservationists are rescuing not just birds and people from polluted rivers and beaches and lands, but they’re actively recreating methods by which bees are buzzing around us again, concrete walls are turning green, and the fish are not dying in the waters from all the trash we throw…
The last episode takes you to the Amazon river. It’s Iquitos. Full of life and all its dangers. How do you preserve our jungles and save yourself? What do you do when you get lost in the jungle and there’s no cell phone reception? Would you sit down and cry, or find a plant (or plants) that will save you? How far has commercialisation killed our forests, and is there a sustainable alternative? How effective are medicinal plants found in the forest? The food they eat in the show looks so tasty, I looked up recipes. Hats off to the people who are working with nature.
The only problem with this show is that there were no subtitles (because it’s in English) so it will not reach those who do not have an ear for the accents. And kudos to Zac Efron and his blue eyes to use his social clout to bring these very important issues and ways of life to us. I hope docu series like Down To Earth with Zac Efron do make us pause for a while from our unrepentant consumerism and do something for our planet. I will never forget learning how powerful and alive our planet really is. How 45 megawatts of geothermal energy can run 45,000 homes! I wonder if the steam from the kettle when I’m making chai (which I do very often) could power my phone somehow...
Manisha Lakhe is a poet, film critic, traveller, founder of Caferati — an online writer’s forum, hosts Mumbai’s oldest open mic, and teaches advertising, films and communication.