Zac Efron’s ‘Down To Earth’ is the ‘Cats’ of environmental docuseries
Netflix is essentially an empty tube of toothpaste right now. As social distancing continues, we’re all just scraping it against the bathroom counter to get any morsel that may be left inside it. So after giving up on the game show where people stay awake 24 hours to count quarters, a travel show like “Down To Earth” sounded quite nice.
During the seemingly self-aware opening Zac Efron lay shirtless in Icelandic natural hot springs as iconic documentary narrator David Attenbourough graces us with his wisdom, “Energy here in this strange world, it is all around us.”
I thought, finally, producers figured out how to make renewable energy interesting to the millennial masses.
But just a few minutes into “Down To Earth,” my partner across the couch said, “This is the ‘Cats’ of docuseries.” Well, damn, it sure was about as confusing as Rebel Wilson unzipping her own fur.
With the pacing of short YouTube videos, the episode quickly jumped from bromantic exchanges between Zac and his co-host Darin Olien and vague interviews from their geo-tourism.
Sidebar: Zac calls Darin a “Guru of healthy living and superfoods.” Ok. In this case, the word “Guru” is appropriating. You can just call him your bro, bro. Also, from reviews of Darin’s book “Superlife,” he seems to capitalize on the trendy market of so-called wellness, rather than educate on true health.
As a professional dream crusher, I questioned myself, am I being too harsh?
People are learning while looking at dad bods, and that is good, right?! But I’ve felt validated by both pop-culture critics and science communicators alike that lambasted the series as unfocused and problematic.
As one article noted, while The Bros travel the world to try and save the planet, “it’s their ideas about science and nutrition that really need rescuing.”
Because I’m a nerd with extra time on my hands — #StayHomeStaySafe — I wanted to look into some of these ideas that need clarifying. I’ve only made it through episode 1. So observations are Iceland-centric.
To be toasty and have toast: The geothermal spa
Our enthusiastically chill hosts start at a “geothermal wellness center” encompassed by epic Game-Of-Thrones-like mountain scenery. They’re visiting the Laugarvatn Fontana. The spa shares the name of the town and lake where it resides — located in the popular tourist attraction The Golden Circle on the Reykjavik peninsula.
Tourist laud this spa as they do the Blue Lagoon, for it’s another notch in the belt of Iceland’s legendary hot springs culture. Many visit for the Grams–with tagged photos showing fit folx holding champagne poolside–others bask in these warm waters that allegedly bring healing properties that stem from a combination of minerals and heat.
While hot springs and geothermal spas certainly increase well-being,but it’s another thing for it to be called a wellness center. According to a 2019 study cataloged by the National Library of Medicine, “well-documented scientific evidence and targeted experimental approaches are needed to definitively recognize the beneficial effects of spa treatment in the various medical areas.”
But at this point in the episode, wellness isn’t why we’re here anyway! No, we’re here to talk about bread. The bros talk with spa managing director Siggi Hilmarsson, who explains that a short walk away from the pools are volcanic black sands with boiling water beneath them.
In this episode, Hilmarsson could be better described as a baker who mastered the traditional making of Icelandic Rye Bread called Hverabrauð. Simply, we can all call it lava bread. It’s fascinating, truly. But unfortunately, Zac and Darien banter about BS rather than asking Hilmarsson good questions.
So, let’s put our curious selves in Zac’s toasty lil beanie and big flannel jacket. We can keep their rhetoric for the sake of tone consistency.
Hypothetical question: “Yo, Hilmarsson, obviously the sand and water is hot because it’s from a volcano. That’s sick. But, like, how does it stay boiling?”
“It’s a volcanic hotbed punctuated by tectonic cracks that allow hot water to rise up through the water and soil,” Hilmarsson may have replied, as he did with a recent interview with an NPR station.
“Our biggest challenge is rain. If it rains a lot, these holes can cool down, and if they are not hot enough, obviously the bread does not bake completely.”
*Curiously scratches mustache* A follow-up could be, “Dope. Some would consider this an innovative approach to green energy, but hasn’t your family been doing this for generations?”
“I know for sure that in village, I can track it down as far as 1800 something,” Hilmarsson told The Weather Channel. “My grandmother taught my mother how to bake this bread, and my mother taught me.”
Hilmarsson might have continued saying it’s a nice way to preserve a part of Iceland’s past.
“We have less snow today than we used to have,” as he told WBUR. “Climate change is obviously affecting the whole world … They are estimating that in 200 years all the glaciers are gone here if climate change keeps on developing the way it is today. There are farmers here that have changed from the original farming because of warmer weather.”
But, despite it’s a show about the environment, why go into that kind of detail? Alas, Hilmarsson explains the water beneath the sand was 95 degrees Celsius (AKA 203 degrees Fahrenheit), and Zac leaned closer to it, making the keen observation it was hot.
After 24 hours, this seven-pound, dense piece of carbohydrate mastery certainly is ready. As Zac is really good at observing, he noted that the bread was hot. Hilmarsson mentions it is cake-like, and online reviews have mentioned a faint caramel-like taste.
“That’s mother nature bro.” Wait, what?
The bros carry on like wayward sons. Let’s skip ahead to their visit to Hellisheiði Power Station, where they explore how geothermal- and- hydro-power works.
In an unnecessary graphic comparing the depth of a borehole to nearly 5 Empire State buildings, Zac explains that hot water is pumped from deep underground and eventually turned into a stream that spins a turbine.
They talk to On Power managing director of natural resources Marta Rós Karlsdóttir and geologist Sandra Ósk Snæbjörnsdóttir. These smart ladies kindly explain to The Bros that turbines have big rotor blades in them, and that the rotation turns into electricity.
Marta: 45 megawatts per turbine.
Zac: 45 megawatts!!!
A voiceover then cuts in saying, “45 megawatts can run 45,000 homes.” Followed by, “that’s a lot of energy.” Yes, yes it is. But Zac — and his equally uninformative cohost — seems to have oversimplified this. Like, is this 45 megawatts (MW) a year? A week? A Day? Also, what kind of homes? Also, what kind of homes? Big houses? Little apartments?
Marta only said “megawatts” (MW) not “megawatts per hour (MWh).” So, we can assume the turbine’s capacity is based on MW per year.
And 45,000 homes seems to based on this logic:
1 MW = 1,000 kilowatts
Assuming the average home uses 1,000 KW.
Simple math — 45(MW) X 1,000(KW) — equates that to 45,000.
As noted in an educational flyer from Nuclear Regulatory Commission, “The commonly used one MW of generation equates to 1,000 homes is a myth that likely originated years ago when households were smaller and air conditioning wasn’t as common.” Also, this information refers to US homes, not Icelandic ones.
Iceland has consistently used the most electricity out of any other country for the last few years.
The actual unit measuring electric energy in most utility bills is megawatts per hour (MWh) or kilowatts per hour (KWh. And Icelanders consume about 54,000 KWh per person, compared to a U.S. household that uses closer to 10,000 KWh. But the bros don’t talk about that tho, rather questioning if UFOs and Santa’s elves are the ones “really” using all this power. (Pssst … It’s because it’s cold there, yo.)
By all means, powering any number of houses with green energy is great, don’t get me wrong. Just wish The Bros explained the measurements a bit better because math is hard. And if are all to switch to renewable energy in the future we need to know a little bit about how these units work, because units are how we will be charged to pay for the electricity.
Anyway, so, then Zac asks about any “downsides” to geothermal energy.
Sandra says, “um … of course there are always downsides.” She was likely taken aback because of their (literally) groundbreaking CarbFix method — which neutralizes the small amount of CO2 and hydrogen sulfide the plan does emit.
The tour group goes to see how the CarbFix method works. Igloo-shaped domes cover boreholes, where CO2 is injected back into the ground. The harmful gases are turned into rock.
Zac: “It looks like Jurassic Park.”
Darien: “That’s mother earth, Bro”
Me: NO! That’s people’s IMPACT on mother earth, bro. This carbon capture program is amazing, but the reason we even need carbon capture tech is because of people putting too much carbon into the atmosphere.
Darien finally chimes in with some insight, “This could be an answer for many industries around the world that have excess CO2.” Indeed, it could also be a trillion-dollar business.
Don’t fall into the falls, bros
Ok, last tangent. I’ll keep it short(ish).
Getting toward the end of the episode, The Bros visit Gullfoss Falls, one of the most popular tour attractions in Iceland. The Bros appear to open this bit by doing what so many tourists wrongly do: Go to unsanctioned areas because they didn’t research the trail before they went. This is damaging to the natural landscape. And frankly just dangerous for people.
So, an alleged employee of Umhverfis Stofmum Environmental Agency says they’re “cliff zone.” (I call him alleged because we never know his name, and even The Bros are unsure if he actually works at the falls.)
In either case, the so-called employee brings The Bros to a viewpoint and explains some basics in meters, which baffles the Bros who didn’t Google the metric system before the visit. But they did Google how many people visit the falls each year: 1.34 million.
Zac notes that is “a lot” of people, but the context ends there. So, reports note that places like Gullfoss “have long reached” their tolerance limits for people. This means that vulnerable vegetation and paths are in bad shape, putting the environment in the area at risk. This is a problem not just in Iceland, but any popular trail.
The Bros then poorly attempt to frame a narrative that balances energy use and conversations, while then spouting off about “negative ions that create positive vibes at the falls,” which is Huffington Post headline written by an unverified contributor in 2017.
As I step down from this soapbox, you may be wondering: is she bias against The Bros? And of course I am. Too long has the environmental movement and leadership been white and male. Part of my frustration is absolutely that Zac doesn’t have rotating hosts that better represent the people who work in the environmental sector.
At its best, Down To Earth is a double-edged sword. It offers a glimpse into climate change solutions that some people otherwise may not know about. But the oversimplified science — and even pseudoscience — is not helpful even on an intro-to-climate-change level. And, who exactly is the audience?
At one-point Zac says, “Electricity is easy to take for granted.” And for anyone who barely just paid their utility bill, they certainly don’t take it for granted.
Educating the public on climate change is crucial, and there’s nothing wrong with making that information accessible through the lens of an eco-vacation. But we need voices and verified information that people relate to — not two bros soaking in the Blue Lagoon preaching that they have solutions figured out. Don’t think I can hang with the rest of the season, my dudes.