Environmentalism as Entertainment: Does It Get Us Anywhere?


Claire Peterson

(Graphic by Claire Peterson | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Luke Jackson


I, like many middle-class Americans, have an odd obsession with watching shows where rich, famous people stay in fancy places and eat fancy food that I could never afford. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with living vicariously through the likes of Phil Rosenthal, Stanley Tucci and David Chang. However, there is a subcategory of this brand of television that seems to be slightly more problematic.

I speak of shows that involve celebrities — some with good intentions, some without — who strive to provide “new perspectives on old problems,” like sustainable energy and environmental conservation. Think of “Down to Earth” with Zac Efron or Leonardo DiCaprio’s “Before the Flood.”

There is nothing inherently wrong with celebrities trying to spread environmental awareness while simultaneously promoting their brand. If anything, maybe it’s commendable that they’ve found ways to use their wealth to further their passions in these areas. Still, with this type of environmentalism comes commercialism and misinformation. So, is there a balance? How much good do these shows really do, and should we take their messages to heart?

“Down to Earth” With Zac Efron in Iceland

From history to geography, Iceland is one of the most unique countries on our planet, leading our teen heartthrob Zac Efron to head out to Iceland to explore its natural beauty and to learn how 100% of the electricity comes from renewable energy.

In the last 50 years, Iceland has gone from relying on shipped oil and coal to utilizing its natural volcanos and waterfalls. Electricity in Iceland is provided in about a 70/30 split between waterfalls and volcanos respectively. Pretty impressive, right? Efron thought so. He went on to use this statistic to compare the United States’ reliance on coal, petroleum and natural gas to produce 63% of our electricity. “We definitely have a long way to go,” stated Efron.

We do, but is comparing us to Iceland the most helpful way to kick our butts into gear? Iceland commendably has used its natural resources to provide electricity, but to reiterate, Iceland is a unique place. With around 10,000 waterfalls and 130 volcanoes, they are in a unique position. This isn’t to say America can’t do a better job with our sustainability efforts, but to add some perspective, America is about 95 times bigger than Iceland and only has about 7000 more waterfalls. If America had the same square mile to waterfall ratio as Iceland, it would have 954,763 waterfalls, give or take a few.

And yes, the series is entertaining — shows like these that take us from our couches across the globe can be inspiring. But, through the lens of discussing sustainability, is it fair to show American viewers an idealistic environment and tell them to personally be working towards sustainable and healthy lifestyles while partaking in expensive tourism on Netflix’s dime?

Blanket Statements and Balances

So, where does the blanket statement of “we definitely have a long way to go” as a call to action get us? It doesn’t feel very far. Shows like “Down to Earth” are loaded with these attempts to not be insensitive. “Change has to start somewhere” or “change what we can before it’s too late” are often heard throughout the show, but what does that mean? Does showing a statistic and saying “Wow, we suck” inspire change? Does watching Zac Efron float in an expensive, exclusive hot spring help? In a world where a thousand different voices shout at us to go a million different ways, do we maybe warrant celebrities a little too much power?

I don’t have the answers. I also don’t think there is anything wrong with promoting Iceland and its climate feats in media — I had the pleasure of traveling there about three years ago and it’s one of my favorite places on the planet. Iceland can very well be used as a model for sustainability. I just am not sure if remote celebrity vacations with a tinge of climate guilt are the right place to start.

What’s the balance in these nature documentaries, tourism series and more between pure entertainment and environmental activism? We know that documentaries and docuseries can have huge impacts on how we see the world — just look at the documentary “Blackfish” and its impact on SeaWorld’s operations. Maybe what we need are passionate solutions from the Zac Efrons of the world. If they traded in the blanket statement for using their influence to spark real action, maybe we would see more effort towards climate awareness over eco-tourism.

Anyway, next up Phil is going to Singapore. I really hope somebody feeds him.


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