‘Down to Earth’ is another white savior quest that allows travelers to feel like they’ve made a difference without exposing the systems they benefit from.
By Mallika Singh
Towards the end of the new Netflix series Down to Earth with Zac Efron, Darin Olien tearfully says to co-host Efron, “Now, me personally losing my house, I’m gonna go down swinging, trying to move the needle on this planet to help the human family, and to help Mother Earth, that clearly is showing us what the [bleep] is wrong.” Olien has just lost his home in Malibu due to the Woolsey fires, and it seems to have opened his eyes to the present realities of climate change. His statement exemplifies the colonial narrative that permeates Down to Earth, that climate change is a great equalizer, that individual choices will save us, and that a sustainable way of life is a modern idea.
Though I don’t know if Efron and Olien are the most qualified to host a show about sustainability, the show is visually striking and informative. The shots of Iceland’s terrain took my breath away. As an herbalism student, I was awed by the medicinal knowledge and plant life present in Iquitos in the Peruvian Amazon. I was nodding along when Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of Puerto Rico, said, “You know, governments sometimes fail, but people find a way to help each other.” However, the show is also missing crucial perspectives and critiques. From Iceland to Iquitos, Efron is repeatedly thanked for using his platform to tell their stories. But whose stories are being told? We barely hear the voices of Indigenous people, of Black people, of poor and working-class women, of queer and trans people, of anyone who is most affected by climate change. Instead, we hear from white American ex-pats in Costa Rica and from a white man who performs ayahuasca ceremony in Iquitos.
People like Olien and Efron are familiar to me: my step-brother lives in a van, I’ve WWOOFed in Thailand, and grew up South Asian in Santa Fe with a wellness practitioner for a mom, meeting her clients and helping her work retreats. Entire industries are spearheaded by white wanderlusters and wellness bros, full of enthusiasm and an entitled curiosity—but lacking in an understanding of their own power and its violent impact. Olien holds the titles: “Superfood Hunter” and the “Indiana Jones of Superfoods.” His claim to fame and accumulation of capital came through popularizing indigenous foods and labeling them “superfoods”. This moniker originates as a marketing strategy, commonly used by the mainstream wellness industry which uses shame, fatphobia, and false ideals of health in order to profit. Olien is especially lauded for having “discovered” the Barukas nut, in the Brazilian Cerrado, a large tropical savanna bioregion in central Brazil. What happens when the foods of Indigenous peoples become trendy, expensive, and widely accessible? In a time where Jair Bolsonaro, President of Brazil, is actively destroying Indigenous land and ways of life, there is a centuries-long legacy of extraction and violence towards Indigenous communities.
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In their article “Are We Doing Vacations Wrong?” travel writer Bani Amor says, “The truth is that tourism, like any other capitalistic project, is about consumption for profit. But ‘place’ isn’t an endlessly renewable commodity—it is someone’s home, and the communities who call it so rarely factor in fairly to our conceptions of travel as an enlightening project.” Again and again, actual places with actual inhabitants become sites for white Westerners to accumulate knowledge, and eventually profit from that knowledge.
As Efron touches down in Puerto Rico, he calls the island “a brilliant case study for sustainability,” highlighting it’s utility. Later, in what seems to be a genuine gesture, the hosts and crew help clean up debris outside the home of a family Mayor Cruz introduces them to. However, they still do not name Puerto Rico as a colony, or the ways that U.S. control and racial capitalism intensify climate catastrophe for Puerto Ricans. Instead, they seem to be patting themselves on the back for helping out. This pattern is true of a wide range of food and travel shows. In the Netflix series Somebody Feeds Phil, Philip Rosenthal goes to Saigon, and expresses fear, rather than shame, about the history of U.S. military presence in Vietnam. In Street Food, another Netflix series, the narrators continually focus on the individual resilience of the cooks, often working-class women facing both interpersonal and state violence, without admonishing the systemic issues that have required them to be so resilient.
Throughout Down to Earth, climate change is spoken of as a totalizer, an equalizer, rather than the truth, which is that climate change affects marginalized communities more rapidly and more violently. Climate change is not approaching. It’s here, and it’s been here. The hosts often state their desire to “save” Mother Earth. I wonder about the narrative of protection, and why white capitalists feel they have the authority to protect ways of life they continually attempt to destroy. I sometimes wonder also, about the awe and surprise of white Americans when they encounter communities who live with collaboration, love, and kinship in mind. Then I remember that white supremacy requires distancing, from one another and from the land.
As Amor says, “Wanderlust is often a condition of lacking roots.” Food and travel TV feeds into this condition—whiteness as emotional lack, as disconnection, as non-relational. Down to Earth feels like another white savior quest for enlightenment, one that allows travelers to feel like they’ve made a difference, but without exposing the systems they benefit from.
Mallika Singh is a poet, cook, and facilitator who writes about borders, surveillance, and intimacies. Their chapbook Retrieval is forthcoming from Wendy’s Subway this summer.
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