YouTube Creators: Earth’s Unlikeliest Heroes

Creators are taking the fight to the literal foreground of climate change.

A. Khaled
A. Khaled
Oct 26, 2019 · 5 min read
MrBeast sitting in a mostly-barren field with his hands around a recently-planted small tree.
Courtesy of MrBeast on YouTube.

YouTube’s resident philanthropist MrBeast is once again back at it with what might be his most ambitious goal to date — leverage a platform-wide collaboration to plant 20 million trees through the Arbor Day Foundation in what poises to be one of the largest fundraisers in YouTube’s history. If the effort is indeed MrBeast’s idea, it is with the help of hundreds of other content creators that he hopes to achieve it, and it’s a masterclass in how the economics of virality can be leveraged for the common good.

Under any other circumstances, this effort would’ve sounded benign — but the consequences for the biosphere’s slow decay are starting to show, and as climate change dominates more of the global discourse, actions serving to slow its hold are of uttermost value.

If the project was announced by anyone other than MrBeast, the reaction would’ve been a collective shrug and the goal would’ve been hard to hit — the response however has been extremely reassuring.

YouTubers put their differences aside and converged all on the attainment of this goal, and the YouTube community seems to have warmed up to it quite well, as MrBeast’s announcement video topped the trending charts mere moments after it was uploaded. The wide gamut of participating creators spans fiction author and serial Crash Course host Hank Green, common YouTube commodities like the HowToBasic channel, right up to extremely-popular fixtures like gaming YouTuber Jacksepticeye. The ubiquity of the goal makes it all the more impressive that it managed to garner as quick and swift a reaction given the ridiculous dollar amount MrBeast is hoping to raise.

MrBeast’s announcement of the #TeamTrees project.

Fundraisers in creators’ places of congregation are not a novel idea. The aforementioned Jacksepticeye organizes a monthly stream to the benefit of a select charity, often pacing comfortably above the $100k mark with certain individual donations making up a sizeable portion of the goal at times. Project For Awesome by the ‘vlogbrothers’ — Hank Green and John Green — was also one such annual effort, with each participant contributing their own video entry to the goal and having it watched and commented on by the Green brothers as a means to encourage engagement, raising comfortably well-above a million dollars every year as of recent. Twitch streamers have also been notoriously good at maximizing charity potential out of much smaller followings through engagement by hosting marathons that serve both as a useful honeypot for potential donors, and an effective way to grow their audience.

Lingering behind these conversations is this preconception often purported by mainstream media that existing online and doing things whose affect mostly resides on the internet means that their impact cannot extend farther beyond the virtual walls of these made-up spaces. Time and time again, content creators tear down that notion by rallying their fans around one single common goal, and in this case, the surgical precision with which MrBeast hits the algorithm to consistently blow past the dozen-million view mark proved just perfect for the “do good and get viral” format — only this time around, no specific beneficiary is on the other end of the transaction. It’s all done to the benefit of Mother Earth, and to her are owed all the spoils.

Why MrBeast’s campaign is taking place now, and not at any other time has partly to do with the politics of climate change activism in recent years. The threat of climate change is one that is mostly ephemeral and nebulous for the grand majority of the globe to think about, and it’s one that requires precarious planning and massive investment full decades before it reaches critical mass and can no longer be contained. In the halls of the US Congress — arguably the most influential legislative body in setting the agenda for the global discourse — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal is poised to be that piece of legislation to finally put future prosperity before unconditional growth. The reckoning with that moment though is an international event, as the likes of Greta Thunberg have mobilized millions of people across the globe to fight for a future that is firstmost sustainable, and tenable for the billions more of people who’ll have no chance but to inherit our current geopolitical climate stalemate.

In an era where the fight for our planet seems to have taken partisan shape across the globe, with the left advocating for sustainability above all and the right-wing continuing to undermine credible scientific claims of our planet’s steady but sure decline, it’s a nice change of pace that content creators took MrBeast’s pledge not as an invitation to plant a flag on either side of the debate, but posit the survival of our planet as a gesture whose compulsion to perform is only secondary to its necessity given the pace at which forests have been reduced to cinders in recent years.

The Amazon rainforest fires have set a particularly dangerous precedent for a reality we might have to accept going forward. Research suggests — as could have been easily predicted — that less trees would have to equal less moist, and therefore more of an opportunity for their declining population to turn into ash. This initiative by MrBeast will have an impact — if small — that is nonetheless laudable, and it’s one of the very few ways social media seems to work in favor of a collective project of betterment away from its natural propensity to spread toxicity.

Climate change is a global disaster in need of society-wide remedies, and it was only a matter of time until YouTube’s army of content creators would perform their own version of climate activism. This isn’t the usual deal of influential public figures sitting in front of a solid-color backdrop reciting a pre-made obituary to our planet’s almost-inevitable fate — each and every YouTuber has basically molded their format around the survival of our global flora, and it shows that if disorganized at first, efforts to right the course of our ongoing ecological disaster are being undertaken, and those whose main playground is YouTube are no exception.

The concern for now aside from raising this monumental amount of funds, is whether they’ll be used responsibly to ensure the trees planted don’t die out immediately, or aren’t invading on natural ecosystems whose survival is best fitted for their relative lack. The Arbor Day Foundation told the Verge they’re very aware of the risks involved, and that their partners — who do the actual planting — will be tasked to ensure the process moves on as smoothly as possible. Only the future will provide satisfying answers to this initiative’s ambitious goal, but to have it happen in the first place is already quite an impressive feat.

FFWD

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