The impact of most memes stays online — people laugh to themselves, conspire to raid Area 51, and move onto the next meme.
But when prominent YouTube creator Mr. Beast saw some memes on Reddit calling on him to plant 20 million trees — such as Lisa Simpson standing in front of a projection presenting the challenge to an audience — in honor of him getting 20 million YouTube subscribers, he agreed and named the effort #TeamTrees.
Reddit really wants me to plant 20 million trees. pic.twitter.com/peGsq3eBjO— MrBeast (@MrBeastYT) May 23, 2019
Hundreds of other YouTube creators soon joined #TeamTrees and a dedicated platform for the campaign was created on Oct. 25. Within less than a week, they managed to raise more than $8 million for the Arbor Day Foundation, a conservation organization that spearheads tree-planting projects in high-need areas. The organization said it will start planting trees for the campaign in January and finish in three years.
More than $1.75 million has been raised on YouTube alone, according to the Guardian. The climate action campaign is unusual for YouTube, which has been criticized for becoming a clearinghouse for climate deniers.
In the spirit of meme culture, the billionaire Elon Musk changed his Twitter name to “Treelon” and donated $1 million to the cause. The DJ Alan Walker donated $100,000, and the CEO of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, chipped in $150,000.
We’ve created a new superhero pic.twitter.com/UYWBxqeOKo— MrBeast (@MrBeastYT) October 30, 2019
The ultimate goal of #TeamTrees is to raise money to plant 20 million trees, with each tree costing $1 to transport and plant. Mr. Beast said that the campaign also aims to spur more awareness of the climate crisis and inspire people to take action.
“Just to be clear we all realize 20 million trees won’t fix climate change,” he wrote on Twitter. “But at the end of the day 20 million more trees is better [than] 0! We want to take action because doing nothing is how we got here!”
The idea that planting trees can combat climate change has gained relevance in recent months, after a study was published arguing that restoring forests on a large scale could pull a significant amount of the carbon that’s heating the planet out of the atmosphere.
The United Nations urges countries to plant 1.2 trillion trees to cancel out a decade’s worth of carbon emissions. Countries such as Ethiopia, New Zealand, and Pakistan have embarked on massive, population-wide tree-planting campaigns in recent years and countries across the Sahel in Africa have joined up to reforest 5,000 miles.
More important than planting new trees, however, is conserving existing forests that act as carbon sinks and stabilize the climate. Unless the pace of deforestation slows, then it will be nearly impossible to grow global forest cover.
An estimated 46% of all trees have been felled since humans began chopping down and burning forests and enough trees to fill all of South Africa were destroyed between 1990 and 2016. The rate of tree loss has reached 64 million acres per year, which is equivalent in size to the United Kingdom.
A dangerous feedback loop is occurring as deforestation accelerates climate change, and climate change accelerates deforestation. In fact, rising temperatures and droughts are sparking wildfires in previously untouched landscapes. Unprecedented fires in remote parts of the Arctic have turned teeming forest ecosystems into charred wastelands.
The #TeamTrees campaign is ultimately modest in the face of the climate crisis. But what started as a gimmick could become a symbol of crowdsourced conservation if the YouTubers behind it commit full-time to saving the planet.