The GenZ Quest to Plant 20 Million Trees

 /  Nov. 17, 2019, 7:48 p.m.


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A YouTuber reaching a subscriber milestone might throw a party, sell celebratory merchandise, or simply get back to work. When twenty-one-year-old Jimmy Donaldson, known on YouTube as MrBeast, earned his twenty-millionth subscriber, he decided to plant twenty million trees.

The idea started five months ago as a post on Reddit. A seventeen-year old fan of Donaldson jokingly begged him to “single handedly save earth [sic].” The idea quickly gained popularity among his fans, leading Donaldson himself to acknowledge it on Twitter within the next few days. Meme became action in late October when the YouTuber uploaded a seven-minute video announcing the project entitled “Planting 20,000,000 Trees, My Biggest Project Ever!”

Donaldson has paired up with the Arbor Day Foundation, a non-profit tree-planting organization, with the goal of raising twenty million dollars to plant twenty million trees around the world. Activists donate directly on the project’s website or through third-party sites like YouTube. For each dollar donated, Donaldson and the Foundation pledge to plant and maintain a tree somewhere in the world in “a forest of high need.” Through their frequent maintenance and long-term experience in the field, the Foundation claims a 97 percent survival rate for trees planted, according to a representative.

The TeamTrees project is a subset of the Arbor Day Foundation’s Time for Trees initiative, which aims to plant one hundred million trees by 2022, the 150th anniversary of Arbor Day being celebrated in the United States. One of the impacts of that many trees would be to conserve enough water to fill a water bottle for every person on Earth, every day, for five years.

In its first week, the TeamTrees movement quickly gained steam on YouTube and picked up some high-profile donors. Four days after the project’s launch, SpaceX founder Elon Musk tweeted about the movement and donated $1 million, followed an hour later by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey contributing $150,000 of his own. Other high-profile donors include Shopify founder Tobias Lütke ($1,000,001), entrepreneur Marc Benioff ($900,000), and the Ukranian government ($50,001).

Despite these high-money benefactors, the majority of the money coming in to TeamTrees is in the form of small-dollar donations. According to the Foundation, the average donation size ranges between five and twenty dollars, and many are as low as a single dollar. At its current rate, TeamTrees is expected to reach its goal well before its deadline on December 31. If they reach the twenty million benchmark early, the Arbor Day Foundation says that they will continue accepting donations until the end of the year.

While the Foundation does not record information about contributors to its projects, it estimates that most donors for TeamTrees have come from Donaldson’s YouTube subscription base. “We don't collect the demographic data of the people that have donated,” Danny Cohn, the foundation’s Director of Public Relations told The Gate, “but we can guess, based on who the followers are for his YouTube channel, that it’s mostly coming in from Gen Z and millennials.” These are the age groups Donaldson targeted the project towards.

Many environmentalist organizations call for afforestation and reforestation to fight the effects of climate change. According to the Arbor Day Foundation, among their other effects, twenty million trees would absorb 1.6 million tons of carbon—equivalent to taking 1.26 million cars off the road for a year, per the EPA—and would remove one hundred-fifteen thousand tons of chemical pollution from their surroundings.

Cohn believes that “trees are really the easiest, simplest, and most cost-effective solution to climate change . . . Every solution out there is good and worthy of exploring, but if you want something that knows no economic disparity, no race disparity, no boundary disparity—everyone can plant a tree. It is something easy that everyone can do, and it's extremely simple.”

Planting trees is one form of carbon sequestration, the process of removing already-released greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Sequestration—also known as “carbon capture and storage”—is a vital step in achieving net-zero emissions, a goal expressed by at least ten of the Democratic presidential candidates and considered necessary by 2050 by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. There are only a few artificial carbon capture systems currently in operation; planting trees, on the other hand, provides an easy, natural way to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

However, some environmental and international groups warn that carbon sequestration alone is not a complete solution to climate change. To keep global warming in line with the Paris Agreement, a 2018 UN IPCC report recommended a massive switch to renewable energy; it suggested that green technologies ought to make up 70–85 percent of worldwide energy production by 2050, almost fully phasing out coal and other fossil fuels. The report described these changes as “unprecedented in terms of scale, but not necessarily in terms of speed.”

Though not an all-encompassing solution, Donaldson wants to underline the importance of simple actions, like planting trees, instead of inaction. “I personally haven't always been the most environmentally friendly,” Donaldson admitted in the TeamTrees announcement video. “We’ve burnt a box before, and we've done many other dumb things. A lot of you might be of the mindset of the old me that was basically ‘someone else will figure it out’. . . We only have one Earth, and it's important we take care of it. Recently, lots of not-so-great things have been happening to forests, and people keep making fun of our generation for ‘retweet activism’ and not actually doing something . . . This is your chance to make a difference.”

You can view the number of trees donated and donate at www.teamtrees.org.

The photo featured in this article is in the public domain.


Jake Biderman

Jake Biderman is a third-year political science major interested in law who spent the summer covering the Democratic caucuses in Des Moines. When he’s not worrying about Americans’ critical thinking skills, he’s exercising, learning foreign languages, or watching baseball. Go Nats!


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