Social media platforms are no longer just for selfies and blogs but a place “to organise and educate” people about the climate crisis, according to YouTube star turned activist filmmaker Jack Harries.
One of a growing band of “green influencers” who are harnessing the power of social media to tell stories about the climate to create change, Harries has made a series called The Breakdown for the free environmental streaming service WaterBear, which was founded last year by the creator of Netflix documentary My Octopus Teacher Ellen Windemuth, and is backed by Prince Harry, Lily Cole and Maisie Williams.
Aimed at the TikTok generation who feel overwhelmed by environmental issues, The Breakdown has short snappy episodes and enables viewers to click through via WaterBear’s interactive hub to sign petitions and engage with climate organisations.
Having gained about 4 million followers on the YouTube channel JacksGap he founded with his twin brother Finn in 2011, 28-year-old Harries has grown up amid the rise of social platforms but thinks it has changed.
“In a way social media has transformed in the last year as not just a space for selfies and blogs but a space to organise and educate one another, which I think in the climate space is really exciting,” Harries told the Guardian.
He highlighted some of the work of others such as regenerative gardener Poppy Okotcha, Leah Thomas, who created Intersectional Environmentalist, and Jerome Foster, who is on the White House board for climate justice, as young people who are using their digital presence and “single-handedly changing the world”.
Harries, his brother and filmmaker Alice Aedy, have also created a production studio and platform called Earthrise, which already has 159,000 followers on Instagram (over 11 times more than ITV Studios and BBC Studios combined) and which he says is “dedicated solely to communicating the climate crisis”.
“We felt we were following all these amazing young individuals online who were talking about the solutions and we felt they needed more of a spotlight, so a lot of the point of Earthrise is to lift up people who are doing amazing work in this space.”
Despite appearing in the CBBC series Planet Defenders and interviewing Sir David Attenborough, his internet fame in his early years meant he found he “had to work backwards” and dispel preconceptions about being described as a social media influencer.
Harries says that having found “completely unexpected internet fame” with JacksGap he questioned what to do with his influence. He and Finn took a break and while his brother studied architecture, Harries studied film.
A trip to Greenland for a WWF film where he saw glaciers melting and fear in the faces of glaciologists triggered Harries to feel overwhelmed and angry, which ultimately led to him joining Extinction Rebellion and being arrested for gluing himself to a building.
“It probably wasn’t the best use of my time but I was processing it and understanding where to place myself. It brought me back to the YouTube channel and to this position of influence and that it was probably the most impactful thing I could do.
“I wish I was a scientist doing some of the groundbreaking research on the front line but that’s not my skill, mine is communication so at some point you have to think: How can I lend what I have to this movement?. Our aim through Earthrise is: how can we harness the power of storytelling?”
Harries wanted to make The Breakdown to give the context of the crisis (“How we got here, where we’re headed and what we can do about it”) for those who “don’t normally engage” with climate issues. The five-part series uses innovative, snappy graphics to make it attractive in what Harries describes as “the TokTok era”.
“My generation have such short attention spans so when I started on YouTube I learnt to make them as bite-sized as possible.”
Harries’ next project is a YouTube series featuring Attenborough called A Seat at the Table, which leads up to the Cop26 climate conference in November. He remains optimistic about change.
“There’s a quote by Mary Annaise Heglar in The Breakdown who says about climate you can either be overwhelmed by the complexity of the problem or fall in love with the creativity of the solutions.
“Nature is the solution, so falling in love with nature is very much what we need to do. Nature has the capability to heal itself and we need to step back and let it do that.”
The Breakdown airs on WaterBear from 18 June.