Meet Baela, the Twitch Streamer Who’s Also a Climate Activist
A rare combo, but an impressive one nonetheless.
If it seems like the threat of climate change is creeping ever so closer, the response to it hasn’t been full-throated yet. The United States elected its most ardent climate denialist back in 2016, and while climate change has become an important piece of Democrats’ messaging for the upcoming elections, the fact remains that the climate movement in America is at a distinct disadvantage while political capital hasn’t yet coalesced around enacting sensible climate policy, or better yet, the ambitious piece of legislation that is the Green New Deal.
The conversations surrounding Twitch as a platform remain very focused on gaming — after all, that’s where most of the attention is — but as the IRL genre started picking up steam, some have taken to an expressed appetite by the audience to do their own versions of the talk show, with the only difference being that the host is not a conspiratorial far-right demagogue.
The script of BreadTube and leftist Twitch streamers has traditionally been to form an identity that is molded by and shaped around their political beliefs. If you’re an anarchist, however niche your ideology is, an audience is bound to find your content and bolster their own sense of group identity through that retrouvaille. The popularity of cultural fixtures like Chapo Trap House stands as a perfect example of what happens when an ideology — in this case, socialism — starts to gain mainstream recognition, propelling its most-outspoken partisans to quasi-celebrity status.
Baela breaks the script in several ways–being a climate activist and living through such a decisive moment for the planet, her politics involve a sense of empathy that is hardly replicable for other issues. The threat is abstract, the remedy is even more unknowable, but the drive to see it through is there, and that makes her crusade a more laudable one than most. Baela’s beginnings reflect that mentality: “I was born and raised on the Southern California coast, so I’ve been literally seeing coastal erosion, beached dolphins, seals, all the pollution, sewage spills–all of that stuff.”
California’s latter years have not been devoid of trouble–late last year, a wave of wildfires swept the state, and as the weather gets drier, the potential for a more disastrous outcome looms large on the horizon. Being on the frontlines of climate change in a stronghold of liberal values has a way of naturally forming climate consciousness without much intentionality.
“It’s always been “Conserve water, conserve electricity, don’t pollute”–I still do beach clean-ups once every month with the community and everything,” says Baela. “I was basically just raised in an environmental way, because you had to be if you were living along the coast–or [at least] if you were going to be a decent human being living along the coast.”
But Baela’s presence on Twitch hasn’t always been informed by that ethos–before, she conformed the traditional script of a Twitch streamer right down to the letter. “I didn’t start on Twitch with the idea of being a political streamer,” says Baela. “I found it in 2014. It was my senior year of high-school, I was playing Minecraft with the homies, and one of my friends said “Hey, there’s this thing called Twitch! I think it’d be really cool if you were to stream our shenanigans” and I’m like “Okay cool”.”
At first, Baela didn’t stick around for long, but through circumstances unforeseen, she eventually came back. “I didn’t take it seriously at all–I didn’t have a set schedule or anything, I was just derping around, and I fell off the face of the planet until university,” she says. “The reason why I initially got back into streaming in October of 2018, is I got so tired of retail and food service not being accommodating to my college schedule. I gave them the syllabi and schedule when I was interviewed, but apparently once you’re hired that gets tossed out the window and you’re expected to sell your soul to them, regardless of the agreement made during the interview.. […] I just got fed up and decided to quit.”
“I didn’t start on Twitch with the idea of being a political streamer”
Being a Twitch streamer, Baela felt naturally compelled to just stream about games since that was about the best way to build an audience, fully agnostic of what her political beliefs are. “Initially, I started out with just playing random games such as League of Legends, Don’t Starve Together, and it was fun, and I was building a gaming community, but it just felt really hollow,” she says. “Because of what I was doing in school, and what I was passionate about and what I cared about–I wasn’t doing effective praxis. […] I just felt that I was playing games in order to be liked by the Twitch community, and not for my own enjoyment. It eventually just got really tiring. […] It definitely felt like I wasn’t making content that I was proud of at all.”
Eventually, Baela found her calling, and the lane for climate activism on Twitch through a leftist perspective was blasted wide open. “This was months later on–things started naturally changing on their own, [and] I was moving away from games and talking more about books and stuff. I don’t remember the exact moment where I just fully dove into trying to be a political streamer but I remember it was this slow transition and things just finally started making sense and clicking.”
Last year’s TwitchCon was a moment of reawakening for Baela–what had once been the domain of abstraction, suddenly took physical shape:
I got invited to a political streamer dinner and even though I was literally brand new to this, it was really cool. […] I’m a non-denominational christian, so this felt like one of those “Oh, are you telling me I’m on the right path with this God?” because I’ve been working so hard to stick with “Lord, if this is not meant for me at all, just take it all away” and he hasn’t, instead there’s been more doors opening up than I can keep up with.
Still, while Baela tries to keep climate activism as integral a part of her brand as leftist politics, she couldn’t help but notice that audiences receive both very differently, despite leftism becoming synonymous with climate activism in our current self-sorting brand of polarized politics. “Everyone has their own opinions, but there’s only so much you can do if it’s just a ‘What’s your opinion?’ channel,” she says. Baela does a pretty good job of priming what has been relegated to academia for mass consumption, but there’s still a noticeable dissonance to how leftists think they’re approaching climate politics, versus their level of engagement with it. “I have yet to build an environmental audience. I noticed I get more people when it’s “Oh, Democratic debate!”–so [at the Las Vegas debate] when they brought up the climate crisis I was relieved, “Yes, thank God, this is something that’s on-brand.” But when I just talk about general environmental issues, I feel the way I’m presenting it isn’t just really hitting with people yet.”
The latter statement is an example of how the tone of climate communication has made it seem like the issue can be addressed separately from everything else, when a habitable planet is all-the-merrier for human prosperity–it makes intuitive sense, but it seems as though that link isn’t as internalized by the left as they’d like to believe.
To reach back into something that I think warranted further exploration, Baela’s views on the intersection between climate and religion interested me. Not only because tending well to creation is a core value to Abrahamic faiths, but also, to understand why climate denialism got muddled in with the religious right, such as a stronger belief in the divine came to somehow signify a greater reticence to embrace forward-looking climate policy.
“We’re supposed to be environmental stewards–it says so in Genesis,” Baela says, while making sure to stress she’s not a creationist as some would instinctively assume. “Even if you’re a young Earth theorist, everything is created by the Lord, and if everything created by the Lord is good, we should be taking care of it. […] We are not being good christians if we don’t take care of the Lord’s creation.”
Reading Baela’s story, you might come to the conclusion she’s been raised in a religious household–well, you’d be wrong. “I was an atheist up until [around] 18 or 19. [It was then that] I was at my lowest point, and I was ready to kill myself. I called three suicide hotlines and I was on hold for 30 minutes each, so I hung up and I got really angry,” she confessed. A friend of hers had long left her with the suggestion to go to a church if things got really dire, and after exploding on a prayer hotline, breathless, full of tears, things eventually lead to where she is now. “I’m still a baby Christian, so [I’m familiar with] all the atheist [talking points], and even [then], if you have empathy for people and the planet–if you’re just a decent person, you should take care of things. Does it matter if you have a religion or not? If you’re a decent human being, you should be taking care of the planet.”
The paradoxical nature of the religious right’s belief in tending well to creation, while supporting the measures that ensure its destruction, can be explained through the self-sorting mechanisms of political polarization–essentially, negative polarization made sure that as the left embraced climate policy as a part of its platform, conservatives viewed it with hostility.
After a long sigh, Baela doesn’t mince words in pointing out the hypocrisy. “It makes me angry. And this is where I have a lot of judgment–I feel that they’re liars and total hypocrites,” she says. “I don’t understand how someone can genuinely know the Lord, and then, prioritize their financial well-being over being a decent person and doing the things that Christ calls us to be — take care of the widows, take care of the orphans, take care of the sick, help the poor — if you have a jacket, and they don’t have a jacket, you’re supposed to give them yours.”
Altruism is an integral part of Baela’s politics. It’s why I wasn’t surprised that when I asked her about the contention between optimism and pessimism in climate communication, her answer was incredibly selfless. “I think the pessimism has been making people tired–America is really good at using fear mongering to get shit done but I think we’ve done it so much, that now with this issue, many don’t care,” she says. Baela also recognizes that showcasing fieldwork in a format that younger generations are much more attuned to, can be a pathway for them joining the climate activism movement. “I want to show that the information is there, and we need to be out and doing things. When you’re doing that, you feel empowered because you’re actually doing something, and you’re more likely to continue doing it. So that’s the approach I want to be taking, and I’m just trying to figure out how to incorporate that [into my content] a bit more.”
Still, Baela made sure to emphasize that when the ability to do physical fieldwork isn’t within the realm of possibility, engaging in the discourse online serves an important purpose too. “There’s always exceptions to things–if you’re disabled and you’re not able to go out, of course social media and talking about it online is gonna be the way to go,” she says. “But if you’re able, going out and picking up some trash and helping in a community garden, going to your city council meetings–it’s not a difficult thing, and I wanna [hope] that it’s not difficult.”
A major portion of what ‘can be done’ is unfortunately out of individuals’ hands, and is up to governments around the world to decide. Baela is fully aware of that problem: “I think it comes down to the issue where, a lot of people view climate as an individual problem. The way that I describe it on my stream often, [is that] you have a graph with two axes–so we have a bar graph and some people will say the X axis is whatever, and you have one bar for climate and another for economy and I’m saying “No, the X axis is literally the environment”.”
That lack of intersectionality between climate and other issues has been a pain point for presidential hopefuls in the US, where the messaging around tackling the threat of climate change has always been done in servitude of maximum profits–it’s greenwashing wasteful industries to make it seem like individual consumers have full agency over their carbon footprint.
Bernie Sanders has been the most outspoken about the need for a political revolution to have any hope of addressing climate change. His message has not been lost on Baela, who’s very much in favor of a departure from the neoliberal status quo. “We need to have public healthcare, we need a Green New Deal–I support everything that Bernie is standing for, and I think it can work in America, but we just need to shift our view from capitalism-only–it needs to be a hybrid,” she says, emphasizing the need for a robust welfare state to have a much more effective response to climate change. “So the thing I’ll say to conservatives who are so worried about their money–if you have everyone who has public healthcare, then they’re not sick, and if they’re not sick, they’re taking less time off of work, and if they do that, they’re making more money that they can spend at your business…how is that not good!?”
What Baela says is of course true. Stimulus deployment on the lower ladder of the income scale would be a net positive for the economy. In the absence of such a scheme, the poor are preoccupied with kitchen table issues as climate change is a more distant prospect for them as Baela lays out:
It’s a privilege to be able to be concerned by the climate crisis. How are you going to be able to worry about global temperatures and an increase of storms, if your daily fight is making sure you don’t get killed, that you don’t die from disease or starvation. Here in the States, if you’re a kid with asthma, or you have diabetes, and you’re struggling with getting an inhaler or Insulin because your parents can’t afford it because it’s super expensive–how is your entire family unit going to be concerned about the climate crisis if they’re just worried about their kid not fucking dying? And even if the climate crisis goes unaddressed, and there’s a higher chance of their kid dying, it’s further out in the future. So it’s an intersectional problem–if everyone is relatively healthy, more so than now by having a single-payer system like Medicare-For-All, then we can start mobilizing and thinking “Okay, we’re healthy, we’re able to go out and do shit”.
I think it’s pretty naive to expect someone whose literal daily is drowning in debt, rationing medication, or dealing with their sick family member and having to work overtime in order for that to get addressed–how dare we expect that family to even be concerned about climate. It affects them absolutely, it’s affecting them now well into the future, but we can’t just say “Screw your family, let’s go and start building wind turbines or whatever here.” It’s backwards–we have to address public health, and we can address both simultaneously, but we can’t have one without the other. We can’t move forward on effective climate policy if we’re leaving people behind, and we can’t leave climate behind if we’re only focusing on people. Because eventually, climate will hurt the people.
That made a whole lot of sense for me, which is why I felt it necessary to press on the issue of on-boarding poor countries with a global overhaul of our energy grid–which in a roundabout way, amounts to making amends for what colonialism ended up resulting in, which is mindless exploitation of resources without a care given for those most negatively affected by it. “Something that my husband had said, [is] that if we prove the Green New Deal is effective, and it’s helping our people, it’s helping the planet, people that are still looking up to [America on the global stage] will think “Oh shit! That’s looking really good. That’s amazing,” and start following suit,” says Baela. “There are nations that are already far ahead of us in terms of enacting pieces of the Green New Deal proposal that we have here, so if we were to go and just head dive into it and make it work, it would set an example. Then through good foreign policy, trade deals and the like, we can start getting this kind of technology to other areas of the world.”
While getting the global south on clean energy is important, it’s just as crucial to acknowledge they’re not responsible for the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions. “Those nations that struggle in the way of colonialism, they’re not producing the amount of greenhouse gasses that we are–they never will,” Baela says. “If we make this work, then we [can] bring this tech over to there, plugging them directly into the green grid.”
Sometimes, the urgency of the climate crisis can compel people to come up with solutions that are band-aids at most, not realizing that it’s cheaper and far more effective to address it on a fundamental level. “There’s a proposal to build this massive wall in order to address sea level rise and when I saw that I thought, “Wait, so you’re going to spend $500 billion, and use as much sand as we lost in 2019 altogether to build a goddamn wall.” Looking at it, how dumb do you have to be?–I read that and was staring at my screen for about five minutes just totally [in shock]. […] That money could be used to build an entire wind farm–there are these crazy ideas that people are fine spending all this money on, but God forbid you do something logical that helps people and the environment and everyone just starts running around like [headless chickens].”
In terms of spending, philanthropy is often floated as an option. Baela thinks there’s potential for rich people to contribute positively to these causes, but she recognizes that it’s often done out of self-interest rather than a genuine investment in the issues being tackled. “You can be a rich person that is actively using their money to help people and planet, and really doing good things,” says Baela. “Or, you can be a rich person like Jeff Bezos and set aside $10 billion in a personal fund, saying it will be used to address climate issues, when in reality the statement was so vague that we have no idea where that money is actually going to go.”.”
The aesthetic of public protest can often overtake the need to be actively involved in tackling issues, and it’s why civic participation is important. “A lot of people don’t even know that you can go and participate in your local city government,” says Baela. “Because it’s always the same people, they get comfy, and then they can do whatever they want. I want to make sure to emphasize too, if you go, you’ll be a new person, they’ll probably not want you there because you’re going to be challenging what they’ve been doing this entire time but it’s important to do that. That’s praxis–I want to be doing that on my streams.”
When that doesn’t happen, much of the action occurring can be described as ‘political hobbyism’. Baela is well-aware of the dangerous implications of being terminally trapped by theory, such as it completely paralyzes action. “It’s funny because I just picked up a book [about political hobbyism] by Eitan Hersh. I think that’s what a lot of it is for the left,” says Baela. “There’s just so many issues, even within the environmental movement […] Whereas conservatives, they have a lot less to worry about.”
So much of the current discourse is about one-uppance, and rarely pertains to concerted action around an issue. I asked Baela about the recent rounds of cancellation that some within BreadTube have been incurring, and her response was surprisingly eloquent:
It’s bloodsports. That’s all it is. It’s so annoying, and I want actual discourse [happening]. […] I think we’ve overhyped political bloodsports, it’s all about the entertainment and hype of it and so that’s why it’s so hard for us to align on anything because it’s about how we feel about others, and not about [substance] at all. […] There’s a lack of willingness to have intellectual discussion about policy and issues in a serious manner–instead it’s all about yelling and trying to get the last word in.
I think a solution to that is having people be legitimately doing things–so instead of political hobbyism, it’s actual participation in your community. You build more compassion, you’re willing to listen more, you become more human, and when that happens, it’s not about winning a god damn argument all the time. […] There needs to be more activism, good discourse, participation in your local community, and finding a way to bring that empathy and compassion onto your online interactions, and showing there’s a better way of doing things.
This was as good a summation of Baela’s theory of political change, but I couldn’t let her go without asking the most important question of all: To nuclear, or to not nuclear?
For Baela, the use of nuclear power is firstmost about not using it as a silver bullet to all of our climate problems, such as investment in renewable energy takes second priority. “I support nuclear energy but I don’t think it should be our first focus. I think we need to build our renewables first — so solar, wind, geothermal, ocean kinetic, river kinetic, all of that stuff — and where there are energy deficiencies, build plants there,” says Baela. “Ideally build it with Thorium, because it’s a bit more safe than Uranium right now. I think nuclear is something we’re going to need–but we shouldn’t be building nuclear power plants first. There’s a lot of [movement around fusion] and I think China is boasting about creating a fusion engine–if we get it, then we’re set. But until then, renewables first, and then Thorium nuclear power plants.”
Very few opportunities present themselves wherein you get to talk to someone as clear-headed about their creative vision, and the ideological core powering it. Baela is one such example, and while she may not be as easily recognizable compared to her colleagues BadBunny, LumiRue, LucidFoxx and others, she’s easily one of the most sober.