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There’s No Easy Way for Musicians to Engage with Climate Change

Grimes is one of a few artists to speak on the issue. What more can the music industry do to help reverse this global catastrophe?

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02 April 2019, 9:30am

Image via Pixabay

Faeries, monsters, putting man on Mars for good: whatever nonsense you believe in won’t matter when we’re roasting to death – which is closer than we think, thanks to climate change. Right now, scientists say we have just over a decade to get our collective shit together. Or to be exact, that’s 12 years until earth begins its transformation into a giant furnace, devoid of crops and full of even more poverty.

Up to this point it’s been relatively easy to put our heads in the sand. The ozone layer always seemed like a playground joke and surely someone in power – a world leader perhaps – would come to fix all the environmental problems we learned about in school but were still too young to process. Yet nothing much has happened, beyond a few un-enforceable commitments made through the UN's 2015 Paris Agreement (which Trump announced he'd try to pull the US out of). Now, we can't ignore the signs. Last summer’s UK heatwave. California burnin’ (something that’s been called ‘The New Normal’). The catastrophic 2018 disasters in Indonesia. Literally all the scientists (AKA the experts) telling us shit is really fucked up.

Times like this, when the globe teeters on its edge, are usually ones when art voraciously and powerfully responds. Anti-war protestors at Woodstock, which itself had plenty of anti-war bands on its line-up. Miriam Makeba, protesting apartheid in South Africa. Songs for relief efforts, songs shitting on presidents. But when it comes to climate change, musicians have been relatively quiet. There’s no big song, no immediate figurehead – unless of course you count Bono or Chris Martin, whose combined pomp might be the reason no one wants to speak out. And, to be fair to everyone else, climate change has been so boring in the past it’s not a slight that those are the two modern names that spring to mind. So what can musicians do, now we know earth is definitely dying?

The first thing is to speak about it, whether in interviews, on social media, or referencing climate change in their songs. Of course, thanks to those previous efforts from Mr Bono and the conscious uncoupling dude, these efforts have the potential to come across as corny and overly sincere. Or even preachy. The BBC covered this in a 2015 piece titled 'Where are all the climate change songs?', where they ran the historical gamut of songs about the issue: from Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" (put up a parking lot!) to Paul McCartney's "Love To The Earth" – a UN-approved song released that year featuring Sean Paul, Sheryl Crowe, Leona Lewis, Fergie and more. Think of it like Kanye's "All Of The Lights" with a BBC Radio 2 cast. But that was three years ago, and this is now. And though it might be naive to think songs about climate change will never be anything less than a hard sell, the issue is more pressing than it has ever been.

Grimes is one musician choosing to dive headfirst into the topic. In an interview with The Washington Post last week she announced that her upcoming fifth album will be a concept record about “the anthropomorphic Goddess of climate Change”. In practice that might not be so overtly calling for environmental action, but at least it is focusing on the issue. The same goes for Foals, who talk about the state of the world on their most recent record Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Part 1. Speaking to us about the issues that fed into the record, frontman Yannis Phillipakis said: “What scares me right now is what scares you, right? … the bee population that’s going, environmental collapse, biodiversity collapse – the fact that on an aesthetic level there’s a plastic flotilla the size of France in the Pacific.”

On one level it’s great to see musicians like them bring focus to the issue, especially as these two acts both hold relatively high-profile roles in their respective scenes. On another level, as previous years have proven, it’s not enough to just talk – Bjork's been trying to get people (and governments) to pay attention to climate change, for far longer than those two (check her doing so in an interview here). Her 2011 album Biophilia means "love of nature", her 2017 album Utopia – well, you can understand what that means. Essentially, she doesn't sing explicitly about climate change but imbues her tunes with a sense of respect for the planet. I guess that's one way to make environmental tunes less preachy.

But beyond recording albums, what happens when we start to think about practical steps musicians can take with regard to climate change? If we’re talking about the same things that we non-musicians can also do to minimise a personal effect on the planet, then yes, there are some basic starting points. They can use paper straws, energy saving light bulbs, try and get an electric van when hiring a vehicle on tour – all the stuff that’s been pushed in the past few years and is now starting to be common sense. But the bigger issue of trying to combat climate change as a musician falls on shoulders of those higher up the food chain. Soon, you realise that kicking the problem up to promoters, venues and so on really requires investment from government and major multi-national companies.

For example: is there a way for venues to bring their cost on the environment down, whether that’s removing all plastic cups and straws, or something more dramatic, such as running on renewable energy? Could a promoter who owns a venue back their plan? Thing is: things get tricky when it comes to installing renewable energy, involving planning permission and building warrants from the local council. Then there's costs, paperwork, extra checks to follow up on. So while it's not impossible, it would be a process. One venue that's already achieved this is east London's Village Underground, who describe themselves as an 'ecological project' and run on 100 percent green energy.

Of course, when it comes to touring there’s also the problem of travel. Huge international bands often fly not only themselves but loads of equipment across the world. So where does this problem sit? And who can fix it? There are no easy answers. We can't expect bands to stop touring – first CD rips, then downloads, then streaming have all slashed the money they make from selling recorded music. Touring and merch have become vital revenue streams. So bands starting to push beyond their local circuit certainly can't buy up personal, electric-powered airplanes, while looking for a way to make enough money to survive as artist. And aviation companies themselves haven't yet figured out how to get a battery that isn't too heavy for an airplane but can hold enough charge to carry it. Perhaps the worst part is that experts don't see these being invented for long-haul flights within the next two decades. American company Wright Electric say they're developing an electric aircraft to carry EasyJet flights no longer than two hours – and even they don't see these planes to be up and running anytime soon.

So the average music fan might then think, 'OK well the immediate change here does falls to bands,' who'd then have to bear the burden of responsibility while governments and the aviation industry's key players shrug and look the other way. If bands were to stop flying entirely, venues and promoters would then have to agree with that sort of 'slow touring' structure, with tour dates then spread further apart. Or, y'know, big acts like U2 forgoing the use of private planes, which in their case is so personal it's splashed with their own logo (and you thought Bono cared about the world!)

But why does this fall back on musicians, rather than the politicians? It shouldn't. Government policy on the climate is failing or only paying lip-service, in too many ways. President Trump is heading so far in the opposite direction of fixing things that his most recent state of the union address was condemned by climate change scientists, due to the fact he completely ignored the issue altogether. Plus oil and gas giants are spending millions lobbying governments to block any climate change policies, with BP, Shell and ExxonMobil all getting involved.

Practical change falls elsewhere – whether that’s government on a grand scale, or aviation and energy conglomerates on a macro one. Sure, we'd still welcome more musicians starting to tackle climate change with their music, if they felt they could do so with authenticity. We’ve seen the way art can help raise awareness of other issues, so seeing bands and artists and rappers talking about this may indeed help. Doesn’t have to be music about saving the world or trees. Just something touching on the issue. Or IDK! Should we all just wait for the world to burn until someone does something about it!

You can find Ryan on Twitter.