How Can We Sing at a Time Like This?

Mark Pedelty, author of Ecomusicology, writes about the United Nations Environment Programme, and how he came to write about rock, folk, and the environment.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is using music to increase environmental awareness. The Music and Environment Initiative is predicated on the belief that “Music is one of the most powerful media to communicate environmental messages to billions of people worldwide—irrespective of race, religion, income, gender or age” ( Participants range from the project’s official “Patron,” Benin’s Angelique Kidjo, to the giant rock festival Lollapalooza.

In Ecomusicology: Rock, Folk, and the Environment I examine popular music as it relates to ecological crises on local, regional, national, and global scales. It was tempting to focus on the most problematic examples, like Live Earth, but hopefully, the tone remains reasonably optimistic as I also highlight examples like Pete Seeger, Jack Johnson, Mos Def, Ani DiFranco, producer Mike Martin, and musical communities around the world (See also These artists recognize that positive pleasure is more likely to change environmental practices and policies than fear tactics. Projects like UNEP’s Music and Environment Initiative provide such optimism, the hope that popular music can do more than sell beer, cars, tickets, and sex, as if any of those things really need promoting (well, tickets might).

Global projects and movements like UNEP’s Music and Environment Initiative provide hope that the popular arts will be up to the task of dealing with global environmental crises. Of course, as South Park’s young activists discovered in “Die Hippy Die,” it takes more than a rock festival to change the world, and there are as many contradictions in stadium rock concerts as there are answers. Nevertheless, UNEP’s efforts indicate that musicians, producers, and policy makers are facing global environmental problems in earnest. At the national and global levels, movements are afoot to make musical production and performance more sustainable, to use music as environmental communication and inspiration, and to remind us that, for better or worse, music is always “environmental” whether it references rainforest destruction, trashes a field in rural New York, or evokes images of young lovers singing to each other in a Volkswagen.

Rather than the national and global, it is local music that I worry about, perhaps needlessly. After all, ethnography is not a generalizable science. What the ethnographer experiences in one locale is not necessarily true for other places. Unfortunately, in my little corner of the earth, the Twin Cities of Minnesota, it is hard to find music making reference to environmental problems. Not that I expect everyone to be singing songs about environmental crises and solutions, but rather that the conspicuous lack of such connections in musical meaning, performance, or movement makes one wonder what’s gone wrong? For millennia, local music has been intimately connected to the places where we live, we love, and bother to protect (from ourselves). What does it mean when such time honored musical connections are severed?

Local bands and producers are interested in environmental questions, but given how hard it is to make a living making local music, it is understandable how little effort is made to align local art with ecological interest. As in America’s domestic policy, the priority of maintaining a growing economy preempts all other interests, especially long-term sustainability and biodiversity. The most fundamental economy—ecology in the biological sense of the term—is rendered esoteric in that magical thinking mindset.

One can hardly blame local musicians or producers for ignoring environmental matters. Like the rest of us, they have to first make a living before they are able to think about relative luxuries, like making a positive difference (i.e., beyond selling drinks, merchandise, and tickets). Many local musicians express interest in environmental matters, even if they are frustrated when trying to do something about it. The solution lies more with the rest of us, audiences and consumers. As long as that is all we are, active audiences and passive consumers, rather than music makers in our own right, local music will be impoverished. Popular music is too often viewed as a hand-to-mouth (or voice-to-ear) form of consumption as opposed to the fundamental act of human creativity and communication it is. Through music, people gain connection to community, culture, and place.

The Honk! music movement and others like it around the world provide useful models for everyone who is willing to pick up and instrument and/or their voice and get involved. UNEP, recognizing the importance of place in the environmental movement, cites not only big name acts and events, but also creative local acts like the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra. These examples might inspire acts of musical courage on the local level: creative, ecological, and different. As Simon Frith points out, it is not so important that we have local versions of big time, global musics. He argues that it is important “to support not just one’s own local music, but also ‘local’ music in general, ‘different’ music wherever it comes from” (23). Given global digital integration, the entire planet, as well as its smaller places, have become part of everyone’s virtual experience.

However, our local material and community ecologies remain the best interlocutors into environmental problems on a global scale. As we walk through the world with ears in pods and eyes on screens, we are still physically in a place where material connections and disconnections matter, literally. Somewhere in that interface between global and local lives lies a promise for more meaningful musics and more biodiverse and sustainable ecologies. Thanks go out to The United Nations Environment Programme’s Music and Environment Initiative for reminding us of music’s potential to improve our collective lives, places, and planet. 

Frith, Simon. “Popular Music and the Local State.” Rock and Popular Music: Politics, Policies, Institutions. Ed. Tony Bennett, et al. New York: Routledge, 1993. 14-24.


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