Last year, I posted a regular Friday twitter thread #ClimateRocks featuring songs I’ve been listening to over the last few years that address climate change in some way. As I’m no longer on Twitter, I’m putting the whole thing here. Enjoy!
First up has to be…
1) Seasons End by Marillion. Incredibly, it was written in 1988 – the first I ever heard climate change referenced in a song. Love the guitar solo, but the lyrics are what makes this truly sublime:
“We’ll tell our children’s children why…”.
There’s also a reference to the ozone hole there:
“We grew so tall and reached so high / We left our footprints in the earth / And punched a hole right through the sky”.
2) The next entry for my Friday #ClimateRocks series just has to be Billie Eilish with All the Good Girls Go to Hell. Now at first sight, this might not seem to be about climate change. But pay attention to the lyrics. It’s a damning indictment of humanity for what we’ve done to the planet, framed as a debate between good and evil. It’s quite a contrast to last week’s song. In the late 80s, in an earlier generation, Marillion were writing about climate change as a future threat, a curious news item (“I heard somebody say…”). Fast forward to 2019, and Eilish, captures the angst of her generation—who have grown up with climate change as a fact all around them: “There’s nothing left to save now”. The song is both gorgeous and nihilistic, an anthem for our current predicament.
While we’re at it, the visuals in the video are very apt too: Eilish is dressed as a fallen angel, rising from a pool of oil, struggling through a barren landscape trailing streams of black oil behind her, while the world around her burns.
3) The next #ClimateRocks song has to be Buffy Ste Marie with Carry it On, from her 2015 album, Power in the Blood. In contrast to Billie Eilish last week, this song is full of hope, a call to action. Carry it On represents only the latest in a long series of protest songs from Buffy, covering Indigenous rights, peace, and environmental justice, going all the way back to her 1960s anti-war anthem Universal Soldier. Buffy donated the song Carry it On to the global climate movement, and it works brilliantly as the protest song we need, inviting us to take heart and join together in collective action to protect the Earth. It’s all about hope.
4) As Buffy Ste Marie has been singing environmental protest songs since the 1960s, so it only seems right to pair her with Neil Young. Two songs on Neil Young’s 2019 album Colorado are explicitly about climate change, so I’m going to include them both. The first is “Green is Blue”, a gorgeous song that laments all the things we didn’t do despite the warnings:
“We heard the warning calls, ignored them
We watched the weather change, we saw the fires and floods
We saw the people rise, divided
We fought each other while we lost our coveted prize
There’s so much we didn’t do
That we knew we had to do”
And it’s immediately followed by a grungy protest song, Shut it Down, which really gets to the heart of the matter:
“They’re all wearing climate change/As cool as they can be/Have to shut the whole system down”
Interestingly, Neil Young released a new video for Shut it Down in 2020, during the first wave of the pandemic, which deftly re-purposes the song for the collective effort to flatten the curve. Actually, watching that video almost seems nostalgic. That was long before the anti-vaxxers and lockdown protesters destroyed the collective sense that we are all responsible for protecting one another.
As a bonus, here’s a whole essay about how Neil Young has addressed climate change and environmental issues during his long career.
5) Okay, next up is, of course, Miley Cyrus, with her 2008 song Wake Up America. I wasn’t aware of this song until after I started this thread, but it’s just perfect for the series. Incredibly, Miley was only 16 when she wrote it, but it captures perfectly the bewilderment of a 2000s teen discovering the climate crisis:
“I want to learn what it’s all about but
Everything I read’s global warming, going green
I don’t know what all this means
But it seems to be saying…”
Miley wrote this during one of the big waves of activism on climate change, around the time of Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, and the lead up to the 2009 Copenhagen talks, which were supposed to usher in a new global agreement, but were completely derailed by fossil fuel funded disinformation. Today’s teens, of course, grew up in a very different world. They do know what all this means, and are (rightfully) a lot more angry about it.
6) This one picks up on the same theme as last week’s. It’s Melissa Etheridge with “I need to Wake Up“, written in 2006, specifically for the movie An Inconvenient Truth, and an Academy Award winner for best original song. So written a couple of years before Miley Cyrus’s Wake Up America, and, I think, a lot more convincing, because it’s focussed inwards on shaking oneself out of denial, rather than berating others to do so. And realizing connections matter:
“I am not an island / I am not alone”.
Oh, and I listened a lot to Melissa Etheridge in the 90s, so I have a soft spot for her voice.
7) Next up, three songs that appear to be about climate change, but are not. Interestingly, each is about a different global issue that connects to the climate crisis in important ways. The first is Midnight Oil from 1987 with Beds are Burning. The chorus is instantly familiar:
“How can we dance when our earth is turning? / How do we sleep while our beds are burning?”
But Beds are Burning was actually written to raise awareness of the need to return stolen land to Indigenous communities, in this case, the return of Iluru (previously Ayers Rock) in Australia to the Anangu peoples, to whom it is a sacred site.
The connection to climate change is deep: colonialism spread the idea that we can buy and sell (and steal) land, own the rights to natural resources, and extract them for profit without taking responsibility for the long term consequences. It’s no coincidence colonialists work to eradicate Indigenous cultures. Those cultures offer radical alternatives to extractivism: eg land should belong to the community not the individual, and it must be safeguarded for the benefit of future generations.
Naturally, in 2009, a large group of celebrities repurposed Beds are Burning as a climate protest song, with updated lyrics. And in the process, they eradicated the Indigenous land issues the song was written about.
8) Our second example is Peter Gabriel’s 1977 song Here Comes the Flood.
“Lord, here comes the flood / We’ll say goodbye to flesh and blood / If again the seas are silent / In any still alive…”
It could be about sea level rise and flash floods from extreme weather events under global warming. It’s not. Gabriel wrote the song after a dream “in which the psychic barriers which normally prevent us from seeing into each others’ thoughts had been completely eroded producing a mental flood”. Such a flood would sweep away those who prefer to cut themselves off as islands—concealing their innermost thoughts—just as much as those who are open and honest. He might as well have been describing the mental flood of social media, especially the way it sweeps away rational argument and stokes divisions, as everyone’s innermost thoughts are broadcast to the world. It’s ironic that the flood of disinformation on social media has come to dominate public discourse at exactly the moment in history when we most need to come together to address the climate crisis.
“There’s no point in direction / We cannot even choose a side”
9) Our third example is Chris Rea with The Road to Hell from 1989:
“Well, I’m standing by a river but the water doesn’t flow / It boils with every poison you can think of […] This ain’t no technological breakdown, oh no, this is the road to hell”
The inspiration for this song came when Rea was stuck in traffic on London’s M25 orbital motorway, a road that goes nowhere, and is notoriously congested. The locals call it the M25 car park. This is the “river that doesn’t flow” in the first line of the song. But the song is really much darker than just bad traffic.
It’s about being stuck on a technological path that inevitably leads to our destruction, and the feeling there’s nothing we can do about it. The M25 epitomizes what urban planners have learned the hard way: building more roads only increases traffic congestion. So, it does work very well as a metaphor for climate change. The question is: what are the exits from the road to hell, and will we take any of them?
10) This one isn’t subtle at all: it’s Muse with “The 2nd Law: Unsustainable“. Everything about this song is over-the-top, so if you’ve never heard it before, turn up the volume and listen… Musically, the song fuses Muse’s trademark bombastic stadium rock with dubstep (inspired by the band listening to Skrillex, apparently). It shouldn’t work, but it does.
But of course, we’re here for the lyrics. Delivered by a faux newsreader, they start out literally with the 2nd law of thermodynamics:
“All natural and technological processes proceed in such a way that the availability of the remaining energy decreases”…
And then use this as a metaphor for climate change and environmental destruction:
“The fundamental laws of thermodynamics will place fixed limits on technological innovation and human advancement. […] A species set on endless growth is unsustainable”
I already wrote about how this song links the 1972 Limits to Growth study with more recent work from ecological economists on our obsession with economic growth.
As a bonus, the next song on the album is a haunting piece called “The 2nd Law: Isolated System“, weaving lyrics from the previous song with snippets of news reports documenting a collapsing economy. (And was used in the zombie movie World War Z)
11) Next is a French band called Delusion Squared, with the song “An Ominous Way Down“. Like the previous songs from MUSE, it weaves snippets of news and speeches into the music. This song is from their album “Anthropocene”. The first few songs tackle climate change, war, food crises and the collapse of the biosphere. Partway through the album it moves into a post-apocalyptic wasteland, with songs about the survivors. There’s even a song, Under Control, about a desperate geoengineering plan to save the planet:
“We have a plan to cure the biosphere / There’s nothing that cannot be engineered /The loss of sunlight is so small a price to pay / And you’ll see everything will be okay”
I could have picked almost any song from this album, but An Ominous Way down is the one that first captivated me, because of the sampled voices. I’ve managed to track a few of them down. It’s quite a collection!
- “Even now, man may be unwittingly changing the world’s climate through the waste products of its civilization” is a quote from the 1958 Frank Capra movie Unchained Goddess. Yes, 1958!
- “If you actually believe that global warming is the biggest problem we face…you’re the dumbest son-of-a-bitch on the planet.” is Glenn Beck, talking about then-President Obama in 2015. In the song, this quote helps set the scene for why we let the apocalypse happen.
- “The ocean is not Republican. It is not Democrat. All it knows how to do is rise.” is Mayor Levine of Miami, in the National Geographic documentary Before the Flood (narrated by Leonardo Di Caprio)
- “No amount of technology and no amount of human ingenuity can possibly overturn the laws of physics” is Mike Ruppert in the documentary “Collapse”
- And “We believed then and now: There are no limits to growth and human progress when men and women are free to follow their dreams” is Ronald Reagan in his inaugural address, ushering in the neo-liberal era in defiance of warnings of the Limits to Growth study.
And all these quotes are woven through a lovely gentle song about a fight to save a majestic oak, which ends:
“There was a great old oak tree / We promised it would be regrown / While we were celebrating / The whole forest went down”.
Not seeing the wood for the trees.
12) Finally, the 1975 with their song “The 1975“, which sets a Greta Thunburg speech to ambient background music. It packs a punch. The song has a wikipedia page, so I won’t explain the background, except to say the band’s intent was to document Greta’s words in popular culture. As a piece of art, I think it works brilliantly–it certainly makes you stop and think.