Some musings about making sense of climate change through art.
National Blog Post Month – blog #5
Some people worry about money.
Others, they fret about tests.
Some carry the burden of romantic hurting.
Worthwhile stresses I guess… I guess…
But in the event of an emergency
Don’t cover your head, or put it between your knees.
Find your strength, in this company.
Cause the seas will rise and the storms will rage.
That’s what you get when you’ve got climate change.
Yeah. We’ve got climate change.
— Lyrical excerpt from my unrecorded song, “In the Event of an Emergency”
On the eve of a performance at an event to help raise charitable funds, I’m reflecting on my pathway coming to be a climate activist disguised as a “musician.”
I sang for my sustainability colleagues in 2012. I wrote my emergency song primary over the dish sink, while contemplating how to coach myself out of depression, while also enduring a terrible relationship and trying to be a good mom.
A lesson from that time perhaps, was that I neglected self care in a lot of ways, as I was more concerned about the big coming wave of disasters and a future for my child. Luckily I kept my mental and emotional state afloat because I was so dedicated to low carbon and active transportation year round, and I kept up my writing to process the hard stuff.
The song was my tiny break as a musician. People liked it and asked me to sing it at a number of sustainability policy conferences (I did say tiny). It also led me to Danton and our Decades After Paris project.
My Pre-Existing Condition
I don’t really have an off switch. I haven’t for a while. It’s not like the continuous nattering of a radio station in the background… an audible draw for attention. It’s more like the white noise of the fridge. When it gets quiet at all, I hear it and I’m quickly reminded: cooling matters.
I used to be like the radio station though. I was employed to remind people daily about the increasing risks of an unstable climate, and options for addressing it. Most of my effort was through a now defunct brand of government greenwashing. Good intentioned, mind you. Hope inducing for some of us, even.
Once in a while I would corner ignorant senior public servants in elevators and tell them they don’t know the half of it and they’d better pay more attention. But what did I know.
I knew enough about complex systems and thresholds and human nature to know that things were going to get worse, and worse and worse. Nothing about the actions of people around me matched an appropriate response to that reality, though. Everyone expects tomorrow to look like today, except maybe we could look forward to a latte tomorrow if the economy keeps growing. *Buzzz, rattle, hummmm.*
I just kept imagining the next Hurricane Sandy. Hoping she would slap us just hard enough to start saving those latte dollars for a new rain coat because we’re taking the coming storm seriously. And now here we are: choking, burning, drowning, deep freezing, and hoarding toilet paper (amid coughing or gasping, too).
After my husband and I released the music album Decades After Paris in 2015, we experienced others’ excitement over how novel our artwork was. The story about our future with climate change, set to music, was motivated by a desire to get people really feeling the coming hit. Albeit, most of the album is upbeat and marketed to accompany a flavourful latte.
However, if listened to in order, the 36 minute story reaches a moment of heart breaking tension. (“Tension” was the original name of the song now titled “These Eyes.” )
That’s how I imagined it would hit. Right before our eyes. Just, devastation and realization.
(I was going to insert images of record breaking fires, floods, tornadoes and cyclones and associated states of emergency from December 2021… but, I figure I’ll give us a break from all that.)
Then, a few years after the Paris Agreement of 2015 and our album, Danton and I felt the need to hit a little harder.
“Apocalypse Sky” reached radio listeners across BC in 2018, the second year in a row that we had experienced record breaking wildfire. One listener was the owner of a horse painted pink by her teenager so it could be found after being released to avoid the inferno. Her story was the subject of a darkly humorous news article we saw that inspired the lyric “pink horses run.”
She reached out with a letter about her experience. We felt the song more deeply after that.
Oddly, feedback on this song has been that it can sooth a person to sleep. The repeating message of the chorus being “🎵 drawing us together in a world that’s come undone,” perhaps lessens the blow of, well, the apocalypse.
The song that feels the best to sing these days though, is Trouble.
Without the lyrics, the music video conveys a quarrelling couple on the edge of losing the protection and care they offer each other in a world (mildly) illustrated as suffering climate change. He’s indulging in substance, she’s fed up with that and probably patriarchy, and we see them being reckless. They “🎵 carry the burden of romantic hurting…” if you will.
The actual song is much more abstract… a time traveler that has all the scientific data to prove climate change is real and a big threat can’t seem to get through to humanity in times past. What this scientist has — that many we observe don’t — is deep regret and sorrow, and the chorus spells it out:
I’m sorry I came back
I’m sorry I told you
All the things I know.
But you’ve got trouble,
Rising in your wake.
It’s the sentiment you might receive from the giver of a terminal cancer diagnosis. It’s not something anyone wants to be true. It’s regrettable.
While the music was written for others, it’s a gift back to me so often. The news, or Hollywood's interpretation of the crisis as in #DontLookUp, is tolerable when I see it through the empathy we embody in the music.
As an artist, I want my audience to feel — to be allowed to feel — that this is all real. To experience the grief, work through it, and realize that the only option is to carry on… to find a way to carry our way towards a state of being that can be sustained and healthy.
Oh, and there’s a song about that too. It’s the finale of the album. It’s not a Disney fairy tale ending, but it is soothing nonetheless.
I thought the art was helpful.
Global News reported on the impacts of all the extremes in Southern BC’s agricultural region, quoting Stan Vander Waal, president of the B.C. Agriculture Council saying “When we look at the year in review, we’ve seen many extremes that we haven’t seen or many of us can remember. Once you experience them one or two times, you start developing a strategy.”
It’s pretty clear, isn’t it? No amount of scary, well costed, expert informed reports (or time travelers from the future) are going to move us towards resilience and a new way of living sustainably. Though people won’t hesitate to angrily ask “why didn’t we act when the report said we knew?!”
Cancer statistics might not motivate lifestyle change until a parent, aunt, child, or oneself experiences the bitter hit. Then, exercise and organic veggies make a whole lot more sense.
What are we to do with this human reality? Shall we pretend there is a remedy? Can music help?
I don’t believe the music can really make a difference on its own. If I’m being really honest, as earnest as a try as it was, it mostly makes the woke people feel seen and offers a soundtrack for more important/impactful initiatives. Which is good and enjoyable, I guess.