Tag Archives: Activism

On Climate Change, Music and Activism in The Arts

13 Nov

By Rhea H. Boyden

It is late October 2018 and I am standing in my stepmom and dad’s vegetable garden at our family home in West Cork, Ireland. It’s raining. The leeks, kale, spinach and beets look delicious. This is the first time in my life that I have stopped to fully and truly appreciate and show gratitude for this garden. I am wondering if Ireland’s climate will still be stable and predictable enough to reliably grow vegetables in 2040 when I am 65 years old. I am thinking about the alarming new report that has just been published by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that states the urgency of climate action NOW if we are are to cut risks of extreme heat, drought and poverty that will affect hundreds of millions of people in the coming decades. I have been reading a lot about climate change the past few months and I find it all completely distressing. I pick a leek. The rain begins to come down harder and I am getting soaked but I don’t care.  A headline flashes through my head: ‘Climate Genocide is Coming.’ As I unearth a few beets I remember a few more headlines: ‘It’s five minutes to midnight on climate change.’ and ‘New Outlook on Global Warming: Best Prepare for Social Collapse, and soon.’ I carefully pick a few leaves of spinach and kale and then finally go back inside the house to escape the rain.

2018 began very well for me creatively. I was reading nothing about climate change and science at all. After a few years of writing venue and DJ reviews in Dublin I decided to delve even deeper into music reviewing and I ordered a pile of books that would deepen my knowledge of what is going on technically in the electronic music I was listening to. I spent months joyfully reading all about music theory, the neuroscience of music, the history of dub and the rise of  electronic music. I talked to music writers and DJs about music. PHEVER: TV-Radio DJ Hugo McCann assisted me in my quest to learn more about the music. Last summer, in the middle of an unprecedented Irish heatwave, Hugo and I met up for the afternoon to listen to some music and analyse it. As we listened to one of his many brilliant mixes he patiently explained to me what we were hearing. ‘What is that sound?’ I asked. ‘That is a Jamaican concave drum,’ he said. ‘And that sound?’ I continued. ‘That is hi hat cymbals, and then you hear organs and a sequenced clap,’ he explained. I am intrigued. It is good to finally understand what I am listening to. I want to learn more. We moved on to his latest mix that he had just aired on his weekly show the previous weekend. I always love Hugo’s mixes but this one irritates me when I listen to it the first time. ‘It’s a bit too full on for my taste,’ I tell him. ‘Well, yes,’ he says, ‘The tempo of the promos I am being sent has been increasing in the past couple of years. The tracks keep getting faster and faster,’ he says. I tell him I find this no surprise considering the pace of people’s lifestyles as well as the temperature of the planet keep increasing too. And while we are enjoying the hot July day we are also fully aware that it is absolutely not normal for Ireland and we are already well over a month into a drought accompanied by record-breaking temperatures. We talk about climate change and environmental doom as we discuss Hugo’s mixes and where he draws his inspiration from.

PHEVER: TV-Radio DJ Hugo McCann

My intention after my meeting with Hugo was to continue learning about music and instruments  and to use this knowledge to bring my music reviewing to a new level. I haven’t published a single music review since then. Why not? Because I have been questioning the whole value of writing art, music and literature reviews at all with the increasing number of terrifying articles about climate catastrophe that keep pulsing through my newsfeed. So I have been reading every article about climate change I can get my hands on and as depressing as it is, I find it important to inform myself fully about the latest reports, data, projections, predictions and projects that are being implemented to protect the most vulnerable on this planet from the worst effects of climate change. And I have been talking to others about it. My friend Paul Sullivan in Berlin is a music writer, photographer and the editor of Slow Travel Berlin, a magazine I wrote for when I lived in Berlin. I have also recently read his brilliant book about the history of dub entitled ‘Remixology – Tracing the Dub Diaspora.’ ‘So what do you think about the spiritual and psychological implications of the latest reports on climate change? and ‘What do you think about the merits of continuing to review music and art? ‘ I asked him. ‘In terms of the arts and music as a response,’he said, ‘I would be tempted to say that first and foremost we should probably be dropping them in favour of direct political action. Maybe mass art protest could be useful but I think looking at paintings and listening to music just doesn’t cut it in the current climate,’ he said. I told him I fully agreed and that it was a recent encounter with a painting that made my blood boil regarding this exact topic. I was standing in the National Gallery of Ireland last summer in the large exhibit of  the work of German Expressionist artist Emil Nolde (1867-1956). I reviewed the exhibit in depth but one painting and Nolde’s description of it made me so mad. It was a beautiful oil painting of the North Sea painted in 1950. Nolde’s description of the sea was the following: ‘The wide tempestuous sea is still in its original state; it is the same today as it was 50,000 years ago.’ ‘Well, the sea is not in its original state any more!’ came my audible response in the middle of the gallery. Ocean acidification is killing off coral reefs and it is projected that there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050.

Photographer, Writer and Slow Travel Berlin Editor Paul Sullivan

A little over a year ago we experienced the tail end of Hurricane Ophelia which wreaked havoc in the south and west of Ireland. Roofs were blown off houses and thousands were left without power. Last March we experienced the humorously named ‘Beast from the East’ – a blizzard which brought the U.K. and Ireland to a standstill. We are definitely not prepared for this. I have spent many winters in the United States and Germany where there is, of course, a great measure of snow and ice preparedness because it is the norm every winter. On my street in Dublin, the pavements never got cleared and they were packed with ice and snow causing many injuries to pedestrians. I did not suffer at all during either of these events. I didn’t lose power and I didn’t run out of food. My room was warm and I stayed home from work and read a tonne about art and music. I enjoyed the days off. I guess you could say I was pretty lucky. You could also say I was pretty smug and complacent. I feel that my reading of the past few months has stripped me of a great deal of complacency. My recent reading has informed me that we citizens of affluent countries most certainly will not be spared the effects of climate change for a whole lot longer than those in the poorest and most vulnerable areas of the world. We are all in this together. A leading climate scientist named Peter Wadhams believes an ice-free Arctic will occur one summer in the next few years and it will likely increase by 50% the warming caused by the CO2 activity produced by human activity. The temperature was 20 degrees above normal in the Arctic in early 2018.

During the blizzard last March I read and reviewed a wonderful memoir entitled ‘Playing the Bass with Three Left Hands’ by Will Carruthers who was a bass player in Spacemen 3 and Spiritualised, two pioneering British psychedelic bands of the 1980s and 90’s. His book is the funniest and most heart-wrenchingly real book I have read in years and I have been praising it and promoting it all year. Will writes so beautifully about music and politics, and life in a touring band and I have thoroughly enjoyed studying his work and listening to his music this year. I also asked him what he thought about climate change and climate doom and his first philosophical response was: ‘Every second is doomed to fall.’ I pondered this. He then said ‘Have you heard of the Dark Mountain project? It is a website for enviro goths who have abandoned all hope.’ I told him I did not want to abandon hope and that despair and gloom will not mobilise us into climate activism. He told me there was also hope to be found in despair. Will has also written about climate change and, in fact, I laugh out loud when I read what he has written. A bit of comic relief is essential. An excerpt from his brilliant piece on climate change goes: ‘A terrible darkness descends upon humanity, as nature claws back what is hers, eventually the balance is restored as cockroaches and rats get to have a go at the top of the food chain. The billionaires are the last to go, having been forced to watch the terrible fate of humanity unfold in real time with an increasingly uneasy feeling that survival might not actually be the best prospect, even if you are rich. The last human sound on Earth is the screaming of billionaires being nibbled by rats.’

Musician, Artist, Writer and Poet, Will Carruthers

No, I most certainly don’t want to give up hope and I also don’t want to give up reviewing art, music and literature either because it brings me a lot of joy and connects me to many wonderful people. I do feel, however, that my reviewing henceforth will become more focused on activism. I truly believe at a time when arts, music and cultural funding is being slashed and also not being prioritised in schools that writers, artists, musicians and DJs have a duty to fill this void. So I have been having a look around for people who are doing great things and one person I have connected with recently is artist Stephan Crawford who is the executive producer of the ClimateMusic project which is a group of scientists, musicians and composers based in San Francisco who create music based on climate data. They then throw concerts to communicate the urgency of climate change activism to the public. I asked him about it and he said: ‘Our concerts combine science-guided music with data animations and visuals to viscerally communicate the urgency of climate action. We then engage our audiences in conversations about solutions and we connect them to a network of organisations that can help them learn more about the issue, take action at home and build community around engagement.’ I am completely intrigued by the work of the ClimateMusic project and the following is a lengthy quote about a current project of theirs:

‘Climate’ is an original composition by Erik Ian Walker. It was made by identifying four key indicators and assigning each of these a musical analogue: Carbon dioxide concentration is reflected in the tempo of the composition with increasing amounts of CO2 accumulating in the atmosphere causing the tempo to speed up. Near Earth atmosphere temperature is represented by pitch where a rise in temperature translates to detuning, increased dissonance, harmonic complexity and/or a rise in pitch. Earth energy balance (the balance between incoming energy from the sun and outgoing heat from the Earth) changes are audible as distortion, ring, modulation (a wobbly metallic sound), volume and a general ‘unhealthy’ unevenness of the atmospheric tone. The greater the imbalance, the greater the distortion and the loss of natural harmonics. Ocean pH is represented by compositional form and as the pH in the ocean drops (becomes more acidic), the compositional form degrades.’

I am thrilled to be reading this and it lifts my spirits and inspires me to read more.  For in it I have found a wonderful description that rolls into one the two things that have been preoccupying my thoughts the entire year; descriptions of music and climate change. I watched and listened to a clip of what this is trying to get across to the audience and essentially you hear very clearly how the pitch and tempo of the music increases to an anxiety-inducing level in line with carbon dioxide levels and earth energy balance over the years. It makes me think of another book I have been studying this year: ‘This is your Brain on Music’ by Daniel Levitin in which he writes: ‘Pitch is one of the primary means by which musical emotion is conveyed. Mood, excitement, calm, romance and danger are signalled by a number of factors but pitch is among the most decisive.’ And it also instantly reminds me of what Hugo told me about tempo increases in the music he has been airing on his show. I go back and listen to his mix again that was a bit too full on for me before. I listen to it twice and three times and with each listen it grows on me. It is dark and it is evocative of doom and gloom, but like all of Hugo’s mixes he has shared with me, it takes you on a journey. And I can’t help but think about environmental doom when I listen to it. Daniel Levitin explains is his book exactly why, from a neural perspective, I am making these associations: ‘Each time we hear a musical pattern that is new to our ears, our brains try to make an association through whatever visual, auditory, and other sensory cues accompany it; we try to contextualise the new sounds and eventually we create these memory links between a particular set of notes and a particular place, time and set of events.’ The event was the heatwave and the discussion with Hugo was about climate change and I am brought right back to that experience by listening to the music. It helps, of course, that the vocal samples in this particular mix of Hugo’s include the words ‘foolish’ ‘frightful’ and repeatedly the word ‘justice.’ It isn’t hard to link it to climate change. I now love this mix and it has become my climate doom soundtrack that inspires me to write and act.

Anthropologist, Writer and Eco-Feminist Activist Carolin Cordes

So what about Climate Justice? Another person I have recently become friends with is the lovely Carolin Cordes. Carolin is a writer, anthropologist, and eco-feminist climate change activist based in Dublin. She tells me the latest IPCC report has also spurred her on to greater activism. In her article entitled ‘Women, Climate and the Rise of Eco-Feminism’ published in Green News, Carolin writes the following: ‘In 2010 former president of Ireland Mary Robinson  founded the Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice which works towards securing justice for the most vulnerable victims of climate change.’ Carolin points out in her article that climate change disproportionately affects those who contribute to it the least, and also that according to UN statistics 80% of those displaced by climate change are women. I have been talking to Carolin a lot and she and I have been sharing ideas and articles. Eco-feminism is a cause close to her heart. ‘Women have a strong link to the environment because globally they represent the majority of those working in small-scale farming, as well as resource management around water and wood,’ she writes. ‘Females also preserve strong traditional knowledge by saving seeds and farming organically, hence they protect the natural world with their long-term outlook.’  When reading Carolin’s writing I once again think about music and the maternal and feminine nature of dub that Paul writes about in ‘Remixology’. He writes beautifully about the penetrative and male nature of the heavy bass beat as it vibrates the body, but he also writes the following: ‘A great case has been made for dub’s maternal nature. Music listeners such as Simon Reynolds have noted dub’s ability to take us back to the ‘amniotic sea of the womb… the lost paradise before individuation and anxiety.’ ‘ Individuation is, of course, a hallmark of our carbon-fuelled society.

The main piece of literature that has inspired me to write this piece is a 30 page research paper by Jem Bendell, who is a professor of sustainability leadership and the founding director of the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability at the University of Cumbria. His paper entitled ‘Deep Adaptation: A Map For Navigating Climate Tragedy’ is both riveting and terrifying. He spells out in detail how doomed we are as a species by quoting all the latest climate data. If you believe what he writes, that we are now facing runaway climate change with no way of preventing it, as I am tending to believe now, he offers practical solutions to prepare ourselves for the coming decades of inevitable climate chaos.

He offers a three step plan of what he calls ‘Deep Adaptation’ – Resilience, Relinquishment and Restoration. How can we make ourselves spiritually and psychologically resilient once we have entered into the post-climate change denial stage which I feel personally, I am slowly moving into. Do we completely fall apart and lose all hope? No, we prepare, we collaborate and we adapt, something we are good at as a species if we put our minds to it. I think of my own resilience training. Every morning, I cycle 4.8 miles to work in Dublin and 4.8 miles home again in the evening. This may not seem like much, but I do it in all weather besides a hurricane or a blizzard. As the weather becomes more unpredictable this is something I need to plan a little more cautiously. I am dealing with traffic and dangerous obstacles every day. I believe it keeps me mentally and physically fit, enabling me to manage many other challenges in my day to day life.

Bendell writes- ‘Given that analysts are now concluding that social collapse is inevitable, the question becomes: What are the valued norms and behaviours that human societies will wish to maintain as they seek to survive?’ This question then brings us to Bendell’s second step in his plan which is relinquishment. On a more global scale this will mean moving away from coastlines and shutting down vulnerable industrial sites. On a personal level it will involve giving up personal pursuits that only exacerbate  problems such as flying. When I was recently home in West Cork my brother, who is now helping my father to manage our property, turned to me and said ‘Rhea can you come home some weekend soon and help us with firewood?’ With guilt I thought of the two flights I have just booked: one to London for New Year’s and another to Portugal in February. I love travelling. I have been doing it my whole life. My family and friends are spread all over the United States and Europe and the travelling lifestyle is one I am well accustomed to. Our property in West Cork has beautiful woodlands on it that my father has been sustainably managing for decades. It provides us with plenty of firewood for our wood-burning stoves. In the future I will spend more time at home chopping firewood and expanding our vegetable garden in the hopes that the climate will cooperate. It may not be glamorous but it is life-sustaining.

This brings me to Bendall’s third step which is restoration. What are the values that we will wish to restore that have been eroded in our carbon-dependent and growth-driven society? Bendell writes: ‘Examples of restoration include rewilding landscapes so they provide more ecological benefits and require less management, changing diets back to match the seasons, rediscovering non electronically powered forms of play and increased community level productivity and support. When I read this I immediately thought of my closest neighbour in West Cork, a wonderful woman a few years younger than me named Jessica Mason. Jessica is a mother of two, a gardener and an environmental educator. She has a lot of great skills and a tonne of energy to achieve wonderful things in a rural community. After my decades of city life, I am very grateful to have someone like Jessica as my neighbour to offer me advice when I eventually move home, whenever that will be. I have also been talking to her about all these topics and we have been sharing articles and book recommendations.

Gardener, Mother and Environmental Educator Jessica Mason

If all of this seems alarmist and extreme it is also heartening to read what Bendell writes about how people react when he discusses his ideas with them. ‘In my work with mature students,’ writes Bendell, ‘I have found that inviting them to consider collapse as inevitable, catastrophe as probable and extinction as possible, has not led to apathy or depression. Instead, in a supportive environment, where we have enjoyed community with each other, celebrating ancestors and enjoying nature before then looking at this information and possible framings for it, something positive happens. I have witnessed a shedding of concern for conforming to the status quo, and a new creativity about what to focus on going forward.’

In a Guardian article from April 2018, 86 year-old British social scientist Mayer Hillman said ‘We are doomed.’ He told a shocked audience at the University of East Anglia that accepting the impending end of life on Earth as inevitable might be the one thing that will help us prolong it. He says when someone is told they are terminally ill they generally appreciate life more. He claimed that the important things will be music, education, community and love as we adapt to climate chaos. The best that can be hoped for is community support because the likelihood of us now pulling together as a planet and stopping carbon emissions are slim to none. The recent election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil spells catastrophe for the rainforests. He is only the latest in a series of far-right politicians to gain power across the world. And while scientists and activists work valiantly to provide solutions such as large machines that will suck carbon out of the atmosphere, such a machine is largely a fantasy, and in any case, to produce something at scale takes a lot of time and money, both of which are in short supply. I am not a scientist. I am simply quoting from what I believe are trusted sources and trying to make sense of it all for my own life. I am sure I will have critics for writing this essay, but it is too important and has been on my mind obsessively the past months to not write it.

Despite all this, I still live in hope and I find my solace in continuing to learn about music, writing, reading, and continuing to collaborate passionately with people I care about. The nature of projects I work on will likely change over the next while but I still do truly believe that the arts and music are important in helping us build resilience and form connections in an uncertain climate and by no means a frivolous pursuit.

Paul Sullivan writes the following in ‘Remixology’  ‘Since echo is also related to human memory (the human brain codes remnants – the echo – of a memory), it can be used as a tool to transport listeners to the past. Jamaica’s dub pioneers used echo in combination with the sentiments and spirituality of roots reggae to provoke a sense of Jamaica’s ancestral African roots.’ Does music hold the power to bring us back to the simpler lifestyles many of us led before our lives were so driven by consumerism and growth? I think of life in West Cork in the 80s. How we lived with very little money and no running water or electricity while my parents were building our house. We and most everyone else in West Cork lived pretty frugal lives. An important ritual in rural Ireland back then was the trad session in pubs. Everyone brought instruments and there was a great sense of community. I took Irish dancing lessons and I remember dancing in pubs a lot as a child. This tradition has nearly died out in Ireland. Perhaps it will return in the future. We have to live in hope for a restoration of less carbon-intensive activities otherwise what is the point.

I wrote this essay while I was sitting in bed alone on a rainy Sunday afternoon in Dublin in November. I spend a lot of time alone, but it is also worth noting that the word loneliness only entered the English language around 1800. I love my solitude to read and write but there is certainly a thin line between solitude and loneliness, for modern loneliness is, after all, largely a result of our pursuit of individual lives in a carbon-fuelled world.

There are other ways of living.

Thank you for reading my story.
With love and gratitude,

Rhea Boyden
Dublin, Ireland
November 2018

Many thanks to Paul Sullivan, Hugo McCann, Will Carruthers, Carolin Cordes, Jessica Mason, Stephan Crawford and many others besides for sharing their stories with me.

Photo of Will Carruthers by Francesca Sara Cauli

Thanks so much to Paul for his photo which he took of himself.

All other photos taken by Rhea Boyden