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Op-ed: The music industry needs to make eco-friendly changes, starting now

December 15, 2021
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A couple of months ago, I was fortunate to interview the legendary musician, producer and climate-campaigner Brian Eno at his famous London studio. “Are we treating the climate as a crisis? No, we aren’t really,” he said. “And I think it’s partly because it’s so difficult to countenance the complexity and blackness of the whole situation.”

To me, that comment summed up how many people feel about our current climate and ecological emergency: confused, overwhelmed and hopeless. And, honestly, that’s totally understandable. We’ve reached a point in our Earth’s history that scientists are calling “code red for humanity,” yet some people are only just finding out about the climate crisis. And those who are up to speed are exasperated that very little has been done. 

As Eno said, the issue may appear complex, but the reality is actually quite simple. Our industrial revolution has been heating the planet for decades. Experts first warned in the 1960s that the consequences for our natural environments — and us as humans — could be catastrophic. The problem is fossil fuels (oil, coal, gas) and how they power our world. When burned, they release carbon into the atmosphere, which heats the planet. That’s why almost everything we do — from the air conditioner keeping us comfortable at night to the clothes we order online — has a carbon footprint. Our natural surroundings, from forests to oceans, absorb some of this carbon, but we’re reducing their capacity by cutting them down or polluting their ecosystems at an alarming rate.

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So global temperatures are rising: A few degrees may not sound like much, but every 0.1 increase destabilizes things further. The consequences are dramatic, deadly and far-reaching: from increased extreme weather events such as flooding, wildfires and hurricanes to people having to leave their homes and their countries because they’ve simply become uninhabitable hot. Without global teamwork, the worsening situation has the potential to cause major disputes, even wars. 

How did we get here? How did the situation get this serious? The answer: too many warnings ignored by successive global leaders, too many years of inaction from powerful businesses. Self-interest and profit have come before the planet, and we’re dealing with the fallout. That’s why the UN COP26 summit in Glasgow, U.K. is considered such a big deal — the last-chance saloon for our elected officials to stop talking and start taking action. Not tomorrow, now. 

The bad news is the climate crisis isn’t coming — it’s here. The last time governments met at a COP conference in Paris in 2015, they agreed to try to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. We’ve already hit 1.2. If they’d acted on warnings in the 1990s and early 2000s, change could have been steady. Instead, it’s panic-button time. In the time we have, what’s needed is nothing short of a revolution: the biggest change to the way the world works in the history of civilization.

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The good news is we know what to do. The biggest of which is to stop using fossil fuels; leave them in the ground. The power that runs our societies — from cars to homes, businesses to cities — needs to come from clean, renewable sources such as wind, solar or hydro. This transition is happening, but not fast enough. There aren’t decades, years or even months to waste. Governments have the power to enforce this process, this shift to more “sustainable” models. 

So, where does music come into this? Sometimes it’s easier to understand the climate challenge via the threat it poses to the things you love — like music. For example, we’ve already seen many festivals hit by extreme weather. No one wants to see that increase. Right now, the industry — from streaming to touring — has a significant carbon footprint. Just think of the boxes of vinyl (made from plastic, derived from oil) driven to record stores across the country or the vast number of air miles taken by your favorite artist’s world tour.

Like every other industry, music has to make changes and transition to a new environmentally kinder way of doing things. Encouragingly, it’s happening. From Billie Eilish to Architects, more and more artists are taking action on this front, but it’s not just those in front of the mic. 

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That’s why I started the climate/music podcast Sounds Like A Plan, to hear about all those solutions. There are so many ideas out there: “vinyl” records made from recycled ocean plastic; band merchandise made from reused materials and eco-friendly NFTs that use a fraction of the energy it takes to send a tweet. Artists and festivals banning single-use plastic, carbon labeling on food and arena-sized stage sets made from materials such as bamboo. On the biggest scale, Coldplay are taking a kinetic dance floor on their 2022 world tour — the crowd dancing at the concert is quite literally powering it with clean energy. This kind of innovation can’t just be cute; in the next couple of years, it needs to be commonplace.

So there is hope, there are ideas and, most importantly, there is desire to build this new world. A better, fairer and more prosperous one. And the biggest way you can make a difference is the same way your favorite artist does — use your platform. That might not be millions of TikTok followers; it doesn’t matter. Start with family and friends. And sure, obtainable changes in your own life are positive — yep, get rid of those plastic straws, eat less meat, take public transport to your next show — but, most impactful of all, send a message to your leaders, from school principals to your president: We want this change. We need this change.

As Eno so profoundly put it during our podcast: “We should be talking about the ‘climate opportunity.’ All you revolutionaries who want to make a new world — here’s your chance.”

This op-ed appeared in issue 400, available here.

Written by Greg Cochrane