Music’s role in making a better world

20 September 2017

Creative Carbon Scotland

As September’s Guest Editor of Sound and Music’s The Sampler blog, I commissioned this piece from Gemma Lawrence and Mike Elm of Creative Carbon Scotland, who explore the role that music and the music industry can play in addressing climate change, not only in how it works but what it does.

“Look at mother nature on the run, in the 1970s” so sung Neil Young in the title track of his double platinum selling album “After the Goldrush”. If Mr Young thought the situation was in a perilous state in the 1970s then the intervening years have hardly seen a turnaround. It has been estimated by the WWF that wildlife globally has declined by 50% since the 1970s. The causes for these declines are various and complicated but they have been driven by habitat loss and degradation, hunting and fishing, pollution, disease, invasive species, and – Creative Carbon Scotland’s pet ‘wicked problem’ – climate change. With this in mind it’s not about who needs to fix this problem, it’s about how we can all play our part and musicians and the music industry are no exception.

The challenges associated with sustainability and climate change are widely recognised as wicked problems: they are multi-faceted, encompassing a vast range of factors and stretching across global and generational boundaries. In short, they do not come without compromise and difficult decisions. This requires us to think outside of current paradigms, and find new means of understanding and changing the world, towards more just, sustainable societies.

The arts and culture have an essential role in achieving the transformational change to a sustainable future. Music, and the cultural sector more widely, relate to sustainability in two key ways through: what they do and how they do it.

The how, in the main, is the easy part to understand and – with some creativity – to take action towards sustainability. Take music festivals for instance, they can (and in some cases do) take action to improve their environmental sustainability through considering how they power themselves, whether they select local sustainable food providers, where the beer comes from, how they avoid creating waste and – and from a climate change point of view this is key – how everyone and everything gets there.

The less visible impacts of transport – of audiences, artists, crew and equipment – for a music festival is responsible for the lion’s share of its carbon footprint, on average some 80% of a festival’s carbon emissions are from audience travel. The ‘Fields of Green’ research project, which Creative Carbon Scotland were part of, looked at how music festivals and their audiences can and do tackle their carbon footprint as well exploring the (un)sustainability of music touring practices through songwriting and maps visualising festival touring patterns.

The how of course extends to all aspects of the music industry from how artists travel, how music venues run themselves, to the instruments and technologies we use to create and ‘consume’ music. Each of these has an associated carbon cost, and a range of more or less sustainable options. But is this where the primary role for the music industry in affecting the transition to sustainability lies?

When it comes to the music industry and the move towards sustainability, it’s really in the ‘what’. The carbon emissions of the UK music industry have been estimated at roughly 540,000 tonnes, this was back in 2010 and was equal to about 1/1000th of the UK’s carbon footprint at the time. Music can and does speak to people. Everyone from politicians, CEOs, school kids, town planners, accountants and designers, all listen to music. Equally, climate change affects all of us. Herein lies music’s strongest potential.

Tackling climate change is about politics, technology, finance but mostly it’s about people. There is a unique role for music in connecting with people on an emotional level, communicating complex ideas, its ability to reach wide and diverse audiences and opening up alternative spaces for dialogue and conversations to happen.

This last point, about conversations is one from personal experience. The somewhat on the nose ‘4 degrees’ by ANOHNI, released on the eve of the United Nations Climate Change conference that led to the landmark Paris Agreement, was a catalyst for conversations with people that rarely think or talk about the topic of climate change and the realities of something as benign sounding as a 4 degree temperature rise. This helped to build new understandings of how we perceive our roles in addressing the challenges it poses. Music not only speaks to individuals, it also shapes society.

At Creative Carbon Scotland, we see a vital role for music, and indeed all art forms, to be actively involved contributing to this cultural shift – shaping of the discussions and decisions which will impact upon the environmental sustainability of societies, now and into the future. As Jaques Attali said, “music is prophecy… It makes audible the new world that will gradually become visible”.

Useful links for finding out how you can be involved and inspiration:

Categories: Musings, Sound and Music

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