“And yes, we need a system change rather than individual change. But you cannot have one without the other.” – Greta Thunberg
Protest songs about the state of the environment are nothing new. During the age of environmentally conscious “hippies,” the 1960s folk rock scene abounded with singer-songwriters denouncing pollution, corrupt environmental laws, and our materialistic separation from Mother Earth. This tradition has continued until today and is especially relevant in light of the pressing climate crisis. Here are a few songs spanning the decades that are especially poignant in their perspectives of environmental crises and of potential hope for the future.
1: “Big Yellow Taxi” ~ Written in the height of the folk revival, this 1970 Joni Mitchell tune is about beautiful places being bulldozed to make room for parking lots. Mitchell traces her visceral reaction to the destruction of “Paradise” to an innate pondering in my favorite line, “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?” This serves as a nostalgic lament and a warning to the rest of us. Guard your pretty places and your trees, lest, before you know it, they be turned into cement graveyards.
2: “The Rape of the World” ~ Traci Chapman’s deeply mournful song from 1995 serves as a prayer to Mother Earth and a call for a perspective shift. Her breathy, clear tones convey haunted lyrics such as “Mother of us all, place of our birth / How can we stand aside / And watch the rape of the world,” and the song ends with a harmonious refrain that resembles weeping. Not offering guidance for change but instead focusing on the deep impact of the world’s destruction on the artist’s heart, the song points to the gravity of the issue and the deeply personal nature of ecological destruction.
3: “Evolutionicide” ~ This 2010 song by Spencer Maybe combines a traditional folk sound with activism in a way worthy of Bob Dylan—complete with harmonica. Spencer Maybe explains our ancestral responsibility to take care of Earth and our responsibility to the future with, “let’s not hesitate when it’s our children’s, children’s, children’s fate that we hold in our hands.” The happy-go-lucky guitar strumming frames an imploring yet hopeful message to care for the planet.
4: “The World is on Fire” ~ From their 2017 EP Love is Alive, Louis the Child’s ambient yet ominous track about apathy in life and in environmental stewardship features up-and-coming artist Ashe on vocals. Her breathy tone doubles with jazzy piano noodling and, reminiscent of a Norah Jones tune, creates a laid-back vibe, which aptly complements the meaning of the song. The poetic lyricism addresses the apathetic and relaxed approach to environmental initiative that defines most of the population’s attitude, and also addresses how that attitude affects living in general. Grappling with the idea of existing without living, the song elegizes wasting away one’s life on unimportant things, describing humanity “not watching where we’re going / ending up 50 / somehow with nothing,” and juxtaposes this with our lack of urgency towards environmental issues: “And so it goes another day here […] Keep taking time, taking your time / But there’s no time left.” The constant swung back-beat, like a ticking clock, ominously pairs with the catchy chorus: “We’ll hide behind the money / That’s the way it goes / The world could be on fire / And we wouldn’t know.” Simultaneously chill and convicting, this song calls out our culture’s rampant apathy, and also mentions the excuse of money, which is the theme of the next song.
5: “The Seed” ~ This track from 2019 by Norwegian synth-pop artist Aurora describes the distress she feels towards environmental degradation. She compares herself to a seed in the soft, lilting verses, focusing on her own confusion and hopelessness as a young person facing a complicated, seemingly unsolvable problem. The chorus then launches into an accusative, booming refrain of “You cannot eat money, oh no / When the last tree has fallen / And the rivers are poisoned, you cannot eat money.” Her fearlessness to call out one of the biggest obstacles to immediate prioritization of the environment paints the whole song with an intensity of sound and lyrics. Her poignant music video also features clips of plants growing, climate strikes, and glaciers falling. Simultaneously danceable and disturbing, this song directly indicts prioritization of money and expresses feeling lost and distressed when thinking about human’s pervasive impact on the environment.
6: “The 1975” ~ As The 1975’s most recent self-titled track (released this past August), this song is nothing if not direct. Framed by otherworldly, almost hypnotic synth sounds, the song is a one-and-a-half-minute speech by Greta Thunberg, the fearless teen-leader of the school climate strike movement. Amidst the futuristic, ephemeral tones, she calls for recognition of the direness of climate change and ends with a radical plea: “So, everyone out there, it is now time for civil disobedience. It is time to rebel.” The song’s raindrop-like piano plunks and hopeful violins evoke the childlike perspective associated with Greta, and the sounds recall the way we viewed the world as a child: with wonder and reverence. She also says “The main solution […] is so simple that even a small child can understand it: we have to stop our emissions of greenhouse gases. And either we do that, or we don’t.” The music and Greta’s speech work together to remind us that the world is deserving of our childlike awe and in need of our immediate help.
Note: There is the thought that art like this does not actually do anything helpful.
However, the aim of art is not to be the solution, but to catalyze the solution. Artists seek to take their raw, guttural response to the world’s issues and charge it into something that can shift perspectives in audiences. So it is through changing the hearts and minds of people that art’s effectiveness can be measured.
One painting or a piece of theater is not going to single handedly change the world.
But, through people listening to, observing, and processing art, maybe art can spark “individual change,” as Greta puts it. And this can and should lead to change in our systems.
So don’t stop at listening to these songs or even at reading this article. Don’t stop at letting it move you, anger you, or change you. Get involved in environmental advocacy groups on campus, vote, volunteer or work at conservation groups, and actually do something.