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Saving Rivers With Rhythms: A Brief History Of Environmentalism in the Music Industry

From John Lennon to The Beach Boys to Billie Eilish – music acts as a protest against environmental injustices

Rolling Stone India Jun 04, 2021

Bob Dylan. Photo: Francisco Antunes/ Flickr/CC BY 2.0

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Somewhere between the heart-thumping tunes that celebrate life and heartbreak songs, there lies a less-explored yet significant genre of eco-conscious music. Environmental activism through music has been an ongoing movement over centuries to mobilize decisions. George Morris and Henry Russel pioneered this genre in the U.S. with the 1837 classic “Woodman! Spare that Tree!” 

However, the topic picked up pace in the world in the Fifties and Sixties after the massive environmental degradation caused by World War II. Artists like Joni Mitchell (“Big Yellow Taxi”) and Bob Dylan (“The Times They Are a-Changin’”) catalyzed their music as a protest when the counterculture movement propagated anti-war sentiments and called for peaceful negotiation.

As nature became a scapegoat for world leaders’ vested political interests, the impact of its decay lasted long enough to be felt even half a century later. The music industry has been able to spread environmentalism and garner crucial support for sustainability and ethical living. Unsurprisingly, the most powerful impact of this fight for nature’s rights continues to come from the mainstream pop and rock artists, including Michael Jackson, Radiohead and Paul McCartney. However, the contribution of independent artists worldwide is just as important – Paulo Lara from Brazil, Australia’s Midnight Oil, Japan’s Mr. Children and Mexico’s Maná are just some artists encouraging climate literacy through a contemporary lens of 21st-century environmentalism. 

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We take a look at the musical history of environmentalism and its impact on the world.

Climate Change

12 Girls Band at Live Earth, China in 2007. Photo: Tim Wang from Beijing, China/CC BY-SA 2.0

The international Live Earth event for climate change in July 2007 was the largest global event for an environmental cause of its kind. Similarly, the Green Music Group is a non-profit project that aims to achieve environmental consciousness and change through a high-profile coalition of musicians and industry leaders, including Maroon 5, Dave Matthews Band and Paramore. 

A few artists who have previously talked about climate change include Will. I. Am. (“S.O.S Mother Nature”), Marvin Gaye (“Mercy Mercy Me”), Billie Eilish (“All The Good Girls Go To Hell”) and closer home, Kerala’s Oorali plus Chandigarh’s environmental scientists/musicians Band Gardish (“Ruk Jao”) 

Water Conservation

Pete Seeger at the Clearwater Festival in New York in 2011. Photo: Flickr user Jcapaldi/ Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

In the Seventies, activist and folk artist Pete Seeger found an organization called the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater. He used songs like “Garbage” and “Sailing Up, Sailing Down” to promulgate his vision. Clearwater is regarded as one of the biggest factors of the revival of the Hudson River. 

The Seventies band Beach Boys utilized their fame to drive action against environmental degradation. “Don’t Go Near the Water,” released in 1971, remains one of their most impactful songs. Other tracks, including “A Day in the Life of a Tree” and “The Trader,” also encapsulate the idea of air pollution and environmental politics, respectively.

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The year 2010 saw a massive 200-city Live Earth event sponsored by Dow Chemical, the company responsible for the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, to raise awareness about the global water crisis through fundraiser concerts. However, due to the sponsor’s scandalous past, an international protest erupted.  

Wildlife Conservation

John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Photo: AP/File/CC BY-NC 2.0

Released in 1968, “Bungalow Bill” by John Lennon became one of the first animal rights songs. Further down the lane in the Nineties, Paul McCartney’s “Looking for Changes” and “Long Leather Coat” were not-so-subtle protests against animal testing and the use of fur/leather. 

An organization beyond borders, Music Against Animal Cruelty, acts as a bridge between the music industry, music lovers and organizations working for animal rights globally. They use immersive wildlife experiences and host fundraisers like Plastic Nation in Ibiza and Wild in Ushuaïa and are best known for the hashtag #SAVETHEMWITHSOUND. 

Environmentalism in music runs deep into the industry’s veins. Although the list of action-driven music is non-exhaustive, we need awareness and change today more than ever. After all, no planet would eventually mean no music.

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