Has the trend towards cautious messaging drained our culture of art that confronts us with the brutal reality of the choices we face? asks Phil England
Released to coincide with UN climate talks in Paris, Antony Hegarty’s “Four Degrees” delivers a visceral, nauseating jolt to the system. It’s a stark acknowledgement that failing to respond to the threat of climate change in full knowledge of the consequences is akin to saying: “Bring on the apocalypse: I want to revel in the destruction, senseless pain and havoc it will wreak.”
It seems like the ultimate statement of resignation. A nihilistic, fatalistic, decadent embrace of the worst possible outcome. But the artist currently known as Anohni says she is acknowledging her complicity in the problem. “Giving myself a good hard look, not my aspirations but my behaviours, revealing my insidious complicity,” she wrote on Facebook. “It's a whole new world. Let’s be brave and tell the truth as much as we can.” But it also works as an indictment of those more powerful actors standing in the way of change and as an incitement to action for those prepared to challenge fatalism and fight for the alternative, emergent low-carbon, renewable energy future.
The impact of a four degree centigrade rise in global average temperature on the survival of our fellow species is buried deep within the scientific literature, hidden under layers of cultural and institutional obfuscation. Here’s a summary of what we know from a 2014 report by the Potsdam Institute for the World Bank:
“Forecasts of future changes in biodiversity are generally alarming (eg, Bellard et al, 2012; Foden et al, 2013). Using a global meta-analysis, MacLean and Wilson (2011) found a mean extinction probability of ten percent by 2100 across taxa, regions and warming levels. Warren et al (2013) found that, globally, 57 percent of plants and 34 percent of animals will lose greater than 50 percent of their habitat in a 4°C world.“
It takes an artist like Hegarty to translate this into layman’s terms:
“I want to hear the dogs crying for water/I want to see the fish go belly up in the sea/And all those lemurs and all those tiny creatures/I want to see them burn.”
The psychology of effectively communicating climate change is a complex one that has generated a substantial body of literature. Apocalyptic imagery is considered a turn-off that can entrench denial. But has this trend towards cautious messaging drained our culture of art that confronts us with the brutal reality of the choices we face? Are we not in danger of sleepwalking into disaster?
John Luther Adams is a composer with a different sensibility that is rooted in a deep connection with the harsh landscape of sub-Arctic Alaska. Become Ocean, his recent work for three orchestras, has the effect of inducing a cosmic consciousness of vast interconnectedness; erasing the narrow human perspective through immersion in a symbolic sea of sound.
In his 2003 essay “Global Warming And Art”, Adams wrote:
“In the presence of war, terrorism and looming environmental disaster, artists can no longer afford the facile games of post-modernist irony. We may choose to speak directly to world events or we may work at some distance removed from them. But whatever our subject, whatever our medium, artists must commit ourselves to the discipline of art with the depth of our being. To be worthy of a life’s devotion, art must be our best gift to a troubled world. Art must matter.”
Thom Yorke has embodied the troubled soul who has looked into the dark heart of the future and the present and found it wanting. For a time he was the poster boy of Friends Of The Earth England and Wales – part of the push for what was to become the ground breaking Climate Change Act. At a concert in Paris in December in front of hundreds of activists who had come to the city for the international climate negotiations he performed a set which included the new Radiohead song “Silent Spring”.
The lyrics sum up the spirit of campaigners’ attitude towards the climate talks – the inevitability that they would fall short of what’s needed and the realisation that the solutions lie elsewhere:
“We are of the Earth/To her we do return/The future is inside us/it’s not somewhere else / (…) /Calling on people/People have power/And the numbers don’t decide/Your system is a lie/A river running dry/The wings of a butterfly/And you may pour us away like soup/Like we’re pretty broken flowers/We’ll take back what is ours/One day at a time”.
When PJ Harvey performed “River Anacostia” at the Royal Festival Hall in October in a preview of songs from her forthcoming album, I had fantasised that the Mercury Prize winning artist was making the link between oil and war. The new songs are based around poems written on road trips around Afghanistan, Kosovo and Washington DC, and in my willful misinterpretation of the song – which ends with the refrain from the spiritual “Wade In The Water” – Harvey was tipping her hat to the moment a guerrilla choir gatecrashed the same venue two years earlier before the start of a concert sponsored by oil company Shell.
Part of the Art Not Oil umbrella of art-activists seeking to bring an end to fossil fuel sponsorship of the arts, the Shell Out Sounds choir had written new words to “Wade In The Water” to tell the story of the impacts of Shell’s destructive oil extraction projects. The group scored a victory a few months later when London’s South Bank Centre announced that the following season of classical concerts would no longer be sponsored by a company which actively campaigns against action on climate change. It could be music like this, put directly into the service of a strategically smart, targeted campaign that arguably has the most leverage to make a genuine impact in changing our energy future.