In his book, The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh charges the modern novel as incapable of dealing with a problem the scale of climate change. But what about songs? An argument might be made that songs have surpassed long-form fiction or even movies as the West’s primary genre, which is to say, the form in which the cultural imaginary is developed and explored.
Songs, of course, are limited. They can handle some topics better than others. If you sat down to write a song about, say, a bad love experience, you would find yourself on very comfortable terrain. Writing a song about the effects of suburban landscape on the psyche might prove to be rockier ground. Songs are often crushed under the weight of self-importance, and ecological concerns are heavy topics, to be sure. You would certainly be on safe ground using the phrase “bad love” in a song about bad love; if you were writing about your ecological consciousness, you might want to avoid that term. In 1971, Marvin Gayle famously released a song about “the ecology,” but he didn’t use the word ecology or any form of the word in the song. In fact, he barely used the term in the title, tucking it inside parentheses, and gave the song its official and more palatable title, “Mercy Mercy Me.”
Limits are for stretching. Given that, and given that the song is perhaps our primary and certainly most democratic genre, what are some of the other songs that have expressed and developed our ecological imagination? Here are six that came to mind, three from the period of the emergence of what historians call modern environmentalism, three of a more recent vintage.
This song from The Notorious Byrd Brothers is not The Byrds’s finest hour. It’s a throwaway tune on a good but not historically significant record. I include it here because it addresses one of the several sub-contexts from which the ecological imagination would emerge: the dolphin mystique.
Formerly mysterious, only recently held in captivity, dolphins were perceived as beautiful, graceful, playful animals whose upturned grins made them appear to be continuously happy. Familiar during this period were news reports of dolphins who sought out human beings for special friendship or for aimless frolic or who rescued someone drowning at sea. John C. Lilly published popular books and articles about teaching dolphins to communicate; meanwhile, in the popular TV program Flipper, a dolphin was a loyal and intelligent friend. Karen Pryor, a pioneer in dolphin training at Sea Life Park in Hawaii, was one of the first to appreciate the appeal of dolphins to the public and to the numerous young people who volunteered at the park as aides and trainers. Dolphins were “floating hobbits,” she said, “like aliens from space” who had descended to earth and loved us. They were as smart as we were, or maybe even smarter, since they were not at war with each other and hadn’t manufactured any atomic bomb. How nice it would be to live like the dolphins! This is what “Dolphin’s Smile” asks us to do. The song celebrates dolphins as care-free, socially-evolved creatures whose smiles–tranquil, sunlit, “free from fear”–suggested a kind of non-stop high.
The less romantic chuckled. That wasn’t a smile on the dolphin’s face that was anthropomorphic projection onto the physiognomy of a foreign species. As for the media reports–what about all the instances when dolphins did not help humans in distress, when they may even have added to that distress, thus eliminating any source for a news story? Still, components of the ecological imagination are present in the dolphin mystique: the acknowledgement of a continuum between humans and other species, between culture and nature; the notion that animals are intelligent and might have something to teach us about living on the earth and with each other, something we very much need to learn.
Mitchell famously missed Woodstock but then wrote the song about it. “Big Yellow Taxi,” which precedes the song “Woodstock” on the album, Ladies of the Canyon, is about the garden, too. It’s the common declensionist narrative: once we lived in paradise, but we lapsed and paved it over. There’s an implicit shout out to Rachel Carson in the verse about DDT, but what most marks this song, in terms of the emerging ecological imagination, is the sanguinity of its mood. The singer is fun-loving, playful, a little goofy. The songs ends with a laugh. Yes, human beings have a tendency to destroy the good that they have, but if the listener is tempted to feel bad about that, the song’s third verse undercuts the temptation. The taxi in question is the one that took the singer’s “old man” away. Presumably, Graham Nash had to go play a gig with his new singing group, and darn it, if she doesn’t miss him, too.
It wasn’t as if Mitchell was afraid of taking on serious topics—far from it. She wasn’t afraid to preach. “We’ve got to get back to the garden,” she sings in “Woodstock,” but neither in that song nor in “Big Yellow Taxi” is there the notion that we aren’t capable of regaining paradise in some form or another, or in any case, doing better than we’re doing now. Both “Dolphin’s Smile” and “Big Yellow Taxi” are lacking in the agony over environmental destruction that would mark many songs to come. Neither evoke the prospect of apocalypse; neither are the least bit resigned to some eventual collapse into dystopia. Whether they learn from dolphins, travelers along the road, or just good common sense, human beings are redeemable.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that two songs from this list, “Big Yellow Taxi” and “Out in the Country,” were released in 1970, a seminal year in the history of American environmentalism. The first Earth Day was celebrated that year. It’s the year Nixon signed the bill that created the EPA. But again, given the times, the 5-month gap between the two releases is noteworthy. Every month marks a further deterioration in the hope associated with Sixties-era activism, every month an increase in disillusionment. “The dream is over,” John Lennon sang in a song released in December of 1970. He was singing in reference to a band he used to play in, but he might as well have been speaking of the era in general.
So note the difference in mood between “Out in the Country” and “Big Yellow Taxi.” The former is mournful, elegiac, a mood gorgeously stated in the keyboard figure that introduces the song. Paul Williams was one of the great pop songwriters of his time, and he captures the cultural moment with precision. The city is deteriorating; it’s polluted, full of smog; overcrowded, politically fraught. When the state of the city gets to be too much of a downer, the singer heads out to the country for some peace. Note, too, that a degree of resignation has set in. The singer is going to the country “before the breathing air is gone, before the sun is just a bright spot in the night time.” There’s no question but that the air will become unbreathable and the sun will be blotted out by the smog or perhaps some nuclear winter. Some form of nature therapy has been a part of American thinking at least since the transcendentalists. But this near-hopeless resignation, this retreat to private solutions, mark a particular turn in the times. We once thought we might figure out a way to be like the dolphins. That seems like forever ago.
A few years later, the film Soylent Green would depict the city when there is no country left to retreat to. Rather, when life becomes unlivable, you can purchase a comfortable suicide. You’ll get a comfortable seat in an auditorium and be shown, during your last few moments, beautiful images of a nature that’s gone. The character played by Edward G. Robinson (in his last film) buys one such suicide, and his eyes fill with tears, remembering the way the world used to be. He might have been a small child back in 1970 when the Three Dog Night song came out. Now its chorus has proved true. The breathing air is gone, and the sun has just about disappeared behind a carbon blanket that retains the sun’s heat but renders it nigh invisible.
A lot of time has passed since “Out in the Country” and Soylent Green. Resignation to environmental collapse has reached a degree of density and mannerism in the works of expressive culture. Dystopian visions have been detailed and refined. The Mad Max films (1979, 1981, 1985) have provided an enduring iconography: people living in the desert, the failure of infrastructure made visible. Nothing new is being made; nothing is being replaced; all innovation is innovation of scavenging, maintenance, and repair. In short, it’s a patched-together world of souped-up hard terrain vehicles and make-do weaponry. Generations have arisen who have no memory of the world before the collapse. Some of them have formed a band called Gorillaz. (Gorillaz is a virtual band consisting of animated figures who appear in videos online.) They are cute and cool purveyors of post-apocalyptic chic, with pug noses and bad teeth. Their eyes glow with the chemicals they’ve ingested, deliberately or otherwise. They make music together when they aren’t battling some enemy tribe. They’re damn good!
This is a step beyond resignation. Not knowing the old world, these kids don’t mourn it. Unaware of the old myths, they live the new ones. David Byrne hinted at the new skills necessary in “Life During Wartime.” Gorillaz have perfected these skills and then some. The singer in Byrne’s song didn’t have any records to play, but Gorillaz found some records and instruments in the ruins; they jerry-rigged some amps and a record player. This is the world we live in, the song says. It’s a world where the survivors are the ones who never falter in their vigilance. Because no one never falters, “we don’t have a chance.” It’s not a world where dancing makes sense anymore, and yet the singer can’t help it: “All I do is dance.” The younger sand urchins love it. They look on and learn. Resignation here is not privatist, as in “Out in the Country,” but social. The implication is: we are tough and flexible. We will find a way to survive.
This is the title song from an underrated record about the politics of climate change. The song admits to a sobering truth: we don’t have to imagine Mad Max scenarios anymore. Those scenarios are coming true. They are coming true in the experience of weather events once deemed unprecedented and abnormal. They are occurring mostly and most regularly in a broad swath around the planet corresponding, more or less, to the equator. In this swath are clustered nations of the “undeveloped” world. The people of color who live in these nations have been suffering the consequences of empire for generations. The latest of these consequences now comes in the form of climate change. These people are the ones both least responsible for the carbon particles in the atmosphere and most victimized by their effects. Scholars and researchers call this the global south. If we were to look for something equivalent to this dynamic in the continental United States, we would immediately point to New Orleans and Katrina, which is the setting for Costello’s and Toussaint’s record.
An environmental historian recently described to me the basic situation as he perceives it. First, there is a way of thinking that favors modernization, control, growth, and development. This thinking represents all the components of industrial capitalism from its beginnings to the present day, an economic order based on the profligate exploitation of resources, both organic and non-organic, both human and non-human. Second, there is an alternative way of thinking that has been around just as long. This way counsels humility, austerity, and economic restraint. This way advocates for egalitarian social arrangements and respects the living world in all its forms. In an American context, this way follows Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh, Alice Hamilton, John Muir, Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, and more. The problem is that this way of thinking is a tiny, weak rivulet in the cultural imaginary, and the other way of thinking is a pounding, gushing river. When Costello asks, “What do we have to do to send the river in reverse?,” this is the river he means.
This is the opening song on the Decembrists’ biggest album, The King is Dead. Most of the chatter about this record was about the band streamlining their sound, about songwriter Colin Meloy turning his attention away from English folk music and turning instead to American roots. There was a lot of talk about how this record sounded like REM, about how it was as if Peter Buck had become, for this record, a virtual member of the band. I saw the whole record as one about the ecological imagination, and where it is today.
Much came together to give me this impression. The band is from Portland, Oregon, first of all. It was recorded it out in the country, and the cover features a line of evergreens, typical of the Pacific Northwest. Behind this line of trees, the sky is yellow, suggesting a fundamentally altered climate. The record’s title and the band’s name appear in the middle of this sky in the shape of a dominating sun. Nature imagery dominates the songs; several of them seem to be exploring a near-future, after the existing economic orders have collapsed. The king is dead. The river has not reversed, but it has dried up completely, in both a literal and a metaphorical way. Big-hearted former Portlanders—real people, not animated–are finding new ways to live. Their politics have become radically decentralized, with all the tedium and challenge that brings. While certainly no paradise, it is a way of life in which people are less alienated, one might say, from the material world that sustains them.
Did I take my interpretation a bit far? Maybe–but not too far! Good songs are ones that can bear a plurality (but not an infinity) of interpretations. Listen to “Calamity Song,” “Down by the Water,” “This is Why We Fight.” Listen to the opening song, which to my mind, lays out this basic theme. Changes are occurring now, and bigger changes are coming. It feels overwhelming; it’s a lot to carry on a pair of shoulders. Yes, we are, each of us, responsible (and certainly Americans a lot more than others). At the same time, we are not–not any one of us–in control. Even if we could act collectively, that collective wouldn’t be in control. That reality is a lot to bear. But when the agony of ecological consciousness gets too heavy, don’t escape it in the direction of denial or resignation. Rather, carry it, keep carrying it, but don’t carry it all. The desperate desire to do some world saving can be a species of hubris all its own. Therefore, the song offers, if not hope, heart. I take from this song the same slim but substantial comfort that I take from Arne Naess’s reminder that, when it comes to environmental activism, “the front is long.” You can’t do everything. Do what you can.