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The Lost Art of Environmental Anthems in Music

Updated: Oct 20, 2023

Whether you love or hate the hippies of the 60s and 70s, you can’t deny they knew how to make music. From flower power anthems to racial awareness, to environmental wake-up calls, artists were able to create incredibly catchy lyrics with a distinct message of protest.

Fast forward to today, as the world faces a worsening climate emergency, you might be wondering why those catchy songs about saving the Earth aren’t popping up on your Spotify playlists. Artists like Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and Cat Stevens wrote iconic songs about the incoming threat of climate change, yet it seems that environmental anthems have gone out of style. Let’s dive into the groovy past and see why these eco-tunes went on a hiatus, and whether they’re poised for a comeback!

In 1962, Malvina Reynolds introduced ‘What Have They Done To The Rain?’ as one of the earliest environmental protest songs, presenting it as a folk melody that voiced concerns about the adverse societal and environmental impacts of above-ground nuclear fallout. The ecological disaster that triggered a surge of environmental protests was the 1969 Santa Barbara Channel oil spill, responsible for the deaths of more than 10,000 sea creatures. This incident was the largest oil spill in history, serving as the catalyst for Joni Mitchell’s creation of ‘Big Yellow Taxi’. This iconic folk song contains the memorable line, “They paved paradise, put up a parking lot,” and writes about dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, or DDT, which was a widely used pesticide revealed to be incredibly damaging to the environment.

‘Big Yellow Taxi’ drew direct inspiration from the Santa Barbara oil spill and revolves around the concept of a future in which even trees find themselves enclosed in museums, accessible to the public for a fee — a notion that seems increasingly realistic as eco-tourism heightens in popularity.

Countless other examples of eco-anthems exist. Cat Stevens’ hit song ‘Where Do The Children Play?’ argues that progress in technological advancement has come at the expense of nature and green spaces for children to play in. Bob Dylan’s ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ writes about the stupidity of mankind and the metaphorical and physical storm that awaits us. These artists were aware, educated, and determined to make a difference.

Tangible impact on environmental policy-making was achieved through protest music. DDT was banned in 1972, two years after ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ was released. While we can’t prove that one caused the other, it is clear that the power of music in amplifying the voices of environmental activists was significant and caused listeners to rally and support their causes.

So, where are these activists and their protest songs now? A few modern artists like Billie Eilish and Childish Gambino have released songs about climate change, but the vast majority of music in the 20th century seems to be avoiding the topic completely. The Santa Barbara oil spill is now the third largest spill in US history instead of the first and climate anxiety is soaring — yet music has fallen behind in the conversation around climate and environmentalism.

People love to sit and watch post-apocalyptic films about the destruction of mankind, but is that because music is a rallying cry while films allow us to sit with our anxiety and let it fester? Are artists simply unwilling to release music that faces listeners with climate issues instead of distracting them?

Folk music has historically been used in protest due to its roots as a working-class genre, surviving orally for hundreds of years. The reappearance of folk into mainstream music through artists like Hozier and Noah Kahan may cause a reappearance of songs dedicated to protesting climate policy. However, that will depend on how modern folk musicians prioritise climate topics, their ability to translate their message effectively, and the way we as listeners absorb it.

Illustration by Lauren McAndrew

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