Songs for when the world is burning

Last week I was tasked with selecting a song to play during an environmental communications guest lecture at the University of California, Los Angeles. A song to summarize the world burning. Finding anything at all that adequately speaks the unprecedented crisis and tragedy that my country is living through was quite a task.

My first thought was ‘Beds Are Burning’, that classic 1980s anthem from Midnight Oil, whose lead singer Peter Garrett, aptly, served a brief stint as Australia’s federal Minister for the Environment (during which he saved my childhood river from being dammed, but that’s another story). It’s quintessentially Australian and it references things burning, so that should do the job, right? But listening and lyric reading, it didn’t fit the bill. For a start it’s about Aboriginal land rights. But more than this, the chorus laments: ‘How can we dance when our earth is turning? / How do we sleep while our beds are burning?’ The bushfire crisis has not come about from neglect. It is not dancing and sleeping that got us here. It’s your fault and mine, the micro-decisions that we make are breaking the planet, or sometimes – graciously – protecting it. And, big picture, these fires are the result of intentional and eyes wide open climate policy that reneges on national responsibilities to reduce carbon emissions and implement restorative initiatives to try to undo – as is possible – some of the damage done.

Speaking of ‘Eyes Wide Open’, that’s the title of another song that made my shortlist. This one from Gotye, the Belgian-Australian pop singer made famous by his falling-out-of-love ditty ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’. But I passed on ‘Eyes Wide Open’ because I can’t accept the lyrics. It’s a song for the end of the world as we know it –
‘So this is the end of the story, / Everything we had, everything we did, / Is buried in dust, / And this dust is all that’s left of us. / But only a few ever worried.’
Although my country has been burning to death since the fire season began in August 2019 – before Summer even arrived, and it burns still, and the loss of life will never be able to be counted, I will not accept that we’ve walked the plank, at least not yet. There is an ample supply of credible science showing us how to turn the wreck around. It’s time – well past time – to pay attention.

The fire crisis fills me with grief, and with rage. In such circumstances, my musical prescription is almost always hiphop. So my ears turn to The Herd’s ‘Emergency’, which is apt –
It was the dumbest thing we could have known / We take and take ’til there was no more / Justify the human breed. We are blinded by our wants and needs / So the seas will swirl, disease be rife, the soil became dust and / dust become life as we know it / And you denied it, And yet you told me you had a plan / And you told me you had a plan / This is an emergency! 
That was 2008. I can’t stand how little has improved since then. I play A.B. Original. I play Urthboy. I briefly consider The Herd’s ‘77%’ but even though the conflagration is grounds for swearing mightily I can’t bring myself to play the words ‘I f**ing hate myself, take “Aussie” from my name / Wake up, this country needs a f**ing shake-up / Wake up, these c**s need a shake-up’. I play Hilltop Hoods and Thundamentals and whilst the baselines meet the pounding of my climate-anxious heart, nothing fits the bill as THE SONG to play at the start of class.

And then, I find it. A song that was written about another evil that plagues my country – racism, but that is – inadvertently – deeply pertinent to the fire crisis too. The song is ‘Every Day My Mother’s Voice’ written by Paul Kelly and performed by him with another Aussie music legend Dan Sultan. You should stop reading now and listen to it. Wrap yourself in its fiercely strong embrace and then loop back here so I can tell you about what it says to me about the global meltdown that’s taking place on Australian soil right now.

‘Every day the sun comes up / Like the day before’ the song opens as shivers traverse my spine. With air pollution levels at global highs due to the fires, the Aussie sun may have been obscured but it does, still, rise. As must we. Fixing all the brokenness that these fires represent demands it of us, as individuals and governments and corporations. This is not business as usual, and even with the comfort of the cyclical promise that the sun will rise each morning and that ‘Every night the stars come up / Just like the night before’ we must not nestle into thinking that once the flames are extinguished life will go back to normal. It won’t and it mustn’t.

‘Every day my mother’s voice / Talks to me / Every day I make my choice/ What to do and how to be’. Mother Earth. Her communication through these fires is loud, clear, and heart-wrenching. The only answer here is to address climate change at every scale we can. To plant trees. To challenge industrialized agriculture in climate-inappropriate locations (yes cotton industry and the rest, I’m looking at you). To reduce carbon emissions dramatically. To make space for indigenous cultural burning practices to become mainstream again, two hundred and thirty-two years of invasion and it’s well past time that we learned from the oldest civilization on earth how fire should be done right.

‘Every day I build my life / On her sacrifice’. Could we do a little less of that? These fires are a clarion call to interrupt the relentless planetary destruction that we’ve been so busy with since the industrial revolution. Enough, already.

‘Many roads I could have gone down’. Our choice of roads will matter. We need the flames out and the raging fire of social change to burn ever brighter. In the aftermath of these fires – and that is still a long way off – let’s not allow politics and the corporate industrial economy to obfuscate the profound ecological, economic, and social issues that these fires are a mere symptom of.

‘Every night I drain my cup / Lay me down and close the door’. Watching the world burn is exhausting. And though this exhaustion pales compared to the suffering of people in the fire fronts – fighting fires, losing lives and homes and stock and pets and hope – we must each lay down sometimes to rest. Ecological grief, ‘solastalgia’ as philosopher Glenn Albrecht named it in 2005, is an affliction we all must suffer, and tend, and wield, in these – literally – unprecedented times.

Listen:
‘Beds Are Burning’ (1987) by Midnight Oil
https://open.spotify.com/track/1CtAzw53AIXKjAemxy4b1j
‘Eyes Wide Open’ (2010) by Gotye
https://open.spotify.com/track/5y1M7jCvL2Pi6IcxypEl9V
‘Emergency‘ (2008) by The Herd https://open.spotify.com/track/4jdVR3vs1Uh4aN8A0eIzYR
‘77%’ (2003) by The Herd https://open.spotify.com/track/6hYoip0BKDOkznLHbaQCqG
‘Every Day My Mother’s Voice’ (2019) by Paul Kelly and Dan Sultan https://open.spotify.com/track/04LrJnL82fy50iYSzt8UCU

Read:
How scientists are coping with our planet falling to pieces:
https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/jan/12/how-scientists-are-coping-with-environmental-grief
A stocktake on the enormity of death:
https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/jan/14/a-billion-animals-the-australian-species-most-at-risk-from-the-bushfire-crisis
A historical explanation from Professor Tom Griffiths about why we must acknowledge these fires as unprecedented:
https://insidestory.org.au/savage-summer/
Why we must seek indigenous knowledge, urgently:
https://time.com/5764521/australia-bushfires-indigenous-fire-practices/

Do:
Donate to the Australian Red Cross, WIRES, the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, the South Australia Bushfire Appeal, or the Country Fire Authority of Victoria.

Change something about your life: use more public transit, have difficult conversations, reduce single-use plastics, put your money in a more ethical bank, write to your elected officials and demand climate action.

Discern your way through the reporting on the fires and be alert to false and misleading coverage, which is creeping its way deep into people’s thinking about the crisis. We must all check and challenge spurious claims including two current furphies making the rounds: that the fires were acts of arson and that this is just a rough but normal Aussie summer. Neither could be less true, or damaging.

Photo by Lukas Coch/Reuters, ‘Amid an early-morning smoky haze, a man cleans the forecourt of Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, on Jan. 5.’
https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2020/01/12/australia-air-poses-threat-people-are-rushing-hospitals-cities-choked-by-smoke/

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