As part of Music Ally’s coverage of the climate emergency and its impact on the music industry, we’ve written several times about non-profit organisation Julie’s Bicycle.
It helps companies across the arts and cultural sectors – music included – take action. Recent stories include its ‘Creative Climate Justice Hub’ for artists, and the carbon calculator tool it launched with Impala for independent labels. In 2021, we also interviewed its music lead Chiara Badiali to pick her brain on how artists and music companies can get involved.
In October, Julie’s Bicycle held a one-day event called We Make Tomorrow 2022, bringing together climate activists, artists and people from across the creative industries. I couldn’t attend in person, but have been watching its sessions on ‘digital replay’ (tickets for which cost £10) to get a sense of the key themes.
The notes that follow are a personal take on a very wide-ranging event, through the lens of talking points and thoughts that seem most relevant to the music industry.
Take heart and don’t be daunted
If you’ve experienced climate anxiety when thinking about the climate emergency, you’re far from alone. In her introduction to the event, Julie’s Bicycle founder Alison Tickell made it plain that positivity, optimism and community are going to be vital in facing up to the scale of the challenges ahead.
“During this difficult time, so many of you have rallied around to one another, to climate, to nature and perhaps especially to justice and to fairness, because we are together now entering the storm, and we know it,” she said.
“We’ve oriented the day not around urgency, not around crisis, but instead found our energy in care, attention and love. And it isn’t hard to find. Being in good company is how we will get through this, and in solidarity with the many communities and the many people who are already deeply and profoundly in the storm.”
Music and culture have an important role to play…
No surprises here: you’d hardly expect this organisation’s conference to tell people in the creative and cultural industries that they’re no use at all!
But it’s also true that musicians, actors etc often get a barrage of criticism and accusations of hypocrisy when they speak out about the climate emergency. ‘You fly on planes more than anyone’ / ‘Stick to your job and shut up about the environment’ / ‘Nobody cares what you think’ / etc.
This kind of thing could have a chilling effect on other people within these sectors, but to counter that, there was a strong and encouraging thread running throughout We Make Tomorrow about why art and culture can play a vital role in tackling the climate emergency.
“Culture needs to be part of every single conversation and every single solution to the climate and justice crisis,” said Tickell, predicting that within a couple of years culture will have a “formal delegate presence” at the COP global climate talks.
“It’s so important, especially with climate change, and climate solutions, we need to embrace art and culture,” said visual artist Fanny-Pierre Galarneau in her talk at the event.
“Art has the power to connect with emotion. It’s a social weaver. It permits people to connect together, to weave relationships, and I believe art has the power to heal, through emotions.”
“I believe too that climate change is a cultural problem, and if we just go and try to resolve it through technical solutions, it has been shown that it would not be effective, or communities won’t engage sometimes with some solutions.”
Many other speakers at the event mirrored this encouragement for artists of all kinds to engage with the climate emergency – and for people in power to pay heed.
“Culture is a core climate issue, and climate is a core culture issue,” said Pravali Vangeti, steering committee member and Youth Forum co-convener at the Climate Heritage Network. However, she also noted that thus far “there has been such a pervasive failure to include culture systematically and comprehensively in all kinds of climate policies at nation and international levels”.
“I feel like there’s no way we could truly engage our communities without using art as the medium to do so. Without art, we’re not able to communicate with each other,” said Islam Elbeiti, community engagement lead at i4Policy, in one of the day’s sessions.
“I feel like this is the only medium that allows us to truly have an open conversation, to truly be able to listen to each other, to truly be able to make sure that we’re being inclusive in the work that we do.”
“Our belief systems, they’re shaped by the language that we use, and our language is shaped by culture. And culture is what shapes ideas and behaviours, and the social imaginary. Culture is what drives politics, and shapes the future,” said filmmaker and activist Jasmine Alakari.
“I challenge all of us culture makers, language creators, world weavers, to step up and to really realise how much agency, how much control and power we have through the creation of culture.”
…But we have to take a hard look at ourselves first
This is rousing rhetoric: powerful encouragement for anyone in the music world who’s wondering whether they have a role to play (and the right to assume that role) in tackling the climate emergency.
However, climate lawyer, author and justice activist Farhana Yamin offered a warning alongside this: that it’s important for each sector of the arts and culture industries to take a hard look at itself too.
“I think it’s time that the cultural sector also acknowledged that it’s not coming to this as a sort of saviour, as the piece that was missing. It’s also coming to this with baggage,” said Yamin.
“With its own models, with its own need to examine the power structures, the business-as-usual models. That it’s coming as a sector that very much served and was created and is run by the elites.”
Don’t get too hung up on Net Zero
A number of music industry companies have announced their goals to reach ‘Net Zero’ (or carbon neutrality) in the coming years. One of the most interesting sessions at We Make Tomorrow 2022 saw several members of Julie’s Bicycle team discuss whether Net Zero has its drawbacks – or rather, whether a single-minded focus on Net Zero as THE target is a risk.
The organisation’s climate justice lead and events coordinator Farah Ahmed had referred to Julie’s Bicycle’s own desire to push “beyond just talking about carbon footprinting and into actual leadership”, which presaged the debate.
Her colleague, climate change and sustainability specialist Richard Phillips, set out the positive side of Net Zero, citing the global goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to as close to zero as possible, while re-absorbing remaining emissions from the atmosphere.
“It’s given us all some form of direction, which is crucially important. We know what we need to do to keep global heating to within safe limits,” said Phillips. “We need to reach net zero by 2050 at the very latest, and half the emissions on the journey towards that by 2030, again at the very latest.”
He suggested that having this shared target for every individual, organisation and government to shoot for is important on psychological grounds.
“It feels like such an overwhelming challenge, the climate crisis. That can foster inaction, and that’s really deadly to the climate movement,” he said. “Having the net zero target there and understanding the direction of it has helped us have some sense that we can overcome this if we reach that goal.”
Another member of the Julie’s Bicycle team, environmental sustainability consultant Claire Buckley, addressed the downside, suggesting that it encourages people to focus purely on the numbers – specifically the numbers that can be easily measured – and thus miss other factors.
“When it is in that very strict quantified, scientific format, it can be quite reductive. It can mean that you will miss out on things that you can’t measure, that you can’t put into that neat carbon metric,” said Buckley.
“Things like divestments, things like the amazing work artists and arts organisations do to engage people to demonstrate, to mobilise and inspire change. And it can also be disheartening if you are measuring impacts that you have very little control over: transport being the best example there.”
She also suggested that Net Zero can make people focus their attention on technological solutions to climate change.
“Everybody’s like, what action can we take, what can we do to get those numbers down? There’s not enough focus on people,” she said. “One of the other downsides of net zero is that nature tends to get sidelined. All the decarbonisation in the world is not going to be much good to us if the ecosystems upon which we depend for life have been devastated.”
Music lead Chiara Badiali was also part of this session, and agreed that while Net Zero goals can help people and companies hold themselves accountable for their emissions and other impact on the environment, it should not distract them from the bigger picture.
“Yes, in spaces where we own and operate things like buildings, where we run generators and cars, actually it does mean being real with ourselves in terms of the investment that’s going to take to aim for real reductions and real zero, where we are burning fossil fuels,” said Badiali.
“There is no moving away from that. But the second part is holding ourselves accountable to people and to our communities, again in the context of these bigger systems around energy, around how we get around, around what we eat, around who owns and controls land and spaces.”
“The amount of time that we as the JB team spend in conversations with people who are trying to figure out ‘should I set my organisational business net zero target to 2025, 2030?’ It’s starting to sound a lot like hot air if we don’t look up into that bigger picture,” she continued.
“Without either focusing on reductions, or without focusing on the role that you can play to move everyone and everything around you closer to real zero in many cases, actually all your net zero date is really doing is committing you to buy offsets, and no one wants that. I really, really want us to think and push beyond that.”
This is a long section of this article, but it feels one of the most important from the music industry’s perspective: setting goals to be carbon neutral can still be valuable, but it’s not the whole story.
Could ‘solidarity eco-taxes’ catch on?
One music-focused case study from We Make Tomorrow came from Rob van Wegen, a producer at Innofest, who helps festivals to test new sustainability technologies. He talked about how the Eurosonic Noorderslag festival went about becoming more sustainable.
“There was an urge of taking responsibility. We wanted to push ourselves to know what we were doing and to know the impact we were having,” he said. One of the answers was a “solidarity eco-tax” for attendees of the popular event.
“The solidarity eco-tax is basically a system where we charge everyone who comes to the festival an extra amount of money, where we take away all of the CO2 emissions that we create with travelling towards our festival,” he said.
Everybody pays the same price, whatever their mode of transport. “You create a form of solidarity because we are all in this together, and we want to make that feeling clear,” he said, while noting that people could opt out if they wanted to.
“If it’s an opt-in, people feel too much the possibility to don’t do it. We want to pressure them so that if they don’t do it, they have a sense of ‘I’m stepping out and I’m not taking responsibility’.”
The money was then invested in technologies (including sustainable aviation fuel) as well as to support artists travelling to the festival to adopt greener transport.
Climate justice does not stand alone
The word ‘justice’ was said a lot during We Make Tomorrow, and that felt like an important point about how climate activism intersects with other movements. And that feels relevant to the music industry, where all of these movements are working.
“A great alliance is being formed, and a greater recognition that climate justice is bound up with migrants justice. It’s bound up with racial justice. It’s bound up with social justice. And above all it’s tied up with ensuring human rights and dignity and freedom for us all,” said Farhana Yamin.
“As we connect our various different struggles, we can create deep bonds and trust. Between racial justice, housing justice, workers’ rights, climate justice and so much more,” said human rights lawyer Harpreet Kaur Paul in her talk at the event.
“We have choice and agency about which parts of the injustice we respond to, and we can trust that the person sitting next to us, a person that we’ve not yet met but may one day find connected in a networked way to justice struggles, will pick their own.”
“And through that we can create a tidal wave of lots of autonomous grassroots groups connected to one another, moving towards a transition of repair, regeneration and care.”
Artist and writer Alistair Gentry also addressed this idea, calling for “justice for everyone, not just climate justice, because all of those things are related” during one of the event’s panels.
“You cannot have climate justice without social justice and economic justice, so we all need to be working on all of those things,” he said.
“I know that’s a lot. But if you’re just working on climate justice, you’re just rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. The ship is still sinking. You need to work on all of those things. We are all on that Titanic.”
These intersections between different justice and activism movements were another of the strong running themes of the event.
“If we don’t think about participation in a true sense, if we don’t think about how the power that we’re all entangled in, if we don’t think about dominance, if we don’t think about racism and every other things that are in between, then the true sense of the change we truly desire may really not be holistic,” said Taiwo Afolabi, Canada research chair in socially engaged theatre at the University of Regina.
“You cannot not think about racism and not think about all the issues that are going on in development, and how that plays when we want to create a better world for ourselves and for our people,” added Islam Elbeiti.
Perhaps all this could be encouragement for even more links and collaboration between climate and other justice movements within the music industry.
The power of the collective
This isn’t really a music-related thing, but it was an interesting talking point. The media loves to focus on individual ‘leaders’ in the climate movement, even when those individuals (Greta Thunberg for example) constantly stress that they are part of the collective movement.
Several speakers at We Make Tomorrow talked about this too. Ahmara Spence, founder and director of arts and social justice organisation MAIA, quoted the “we are the ones we have been waiting for” line from June Jordan’s Poem for South African Women, for example.
“Sometimes I think we get into this like ‘How are the leaders going to save us? Who is the most charismatic person that is going to come in and say all the right things and make us feel good and make us feel amped?’ We ain’t got time for that no more!” said Spence.
Thimali Kodikara, producer and co-host of the Mothers of Invention podcast, took up this theme, suggesting “instead of it being about an individual’s personality traits, that we actually uphold the principles of the movement itself”.
“Then ego seems to fall away. Anxiety falls away. Imposter syndrome falls away, and you start moving together as a unit, and that is enormously powerful to be able to sustain, and to scale up,” added Kodikara.
Farah Ahmed from Julie’s Bicycle also addressed this search for heroes, and the power of the collective.
“Sometimes for me, the climate movement gets really wrapped up in the idea of individual heroes. You know, this person is going to save us, this child activist.. it’s like, you’re a grown-up! Save yourself! Why are you waiting for a child to save you?” said Ahmed.
“We need to step away from this ‘this singular person will do this thing, they are the leader’. Leadership is not about individual icons of a movement, it is not about hero worship. It is about collectives. Behind every single one of those people that are held up, there is a collective, there is a movement… We need to stop working towards a hero, and acknowledge that movements are where power lies.”
Looking forward with optimism
Nobody is underestimating the challenges ahead in tackling the climate emergency, but in watching We Make Tomorrow’s sessions back-to-back, I came away feeling a charge of optimism. A few more quotes sum that up.
Playwright, screenwriter and poet Chinonyerem Odimba suggested that there is a better alternative to the word ‘ally’ when bringing people into this movement.
“I do want to know: who are the accomplices? Who are the people who are willing to be accomplices in the idea of climate justice? And what does that mean, and what does that look like? We don’t have to have the answers right now, but there’s an opportunity to co-create what those solutions might be.”
Odimba also said that the task of tackling the climate emergency “requires not one approach, but a thousand beautiful approaches”, while Harpreet Kaur Paul reminded the audience that “only powerful communities can bring about the scale of change needed to make what currently might feel impossible become inevitable”.
Gentry’s call to arms had some steel, too. “There is not a choice here. The world is already ending. The world is ending. The world we’ve known has ended, so we need to live with it, if we want to live. And if we want to live, we need to live together.”
Finally – and getting back to one of the valuable roles that musicians from our industry can play in this – came the event’s closing remarks from writer and theatre director Anthony Simpson-Pike. We often talk about musicians as storytellers, which is a useful thing to have in mind when reading the following quote.
“Today we’ve heard a lot about the power of stories and imagination, about how important it is to have multiple stories about multiple ways of living. We are all storytellers, but we’re trapped in a single-story culture called extractive capitalism. We need a new story of living,” he said.
“The crisis is also a crisis of the imagination. We need a new story but people are finding it hard to imagine living in other ways. It’s not their fault: the single story is designed for that.”
“Some don’t want new stories to be told, they want people to believe that the world has always been this way, and all storytellers can do is describe it as it is. But stories express the limits of our imagination, and if you tell a different one, you can expand what is possible.”
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