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The cacophony of crisis

Flora Dyson on the sounds and realities of the climate crisis

COP26 has brought forth a multitude of images which embody the climate crisis: koalas clinging to rescue workers in Australian forest fires, polar bears stranded and solitary on drifting icebergs, the intrepid youth of today bearing placards whilst throwing scorn at inactive governments. We are surrounded by these images in the press, so much so that we become passive to nature’s plea for help. We partake in a kind of environmentally destructive voyeurism as these images become part out our everyday, inducing inertia and inducing global warming above the critical 1.5 degrees to a matter of inevitability. Jolly, I know.

The omnipresence of warning images represents what the climate crisis looks like, but I ask, what does the climate crisis sound like? Would the presence of sound to describe the climate crisis reduce the emotional distance between us and the increasingly critical issues we face? Would sound remind us that, unlike images, the climate crisis is ongoing and not frozen in time in faraway nations?

Does the climate crisis sound like abstractly associated protest music expressing concern about the state of the world? The cover art to Weyes Blood’s album, Titanic Rising, depicts the artist submerged in a bedroom, a subtle reminder of indiscriminately rising sea levels. “Something to Believe” reflects a nihilistic hopelessness and a need to care for larger, more existential worldly issues – “Give me something I can see/ Something bigger and louder than the voices in me”Weyes Blood demonstrates a well-known sense of resignment to pressing issues in the lyrics of “Something to Believe”: ice caps are melting and sea levels are rising but we are looking on, uncaring.

Childish Gambino’s “Feels like Summer” and The 1975’s “Love It If We Made It” both express climate concern through a masked naivety. Gambino begins with a classic tone of summer nostalgia which is soon subverted by creeping anxieties around “Men who made machines that want what they decide/ Parents tryna tell their children please slow down/ Slow down”. The 1975 similarly put their popular, happy-go-lucky style to use – it becomes paradoxical with their lyrics which go on to address xenophobia, Trumpism and climate change.  

Surely the climate crisis is not expressed by implicit lyrics which appeal to listener subjectivities and interpretation? One would point to Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” as a classic and explicit message which foreshadows a climate catastrophe. Mitchell expresses a similar nihilism to her modern counterparts: upbeat guitar riffs are compounded with her heady vocal quality which work to create a raw dialectic between artificial capitalism and the natural world, reflected in the song’s lyrics. “Big Yellow Taxi” is the sound of a woman who has given up, resigned to the fates of the future; “Oh, it always seems to go/ You don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone”.

Whilst artists seem resigned to oncoming threat, the need for action is best vocalised by its leaders. Greta Thunberg, the face of the Friday’s for Future movement, expresses her anxieties over music in The 1975’s nominal track which opens their two most recent albums. The speech, in which Thunberg encourages her listeners to rebel, is sampled over the band’s archetypical, synthetic piano textures. Compelling as Thunberg’s speech is, it is out of place in an album: in an age of shuffling and skipping music, along with a decrease in album popularity, the speech goes underappreciated. Compared with the album’s more popular tracks, it has received a third of Spotify streams. It seems listeners do not wish to be preached to – for many, music offers an escape from existential worries rather than an embodiment of them.

Whilst music is a powerful expression of climate anxieties, sound can be harnessed to show the truly worrying realities of human impact on the planet. David Attenborough’s interaction with the Australian lyre bird depicts the terrifyingly real dominance of humankind in all aspects of the natural world. The lyre bird can mimic the sound of other bird calls and forest noises to attract a mate – yet exposure to camera shutters and chainsaws means it replicates these sounds which have predominated its environment with a shocking accuracy. The creeping presence of artificiality in the lyre bird’s call demonstrates the defilement of the natural world – delightful melodies turn to the sinister sound of human destruction in an unpleasant paradox. However, as shocking and disturbing as the changing call of the lyre bird is, it does not induce or persuade action against deforestation. It merely acts as a depressing reminder of human detriment of natural environments. Perhaps if the lyre bird yelled “write to your MP!” repeatedly we may have some hope of change.

The call of the lyre bird is an explicitly depressing depiction of humankind’s impact on the planet, yet much media representing the climate crisis uses sound in a more optimistic fashion. Cosmo Sheldrake’s album, Wake Up Calls, uses samples from endangered British birds, interwoven with synthesised sounds to raise awareness for the threat they face. He creates rich soundscapes of nature which celebrates the potential diversity of British woodlands, whilst also acting as a poignant reminder of local endangerments: Sheldrakes demonstrates that, just as the ice caps are melting and coral reefs are dying, so are our local ecosystems.

Just as the climate crisis cannot be defined by one image, it cannot be defined by one sound. Rather, we hear a polyphonic cry for help from local and global ecosystems and environments, which is voiced by concerned cultural figureheads. All we need to do is listen and act. 

Image credit: Callum Shaw/Unsplash

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