On Environmental Art Making

Originally published in two parts as part of the Digestable newsletter

As the smoke from unprecedented wildfires pollutes skies in east coast cities and hurricane season surges past the alphabet into Greek letters despite only being half over my mind turns as it often does to Grimes.  I know, the Canadian musician’s much anticipated album Miss Anthropocene came out back in February (feels so much longer than that) to generally positive reviews but I haven’t seen anyone really discuss what it means for Claire Boucher to sell an album as being about climate change when in reality the album has virtually nothing to do with the topic.  Even Grist was like “bless her little heart – using climate change as a metaphor for relationships and fame” but like is this okay?  People die every day – have been dying and have been displaced by disasters attributed to climate change for over a decade and Grimes just comes in and uses the climate catastrophe as a METAPHOR to discuss issues with her marriage to a fake-environmentalist billionaire tycoon?  AND she’s got the nerve to go ahead and green light an ad campaign that puts “GLOBAL WARMING IS GOOD” on billboards across North America for the shock factor??! I’m sorry but no.


Taking a breath. 

I think a lot about what constitutes good environmental art. I’m doing this whole going back to school thing because I deeply believe that storytelling has a key role to play in inspiring and educating folks to stop and reverse this apocalypse-in-progress, make the revolution irresistible and all that.  I’ve already made the case that using climate change as loose conceptual packaging for a work, as in the case of Miss Anthropocene, is not good environmental art making, so what is?  


I’m not quite sure 

and also 

it’s complicated 

so I’m going to split this into two parts. This week I’ll take on some narrative pitfalls environmental art often falls into and in next week’s column I’ll discuss some different possibilities for environmental art making and stretch the idea of what environmental art can be.  Sound good? Let’s roll.

Part I: Pitfalls and Cliches

Good environmental art thinks outside of conventional narratives.  There are certain stories we grow up with that teach us how to think about the environment, the Mother Nature Allegory, the Extraction Parable, and the I Love the Earth piece.  Artists gravitate towards these stories because they are the narrative air we breathe: they’re in advertising, in conversations, and in our heads.  It’s easy for an artist to tell a story they already know and the story’s familiarity means the message is immediately clear to the audience.  The success these narratives have in making change however, is not so clear.  

The Mother Nature Allegory personifies the Earth or nature, usually as a woman, and humanity as their children or husband romantic partner.  Most of us grew up with Shel Silverstein’s book The Giving Tree, and we can see contemporary portrayals in Darren Aranofsky’s film mother! and songs like Imogen Heap’s Earth and Björk’s Sacrifice:

“With clairvoyance / she knew what you needed / and she gave it to you / now her desires are repressed”

The Extractive Parable tells of a person or group of people mining or otherwise extracting resources from a fragile or volatile landscape.  The characters ignore warnings not to take more than they give and their greed or ignorance causes them to suffer greatly.  Dr. Suess’s The Lorax is a good example as is Fire Coming Out of The Monkey’s Head from Gorillaz’s Demon Days album.  Another children’s book Milo and the Magical Stones by Michael Pfister puts an interesting twist on the parable by adding a second positive ending, one where sustainable extraction is implemented and the characters in the story are better off for it.

There are some interesting creative directions people can take with the previous two categories, but the I Love the Earth category lacks even that possibility.  The I Love the Earth piece isn’t usually even narrative, it’s just a declaration of (conditional) love for (certain parts of) the planet or land the artist inhabits and requires virtually no mental effort to write or to listen to.  Woodie Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land – originally written as a retort to God Bless America – is a good example.  It’s a nice sentiment if you don’t think about the colonial legacy the lyrics uphold but really, what has the song done, and more importantly does the song make you think?  Charity singles like We Are The World and Michael Jackson’s Earth Song also fall into this category but the peak of this unoriginality is Lil Dicky’s star studded song Earth.  The song features lyrics like “Hi, I’m a baboon / I’m like a man, just less advanced and my anus is huge / Hey, I’m a zebra / No one knows what I do, but I look pretty cool / Am I white or black?” and the inspired chorus “We love the Earth, it is our planet / we love the Earth, it is our home.”  Oh and profits from the song and related merch go “towards helping the earth” according to Dicky’s website.  That sounds very honorable and totally not like a scam.

Using an established form for environmental works doesn’t have to be cliché and there are some very interesting and creative twists people have put on these forms.  My issue with the method is my same issue with a lot of the tactics mainstream environmental organizations keep using – if they worked, we wouldn’t be watching California burn and Bangladesh drown.  If evoking Mother Nature was all it took to stop oil companies from drilling and governments from permitting, we wouldn’t be in this situation so why not try something different?

Part II: Possibilities

Last week I discussed some pitfalls to environmental art making which is all well and good but this week my sights are set at what we can strive for, rather than what we should avoid when coming to environmental songwriting. First a disclaimer: I’ll do my best to back my arguments with evidence but I do have a taste in art that is my own and I have a specific individual relationship with the environmental movement and climate change so what I think is effective environmental art may not do it for you or other people, and that’s alright. 

One of the biggest issues with environmental art making is how to evoke environmental themes without being too on the nose or cliché.  This is an especially tricky with climate because it is pretty much always talked about through the language of science.  Art is important in the climate movement particularly because science is “complicated” enough that folks either blindly accept or doubt scientific reason without really ever engaging with the content.  Science having its own language makes it difficult to translate into art without over-abstracting or resulting to cliché.  However, there are some really amazing examples of folks using the language of science to make compelling work. Björk’s entire Biophilia album for example distills concepts from biology, geology, and planetary physics into fantastic pieces of music.  She does this successfully by finding metaphorical resonance between biological concepts and human emotion – Virus for example paints the virus-host relationship as a self-destructive love between two people.  Erykah Badu also finds success with the science approach, essentially reciting a scientific paper about the effect of cell phone signals on bee navigation in the intro to Dial’Afreaq. As an individual track it doesn’t make much sense but because it’s embedded in an entire mixtape about cell phones (yes she did that and you should listen) it REALLY works.  My favorite example of an effective use of science is Anohni’s song 4 Degrees, which zooms on a single scientific fact: that if we stay at our current emissions levels we’re on track for four degrees of planetary warming, and milks every bit of emotional resonance out of it.

4 Degrees does another important thing to climate work – it plays with perspective.  Instead of predictably lamenting the future of our world or admonishing us for not doing anything Anohni takes a completely different approach and instead eggs the destruction on:

I want to burn the sky, I want to burn the breeze

I want to see the animals die in the trees

Oh let’s go let’s go, it’s only four degrees

It’s an evocative approach, and an important one.  The default perspective in environmental writing is the guilty-ridden “we” and Anhoni purposefully ditches this perspective for a masochistic and villainous “I.” Mary Annaise Heglar, a self-described amateur twitter troll who was recently blocked by Exxon, has discussed the problem of “we” in climate change.  The dominant narrative is that “we” are to blame and that “we” need to be making change, when in reality the people that must be held accountable for this crisis are a handful of oil execs and a bunch of politicians.  Though I personally love it, Gotye’s (yes that Gotye) song Eyes Wide Open falls for this trap – the song is a string of self-flagellations united around the chorus “we walk the plank with our eyes wide open.” Yes, our eyes are open now, but you know whose eyes were open longer? Exxon’s.

The last thing I want to discuss is the role of emotion in environmental songwriting, two emotions in particular, hope and grief.   It’s pretty settled in the climate community that hope has no place in climate conversations but it bears repeating in this context.  Traditionally climate writers, and certainly musicians and artists making work about the environment, face pressure to find a ray of hope to thread through their work – but it’s become apparent that this hope has fueled quite a bit of inertia and complacence within the climate community and the larger public.  Instead, climate folks make the case for climate grief  and art, as one of the most effective tools humanity has for sharing emotion, shouldn’t be afraid to grieve either.  My favorite climate songs are the ones that have a singular aching image of grief at their center: like the rising tide at Arcade Fire’s Windowsill, tUnE-yArDs’s Water Fountain without water, St. Vincent’s Black Rainbow, and Imogen Heap’s Little Bird.  To explore an example more fully, here’s the first verse of Little Dragon’s Nabuma Rubberband:

The last bird smash into a skyscraper under the Hong Kong lights.

It fell pale like a saint, landed on the night train, feathers blown right

while underground, tunnels reveal voiceless men, the hurt that they feel

from being born in the wrong place at the wrong time, with the wrong face.

I think with the right blend of emotionally resonant imagery a song doesn’t even explicitly have to reference environmental ideas to be an environmental anthem.   This is why, in conclusion, I want to declare Lorde’s debut album Pure Heroine an Official Climate Album.  At first glance there doesn’t seem to be much in terms of environmental imagery, but there’s a threat of violence and destruction strung through the album from “we’re so happy / even when we’re smiling out of fear” in Tennis Court to the flaming hair and “explosions on TV” in Buzzcut Season.  Beyond that, the album speaks acutely to the anxiety and dread that Millennial and Gen-Z folks feel coming of age in an era of imminent ecological collapse: “This dream isn’t feeling sweet / we’re reeling through the midnight streets / and I’ve never felt more alone / it feels so scary getting old” in Ribs and these excellent decolonial lyrics in Team

So all the cups got broke, shards beneath our feet but it wasn’t my fault

and everyone’s competing for a love they won’t receive

‘cause what this palace wants is release

If you’re looking for more thoughts on climate writing you should check out Mary Heglar and Amy Westervelt’s podcast Hot Take, and if you’d like to fill your ears with climate grief, I put all these songs and a few others into a playlist.  Take care everyone, talk to you next week!

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