What would John Denver have done?

- the music industry, climate breakdown and (not) leaving on a jet plane

It was the week that my son took part in a YouthStrike4theclimate action. My usual morning inbox of ecological woe was waiting, daring me to be outraged by another planetary injustice, so I chose a potentially more uplifting one from a fellow musician, whose concerts I try to see whenever he passes through Yorkshire. Except this latest tour announcement seemed to be boasting about his air miles – zipping around the northern hemisphere meeting all those 'good people' and proudly dipping into the southern for a bit of a so-called troubadour tour of Oceania, like it was popping around to see a mate down the street. I grimaced, as a feeling which had been humming on my ethical heartstrings for many a moon suddenly stirred with all the harmony of a feed backing electric guitar in a Debussy piano recital. This was just wrong.


When the children of the world were demanding responsible attitudes from their elders in hundreds of towns and cities – here was someone who should know better – getting on with the environmental equivalent of snorting class A drugs indifferent to the blood money of its supply chain. Someone who batted high on all the right political agendas  – LGBTQ-heavy, who wouldn't play a gig in an oppressive regime or encourage people to buy his music through the website of You Know Who – had missed the solar powered boat on this one. To my son's generation of eco-activists – the climate strikers, the Extinction Rebellion movement and an increasingly vocal minority – flying is a no-brainer, yet it is still the elephant in the room of any thinking person's social gathering. Once roused it starts bellowing with personal indignity and flapping its ears in accusatory posturing, but the facts speak for themselves: no other single individual action impacts like a long haul flight, in fact a recent calculation posited that one person's return flight from London to New York exceeds that of the average person's annual carbon consumption in 56 countries in the world! Put another way, if flying were a country it would be a top ten carbon criminal. Yet I'm not hearing many internationally recognised bands or musicians holding press conferences outside Heathrow Airport and announcing: “you know what, we're not going to do this. Let's find a better way of doing music.”  

So what is to be done? The cognitive dissonance around climate breakdown is as complex as the issues themselves. One would think that the so-called 'precautionary principle' (don't do this until we know it's safe) was a worthy position – except of course, the likes of Exxon and BP have spent three decades fronting and funding groups arguing the opposite, and if you are a major recording artist, the chances are that your record company is probably owned by someone who has big holdings in oil and gas. Which means, as always, that it is down to those who aren't controlled by the corporate world to set an example.

My musical acquaintance is a good bloke, but the troubadour vagabond image he rides on belies the fact that he's part of an international jet set of privileged musicians, most of who travel with a lot more baggage, road crews and one hell of an ecological footprint. Granted, he's not the Rolling Stones, Madonna or Metallica, but he's yet to make the connection that 'getting to work' has a cost, and is not somehow separate from the rest of one's ethical choices. Movements start with decisions like these – don't give your seat up on the bus, don't stand for your national anthem, boycott your school for a day. Every time you get on a plane, you're not just contributing to climate catastrophe and giving succor to those who profit from it, but you're doing the equivalent of walking past a homeless person on the high street. You've chosen a mode of transport that means you don't have to engage with the famines and wars, or the boiling seas full of plastic and bleached coral.


This is where cognitive dissonance turns into something sinister – the organisation of 'ambivalence' towards fellow humans and the planet. What starts with the destruction of space by time – the use of speed to blot out reality – slips towards bureaucracy and the process of turning people into abstracts. Frequent flyers become the equivalent of a pampered elite in some dystopian science fiction film (whether Metropolis or Elysium – eighty years apart - it's the same story). We're suddenly into Hannah Arendt territory – the 'banality of evil' hanging in the very ordinariness of form filling, luggage handling – with the CEOs of the likes of EasyJet and the government officials who won't tax aviation fuel (thereby creating more demand) in the Eichmann role of administrating the apocalypse. Merely 'doing their jobs' of course: ordered by the blood-stained business elite of World Cup fixers, Grand Prix chasers, Just-in-Time tradesters. How then, do we speak of making music and spreading joy without being part of the problem?


For the best part of four decades, Buddhist economists have been wrestling with the practicalities of squaring the productivity of a society with the happiness of its population (they've even succeeded in getting a 'happiness clause' into the legal system of Bhutan). So imagine if we had to make some tough choices on who should fly as part of the transformations required by a Global Green Deal (in the same way that some congested city centres have alternate driving days based upon odd number/even number car plates). Who gets to go? So, obviously medical experts, surgeons, conflict resolutionists, psycho-therapists, teachers, scientists – for all of the practical and social health stuff – but what about culture and the arts? Which musicians bring the most happiness, offer spaces for tranquillity or transcendence? As I weighed up this interesting conundrum – social value and happiness versus ecological impact a strange thought crossed my mind: what would John Denver have done?


"Commit yourself to do whatever it is you can contribute in order to create a healthy and sustainable future - the world needs you desperately. Find that in yourself and make a commitment - that is what will change the world." ~ John Denver

In the 1970s and 80s, when flying had an ambience of excitement and novelty and John Denver in his main role – wholesome TV personality and crafter of beautiful folksy pop songs – was able to endorse it, not many environmentalists were talking about it. He also made a lot of people happy and many of his songs stand the test of time beautifully. Denver himself was a keen pilot and experimental aviation designer, yet his hit Leaving on a Jet Plane (1966/1973), now not only seems a bittersweet nod to our ecological innocence, but it is a reminder of the position of the musician as a person of influence. Denver managed to make Nature cool and something to be valued at the dawn of the environmental movement. He penned songs inspired by the oceanographer Jacques Cousteau (Calypso) opposed oil drilling in the Arctic, played benefit gigs after Chernobyl (in Russia) believed that vegetarianism was linked to social justice and solving the problems of hunger, bought wilderness to protect it from development and opposed many of the injustices of the Reagan era. He wasn't someone you could accuse of lacking in empathy he's even got a real gem of a song (Old) Hitchhiker where he steps into the shoes of a life long road bard and sees the world from their perspective which is why, two decades after his death, his actions as a musician inspired by the natural world and our responsibility to one another still sets an example.


By contrast, when I was my son's age – and Denver at his most influential – I had a brief (and embarrassing) encounter with Kiss, who are not only still going forty years later, their tours are even larger and surrounded by as much commercial tat as their songs are empty of any message or subtlety. This band probably have the carbon footprint equal to several African countries and combine the ethics of Exxon with the joie de vivre of a trip to McDonald's (with a few fireworks and make-up thrown in for good measure). An easy target clearly, as indeed are U2, who a decade ago conducted a world tour estimated to be the equivalent energy use of the four members flying a jet to Mars. It seems not to have embarrassed them into eschewing all of this for a few local gigs in Dublin and a quiet retirement planting trees in the Wicklow Hills (maybe singing to them).



U2 – still haven't found what they are looking for? One world tour used the equivalent energy of flying a passenger jet to Mars.

So, where are all of those 'good people' on this issue? Everywhere but nowhere it seems. Being an environmentally aware musician these days is the new normal – be vegan, reduce plastic, offset your emissions – but who is forsaking flying? Maybe Radiohead, who had the wherewithal to have actually employed an eco-auditor back in 2007, to assess the band's impact on the planet? No, they are still racking up the air miles, as the Daily Mail gleefully reported in a recent side swipe at environmental musicians (Foals and Bonobo also getting it in the neck). For some rock n roll rebels, if you can't be consistent, maybe the best thing you can do is stay at home and wait to play gigs to the climate refugees who are heading your way. We all want to make friends and be influenced by other musicians and traditions – but how about finding them a bit closer to home!

Step forward the Extinction Rebellion inspired Music Declares Emergency – a pledge to fans that some artists are putting their reputations on the line, or at least into the public eye. It's a start – like 'The 1975' recently teaming up with Greta Thunberg to deliver a message that everything has to change and fast. So, let's have all travelling musicians and bands declare their carbon footprint, just like we declare taxable income; let's push them to divest from fossil fuel-funded institutions: banks, record companies, online streaming platforms, transport carriers. Let's devise a more holistic approach to appreciating music – where the theory and the practice of the artist's 'rebelliousness' or artistic integrity is judged not just on the ideas that they carry with them, or even the melodic beauty of the material, but how they get to the places in which they perform. Maybe it could be part of a Buddhist 'Denver index' where we divide the carbon footprint of an event by the 'happiness created', relative to its environment and audience.


Whilst we work out the maths of this, it's worth saying that guilt is not always a good galvanizer; but why, if we spend so much time feeling bad about things that can make us happy (chocolate, sex, binge watching 'Scandi-Noir' or Brooklyn 99), shouldn't we make the most of all that Catholic and Protestant self-flagellation, like the Swedes are doing with their flygskam (flight shame) movement? Maybe we should appropriate Gordon Gekko's greed speech from Wall Street: 'guilt is good, guilt is pure, guilt is right'.

Only so far. We know what needs to be done. Historically, most grassroots movements thrive around a positive vision, and Extinction Rebellion have a sense of fun and joy at the heart of what is all about recreating community out of the toxic shell of capitalism. Changing everything is hard work, so whilst we are doing the important self and societal education stuff, we need our musicians to be fully on message in their art and their actions. Cue some transport themed (soft) eco-battle music in the manner of a 'Get up, stand up', 'We shall overcome', 'Glad to be Gay', 'Killing in the Name of' or 'Fight the Power' – yet this time we'll be looking to celebrate the coolness of Slow Local Carbon Neutral rock 'n' roll.

John Denver believed that songs connect people because they speak to us on a much more instinctive emotional level, of the experience of being human itself. They are a distillation of our best selves, our finest qualities – mostly articulations of how to say "I love you" in three chords or three movements – but increasingly of the beauty of the world even at its moment of greatest fragility (check out Brian Eno's recent reworking of his 'An Ending/Ascent' or Einaudi's 'Elegy for the Arctic'). 

It's a thought worth hanging onto. When Greta Thunberg says that 'no one is coming to our rescue', I am reminded of Carl Sagan's poignant 'Pale Blue Dot' speech. On February 14th 1990, when Voyager 1 was at the outer edges of the Solar System with its cargo of recordings of human achievements including many hours of music from all corners and cultures of the Earth  Sagan persuaded NASA to turn the spacecraft's camera around for a final photograph of Earth, 3.7 billion miles away.  And there we were, impossibly small, a 'mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam'.  'That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. ...There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.'





For my generation, the terrifying speed of the ecological crisis has reminded us of our complacency at taking things for granted; of being able to travel cheaply without consequence: the world as our toxic oyster. ​ Taking the long view means opting out of the illusion of short term convenience; it means taking hard personal and professional choices, paying our 'love miles' forward, into a habitable second half of the century. We'll have to drag our governments and corporations through changes that they are not prepared for; we'll have to embarrass the music industries into realising that creativity and responsibility are inseparable; that there are other ways of connecting with one another than burning our children's future at thirty thousand feet.   For my son's generation, music needs to be more than a vehicle for a bit of rebellious teenage self-expression; it can, and should be, part of a planet saving unifying message and one which I think John Denver would have added his voice to. 

Written June 2019

(c) J Purkis

Joyful musical experiences were had listening to the oeuvres of the following whilst penning this article:  Zbigniew Preisner, Ludivoco Einaudi, Rusanda Panfili, Bear McCreary (and John Denver). Carbon footprint of doing this: unknown (but under review).


A love letter to ourselves:

Earth - Valentine's Day 1990