FFor 13 years, James frontman Tim Booth lived in a cabin in the verdant forests of Topanga Canyon, Los Angeles. For the most part, it was bliss: beautiful wilderness, untamed landscapes, a welcoming community who threw a “pie party” when they first arrived. But in the past three years, a deadly, pervasive threat hung over their heads. Thirty wildfires, all within a few miles of their home. In 2021, they sold up and left their beloved community for good.
“Ours is just one story among millions,” Booth tells me. “A story that I suspect will define the 2020s.” There are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people leaving California each year, exhausted by apocalyptic summers of raging wildfires, droughts and record-breaking temperature highs. “But where do we go?” Booth asks. “Where do you go when ‘freak’ weather is no longer [so], but commonplace. Nature has a fever and we are the cause.”
This year, James are among some of music’s biggest names joining Brian Eno’s UK and US-based charity EarthPercent – supported by leading music industry executives and climate scientists – to celebrate Earth Day on 22 April with a new initiative. Fans will be able to buy tracks from a Bandcamp list of previously unheard music from artists including Coldplay, Anna Calvi, Big Thief and Hot Chip. It’s the latest example of the music industry stepping up to tackle the climate crisis: in 2020, Patti Smith and Red Hot Chili Peppers took part in a livestream celebrating Earth Day’s 50th anniversary. Funds raised from this year’s efforts will go towards EarthPercent’s five core areas of work: energy transition, climate justice, legal and policy change, protecting nature, and making music a greener industry.
“We are constantly touring as a band, or as DJs, making us a contributing factor to the climate crisis we are currently suffering in,” London-based post-punk band Warmduscher explain. “We got involved in this project as we feel it’s our duty to try to help the professionals solve this problem, rather than just talk about it over warm beers in a random back room, somewhere far, far, away.” They want to continue seeing their footprints in muddy festival fields and on beaches, “not in a graveyard of what was once this weird, wonderful world we live in”.
James have been writing songs about climate change since 1985, including “What For?”, from their second album, strip mine, in which Booth sings about “the rape of nature.” Their 1997 track “Greenpeace” condemned the apathy towards the ever-growing crisis and the negative perceptions of climate activists: “I don’t like the world I see/ So I’ll avert my gaze to the TV,” Booth sang. “I’m too cool to get involved/ Someone else can change the channel for me.” Before then, Jimi Hendrix was uncannily present on 1967’s “Up From the Skies”, while Joni Mitchell warned about paving over paradise on “Big Yellow Taxi” in 1970. Michael Jackson mourned “this crying earth” on “Earth Song” in 1982, and REM called out global indifference with 1986’s “Fall On Me”. More recently, climate activist Greta Thunberg cameoed in music from The 1975, Pearl Jam, and Roman Morello (son of Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello’s) and Nandi Bushell’s 2021 collaboration “The Children Will Rise Up”. Billie Eilish sported a “No Music On a Dead Planet” campaign shirt during her live tours.
“Once this would have been the preserve of Sting or of educated indie bands, for want of a better word,” Lewis Jamieson of environmental pressure group Music Declares Emergency told The Independent last year. “[Eilish is] not the only one. Declan McKenna has been very vocal. Tom Grennan is quite vocal. K-pop fans have started to organize online for climate action. Now it is much more widespread and more engaged across music genres.”
James’s timeline of protest songs reminds us, Booth says, of how long society has known of the crisis – and how little has been done. “Government inaction has been breathtaking in its stupidity; we really are the frog being boiled slowly in a pan of water, seemingly oblivious to its fate,” he says. “The basic fact is we are addicted to oil and the oil companies are addicted to profit. They spend millions on maintaining government inaction. They spend millions on funding politicians to muddy the waters. They spend millions on distracting us from the simple fact that 100 companies are responsible for 70 per cent of global warming. 100 companies! We have to keep our eye on that figure and not be distracted by the blizzard of disinformation.”
Eno points out in a statement about this year’s campaign that, historically, music has often been at the forefront of social change: “Think of ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ and ‘Rock Against Racism’.” In the face of the climate crisis – “the biggest challenge in human history” – he firmly believes it’s time for the industry to get out there again. “We want Earth Day to become a day of real action for the planet, offering a way for any artist, from any genre, at any stage of their career, to make a meaningful contribution to addressing the climate emergency,” he says. “This is what unleashing the power of music in service of the planet looks like.”
Hannah Peel, the Emmy Award-nominated composer, wrote her piece for the Greenpeace campaign “Act Now”, featuring the Ulster Orchestra, which was heard at the G7 summit in Cornwall last year. “I hope we can all start to actively tackle the climate and nature crisis together,” she says.
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Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers, meanwhile, says that anyone who wants to have hope for the future should be active in promoting Earth Day. “We have the greatest respect for Brian Eno and the work of EarthPercent, so my friend Philippe Saisse and I made something especially to support their great efforts,” he says of his contribution.
“We are all caring, loving people – each of us,” REM’s Michael Stipe says. “The more opportunity we have to express that, the better our time on this earth.”
Read more about the EarthPercent initiative here.