No Planet B

Summer Soundtrack
Pete Seeger, 1986 (Josef Schwarz / Wikimedia Commons)

Max,

“It is worse, much worse than you think.” David Wallace-Wells began his book The Uninhabitable Earth with this warning. It’s the sort of necessary alarmism found throughout scientifically informed discourse on climate change. Ruthless politicization ranging from denial to doomsaying has caused many people (including me) to feel nearly powerless in confronting it. Sure, we can eat less meat or try to organize for a Green New Deal, but our personal choices and legislation only go so far when capitalism itself is predicated upon an endless growth that requires environmental destruction for survival.

If it’s the artist’s duty to reflect the conditions of the world around us, addressing the withering state of our planet must be a primary concern. How, then, to make art about climate change that’s both urgent and, well, good? One of my favorite examples is King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard’s 2019 Infest the Rats’ Nest. The seven-member Australian psychedelic outfit has a style that’s as eclectic as it is energetic, and the group is known for releasing truly staggering amounts of music (dropping no fewer than five albums in 2017). In 2019, they released Fishing for Fishies and Infest the Rats’ Nest, both of which address climate change. The former, a sweet and whimsical album that forays into the blues, was criticized as the most boring of the otherwise boundary-pushing band’s oeuvre. But the latter is—somewhat shockingly—a thrash-metal record, and in my opinion, one of the best albums of the year.

It opens with “Planet B,” a vigorous call to action that utilizes the visceral conventions of metal dotted with Aussie cues like “Open your eyes and shoot the dingo / All this shit goes out the window.” Like much of the album, the track features heavy guitar distortion and double-bass drumming; it also bears resemblance to the full-throttled aggression of hardcore punk. The result is a jolting dogmatic takedown of the capitalist machine that has exploited the climate crisis in the absence of meaningful political action: “Only way through is colonization / Acclimatization / Population exodus / Monetization / Civilization / ....There is no Planet B.” The track has become something of a protest anthem. In the wake of our fruitless outcries and our inability to curb human consumption, King Gizzard mourns our collective inaction: “Sin is our greatest / You hear / Baby Jesus sheds a tear.”

“Planet B” leads into the steady banger “Mars for the Rich,” a track carried by Lucas Harwood’s stunning fuzz-bass line. Vocalist Stu Mackenzie denounces the classist extraterrestrial ambitions of Elon Musk and his ilk: “I’m just a poor boy / Living frugally / I see Mars on TV / I see people happy / I work fields with / Blistered fingers / I look starward / That world has no place for me.” The inequalities of capitalism have worsened public health and destroyed human life, but it can seem as though “Resistance is futile,” as Mackenzie croons in “Superbug,” a slow-tempoed chug that feels particularly prescient in a pandemic. The track warns of an impending illness that will imminently wipe out humanity due to antimicrobial resistance; COVID-19 began just four months after its release.

In “Self-Immolate,” the band sings, “Like a bird in a cage / Airostat habitat / To motion, I am slave.” King Gizzard suggests that we dig our own graves with climate denial and life in late capitalism. The album ends with a song literally titled “Hell.” “God, it’s pretty hot down here,” Mackenzie wails, followed by exaggerated, surreal imagery, a fatalistic wake-up call to the dystopia in which our current trajectory culminates.

Infest the Rats’ Nest is an unsettling departure from the band’s usual psychedelia, a disruption that draws attention to a critical issue—a classic case of form following function. Sure, the masterwork rejects feel-good fuzziness, but it does so to admit that only structural change, not individual choices, will really make a difference. And there’s nothing saccharine about the destruction of our planet, which Pope Francis made clear in Laudato si’. He describes the earth as a sister who “cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.” The nature of thrash metal feels particularly fitting as it evinces the unrest and general malaise caused by, as Laudato si’ puts it, the “violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.” As the earth “groans in travail,” King Gizzard unsentimentally decries capitalism’s destruction of our common home.

*

The question of culpability is essential for anyone concerned about climate change, whether policymakers, journalists, or artists, because its answer will guide our response to the crisis.

Nicole-Ann,

As you note, it isn’t easy to make environmental music that both conveys urgency and avoids despair. Once the urgency of our predicament is established, however, there is the challenge of properly assessing culpability. Who is to blame for climate change? Is it a problem of individual consumer behavior? Is climate change a symptom of a spiritual sickness, a failure to recognize the holiness of nature? Should we blame a handful of bad actors within global capitalism—oil and coal companies, for example—or is the problem with capitalism itself? The question of culpability is essential for anyone concerned about climate change, whether policymakers, journalists, or artists, because its answer will guide our response to the crisis.

What I admire most about God Bless the Grass, Pete Seeger’s 1966 environmental album (keeping with folk tradition, it’s largely made up of covers of other folk songwriters), is its appraisal of whom we should blame for environmental degradation. It recognizes that there is something defective in the consumerism of the so-called “American way of life,” and that very few of us are free of this spiritual error. That said, the album is biting in its criticism of capitalism and capitalists, polluters and landlords. And it grounds the urgency of its critique in a love for the natural world, which, for Seeger, is profoundly, fundamentally good.

What can I really say about Pete Seeger? He was the most influential banjo player and teacher in American history, and one of the figures most responsible for bringing folk music to a middle-class American audience. Apart from his superlative contributions to American popular music, he was a great moral prophet. A communist, an antiracist, and an environmentalist, he bravely refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee and narrowly escaped a prison sentence for contempt of Congress. I grew up in a Unitarian Universalist milieu, which featured hordes of upper-middle-class boomers who regarded Seeger as a demigod and enjoyed playing uninspired covers of “If I Had a Hammer” at church before driving home in their BMWs. Despite my cultural discomfort with many of Seeger’s fans (I’m writing for a Catholic magazine for a reason), I have limitless affection for the genuine article. Seeger’s tenor voice, accompanied by nothing but his banjo or a twelve-string guitar, is a relief, a breath of fresh air. To me, he is undoubtedly one of the greatest Americans of the twentieth century.

Seeger called himself a communist as recently as 1995 (he left the CPUSA in the late ’40s), and God Bless the Grass is quite clear that environmental degradation is primarily driven by the greed of property owners. The song “The Faucets Are Dripping,” written by Malvina Reynolds, begins by lamenting that “the reservoir is drying” because all the faucets are dripping in New York City. On my first listen, I thought it would pivot toward an anti-humanist environmentalist screed, a condemnation of human civilization as such. But no: we are told that the landlord has been asked to fix the leaky faucets to no avail. The landlord doesn’t care, as “he lives in Miami, where faucets don’t drip.” It’s not that urban living is incompatible with environmental sustainability; it’s that our economic system activity disincentivizes care for the natural world.

Yet Americans who aren’t capitalists should avoid the trap, common to much of secular leftist discourse, of erasing our own culpability in environmental destruction. The track “The People Are Scratching” is a parable of hubris and unintended consequences, wherein farmers and city folks team up to poison animals up and down the food chain, all because a bunch of rabbits started eating bark off the trees. By the end of the story, fleas are swarming people, since all of their usual hosts have been poisoned. It’s a tale about the belief that humans can dominate nature without consequence—and, unfortunately, this belief is not only held in the highest echelons of capital. In Laudato si’, Pope Francis condemns the proclivity to “exercise tyranny over creation” as a grave spiritual error. That proclivity to dominate nature is closely tied to the proclivity to dominate people. Indeed, my primary criticism of God Bless the Grass is that it lacks an internationalist or anti-colonial perspective, one which recognizes that profound degradation has been wreaked on people and ecosystems in the global South in order to maintain the “American way of life.”

The majority of the album, however, isn’t wrapped up in political sloganeering; rather, Seeger sings with irresistible affection about the beauty of creation. On the opening track, “The Power and the Glory,” Seeger celebrates “this green and growing land,” delighting in its “beauty that words cannot recall.” Some of the most spiritually rewarding moments on the album are when Seeger sings with loving specificity about particular bits of land, whether a park in Los Angeles or his beloved Hudson River. But in a welcome twist—one which would put him outside the mainstream of twentieth-century American environmentalism—he ties the health of “this land” to the well-being of the least of these. After several stanzas praising the American landscape, he declares: “Yet she’s only as rich as the poorest of her poor / Only as free as the padlocked prison door.”

*

Max,

You’re right that few of us are free of the spiritual errors endemic to the “American way of life.” But not everyone has had equal access to the ostentatious consumerism that undergirds the American Dream. There are intersectional racial and material disparities in our consumer habits, and while we’re now encouraged to redress past mistakes, sustainable living is not available to everyone: local farmers’ market produce, gentrified thrift shops, and plant-based products all tend to come with premium prices. Generationally, Millennials shoulder a heavy burden: we’re the first in our country’s history to be worse off than our parents, but it’s the political and economic decisions of Boomers and Gen X that are largely to blame for the innumerable catastrophes—environmental, financial, and more—we now face.

That’s why I love Weyes Blood and her 2019 album Titanic Rising so much. A Millennial herself, Natalie Mering (who, yes, took her stage name after Flannery O’Connor’s famous novel) makes music about what it’s like to be a young person today: forced to reckon with climate change, a growing mental-health crisis, and the isolation bred by addiction to technology. Mering was raised in an ultra-religious Pentecostal Christian family, and her early musical formations came from church music, noise rock, and West Coast pop. Her ethereal, brooding voice reminds me of Karen Carpenter and Joni Mitchell, paired with acoustic strumming and melancholically earnest lyrics that address the multidimensional presence of pain in our world.

“A lot’s gonna change / In your lifetime,” Mering sings in the album’s sweeping opening track. The condition of a rapidly warming climate is written into the song’s subtext, but Mering confronts the disenchantment of growing up and realizing the world can be a harsh, unfriendly place. She longs “to go back to a time before now / Before I ever fell down / ...When I had the whole world / Gently wrapped around me.” It feels so personal to me. When we were young, we were told the world would be our oyster; now, it seems like most of my friends suffer from mental-health conditions, precarious employment, and existential dread about the destruction of our planet.

If we’re all culpable, but we can’t fight the big, bad corporate interests, and individual choices aren’t enough, then...where do we go from here?

As you note, Max, few of us lack culpability in environmental destruction, and acknowledging this is critical to working together to protect our world. But I fear that this admission can also descend into a blame game that culminates in despair: If we’re all culpable, but we can’t fight the big, bad corporate interests, and individual choices aren’t enough, then...where do we go from here? This is partly why I find Titanic Rising so therapeutic—it’s equal parts wake-up call and lullaby. Mering writes about learning to cope with change while rejecting hopelessness, the enemy of justice.

“Movies,” for instance, was inspired by Mering’s experience of watching Titanic in her youth. “Some people feel what some people don’t / Some people watch until they explode / The meaning of life doesn’t seem to shine like that screen.” The drama of Jack and Rose’s love affair was secondary to Mering, who said she felt outraged by the “iconic hubris” of the ordeal, where “the people that get screwed are the third class at the expense of rich people.” It’s the same tale today with industrialization and global warming, as countries that lack wealth and infrastructure stand to be hit the hardest by climate-induced natural disasters. And in “Andromeda,” Mering longs for human connection and fears commitment while invoking the cosmos: “Running from my own life now / I’m really turning some time / Looking up to the sky for something I may never find.”

In this way, Titanic Rising seamlessly blends the private and the political. Mering sings about yearning and loss while condemning the seemingly uncontrollable injustices of a deteriorating planet. But the result is not absolution of personal responsibility so much as a rejection of anthropocentrism—tender, liberating honesty about our own smallness in the grand scheme of things.

Mering has said she’s inspired by Extinction Rebellion, mass protests, and a generation that is rising up to demand action from the powers in place. She knows “it’s not music that’s going to save us—it’s activism.” But music still serves the crucial function of helping us cope. As the world changes beyond our individual control, Weyes Blood reminds me that it’s wonder that keeps us going: “Beauty, a machine that’s broken / Running on a million people trying / Don’t cry, it’s a wild time to be alive.”

Max Foley-Keene is a writer and doctoral student at Brown University studying political theory, and a former Commonweal intern. Nicole-Ann Lobo is an MPhil candidate in Modern South Asian Studies at Christ's College, Cambridge. She was the 2019 John Garvey Writing Fellow at Commonweal.

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