How Earth Song Set Environmentalism Back 10 Years

A reader (Hi Mum!) asked me to, y’know,  cheer up a bit and stop ranting about the industry after my recent run of posts criticising environmental charities and movements.  So I’ve tried to work through my various issues by isolating the original source of my anger and dissolution. Not surprisingly, I’ve come up with someone else to complain about. But he won’t mind, he’s dead.

Cast your mind back to 1995. Little Spike may still be trying to get pub landlords to take him seriously, but the environmental movement is finally getting some recognition. Environmentalism has just been described as “one of the most successful contemporary movements in the US and Western Europe,” by the International Journal of Public Opinion Research; the IPCC has just published, on this new fangled thing called the internet, a draft of a final report claiming for the first time to have detected a clear sign of global warming unlikely to be entirely due to natural causes (OK, so it seems not much has changed in that regard). The environmental movement is coming into the mainstream, it’s becoming evidence-based and science-led. Organisations working in different areas of the sector are proliferating, decision makers are paying attention, and lip service is turning into real action. People are looking beyond the activities of Greenpeace and starting to understand the underlying issues. The movement is gaining credence as a political and social force. We are no longer plucky underdogs in tiny gay-friendly ships going up against huge whalers or oil platforms. We have summits! We have commissions and panels!

A still from the Earth Song video in which a wind machine is used to demonstrate the immobility of Jackson's face.

A still from the Earth Song video in which a wind machine is used to demonstrate the immobility of Jackson’s face.

Into this arena of growing acceptance landed the pompous, overblown egotistical turd that was ‘Earth Song’. Environmentalism had worked hard to move away from the hippy sensibilities and peacenik aura it had inadvertently cultivated during the 60’s and 70’s, becoming more hard-nosed. Hirsute protest singers and acoustic guitars had been excised in favour of graphs and data. Reasoned and informed Carlton had supplanted radical counterculture reactionism. Emotion still had a place, but it was relegated to an afterthought. Scientific research led and outbursts of passion were anathema. ‘Earth Song’ was a move straight back to the overwrought peans for worldwide handholding of yesteryear, the video in particular casting environmentalism as a form of pseudo-religious experience, with Jackson as Christ and saviour. It was ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ turned up to 11.

Can Earth Song really have had that much of an affect? This was the biggest selling hit for the biggest recording artist on the planet. It undoubtedly influenced the publics’ opinion and for a movement like environmentalism, public opinion is paramount. But did it not bring the issue to a much larger audience? Did it not reach a key youth audience with a message of overly bombastic, gospel choir sound tracked environmental collapse? Maybe it did, but the message it spread was one of helplessness as Jackson reels off catastrophe and cataclysm before collapsing under the weight of his own distress into unintelligible wailing.

Nirvana - half Pixies half Velvet Underground, not as good as either.  Cronut - half croissant, half donut, not as good as either

Nirvana – half Pixies half Velvet Underground, not as good as either.
Cronut – half croissant, half donut, not as good as either

Imagine you are a child (or perhaps, like me,  a teenager realising that Nirvana were the most overrated thing until Cronuts), it’s 95 and you’re listening to Earth Song for the first time. What would you think? ‘The world is a pretty grim place, we’re all going to die, and even Michael Jackson says so.’ It’s a message that environmentalists, particularly with regards to climate change, have been trying to move away from ever since. You only have to look at the ‘progress’ made since Earth Song to realise that doom and gloom is not a key motivator to reduce emissions/pollution/habitat loss etc. If you are an adult and rational human being hearing this for the first time, it is a ridiculous, cringe-worthy piece of grandiose self-glorification and environmentalists everywhere are tainted by association. To those with little prior interest in environmentalism, it confirms their suspicions that we are a bunch of cry-babies, incapable of stopping their emotions getting the run of them.

Lets look at the video first: (The below link his here for illustrative purposes only, I will not be held responsible if you press play)

It boils the whole environmental movement down to dead elephants and Amazononian deforestation, pretty much the poster issues of the previous 10 years anyway, throwing in some vague Balkan strife and embarrassing indigenous stereotypes for good measure. There’s a lot of wailing and Jacko strolls through a blasted and mildly smouldering landscape looking as sad as what was left of his facial muscles by this point would allow. Finally, by sheer force of his own grief, Jackson cures all the worlds’ ills through a self-righteous uber-storm of ecology, raising the dead and repelling armies to boot. The message is clear; if you are sad enough, wring your hands enough, then something or someone (magic? God? The awesome power of a Michael Jackson song?) will save the whole for you. It really does promote the most laissez faire approach to environmentalism imaginable.

Elephants: Look at that noble, dignified face and think about what you've done.

Elephants: Look at that dignified face and think about what you’ve done.

There is much to hate about ‘Earth Song’. Well, OK, there is everything to hate about Earth Song. But undoubtedly my ‘favourite’ lyric is the masterful ‘What about elephants, have we lost their trust?’ Ah, Good old noble, intelligent and forgiving elephants. If we’ve lost the trust of such gentle, sincere beasts then what possible hope for us? Environmentalists had been attempting to move away from this sort of cloying anthropomorphism for years, a Disney-fication of wild animals frequently casting different species as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or holding specific human characteristics. With Wolves at the time recently reintroduced to Yellowstone, this is the kind of thinking environmentalists might not have wanted to revisit.

But it is the constant refrains of ‘what about us?’ that I find really grating. Possibly this is because it moves the discussion into anthropocentricism, reasserting the primacy of man above nature. But for me it is probably the characterisation by Jackson  as one of ‘us’, a scary thought if ever there was one. If Jackson is one of ‘us’, what does that really say about ‘us’? Cautioning about ‘them’ was not new either, but it feeds a conspiracy theorist image of environmentalists that climate change deniers to this day are happy to perpetuate while they fall back on their own bizarre conspiracies.

But it does raise an interesting question: Are any environmental-themed songs ever anything less than embarrassing? My only suggestion would be ‘Mercy, Mercy Me’ by Marvin Gaye, are there any others (comments and suggestions below welcome)? There have been no further mainstream attempts at setting environmental issues to histrionic gospel-blues since, so I guess there is something to be thankful to Earth Song for.
(I realise I’m asking for a shoe-ing here, just read the comments under this piece. I can only assume they are serious.)


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