Should We Be Happy About Pharrell Williams’ Live Earth Concert?

Yesterday, Live Earth 2015, a concert featuring over 100 musicians playing in six continents to spread environmental awareness, was announced in Davos, a kind of diamond-studded hoedown of world leaders, oligarchs and business titans. It’s the most high-profile collision between music and climate change for a while. (Well, since One Direction joined Greenpeace’s campaign to stop Shell drilling in the Arctic, anyway). Al Gore and Pharrell Williams will run the event– and they have high ambitions. “Instead of just having people perform, we literally are going to have humanity harmonise all at once,” said the super-producer. Literally, humanity.

The spectacle will take place in June. It comes at a time when the number of reports of the warming planet, the dying ocean, species extinction and potential climate refugees are increasing day by day. Just this week we learned that 2014 was the hottest year on record and the sea-level rise is much worse than previously thought. The Pope, Barack Obama and Ban-Ki Moon are speaking out more than ever in the lead-up to the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in December where a global agreement will – hopefully – be struck and a framework agreed on how the world can reduce emissions. So, the announcement has appeared at a timely moment.

You may say that any effort to draw attention to the profound impact the world is facing should be a good thing – but will a massive global stadium pop extravaganza really help change discourse? Or will it seem more like a PR drive for artists to sell a few more albums?

Cast your mind back to Live Earth in 2007. It was, to put it mildly, anticlimactic. Indeed Williams referred to it directly at his speech in Davos, saying, “You would have pundits and comedians who didn’t understand global warming and we were often ridiculed. We wanted to do something very different this time.”

Apart from the bland line-up of acts chosen to play (Snow Patrol, Keane and Paolo Nutini, for example), it was unclear if it achieved anything. “From a climate change perspective it didn’t really seem to do much,” said Alice Bell, who writes about the subject. “It left a lot of people wondering what the point was. And then after the concerts there was a bit of a crash in global attention on climate change so, looking back, it looks a bit silly.”

Of course environmental politics and music aren’t mutually exclusive. From Lou Reed’s beautiful narrative about the “last great American whale” (listen above) to Neko Case’s cover of Sparks’ ‘Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth’; Miley Cyrus’ honest acknowledgment – “I don’t know what it all means” – in ‘Wake Up America’, to Radiohead’s environmental epic, ‘Idioteque’ (“this is really happening”); music has long been an effective medium to express the beauty of the natural world as well as anger felt against human greed, capitalism and corruption.

But judging by previous stadium concerts (cough, Band Aid 30, cough), it can look as if artists are just wheeled in because their agent suggested it would be a good publicity opportunity – and, in that case, people can usually smell a rat.

Could really famous musicians actually put people off from giving a shit?

In 2013, scientists showed a variety of different images related to climate change to participants. They included photos of a volcano, red meat, Bob Geldof, cracked ground and Richard Branson. In other words, the world’s worst nightmare in pictures.

They found that, instead of helping, the images of celebrities and politicians actually ‘undermined saliency’ i.e. the sense of importance around climate change. The study was based around a small amount of images, so it would be silly to say, for example, if Rita Ora told you to stop driving your car, you would ignore her until the end of time. But it was a thought-provoking experiment all the same.

So the kind of celebrities Gore and Williams choose for their guest list could make a difference. Leonardo DiCaprio, for example, is one of the most famous public figures involved in the environment – particular saving tigers – and, from the look of support on his social networks, people take him seriously. Again, Neil Young’s been plugging away on the subject for years so commands a great deal of respect. But are people going to stop eating meat every day if Paloma Faith sings a song about it on TV? I’m dubious. While Leo has a certain cachet, the attitude to pop stars can be much more subjective. The 1975 warbling about the ozone layer isn’t going to encourage a new surge of recycling.

Alice Bell makes a lot of sense on this. “My personal hunch is that people all over the world are less enamoured by the idea of being led by elites – the web is building more and more horizontal movements and niche communities. This is true in how we consume music, as well as political action,” she wrote.

Grassroots movement, ‘Blockadia’ – which sees environmental activists across the world organise resistant protests against fossil fuel action – and the affirmation of First Nations’ land rights, are where the real power and potency in the climate movement currently lies, as opposed to billionaire-run, top-down initiatives and empty failed promises made by celeb philanthropists. The People’s Climate March in September, for example, was, as its name suggests, very much organised by the people, for the people – and helped show politicians that they had to get real.

Bell was there. “All sorts of different people collected together. It was globally connected and had core organising groups, but at it’s core were people acting for themselves, and expressing themselves, including by music,” she recalled.

“It wasn’t about consuming pre-packaged messages and dancing to a set of pre-agreed tunes signed off by Al Gore and his private-jet owning mates at Davos. And the People’s Climate March seems to have had some political impact, which is more than can be said for Live Earth 2007.”

After the final microphone has been put down and amp unplugged, even if Live Earth 2015 sells millions of copies of ‘Colours Of The Wind’ on iTunes, will it make a difference? Perhaps part of the problem is the context of yesterday’s announcement. It’s somewhat nauseating that the concert was announced at a Forum that will hosts guests flown in on an estimated 1,700 private jets. One of the parties this week saw sturgeon fish on blinis served beside Louis Roederer champagne and jazz. I wonder if anyone mentioned that the sturgeon is more critically endangered than any other species.

An overriding obsession with economic growth and consumption is the enemy of the natural world and a shift away from buying stuff and burning fossil fuels is needed to stop the planet from becoming dangerous, depleted and ugly. Putting ourselves first won’t work anymore. Still, I guess it could be worse: EDM party clown will.i.am might’ve been at the helm.