CJ Baker is a published writer who recently started the podcast Ongoing History of Protest Music.
Satellite Image of Clouds Created by the Exhaust of Ship Smokestacks
Music: A Voice for Climate Justice
Music's link to the protest movement has been well documented. Protest songs have been written about civil rights issues, war, and a variety of other social ills. It is no surprise that in recent times many protest songs address environmental concerns. One environmental issue which is currently on the forefront is climate change.
There are numerous songs which promote climate justice. We will look at the 10 best protest songs which deal with the issue of climate change.
#10: "Save Our Planet Earth" by Jimmy Cliff
"Save Our Planet Earth" is the title track off of the 1989 album from legendary reggae artist Jimmy Cliff. The song's irresistible groove doesn't take away from the directness of the song's message. The song lyrics clearly highlights how our actions will impact future generations. It also promotes the idea of climate justice by linking the actions of those destroying the planet as being criminal.
The video I posted is a live version of the song which is a different arrangement from the studio arrangement. The spoken word and down tempo musical arrangement at the beginning of the song adds an extra degree of poignancy to the song's message.
#9: "It Takes Time to Build" by Beastie Boys
This tune from the 2004 album, To the 5 Boroughs is a scathing indictment of then US President George W. Bush and his administration's environmental policies, including failure to sign the Kyoto Protocol. It poignantly examines how commercial greed contributes to irreparable damage to the planet. The song remains sadly relevant. You can easily replace Trump for Bush and the Paris Agreement for Kyoto.
#8: "Kyoto Now!" by Bad Religion
"Kyoto Now!" is from Bad Religion's 2002 album The Process of Belief. The "Kyoto Now!" which is referenced in the song refers to a student lead protest movement which has emerged in many United States universities. The Kyoto refers to the Kyoto Protocol which is an international treaty designed to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases.
The US failed to sign an agreement to ratify the Kyoto Protocol which is part of what the "Kyoto Now!" movement is protesting. The song which supports the "Kyoto Now!" movement is a direct statement in support of climate justice. Interestingly, the movement got its start at Cornell University which just happens to be the alma mater of Bad Religion's Gregg Graffin.
#7: "Excuse Me Mr." By Ben Harper
"Excuse Me Mr." off of Ben Harper's 1995 album Fight for Your Mind was one of those songs which I was debating whether or not to include on this list. The reason why is because the song is broader in scope than just addressing climate change. That being said the song does poignantly addresses that issue with the line "Excuse me Mr, is that oil in the sea/Pollution in the air, Mr what could that be".
The song also makes the link between the social ills that we face (such as climate change) and corporate greed. This song was also featured in my list of the 10 best protest songs of the 90s.
Just as a note, the version of the song in the video is from the 2001 live album Live from Mars recorded by Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals.
#6: "When You Gonna Learn" By Jamiroquai
"When You Gonna Learn" is from Jamiroquai's 1993 debut album Emergency on Planet Earth. Along with the album's title track, this song promotes environmental awareness.
The song addresses how environmental issues can be linked to apathy ("We gotta wake this world up from its sleep") and greed ("Greedy men been killing all the life there ever was"). Like many other environmental awareness songs it also addresses the issue about what kind of planet our children will inherit. The song also proves that it is possible for socially conscious tunes to be funky. Who says that the revolution can't have a beat that you can dance to?
#5: "Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)" by Neil Young & Crazy Horse
Over the years Neil Young is no stranger to addressing environmental concerns in his music. He addresses it in the title song to his 1970 classic album After The Goldrush. He also released a couple of environmentally themed albums, the 2003 concept album Greendale and 2009's Fork in the Road. Fork in the Road was inspired by Young's 1959 Lincoln Continental which was modified to run entirely on alternative energy. He also addressed environmental concerns in his 2015 album, The Monsanto Years and his 2016 live album Earth features performances of his environmentally conscious tunes.
"Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)" is originally from Neil Young & Crazy Horse 1990 album Ragged Glory. Concerning man's relationship with Mother Earth it raises the pertinent question: "How long can you/Give and not receive/And feed this world/Ruled by greed?"
#4: "If a Tree Falls" by Bruce Cockburn
"If a Tree Falls" is from Bruce Cockburn's 1988 album Big Circumstance. As far as environmental protest songs goes, no one can accuse Cockburn of being subtle. Both the song lyrics and video shed a direct light on the adverse effects of deforestation on climate change.
According to Cockburn "a lot of critics didn't like that song. They felt it was too pedantic and I was being too literal and I was "stretching my metaphors too far"." Others such as fellow Canadian and famed environmentalist David Suzuki praised it, stating that both the song and video "had a profound impact upon everyone who saw it and heard it".
#3: "Monkey Gone To Heaven" by Pixies
"Monkey Gone to Heaven" is from the Pixies 1989 landmark album Doolittle. As much as I love this song, I was debating whether or not it belonged on this list because it isn't necessarily a protest song. That being said environmentalism is clearly the focal point of the song and because of that fact it does promote environmental awareness.
The song makes some strong statements about how humans are damaging the ocean and it also makes reference to the damage that we are causing to the ozone layer. Black Francis who wrote the song described the ocean has "this big organic toilet".
The song also refers to Biblical numerology, which further adds to the song's quest for human's place in the universe. Rolling Stone's critic David Fricke aptly described the song as "a corrosive, compelling meditation on God and garbage".
#2: "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" by Marvin Gaye
"Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" is from Marvin Gaye's 1971 socially conscious soul classic What's Going On. Just like the album's title track (which was my #1 pick for the best protest song of the 70s) it was a mournful questioning. Sadly the song is even more poignant that ever.
The album that this song is off of also has the distinction of being the first album that legendary Motown backing band The Funk Brothers were credited with playing on.
#1: "Idioteque" by Radiohead
Climate change is a topic that Thom Yorke has frequently written about. For example, his 2006 solo album The Eraser dealt heavily with the issue. "Sail to the Moon (Brush the Cobwebs out of the Sky)" from Radiohead's 2003 album Hail to the Thief was also cited by Yorke as being about climate change. For this list I opted for "Idioteque" from the band's 2000 album Kid A.
Even though the lyrics are a bit more abstract than other songs on this list, the intent of the lyrics are crystal clear "Ice age coming/Throw it in the fire" and "We're not scaremongering/This is really happening"
Also the song features a sample from 1976 computer music composition called "Mild and Leise" by Paul Lansky. That electronic sample helped give the song it ominous and apocalyptic feel. The bleak feel of the song is a reminder of what may happen if the current situation goes unchecked.
© 2014 CJ Baker
roy11 on December 24, 2018:
What about Earth song?
Tim Channon on August 01, 2018:
Have you heard the songs "Trees" and "If You Wait Too Long" by Swift Timmy? They're beautiful, whimsical songs about the environment and climate change.
Jean Bakula from New Jersey on September 06, 2016:
I love Marvin Gaye's What's Goin On. It's still relevant, the true test of any song.
Rye 'caus i can on June 04, 2015:
Great list, but they missed allot of songs from Rise Against. Kotov Syndrome, and the eco terrorist in me, send the message quite well.
CJ Baker (author) from Parts Unknown on March 01, 2014:
Thanks for the read and the comment, very much appreciated! Glad to found it insightful and I am glad that I may of introduced you to some new songs!
Brittany Kussman from St. Louis, MO on March 01, 2014:
Very insightful. I never realized there were so many songs concerning the state of the Earth. I especially like the song by Bad Religion and Radiohead, they are a couple favorites of mine.
CJ Baker (author) from Parts Unknown on March 01, 2014:
Thanks for the read and the comment Rebekah. When making these lists it is always a challenge to limit it to 10 songs. Concerning "Earth Song" which was quite honestly just excluded because of personal preference on my part. But I can understand why it would fit a list like this. I also totally agree with your comments concerning music and emotional connections. It can be a powerful social medium to shed light on important issues.
rebekahELLE from Tampa Bay on March 01, 2014:
Nice list. Some of my favorites are here including Mother EArth/Neil Young. I can think of one that I would add or include, Earth Song/Michael Jackson. For some reason, it wasn't as big a hit in the US as it was in the UK. Music has a way of invoking an emotional connection to these incredibly important issues.