The weekend’s Live Earth concerts against global warming are at the intersection of three of my favorite bêtes noires, namely (i) the idea that the arts are validated when they do something “useful” like help kids learn math, or push economic development in failing downtowns; (ii) putting science and real consequences aside in favor of romantic symbolism and gestures in environmental policy and politics, and (iii) the confusion of celebrity with authority and distinction. So I’m about to pile on with the realists who are counting up all the carbon that went to heaven for these noisy, overlit, events that audiences drove to and artists flew to, right?
Nope. I think the criticisms are completely off the mark. The only thing I didn’t like about them was most of the music on offer, and my aesthetic taste and even insight is completely beside the point here.
Artists have a long and admirable history putting their pens, brushes and chops toward issues of social and environmental policy, philosophy, and theology. Sometimes they get it wrong and sometimes I wish the talent had signed up on a different side of an issue, but it’s impossible to have good public deliberation without knowing what the hell we are talking about (the phenomenon needing attention or response). Kollwitz and Bierstadt are just as central to dealing with poverty and environmental protection as real data and scientific models. Here’s a nice view of the Valley of Mexico (Mexico City) only a little more than a century ago. Too bad Velasco didn’t have the impact Ansel Adams had. The performers are doing their job, and I say more power to them. And I’ll say the same, gritting my teeth a little, about a concert to urge us to burn all the coal and oil as fast as we can.
The specific fossil fuel consumption of the concerts themselves seems to me the most petty and ignorant line of attack. What’s the argument: we shouldn’t have concerts? We should only have daytime performances by local talent, for audiences that can walk or bike in, using only acoustic instruments? Seems to me the organizers did a pretty good job of delivering a lot of art engagement, and political speech, for not much carbon, but anyway, the point of life on earth isn’t to never use any fossil fuel, it’s to use the right amount for the right things, and having a good time together is one of those things. Music is another. Sorry, the hypocrisy rap on these events is just jive, a cheap debater’s trick to divert attention from the substance on the ridiculous premise that if A ever did B, even a little, anything he ever says against B is wrong. Playing gotcha is a kid’s playground routine grownups can leave there, especially when the stakes are high.
Finally, what gives these singers and pickers any standing on a technically complex policy issue? I don’t believe any of them has ever published a single peer-reviewed article on global warming, no-one ever elected them to anything, and why is being famous for something a platform to preach about something else? This is half-right: I’d view a guitarist’s judgment that nuclear power is better than windmills, or that R=26 is the optimal insulation level for a roof in Nashville, as not too interesting (without evidence that she had spent some serious time as an amateur energy engineer), whereas her views on how a diminished seventh resolves are considerable. Exceptions to this principle are an interesting group: Paderewski, Morse, Leonardo, Lamarr, Gil, Havel, Reagan and others have created value outside the studio. But this small group doesn’t generally legitimate artists as policy or morality experts.
However, the judgment of artists about what’s important and what’s not is another matter entirely. With appropriate correction for distortions from an oligopolistic marketplace, fads, and other noise in the data, the manifest fact that artists are attended to by lots of us means they know something we want to hear [about], and being good at saying it is not chopped liver. The job description for artists is precisely to perceive what we sort of understand but need help articulating, to perceive what we don’t see yet and force us to attend to it, and to show us to each other and to ourselves. Since they don’t any of them have it completely right, and some are completely misguided, they should be putting on a big, noisy, incoherent spectacle all the time, and we should be a demanding, critical, and grateful audience for it.
Don’t like Live Earth? Fine, write a review; even better, organize your own concerts to trash the planet, or accelerate the apocalypse, or whatever. But if your key insight on Live Earth is the wattage of the amps, you are seriously missing the point and talking nonsense.
[Update: Steve has additional good points on this here.]