What can dance music do about the climate crisis?


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To launch a new series on RA dedicated to electronic music and the climate crisis, Chal Ravens assesses some of the key reasons behind the scene’s outsized carbon footprint.

The environmental crisis is now so real that it has acquired a bizarre unreality. The latest scientific reports read as stark, desperate warnings: 12 years to prevent catastrophic over-heating. Sixth mass extinction underway. Yet we’re struggling to square these predictions of climate chaos and social breakdown with our everyday lives, which continue as normal, occasionally interrupted by headlines about freak storms, wildfires or floods. At some point, we will all be forced to adapt to climate change. In some countries, mostly in the global south, that will happen sooner. We can only hope that such adaptation will happen fast enough to be effective. But given that global emissions hit a record high in 2018, it seems more likely that we will be adapting on-the-fly as temperatures and sea levels rise.

When we start getting real on climate breakdown, we can start imagining how our everyday lives will be affected—everything from our jobs and our education to the way we spend our free time. Understandably, the fate of dance music might not be at the forefront of our minds. There is, perhaps, a feeling that raving will be deprioritised in a crisis, along with similar recreational activities. But that in itself seems instructional—the threat we are facing is so grave that we may have to give up some of the things we love.

Climate change is a very real question for dance music, simply because it’s a question for everyone—particularly in the over-polluting, over-consuming developed world, which has already taken more than its fair share of the planet’s resources. It’s a good moment to start asking: what can we do? As a global network of people with a shared interest—from millionaire DJs to underground promoters, weekend ravers and every single RA reader—do we have a collective role to play in the effort to prevent the unthinkable?

Dance music has an outsized carbon footprint, and one reason for that is aviation. The mark of a successful DJ seems to be the amount of time they spend travelling between gigs, taking hundreds of flights a year. Their individual carbon footprints are vastly bigger than the average in the developed world, which is already too big to sustain. Dutch DJ Job Sifre, a resident at De School in Amsterdam, started thinking about this problem when he noticed that his fellow DJs never seemed to talk about the environmental impact of their job. He decided to investigate the issue for his thesis in music management and calculated that, in one year, his flights for 20 international shows added about four tonnes of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Many top-tier DJs play more than four times that number of shows. A round-trip from London to Sydney, for example, creates 5.5 tonnes of CO2—about as much as an average UK citizen will create in an entire year.

“Everybody is looking for solutions, but they’re kind of lost in the possibilities. They want to change but they don’t know how,” said Sifre, who is currently working on a carbon offsetting scheme specifically for DJs. The idea behind offsetting is simple: work out how much carbon you’ve put into the atmosphere, then pay money into projects which take it out. In actuality, it’s more complicated. It can be hard to know if your money is being spent effectively, for one thing, but there’s a psychological risk too, said Sifre. “If you know offsetting is an option, there is a risk that you’re increasing the amount of flights you take. People feel like they get a free pass to fly because they can buy off their guilt.”

He’s not the only one looking into carbon offsetting for DJs. Booking agency POLY is preparing to implement a scheme for its own artists, while Berlin-based DJ Darwin, whose clubnight Reef also raises money for coral reef preservation, is launching Clean Scene, an environmental project which includes a carbon calculator for DJs and agencies (Disclosure: I am also involved in Clean Scene.) The dance music community has made big strides in tackling other social issues, she argued, “but none of this shit is going to matter when we have no planet left. The least we can do is try to make a difference within our scene and set some kind of precedent.”

Some DJs have already committed to offsetting. Ben UFO works out his emissions with an online carbon calculator and donates money to waste handling and forest conservation schemes. The calculator at the UN-backed Climate Neutral Now is the most comprehensive: “It’s all very easy, and depending on the project it’s not expensive either,” wrote Ben UFO. Carbon offsets are typically priced at just a few pounds for a short-haul flight, but prices vary enormously. That’s because the cost of offsetting depends on the project; planting trees might be more expensive than donating fuel-efficient stoves, for instance.

A small number of DJs have tried to avoid flying completely. Matthew Herbert stopped taking flights after a period of heavy touring in 2005. “It was madness,” he told Australian website Broadsheet. “Everywhere I went I was talking about an environmental message, and it was nonsense: I had the biggest carbon footprint of anyone in the room. So for the next three years I didn’t get on an aeroplane. I went from taking 200 flights a year to none.” But a few years later, Herbert decided he couldn’t afford not to fly—he needed the bookings. He still takes the train where he can, but said “the whole system is weighted towards doing the wrong thing.”

Hessle Audio’s Joe is more permanently grounded. He’s only flown to a gig twice, and he admits it’s a decision that has limited his DJ career. “It would be really nice if I could say, fuck it, someone else will be the person who doesn’t fly,” he joked. As well as travelling by train to gigs, Joe takes his environmental commitments even further: he no longer eats animal products, and his DJ rider requests no plastic bottles or cutlery. “Promoters, festivals, train companies, the people who make the food—the whole system should be geared up to be more sustainable,” he said. “The fact that someone’s a DJ doesn’t really matter. There’s an ideal scenario in which we’re all doing things to reduce our impact.”

Joe’s attitude might seem hardline to the point of self-punishment. In such a precarious industry, it’s hard to refuse lucrative offers. Yet this is the overarching eco-narrative we’ve been served: that it’s up to each of us to lead the way where our governments have so far failed. In a world where 100 companies produce more than 70 percent of global emissions, how will a few DJs taking the train make any difference to our predicament? Expecting individuals to shoulder the burden is part of the paradox of “ethical consumption”—”a great way to put the responsibility for solving large problems, which need large corporations to fix them, onto consumers,” said Lisa Smith, AKA Noncompliant.

Based in Indianapolis, Smith knows that flying is essential for her career—there just aren’t enough bookings in the Midwest. “I don’t feel guilty for doing what is required to make a living,” she said. Through her former day job at a non-profit that dealt with energy policy, she worked for over ten years to push environmental policies onto the biggest polluters. “But then people ask, ‘Do you drive a car? Do you fly?’ As if me functioning in a fucked-up society is my fault.” It all comes down to money—we need to make it less lucrative for companies to pollute. “But me sitting at home, playing for no one, making nothing, and losing my home because I can’t pay rent isn’t doing anything to stop climate change.”

Smith made her comments in reply to a tweet I sent in May, the replies to which inspired this article: “[F]unny how the big lad DJs are pretty quiet on climate change given their very important careers depend on taking about 4 flights a week. is anyone going to be the first one to reject this business model”. (Admittedly, it was a bratty tweet.) Despite her conviction that air travel is unavoidable for a DJ based in the Midwest, Smith has decided to offset her flights anyway.

It’s an approach that Joe would applaud. “The onus is on people who are more privileged,” he said flatly. “It’s no good saying, ‘I’m a struggling artist.’ I get it, but you’re also someone who lives in western Europe or North America —the part of the world that has responsibility for the situation.”

Xander Kotvis is the sustainability manager at Amsterdam’s DGTL festival, where his job involves making exactly this kind of connection between individuals and the wider music industry. DGTL has been raising the bar for eco-friendly festivals, going beyond reusable cups and compost toilets to build an all-encompassing “circular” system, where nothing goes to waste. And it’s working: last year, an average Dutch festivalgoer created seven times more waste than a DGTL attendee. Soon the festival aims to be “climate neutral” by eliminating all waste and emissions, but this year Kotvis’s biggest project was to reduce the impact of travel and transport—not only emissions for which the festival is directly responsible, like DJs flying in from overseas, but also the indirect emissions from foreign festivalgoers’ travel, along with the energy involved in production supply chains.

Festival-bound air traffic is a growing concern. Cheap flights have been a boon to the European festival industry, but with Ryanair now among the top ten worst polluters in Europe, the whole system needs a rethink. “We have to find real systemic change and come up with something that undermines what is a problem for society—the cheap flights, our fast-paced lives,” said Kotvis. The real problem with carbon offsetting, he believes, is that it allows us to continue polluting while throwing money at the problem to make us feel better.

If offsetting has so far failed to change our behaviour, Kotvis still thinks it’s better than doing nothing. “This was a very difficult point for us. For a long time we thought offsetting was the wrong thing to do because it’s not a structural solution—the best thing is to eliminate, and make sure your emissions, pollution and food waste don’t happen in the first place. But if you’re doing everything you can and you still have some residual flows left, then to really close the gap you have to do something. So it’s a good solution for the time being,” he conceded. More than that, festivals can be “a living lab for innovation,” temporary mini-cities where new ideas like circular economies can be tested. At their most radical, these experiments could point the way towards the alternative economic systems that will be necessary on a planet that can no longer meet capitalism’s demand for endless growth.

DGTL is one of an increasing number of festivals, clubs and environmental projects trying to figure out what an ecologically balanced dance music industry could look (and sound) like. To name just a few: Tail & Twist’s plastic-free eco-disco in London; the Orca Sound Project, which upcycles waste plastic for music events; DJs For Climate Action, an eco-conscious crew led by Fool’s Gold DJ Sammy Bananas; and Suki10C, a 100 percent wind-powered venue in Birmingham, UK. These projects are scattered, but multiplying.

Having recently completed his thesis, Sifre is convinced that dance music’s appeal to companies and advertisers also gives the industry unusual clout. “More and more companies are showing interest in what electronic music is about and they want to include us in their image and use us as influencers,” he said. “The only way to make sustainability a thing is to create high demand and social pressure, so people see that the cool people are doing it—or that a DJ I like is doing it.”

But waiting for sustainability to become a consumer trend plays into the idea that ecological breakdown can be averted through the existing economic system, a system that is wholly entwined with the fossil fuel boom that got us into this mess in the first place. What if we start to accept that our current lifestyle—cheap flights, fast fashion, disposable goods—is a fossil-fuelled blip in human history? The big question, as posed by the sustainability expert Jem Bendell, a professor at the University Of Cumbria, may now be about relinquishment: what are we prepared to give up in order to secure our future? In his influential paper Deep Adaptation: A Map For Navigating Climate Tragedy, Bendell floats the idea that people and communities may have to let go of certain assets or beliefs—for example by withdrawing from coastlines, or giving up certain expectations of everyday consumerism.

In response to my tweet, the Berlin-based producer M.E.S.H. rightly pointed out that giving up meat and dairy actually has a bigger impact on reducing emissions than almost any other individual lifestyle change. Aviation currently accounts for about 2 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions (though that figure is rising) while livestock accounts for 14.5 percent. The five biggest meat and dairy companies add more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere each year than ExxonMobil. M.E.S.H. could also have picked out the fashion industry, which produces 10 percent of global carbon emissions and is on course to use up a quarter of the world’s carbon budget by 2050. If we’re serious about ethical consumption, activism starts here: eat more plants, buy only the clothes you need. But while cutting out meat and fast fashion has a bigger impact on emissions than taking fewer flights, aviation offers a more powerful narrative for our purposes because of the way it underpins dance music as a global industry. Reducing our dependence on flights could mean relinquishing certain expectations about our leisure time or, for DJs, slowing down their careers. That could be a tough pill to swallow, especially as DJing has become one of the few reliable income streams in dance music. But a conversation about ecologically sound touring could flag up all kinds of benefits, from a slower, healthier pace of life to the chance to forge deeper connections with people and places.

To outsiders, dance music could seem like indulgent recreation, ultimately surplus to survival and hardly worth prioritising in an emergency. But as I’ve struggled to justify both my lifestyle and my career in the face of oncoming catastrophe, I’ve actually started to think the opposite. Think about what we could represent as a community of globally connected individuals, relatively wealthy and well-educated, whose shared values are rooted in a countercultural musical heritage. What could we do if we started to see ourselves not as a loosely connected bunch of consumers, or as nodes a profit-driven industry, but as a network of potential activists with collective clout? One example of this kind of collective action is already happening in Australia, where a group of bands and musicians recently set up FEAT, a platform that allows them to build and invest in their own solar farms with an investment of as little as $5. “If we can take ownership over building the solar assets that are going to power our future,” said Cloud Control keyboardist Heidi Lenffer, “which we need to do as quickly as possible, there’s no reason why this couldn’t be rolled out for every artist touring the world.” FEAT is the kind of bold, unconventional project that can actually help politicians do their job properly, too; studies have shown that politicians don’t feel under pressure to act on the climate crisis because their constituents simply don’t show enough interest. (Notwithstanding the occasional anomalous panic, like the viral video of a sea turtle with a straw stuck up its nose, which had the effect of virtually eradicating plastic straws from bars and cafes within months.)

So if the first step is to act, the crucial second step is to turn that into collective action. And why not via the dance floor? DJs, musicians and dancers, alongside the thousands of people who work in the industry, make up a global network that has power and potential. As well as making changes to our lifestyles and our behaviours, we could consider how to stand together and make the most of our international connections, our enthusiasm and energy, and our plurality of expertise. In the headline of an incendiary article for Vox in June, the climate activist Mary Annaise Heglar declared: “I work in the environmental movement. I don’t care if you recycle.” By fretting about our individual actions, we end up letting governments and industries off the hook. “Here’s my confession,” Heglar wrote. “I don’t care how green you are. I want you in the movement for climate justice.” Yes, she explained, we should do things like offsetting flights and choosing reusable cups, but the climate fight is going to be about showing up, organising and holding the right people accountable.

With the emergence of coalitions like DJs For Climate Action and adaptation projects like FEAT and DGTL’s circular economy, we can start to ask what ourselves: what comes next? The possibilities are endless. We could see more urgency from musicians and DJs whose public profile gives them a platform. We could see more radical action from festivals and clubs as they move towards net-zero carbon emissions. We could see fans and ticket-buyers making their own pledges and holding themselves to account. And we could all go a step further and connect these actions to the broader movement for climate justice.

It’s not always clear what this kind of collective action would look like. Making the link from local to global, from personal to political, is especially difficult with the climate crisis because the problems are so large and complex. It’s one thing to acknowledge that we must stop burning fossil fuels, but quite another to enact a “just transition” to a global economy that is no longer dependent on endless growth. Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old leader of the school strike for climate movement, captured the nature of the challenge ahead of us in her incredible speech at the Houses Of Parliament this April. “Avoiding climate breakdown will require cathedral thinking,” she told MPs. “We must lay the foundation while we may not know exactly how to build the ceiling.” It will be extremely difficult. It might even be impossible. I know some climate activists who think there is only the slimmest chance that we will avoid civilisational collapse. But while that chance remains, there’s nothing else to do but try.


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