What are our songlines in this time of climate chaos – the songs that call us to battle and navigate us to peace, the chants that bind us together, the lyrics our great grandchildren will still utter, if not our own names? The Climate Justice movement in the US is largely missing this culture, missing the song leaders.
by Kyle Lemle
I am a student of science, a firm and well-trained believer. I’ve been working for climate and environmental justice think tanks and grassroots organisations for my entire career. I’ve buried my head in the stacks. I’ve published policy reports. But I am wondering what impact those reports have had, those reports on complex local forestry management climate mitigation and adaptation strategies, are they even useful at the negotiating table? And what do the numbers on the page inspire in the 300 million Americans who may or may not read about them at all?
Especially in this moment of great fear, knowing that the average American (including our own president) does not read scientific reports, what compels me to go to work every day and fight for climate justice?
The movement. The movement does not rise from the mind, from analysis. The movement is supported by science – and sometimes stands in the name of science itself – as we saw with the unprecedented March for Science recently. We must honour and respect the knowledge science gives in helping us to better understand the world we live in and the damage we are doing to it.
But I’m still left with the question: if we have known the science of climate change for years, why have we not moved the needle? The science tells us we need to act now in order to avoid catastrophe, in order to ensure a liveable climate for our great-grandchildren. Why then are we not compelled to truly change, to throw ourselves into the fire of action?
The task of tackling climate change has been too often confined to men in suits with security clearances passing data back and forth. More and more I am looking beyond theories of change, to cultures of change and the recipes for sustaining and mobilising good culture in service to a just and sustainable world.
This is what is potentially so exciting about the climate justice movement: the time when scientists and social justice warriors have equal reason to join as one team. It requires technologies of the heart to move a nation.
After all, the climate crisis is a spiritual crisis. As Sufi teacher Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee writes in his book Spiritual Ecology, “Our collective forgetfulness of the sacred in creation is beginning to have an effect as irreversible and catastrophic as climate change. In fact one could say that this outer, physical predicament is a reflection of an inner catastrophe – a catastrophe that is even more disastrous because we remain unaware of it.”
The solution, therefore, must be foundational at the root of our cosmology, our ontology, how we see our selves in relationship with each other and all beings. When looking to progressive social movements over the past 100 years, I notice one through-line, one technology that sustained them all – the spiritual technology of music.
A Call for Movement Music in the 21st Century
What awakens the spirit of every man, woman and child more than music?
The industrial workers of the early 1900s changed the words of well-recognised hymns to sustain them in the picket line. The champions of the civil rights movement used song to lift people’s spirits and develop a common language for resistance. Woodie Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Marvin Gaye, Joan Baez, Sweet Honey and the Rock, all wrote songs of freedom that people still sing. We even still sing “Old Lang Syne,” the song of wars come and gone. The Climate Justice movement in the US is largely missing this culture, missing the song leaders.
Where are the songs that help us feel this crisis in our bones? What are the songs about the rising tides, the drought that came and stayed, the last river dolphin? Where are the songs of the murderous heat wave, the trees that forgot when to flower, the winter without snow? Where are the songs of when we removed a mountain for a lump of coal, the legends of when we became more powerful than geology itself?
What are our songlines in this time of climate chaos – the songs that call us to battle and navigate us to peace, the chants that bind us together, the lyrics our great grandchildren will still utter, if not our own names?
Your Voice’s Role in this Movement
I’ve been a singer my whole life, but that’s largely been confined to the evenings, doing gigs after sunset when I get back from work at this nonprofit or the next. But I’ve started to sing in the daylight, singing as work itself, eliminating the distinction between work and play, between performance and ceremony.
When I was growing up, I dreamed of starting a pan-spiritual, non-denominational gospel choir, because harmony is healing on its own, regardless of the words sung. I didn’t think people would have it.
But through a series of invitations I started the Thrive Choir to sing the music that reconnects as a way to make scientific and systemic truths felt in the heart. In just two years we have written and performed original gospel-for-social-change for thousands of people all over California, not in service to one God but to the social justice movements catalyzing the Great Turning of our times, that includes your God(s) and mine.
We started Thrive to build a heart-centered movement, to build resilience through building community and to build community through embodying love in action. This is not a closed-doors kind of love, a love between two. It is an unconditional and inclusive Love that binds us together through difference, complementarity, and curiosity in mystery – the love for our planet, for our common home, the love that knows Climate Justice as Creation Justice. The love that beckons no other response but rising as one.
The Thrive Choir and I did a little experiment at the Women’s March in Oakland, the day after the inauguration. We walked through the streets, through the soft buzzing of people chatting, reading the many signs from all the voices under threat, including those who will be threatened with climate change. The thousands of us were physically together, but we were not walking as one. Where was the energy at the march, the pulse binding us together?
When we heard the drumming circle in a far-off corner, I felt the tug. I called our Choir to meet there, and we spontaneously assembled and started singing movement songs over the drums. The drum leader quieted the drums to a soft pulse so the singers could be heard. The momentum took off at that moment, and the people came in swarms, providing the catalyst for unity as we led the masses in songs of hope and resistance.
So this week we are formally launching the Thrive Street Choir. Hundreds of women and men across the Bay Area have already signed up to sing the world alive, to use their voices as a blockade, to lift up the resistance at the airport, at the border, on the fracking fields, and the pipeline corridors. We are learning a repertoire of movement songs in three-part harmony and are ready to show up loudly at an action near you.
Repairing Our Movement’s Culture with Music
I no longer see my music as separate from my environmental work, because deep ecology work is cultural work and culture is cast through music. I have often wondered what my place is in this movement. I respect and admire my friends who say stop, no. For whom resistance comes easy. There is a critical place in this movement for the arguers, the challengers, but this has never been authentic to my spirit. I am by nature a listener, a harmoniser, and I’ve come to see how there is a role is in the movement for that.
There is a role in the Climate Justice movement for those who write the songs of matrimony after a long and invisible divorce, the battle cries that wake us out of a long sleep that was bought for us. As a Jew, to pray is to sing and we become initiated into noble service through song.
There is a role for those us who feel the urgency but do not easily identify as resisters, who feel the call but don’t know the words to say. There is a role in the movement for the sweet lovers of the world. For Climate Justice at its root is love, harbouring an unquenchable love for the world, enough to steward what we love and dare I say revere this world, kiss the ground that has given us everything we’ve ever touched or known.
Making a Street Choir of the United Nations
I have and will continue to write my share of environmental policy papers. I will keep my mind sharp and discerning. I will not fall dumb when the arguments said in the mouths of the electorate are the words of the oil baron ventriloquist. I have and will continue to represent the underserved in my advocacy, in my work with NGOs.
But I would like to extend the invitation to all those, like me, who would rather say yes than to say no. Who would like to sing in the new dawn as the old world comes crashing down. Who, as fear tries to separate us, join in harmony on the streets. For song is one of the only original instructions that extends to all of humanity.
This is why I plan to travel to Germany this year for COP23, the annual climate change international policy process. Alongside a delegation of young Americans, I hope to bring a different American voice, the voice of the majority of us in favour of planetary accord. And at the UN, song may be the only language people of all nations can speak in. My prayer is to join with my relatives from Micronesia, from Nepal, from South Africa in spontaneous ceremony. To grieve together, to pray together, to join our noble purposes as one. I want to sing in that choir of all beings. I want to hear the climate justice battle cries in all languages, at this unique point of convergence and collective unravelling, collective responsibility.
This is only one day among many to come. Trump is pulling the US out of the Paris Agreement, the historic international agreement decades in the making signed by over 200 nations. And this is the moment to sound our voices as one. Trump will not read the policy papers, the op-eds submitted in defence of Paris. What he can’t avoid is the groundswell of our culture and the blaring sound of our voice.
Harmony begets solidarity, its physics require it.
Kyle also attended the 2018 COP24 Summit in Katowice, Poland, December 3-14.
This article was first published on June 1, 2017 by Thrive East Bay.