Music/Popular Culture

Live Earth will end climate change the way Live Aid ended poverty in Africa … er

Bono makes a difference ... to himselfMajor music festivals do make a difference. To the careers of self-indulgent pop stars and fading ex-rockers. It makes the former look a little less like selfish gits and the latter get a veneer of relevance to otherwise jaded careers.

What does it do for the beneficiaries?

The first set of mega-concerts was Live Aid organised by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure. The ostensible objective was to raise funds for people starving after a famine in Ethiopia.

Here’s how the famine happened. In 1977 a communist-supported local tribesman called Mengistu Haile Mariam led a revolution that deposed Haile Selassie. He promptly became the darling of pro-communist sympathisers around the world for having overthrown a corrupt monarchy and “liberating the people”.

In 1991 Mariam was overthrown. He fled to Zimbabwe. Where he still hangs out and advises Comrade Bob on how to run his economy into the ground. In 2006, after a 12-year trial, Mariam was found guilty of genocide. It is estimated that his Derg army murdered, butchered and brutally tortured-to-death over 1.5 million people across Ethiopia. He started a war with Eritrea that has still not ended. His agricultural policies were vicious and as brutal as any Stalin came up with. In short, the famine which struck Ethiopia in 1984 had little to do with bad luck and everything to do with economic and political policy.

Enter the Geldof

Live Aid, the first mega-concert, and its pal, USA for Africa (along with the saccharine “We are the World”), raised over US$ 300 million and earned the Geldof a knighthood. The money went to Haile Mariam who used it to kill another few hundred thousand people. Ethiopia is still a bugfest.

Let me be more direct. Haile Mariam deliberately held millions of impoverished peasants in the north of his country, preventing them from moving south, on land that could not support them. His act was calculated to induce a famine to kill people he felt did not support his rule. Famine turned up. So did Bob Geldof. 1 500 000 people died. Western music-lovers paid for the weapons and fed Mariam’s soldiers.

Congratulations Bob. Haile Mariam hung on for another few years before being overthrown by local activists. No Westerners involved. No questions ever asked about whether Live Aid achieved a thing.

However, the idea that a few sing-along events could cure the world’s ails took hold. Who needs to understand the underlying context? Who needs to know anything at all? We’ll sing the world well.

So Live 8 was held in 2005 to further the fantastic results of Live Aid. The 46664 concert was held on Robben Island in South Africa to end AIDS in Africa. And now we have Live Earth, to end climate change.

The Bleh of Big Events

Big concerts will continue to be popular charity events. Pop stars love them; they make them feel a little less like vacuous nobodies. Concert-goers love them; it reduces all major issues down to fire-side “kumbaya” sing-alongs.

What is lost is the notion that bad decisions lead to bad results in the first place. We have to understand how those bad decisions were made and undo them. The bad results are structural. Poverty in Africa is the fault of overdependence on charity and under-demand for those in charge to be held accountable for their actions.

If a US politician squanders the budget and leaves people starving and ill does he get to blame Norway because they didn’t donate enough this year to cover the mess? So why do African politicians get away with it?

And climate change is about the way we run our economies. Our entire technology and lifestyle is based on producing energy. You can’t just sing a couple of songs and woosh it away. It’s going to take a lot of deep investment and slow migration to alternative methodologies. It’s going to be damn expensive in the short-term.

If you like music, that’s fine. But if you really intend to change the climate, save your money and invest in efficient power systems for your home. You’ll achieve more than simply making Al Gore look more swollen and pompous than he already is.

22 replies »

  1. I never knew all this about Africa. I agree with others that a big extravaganza entailing huge electricity usage and the vast amounts of fuel to transport the audience is kind of absurd.

  2. I concur. There was talk of the organisers using carbon offsets to compensate for the greenhouse emissions created but who knows if that will actually come to pass (and it’s just a cop out anyway). The concerts’ credibility was also undermined by the sponsorship from the likes of Chevrolet (online coverage) and DaimlerChrysler (Hamburg gig).

  3. The global warming movement became a cult with its ideologically driven disregard for real science and focused only on Gore-style convenient untruths

  4. Okay, but the issue here isn’t the concerts themselves – it’s the underlying ignorance that drives the execution, right? Concerts don’t Save the World by themselves, but if those efforts were hitched to intelligent policy it would be a different story.

    And surely you’d allow that yesterday’s events, if they drive greater awareness of a very real issue, could play a useful role in driving better policy, right?

  5. I’m with Sam in responding to 2008Voter. This post isn’t about the science of climate change, it’s about our response to it.

    British Airways introduced a surcharge on tickets that passengers could buy to offset the carbon emissions produced by their flight. It’s been so unpopular they’re thinking of scrapping it.

    Concerts create the collective delusion that it is possible to sing for a response to climate change, or even that voting for the right politician will make a difference.

    It won’t. It takes individual action and individual responsibility. Like with AIDS. Singing for a cure to AIDS doesn’t mean anything if you don’t take the time to put on a condom before penetration.

    Singing for an end to runaway global warming means nothing if you don’t personally do something about your own impact.

    How many of you have gone through the house and swapped every single light-bulb for low-energy ones? How many concerts will it take before you do? Do you know that this act alone reduces energy consumption 20%?

    Stop blaming politicians or corporations. The products are available. You just have to buy them.

  6. Gavin and Sam,

    I agree that a concert can make a difference – see this:

    BTW, Gavin, this is the progenitor of all benefit concerts….

    Maybe Geldof made mistakes. But he did martial real interest and contribution for a human crisis. I have to think some good came out of Live Aid, if only in getting people to think about Africa in some fashion beyond jungle movies settings. And people acted on their thinking by doing something – donating money for aid. That in itself was good.

    The problem with Live Earth is that the issue it focuses on – global heating – is exacerbated by the very event itself. That kind of paradox is hard to reconcile. Getting people to think – on this issue – is not enough. There needs to be something for people to do, beyond suggestions about how to “green up” their personal energy habits. One wonders if asking people to donate to alternative energy companies or mass transit programs that save energy would bring the concert into conflict with corporate interests that oppose such direct actions….

    So Live Earth seems like a concert benefit program without a clearly articulated (and perhaps focused) mission. Maybe, as we like to remind folks here at S&R, some thinking is needed….

    Oh, and a few contemporary (not vintage) musical acts the audience can respect wouldn’t hurt…

  7. 2008voter, rather than hijack Gavin’s comment thread any further, I’ll post an independent detailed rebuttal in the next day or two. Please read it when I have it up.

  8. Jim, thanks so much, I was so looking for that “first” – the Bangladesh one pre-dates my birth by a few years 😉

    I see it, too, is mired in controversy and provides yet more fodder for my central claim. Bangladesh is still impoverished and now run by a military dictatorship after a recent coup. I’m not sure how the concert raised awareness or improved anyone’s life?

    If Europeans or Americans are so concerned about poverty in Africa then they should convince their politicians to stop subsidising their farmers. Every economist in the world (scientists who study development) agrees that the best thing for the poor is for the EU and US to cut subsidies. Concerts don’t come in to it.

    If scientists who study climate change can be trusted then scientists who study poverty can also be trusted.

    As for what to do with the money raised from the concerts: how about funding some research at the best universities in the world to produce more efficient alternative-energy technologies? Better fuel cells, better enzymes to convert switch-grass into sugars, more efficient solar panels.

    There are as many corporate interests wanting to take advantage of the opportunities that arise from climate change as there are who fear their products being undermined.

    And, to Voter2008: it doesn’t matter whether humans cause climate change or not; it doesn’t matter whether the problem has been over-hyped or not … truth is that long-term climate-change is a natural part of the Earth’s biorhythm. The debate about climate change isn’t “let’s punish ourselves” but rather “let’s decide on the type of world we want to live in and then work to get it that way.”

  9. Thanks to all for this healthy thread! I too, am rather cynical when it comes to the whole climate crisis problem and attempted solutions to resolve it. I am convinced that policy, business and technology are what’s going to save the world, if it is going to be saved. I also believe it is important to pay attention to the personal dimension, starting with the individual reality, and all the obstacles we carry inside of us, as a result of our imperfect human nature. A few months ago, I started a journey of psychological exploration, using myself as subject. I invite you to visit my blog, “My Inconvenient Truth: The Daily Sins of a Green Girl Wannabe”. I would especially love to hear from you all, regarding your own journeys as Green Girls and Boys Wannabes”.


  10. I would add, however, that it is grossly misleading to refer to our impending anthropogenic heat wave as “a natural part of the Earth’s biorhythm,” unless perhaps there was another carbon-burning industrial revolution 600,000 years ago.

  11. Robert, I think that it is essential to take the “heat” out of any climate change debate. When the industrial revolution came along the intention of the inventors was not “Hah, the bastards won’t notice that in 200 years time the planet will decay.” They weren’t monsters. As far as they were concerned they were doing everyone a favour. And they have.

    I think that most of the antagonism comes from this Huffington-style anti-business crusading; that climate change was done on purpose by corporate interests. Which is naive and hurtful.

    Consider this post from Trent Stamp who is the head of Charity Navigator, a US charity watchdog.

  12. Mark your calendars, folks–I actually agree with Gavin, for the most part. I take these concerts about as seriously as I do protest marches–a lot of sound and fury signifying little.

    The problem with consciousness raising is that most of it needs to be done in the U.S.–we’re one of the biggest obstacles to improving environmental conditions at the moment. The rest of the world (at least the developed nations) are way ahead of us in terms of reducing consumption, recycling, alternative fuels,etc. But Americans are so wedded to our conspicuously consumptive lifestyles that we think that if we donate a few bucks to Greenpeace and sing songs at an overpriced, auto-company subsidized wankfest, we’ll change the world.

    Bullshit. Change begins at home. Change your lifestyle and you can change the world. I’m working on it myself–it’s taking time, but I’m getting there.

    I do have to take umbrage at your Al Gore swipe, Gavin–the guy has done more to raise consciousness than any concert, and he doesn’t deserve that kind of low-class insult. It’s beneath you, frankly.

  13. We could have a long discussion about why I find Al Gore somewhat intolerable (not a lot, but enough). Mostly it has to to with the self-righteousness. Maybe it’s a cultural thing. Too much Hollywood.

    See this as a non-American. You express disdain for Bush because he’s arrogant and makes decisions for others. You disagree with his decisions. Al Gore almost behaves in the same way. You just happen to agree with him.

    Whereas I make no judgement over their opinions, merely their way of imposing them on others. Al Gore’s little movie has so much bad science in it – whatever his motives – that he gives plenty of fuel to the sceptics. Like 2008Voter and his response to Gore’s Gulf Stream claims. Gore’s Gulf Stream claims are rubbish. Gore’s arrogance in including them shows that he believes we should take his word without question. That’s the same thing that Bush is guilty of.

    And I don’t want Gore deciding for me any more than I want Bush. And that, best beloved, is the real reason there is so much anti-US sentiment. George Bush isn’t the only Decider telling the rest of the world what to do.