The Environmentalism of Neil Young: Climate Change and Popular Music

Having listened to the forty-odd studio albums comprising Neil Young’s catalogue this spring, Erstwhile editor Graeme Pente traces the thread of the Canadian-American musician’s environmentalism back to the first Earth Day fifty years ago.

In the hallways of the ages, on the road to history

What we do now will always be with us.

It’s a chance to give new meaning to every move we make…

— Neil Young, “Light a Candle” (2009)

The climate crisis is becoming impossible to ignore. It intrudes on our consciousnesses, even as some people do their best to blot it out. Increasingly, it has the attention of musicians. Eight of the ten hottest years on record occurred in the last decade, and environmental concerns have had a concomitantly higher presence in the alternative rock that graces my shelves. In 2013, Pearl Jam pilloried how we have ignored the oncoming crisis and warned us that if “you think we’ve been here before / you are mistaken.” Three years later, Radiohead reminded us that “we are of the Earth / to her we do return” before advising the powers that be that “we’ll take back what is ours.” And later that year Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds unsettlingly described “that we’re falling now in the name of the Anthrocene.” Already in 2020, Wolf Parade and Pearl Jam have released albums that tackle the crisis head-on. Assuming there is a future in which to write history, this environmental-mindedness will make popular music a fruitful source for future historians to gauge reactions to the climate crisis and to analyze some popular understandings of it. For a longer term view, however, historians need look no further than the prolific Neil Young. In a career that spans some six decades and forty albums, the intrepid singer-songwriter has developed a coherent critique of environmental degradation, corporate power, and the struggles of farmers.

Young began articulating his environmental concerns as early as 1970, perhaps inspired by the first Earth Day, which took place earlier that year. To the tune of his wistful piano on the title track to After the Gold Rush—his third album as a solo artist—he implored the listener to “look at Mother Nature on the run / in the 1970s.”[1] He returned to environmental themes a few other times during the decade, describing Los Angeles as the “city in the smog” on Time Fades Away (1973). In the wake of the 1973 OPEC crisis, he sang on the career standout On the Beach (1974) of being a vampire “sucking blood from the Earth.” And on the title track to 1978’s Comes A Time, he marveled at how “this old world keeps spinnin’ ’round / it’s a wonder tall trees ain’t layin’ down.” Other issues adjacent to environmentalism appeared or were hinted at during this productive decade: criticisms of imperialism as well as Young’s often essentializing images of Indigenous Peoples[2] (1975’s “Cortez the Killer,” 1976’s “Pocahontas” and “Powderfinger”),[3] probably fed by the 1971 Keep America Beautiful ad campaign featuring the actor Iron Eyes Cody as “the Crying Indian.” Young also expressed an interest in independent and sustainable farming (1975’s “Homegrown”),[4] which later led him to co-found the annual musical benefit Farm Aid in 1985.

Neil

Most of the catalogue (not in Neil’s preferred format). Photo by author.

Young had little to say about the environment during his “lost decade” of the 1980s, when his genre experimentation and increasingly acrimonious relationship with Geffen Records eventuated in the label infamously suing the artist for making music “uncharacteristic” of Neil Young. Yet he did begin to develop other themes that would later inform his environmentalism, particularly a pro-labor and burgeoning anti-corporate message (1980’s “Comin’ Apart at Every Nail,” 1981’s “Southern Pacific,” 1988’s “This Note’s For You”). His concern with the livelihoods of farmers and the practices of agriculture also returned (1985’s “Are There Any More Real Cowboys?,” 1988’s “Life in the City”).

The 1989 comeback Freedom opened a new phase of Young’s increasingly ardent environmentalism. Like Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” (1984), Young’s live staple “Rockin’ in the Free World” contains a more subversive message in its verses than its galvanizing chorus might seem to suggest at first blush. Amidst his concerns about homelessness in the United States, Young spits: “We got department stores and toilet paper / Got Styrofoam boxes for the ozone layer / Got a man of the people, says ‘Keep hope alive / Got fuel to burn / Got roads to drive.’ ” He was more explicit on the next year’s “Mother Earth (Natural Anthem),” warning his listeners to “Respect Mother Earth and her giving ways / Or trade away our children’s days.” On 1992’s Harvest Moon, Young denounced the effects of warfare on nature’s creatures (“War of Man”) and lamented the greed that was destroying the Amazon rainforest (“Natural Beauty”). In the follow-up, Sleeps With Angels (1994), he referred twice to trying to “save the trees” in the straightforward, anti-consumerist track “Piece of Crap.”

The anti-consumerism returned with other eco-friendly themes on the ambitious rock opera Greendale (2003). One character, perhaps inspired by the direct action of activists in the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s, chains herself to a statue in a power corporation’s lobby and later becomes a target of State harassment. The closing track lampooned corporate recommendations to “buy with a conscience and save,” while also tying resource depletion (fish, timber, birds) to Arctic drilling to corporate farming and pollution. Young similarly connected the ecological crisis, over-extraction, and political corruption in “No Wonder” on 2005’s Prairie Wind.[5] The following year, the anti-Bush and generally anti-imperialist Living With War asked “why we want to tear the whole thing down” when “we live in the Garden of Eden.” And on “The Restless Consumer,” Young contrasted upper-middle-class consumerism with conditions in the Global South, on which the U.S. was waging war.

IMG_20200422_110756272

Two albums missing on CD. Photo by author.

In the last decade, Young’s perennial themes of environmentalism, corporate power, and struggling farmers and workers have coalesced into a trenchant critique of the world as we know it. On 2009’s Fork in the Road, the indefatigable rocker issued an ode to his Lincoln Continental recently converted to run on electricity,[6] derided political-financial corruption,[7] and questioned the effectiveness of his own approach to all these issues (“Just singing a song won’t change the world”). Young seemed more hopeless on 2010’s Le Noise, where he sensed a reckoning on the horizon, singing on “Rumblin’” of the tremors he felt in “her ground,” the weather changing, and something so intangible and threatening as to simply be in the air. In “Peaceful Valley Boulevard,” he wove together a narrative of Euro-American settler-colonialism, greed and resource extraction, the hollowness of consumer advertising, and the ineffectiveness of our present leaders to tackle the crisis.[8] By the time of Storytone (2014), he seemed to conclude, as so many youth activists have, that no one is coming to save us. Rather, we must take matters into our own hands. On “Who’s Gonna Stand Up?,” he issued a series of frank pronouncements on stopping pipelines, ending fracking, and abandoning fossil fuels while answering the question in the song’s title: “this all starts with you and me.”

Young continued to advocate for a democratic vision of collective change on The Monsanto Years (2015), perhaps the fullest single articulation of the myriad issues he had come to recognize as connected to climate change. On the opening track, he again urged collective action: “Of all the people in the whole wide world / Nobody really matters but me and you / When it comes to protecting / Our precious gift.” Later, on “People Want to Hear About Love,” he cheekily deflected criticisms of his soapbox politics, tying together political corruption and environmental destruction.[9] He revealed the contours of corruption and corporate control on “Big Box,” impressively interlacing consumerism, corporate capitalism, the suppression of workers’ rights, and the implications of Citizens United on democracy.[10] Of course, agribusiness giant Monsanto came under particular scrutiny throughout the album. The inveterate critic called out Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and the Grocery Manufacturers’ Alliance,[11] denounced patent law,[12] and tied farmers’ struggles to consumer decisions in the grocery store.[13]

road landscape people street

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com.

Most recently, on Colorado (2019), Neil Young has been more circumspect, yet defiant as ever. On “She Showed Me Love,” he appears to have stepped back from the struggle, calling less for “you and I” (as he had on “Stand Tall” from 2017’s The Visitor) than he is observing the next generation from afar. “I saw young folks fighting to save Mother Nature / I saw them standing / I saw them standing for themselves,” he notes approvingly. On the gorgeous “Green Is Blue,” the old hippie reviews the many failures of his generation to take the necessary measures. “There’s so much we didn’t do / that we knew we had to do,” he admits, “And we know why green is blue.” As he lists the accelerating effects of the environmental destruction his generation ignored, Young trails off with “so I know…”—unable even to finish the chorus. But this somber note will not be the closing one for Young’s views on the climate crisis. The following track offers a raucous rejoinder and a simple answer to the systemic critique laid out in The Monsanto Years, with old Neil and his backing band declaring that we “have to shut the whole system down / That’s the only way we can all be free.” Against soaring guitars, the environmentalist of fifty years celebrates the “people trying to save this earth from an ugly death.” And when he looks to the future? “I see hope for you and me.”

 


[1] Later in the song, Young imagines the necessity of saving nature by loading seeds onto a space ship and setting out to find a new home. Radiohead’s Thom Yorke offered this haunting rendition on the same piano at Young’s Bridge School Benefit in 2002.

[2] On “Cortez the Killer,” for instance, Young described the people of the Aztec Empire: “The women all were beautiful / And the men stood straight and strong.” He also claimed that in this empire “Hate was just a legend / And war was never known.” Forty years later, on Peace Trail (2016) he had at least ditched the vision of the historically “ecological Indian” in favor of advocating solidarity for Indigenous Water Protectors fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline in the present: “There’s a battle raging on the sacred land / Our brothers and sisters had to take a stand / against us now for what we’ve all been doing.”

[3] Young recorded “Pocahontas” and “Powderfinger” with eight other songs in one marathon session with David Briggs in 1976. These recordings were finally released as Hitchhiker in 2017. The two songs appeared in altered versions on Rust Never Sleeps (1979), which is how most listeners would have first heard them.

[4] Admittedly, this song was a jangly ode to cannabis, but its declaration that “homegrown is the way it should be” fit well with his emerging concern for the health of American agriculture. The song was to be the title track to a 1975 release, but Young shelved the album in favor of career highlight Tonight’s the Night. A later alternate takeappeared on American Stars ‘n’ Bars (1977). Homegrown will finally see release for the delayed Record Store Day 2020 in June.

[5] He reminisces that “Back when I was young / The birds blocked out the sun / We only shot a few / They last the winter through / Mother cooked them good and served them up” before transitioning directly to the image of “Somewhere a senator sits in a leather chair / Behind a big wooden desk / The caribou he killed mean nothing to him / He took his money just like all the rest… Tick-tock / The clock on the wall / No wonder we’re losing time.”

[6] On “Fuel Line,” he sings of “the awesome power of electricity” in the LincVolt and how “The world is ready for a whole new game / Some old-timers want to stay the same / They like to advertise how clean and green they are / But she don’t listen to what they said / She burns domestic green instead.”

[7] On “Cough Up the Bucks,” he wondered aloud in the chorus: “Where did all the money go? / Where did all the cash flow?” On a particularly resonant line on the title track, he bluntly told the listener that “There’s a bailout coming, but it’s not for you / It’s for all those creeps hiding what they do.”

[8] “Shots ran across the peaceful valley / and the white man laid his foot upon the plain… First they came for gold and then for oil… ‘People Make the Difference’ read a billboard / above a long line of idling cars… A polar bear stood drifting on an ice flow, / sun beating down from the sky / Politicians gathered for a summit / and came away with nothing to decide.”

[9] “Don’t talk about the Chevron millions / Going to the pipeline politicians / People want to hear about love / Don’t talk about the beautiful fish / In the deep blue sea dying / People want to hear about love… Don’t talk about corporations / Hijacking all your rights… Don’t talk about Global Hunger… Don’t say Citizens United / has killed democracy… Don’t say people don’t vote because they / don’t trust the candidate / People want to hear about love.”

[10] “PlunderCo got in money trouble / Had to break the law / Had to balance the fine / Against the benefit to all / Made a business decision / To pay the fine / and break the law / Too big to fail / Too rich to jail… In the streets of the capitol / Corporations are taking control / Democracy crushed / at their feet… Main Street’s empty now / The whole town’s asleep… Down at the Big Box store / People lined up for more / People working part time at Walmart / Never get the benefits for sure / Might not make it to full time at Walmart / Still standing by for the call to work / Corporations have feelings / Corporations have soul / That’s why they’re like people / Just harder to control / They don’t want to fall / So when they fall / They fall on you… From the capitol to the boarded up main streets / Corporations are felt at every turn / From the food we eat to clothes we wear to the TV screen / From the air we breathe to the fuel we burn.”

[11] On “Workin’ Man,” Young relates the story of a seed-seller twenty years ago, how laws were changed to benefit Monsanto and patented seeds, and Thomas’s involvement (the Justice having worked as a corporate lawyer for Monsanto in the late 1970s). On “A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop,” Young recounts in part how the Grocery Manufacturers’ Alliance sued the state of Vermont for insisting on the labeling of GMO foods.

[12] On “Rules of Change,” he argues that “Seeds are life and can’t be owned / not even by Monsanto / People must be free / to grow / Out of balance, money grows / Corporations take control / Halls of Justice got this wrong / Life cannot be owned.”

[13] On the title track, he further complains that “The seeds of life are not / what they once were / Mother Nature and God / don’t own them anymore.”

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