Category Archives: Environment

Musicians and the Climate Crisis

Musician Climate Crisis Network (MCCN) was founded by musician and climate activist, Simon Kerr, emerging out of a longstanding involvement in music and concern about the climate future we face.

Simon sees climate change as a crisis of culture, not just a scientific or political crisis. We are in this mess, he says, because of the ways we think about ourselves, our expectations of the future, and in the types of stories we tell ourselves.

For Simon, the story begins in the late 1990s when he was teaching at a New Zealand University while completing his PhD in Political Ecology:

“I was becoming very aware of global warming, as it was called then, but it all felt a bit theoretical, something that was still far in the future. Since then, I think what all of us who follow the science have been stunned by is how rapidly the planet has been heating and the speed and severity of the impacts of this heating on our world. Things are changing so much  faster than anyone anticipated.”

Even though he has worked in universities in the last 25 years, having moved from New Zealand to Australia in 2008, Simon was frustrated by the lack of overall urgency and understanding of what sort of dangerous future we are creating. In 2015, fuelled by the ongoing denial in Australia, he wrote and produced a multi-media, live music show about climate change called ‘Music For a Warming World’. It had a narrative in four parts: The Coming Storm (the science); Loss; Change; Hope. The show was a response to what Simon saw as the lack of emotional engagement with the implications of the science. This frustration came in part from the experience of attending seminars on climate change that ended with the speaker concluding, ‘It looks like it’s quite possibly the end of the world. Thank you for listening. (Then, after some polite applause) … Let’s all go and have a beer.’

“I wanted to engage in a more immersive and emotionally honest way and so decided to use multi-media visuals and live music to tell a story of the climate challenge”

The show became Simon’s primary musical focus and has now been performed around 80 times up and down Australia at music festivals, such as Woodford and Illawarra, universities, house concerts, community centres, small art galleries and large public theatres. Simon confesses to having no formal training in music. His journey began as a teenage drummer playing in a number of bands until he went to live overseas and realised that guitars make far easier travelling companions. Simon was in his late thirties before he discovered he could actually write songs that people seemed to like listening to. He has since then produced four studio albums and an EP.

During last year’s lockdown, Simon found himself thinking a lot about eco-grief and the notion of solastalgia, the experience of bearing witness to the loss of the places where one still lives. Simon says the extraordinary bush fires of 2019/2020 are not an accident but the outcome of decades of planetary warming.

“The sort of optimism we hear for the future, I wouldn’t say it was misplaced but I think that while we will see lots of really positive developments towards zero emissions, we are yet to recognise the scale and irreversibility of the climate and ecological challenges we face. We can no longer ‘solve’ climate change. We have moved into a new epoch where serious climate disruption will define our future. Not just our grandchildren or our children, but us, living here right now. It will do so faster and with increasing impact that most of us realise.  This raises really important questions about the type of life we live. I keep wondering if this enormously consumptive lifestyle and the way we produce things is still fit for purpose?”

Simon’s thinking and songwriting has recently shifted from trying to explain and prove climate change towards asking more fundamental questions. We now must learn to live with dangerous climate change so what types of people does this future need us to be? What sort of new stories or narratives will we need to help us live with this changing future?

Simon Kerr

In 2019, just prior to the bushfires, Simon set up the ‘Musicians Climate Crisis Network’, a community for musicians, composers, choir leaders, choir members, singers, songwriters and other artists to meet and share their concerns about the climate crisis and how it affects their music, and to find meaningful, positive ways to respond.

 “I felt I was watching our world, the world I loved, vanish. I realised I needed a community to help me deal with all the grief and frustration I was experiencing. I believe the arts can offer different ways, or different languages to help us process all these changes. I wanted a community I could talk through these things with, and with whom I could share music and artistic practice.”

MCCN seeks to offer a safe space where people can say, ‘do you know what, all this is really freaking me out’ and embodies Simon’s belief that art and music have something powerful to offer by creating new stories for a new future.

MCCN meet monthly, face to face in metropolitan Melbourne, or online. “We meet for a couple of hours, start with an informal chat, then usually have a topic to discuss, sometimes from an external speaker Zooming in”. Past speakers include the ‘Climate Music Project’, based in San Francisco; Prof Suzie Crane, a US-based anthropologist/musician and expert on permafrost melting in Siberia, as well local speakers such as ‘Psychology for a Safer Climate’. There are also often meditations and reflections, and the meeting generally ends with some music making.

For Simon, it’s about building a supportive community where conversations can flow and ideas can percolate in a safe and inclusive environment. Much of the focus is in considering what climate disruption means for our communities and for us as individuals. How do we re-think how to be ‘okay’ in the face of a deeply unpredictable future? What does a ‘future worth living’ look like in a epoch where things are constantly and more frequently disrupted by storms, bushfires, sea level rise and economic shocks?

“We seek to learn more about the science, the psychology and cultural issues of the climate crisis, supporting each other’s musical and emotional journeys and exploring collectively what it means for our music and our art in order to be relevant and to have a voice of compassion and truthfulness.”

For more information on how to join the Musician’s Climate Crisis Network contact Simon Kerr at  musiciansclimatenetwork@gmail.com 

Written by Simon Kerr with Deb Carveth, CMVic Online Editor, for Community Music Victoria

Feature photo: Music For a Warming World band members: Daniel Hook, Scott Lewis, Mal Webb, Simon Kerr, Kylie Morrigan and Christine Parker

Photos supplied

A Community in Action

Dr Laura Brearley

Terry and I have been walking and filming in the Coastal Woodlands over the last couple of weeks. We’ve also been spending time with singing and ukulele groups who have been learning the song ‘Are You Listening?’ for the outro of a film we are making about the precious Western Port Woodlands, currently at risk from sandmining expansion. 

We have been inspired by the community’s willingness to come together and raise their voices in this way. This week, we have worked with two of Mandy Farr’s local ukulele groups, one at the Warrawee Senior Citizens Club in Inverloch and another at the Wonthaggi Neighbourhood Centre. There we were joined by members of the Bass Coast Post community and the Gippsland Singers Network. We have filmed the Vocal Nosh group at St John’s Uniting Church in Cowes, as well as some Coastal Connections participants singing outside the Wonthaggi Arts Centre. In the middle of the week, a group of us sang together and went for a walk in The Gurdies Nature Conservation Reserve, led by knowledgeable birder and conservationist Gil Smith. Last weekend, the Melbourne Climate Choir gathered in a park in Brunswick to sing for the film in support of the Western Port Woodlands campaign. The Climate Choir brings together members of different choirs from across Melbourne to support environmental actions. 

Next week, the U3A Choir on Phillip Island will be learning and singing the ‘Are You Listening?’ song. We will also be filming members of the Melbourne-based ‘Music for a Warming World’ collective and a choir from the ‘Save Western Port’ community, who are offering their support from the other side of the Bay in Balnarring. 

Nicki Johnson is a musician, an environmental activist and the Program Coordinator at Community Music Victoria. We have worked and sung together in environmental and intercultural arts projects in Bass Coast and beyond over a number of years. Nicki performed at the 2019 Island Whale Festival and has facilitated singing and ukulele workshops at Community Music Victoria’s Music Camps in Grantville. Terry has made a short film about Nicki’s work as a singing leader which reveals her commitment to climate justice and her approach to interweaving music and environmental action:

Nicki believes that community music can play an important role in raising awareness about environmental issues. In her words …

‘Music has a way of bringing us together.  If we venture into the areas of despair and grief, we won’t be able to get any work done. If we don’t feel hope, we can’t go forward effectively. I love to facilitate conversations and sing songs about the planet and the responsibility we have for making sure it is as healthy as possible. 

Singing and playing music opens us up. When we sing with people, our breathing and our heartbeats synchronise and we become one organism vibrating together. This opens our hearts and our senses and we are able to connect. I think the ability to feel connected to other people and to experience empathy is the thing that will really enable us to make a difference. 

I love that when we sing together, we start to resonate together and our hearts open. Singing is 90% listening. Ideas of blending and harmony are not just aural concepts. A choir is a living organism that can teach people how to be in harmony. Harmony is a lived experience. Giving people the opportunity to be heard is a powerful way to move forward together.’

Dr Peter Dann is another community leader who raises environmental awareness and inspires action. Peter is the Research Director of the Phillip Island Nature Parks. He has been working for over forty years in wildlife conservation, with a particular interest in seabirds and shorebirds, the ecology of islands and the conservation of threatened species. Peter was a guest speaker at a General Meeting of the Phillip Island Conservation Society held earlier this year. The topic of his presentation was ‘Ten Remarkable Things about the Natural History of Phillip Island: A Personal List.’ It was a compelling presentation, informative and from my perspective, very moving. Peter’s commitment to conservation was clear, as was the sense of care that has underpinned his decades of scientific work in the field. 

One of the ‘remarkable things’ he spoke about was the successful introduction of a population of Eastern Barred Bandicoots to Phillip Island (Millowl), now extinct in the wild on the mainland. After a successful trial release on Churchill Island, they were introduced to the Summerland Estate on Millowl. Their numbers are growing and the bandicoots are now doing so well, they have also been released onto French Island. 

A sense of possibility and agency was also central to Peter’s story of the buy-back of the Summerland Estate on Millowl, which has enabled the on-going restoration of the Little Penguins’ habitat on the Peninsula. Peter’s stories are engaging and inspiring. I wrote two children’s songs in response to his stories, one about Eastern Barred Bandicoots and one about Little Penguins. Over the coming months, I will be teaching the songs to local children and telling the stories about the conservation work that inspired them. The world our children and grandchildren are inheriting needs stories like these. Here are the links to the songs:

There are many reasons to feel discouraged at times in the conservation field. So much has been lost and continues to be threatened. It’s easy to slip into a sense of despair and powerlessness. The conservation work that Peter as a scientist and Nicki as a musician undertake is vital in the deepest sense of that word. 

On Saturday 17th July, COVID-willing, you can also be part of this life-affirming work that calls for the protection and preservation of the natural world. The Bass Coast Artists Society is hosting an event, Halcyon Harmonies and Reflections Exhibition’ at the Goods Shed in Wonthaggi. There will be photographs on display and local musicians will be performing all day. At 2.00pm, we’ll be facilitating a Pop-Up Conservation Choir to learn and sing the song ‘Are You Listening?’ for the Coastal Woodlands film. You are warmly welcome to join us. The lyrics and recording of the song can be found here.

And if singing publicly is not your thing, there are other ways you can be involved. You can learn to sign-dance the song (a slow form of deaf-signing) or you can be there to simply witness the strength and resolve of our community in action. 

To learn more about the Save Western Port Woodlands campaign and become involved in a range of ways, go to http://www.savewesternportwoodlands.org/

Nicki Johnson with partner Craig Barrie at the 2019 Island Whale Festival – Photo Teresa Cannon
Mandy Farr’s Ukulele Group at the Wonthaggi Neighbourhood Centre – Photo Terry Melvin

Written by Dr Laura Brearley
feature photograph: Walking in The Gurdies Nature Conservation Reserve with Gil Smith and friends – Photo Laura Brearley