The Climate Crisis According to an Activist, and Beethoven

When the first notes were played, in a room that barely fit all the people that were present, my throat suddenly constricted. Here we were, between coats and backpacks and cello cases and school chairs, most of the attendees complete strangers to each other. Here we were, a makeshift orchestra and a ragtag band of people to support them in case things got out of hand during the performance. Here I was, listening to a rehearsal of a piece composed more than two centuries ago. I was suddenly hit by the complete absurdity of it all. What we were doing. Why we were doing it. That we had to do it at all. I thought about the composer of the piece. His life. The time in which he lived. How he could never have foreseen that his symphony would be used for this purpose more than two centuries later.

Or could he have?

The man lived during a time when music could only be enjoyed if it were played live. A time when transport was by carriage, boat or horse. A time when clothes were custom made, sewn at home, or bought or traded second-hand. A time when the main purpose of agriculture was to produce enough food for the family or the community. A time when oil was mainly known for its use in lamps and as a lubricant. When companies that intentionally created products that didn’t last could count on angry customers.

But it was also a time of big changes. In the midst of the composer’s life, the industrial revolution took its first steps. Steam engines were already in use, and the first steam powered passenger  train would depart two years before his death. Colonialism was increasing rapidly during his life, bringing with it a rise in import and export as well as the first stock markets. And even back then “growth” was already a magic word that could justify just about anything. Growth of the Empire, growth of the range of products available and growth of profits. It would take more than a century before governments finally started to change their ways

In addition, the symphony I was listening to – in the composer’s own opinion his best work – was alleged to be written as a resistance piece against Napoleon. As a resistance piece to yet another war caused by one man’s megalomania. Not exactly an ailment the world has since healed from either.

So could Beethoven have seen it coming after all?