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?

Could he ever have imagined that part of his Seventh Symphony would be rehearsed in a room like this one, followed by an exercise with the people around – the “buddies” – to practice packing up as quickly as possible should the orchestra members need a quick escape? Could he ever have predicted that his work would be played on the middle of a highway to beg the government to stop subsidizing the use of that stuff in those lamps and that stuff in the turbine of the first passenger train?

Could he ever have fathomed – even in his most creative state – that his work would be used to try and save the world from an ever closer climate caused extinction?

I know, I know: it all sounds very dramatic. While I was writing, I could just hear the words my father would tell me when I was a child: “You’re so dramatic, maybe you should be an actress” (spoiler alert: I tried to be an actress – it wasn’t a success.)

So let’s get cold-blooded and rational for a minute. Here are the facts:

No, climate change is not due to natural fluctuations

Yes, there are natural climate fluctuations and there always have been, but based on that data we should be in a cooler period now. Instead, we are in the hottest period ever measured. Science inherently never states anything with absolute certainty – that’s the power of it – but the theory that human activity is the cause of the climate crisis stands on the same legs as the theories that our planet is round, gravity causes apples to fall to the ground and a comet caused the extinction of dinosaurs. Nobody likes proving their colleagues wrong more than a scientist does, but after 70 years of climate research there is a very real consensus.

Yes, people will come up with solutions, but they will be too late

People are resourceful and ingenious inventions appear regularly, from perovskite solar panels to enzymes that process plastic. But sooner or later we’ll pass tipping points from which it will be impossible to bounce back. Some of them are easy to imagine, such as the disappearance of the ice caps. Others require a little more work, such as the collapse of ecosystems due to their  feedback loops. The beautiful – yet in this case also frightening – thing about nature is that everything is connected. Trees absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, the resulting cleaner air increases their growth- and survival rates which in turn helps them absorb even more CO2 and so on. However, it also works the other way around: if CO2 levels become too high, trees will have an increasingly hard time growing and surviving, causing less CO2 absorption, making their feedback loop increasingly harmful until there is a total collapse. When a tipping point like that is reached, there is no going back.

A number of tipping points are literally around the corner, as in: they’ll happen somewhere between now and the coming years. The disappearance of the ice cap in Greenland is an example, as is the extinction of coral and animal species. We have in fact already passed the point of the first climate crisis species extinction. Goodbye, dear Bramble Cay rat. 

All this to say: we don’t have time to wait for new solutions. Or for 2030, or 2050, or some other ever-shifting dot on the horizon.

Environmental activism hasn’t been effective (enough).

The danger of the climate crisis has been known since the 1950s. In the 1970s and 1980s, top scientists and politicians formed one committee after another to map out the consequences. Their findings were unanimous: if we continue on like this, temperatures will rise, ice caps will melt, lakes will dry up, oceans will acidify, land will degrade and ecosystems will collapse. I’m sure you can imagine the consequences for humanity. Even the oil companies agreed. 

Yet here we are. Many of the predicted consequences are now visible, from dried up lakes to forest fires, from water scarcity to flooding, from dying coral to melting ice caps. About thirty million people have already been displaced due to natural disasters, mostly caused by the climate crisis. That’s more than three times the number of people displaced by war and violence.

More than half a century of activism and agreements have made some gains here and there, but not nearly enough and certainly not fast enough. A headline that says “Earth on track to be unlivable” appears as a side note somewhere on page three. That’s why some environmental organizations have turned to “civil disobedience,” the tactic that helped the Suffragettes win women’s voting rights and that helped the Civil Rights Movement end segregation.

But isn’t it bizarre that this is necessary at all?

How did we get to the point where governments put protecting corporate profits above protecting their own citizens? Where our identity has become so entangled with where we stand on the political spectrum that even the quality of life on this planet – which concerns everyone after all  – has become part of it? Where we are unwilling to make short-term compromises for the literal future of ourselves and our children? Where we have let our dividedness get so far that not even the potential extinction of our own species can unite us?

All these thoughts tugged at my heart while the ominous notes of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony – unfamiliar to me until that point – washed over me. Maybe in slightly less fluent prose, but you know what I mean.

Listen, I get it. It’s too big to comprehend. Too depressing to think about every day. And people have other things on their minds. The middle class is disappearing, people are trying to keep a roof over their heads, trying to find a roof in the first place… The AI ​​revolution has begun, the world has plenty of other problems that fight for our attention, and all that on top of the challenges daily life itself brings. I’m not saying everyone should become an activist. I am saying: please don’t fight those who are.

Politicians, don’t make climate change part of a political strategy. Ensuring your nation has enough resources to sustain its citizens is not a partisan issue, it’s a basic human right and quite frankly a government’s legal duty. Shareholders, demand sustainable practices from your companies. If ethical concerns aren’t incentive enough, just imagine what will happen to stock prices when society sinks into a global food and migration crisis. Journalists, I understand the importance of balanced reporting, but what is a neutral position when a comet is approaching Earth? When a toddler is operating a dashboard full of colorful nuke buttons? The climate crisis is a scientifically proven existential threat of the same level. Writers and columnists and editors and content creators, don’t let yourself be tempted by whataboutisms and peripheral matters. If you absolutely feel compelled to discuss which celebrity is hypocritical and why you think certain protests go too far, please mention the validity of the purpose they serve with at least the same amount of passion. Parents and caregivers and grandparents, support your children and grandchildren if they become activists. Friends and loved ones, encourage the climate fighters in your circle, even if they’re grating to you. If you feel this resistance, ask yourself why. Is it perhaps the confrontation with your own guilt? Or a defense mechanism to avoid thinking about the real problem?

I don’t even know what to say to CEOs. They know. It’s no coincidence many are hiring consultants to build multi-million dollar bunkers and plan personal escape plans. CEOs have repeatedly made it clear that they just don’t care. Not if they can escape the consequences themselves. Who knows, maybe the idea of a planet where only the rich have survived appeals to them.

People who do understand the seriousness of the matter but are on the fence or simply don’t know where to start: use your voting rights. Join an environmental organization. Historically, governments have started listening when movements managed to mobilize 3.5% of the population. This is the purpose of Extinction Rebellion and why I joined this organization. The orchestra performances are just a bonus. But there are countless other organizations and they often collaborate. Do what is feasible and sustainable for you.

And finally, for everyone: you don’t have to become an activist, but realize that silence does not mean neutrality. Silence means tacit approval.

Am I being dramatic again? I apologize. But if the prospect of our planet becoming unlivable for most of humanity doesn’t warrant a dramatic response, what does? Maybe two celebrities can make a sex tape on top of the melting ice caps? Maybe the SuperBowl can be postponed until the climate crisis is under control? Just a few ideas. I’d even sacrifice all the Bakeoffs if I really have to!

As I was Googling Beethoven for this article I discovered that his Ninth Symphony – according to others his best work – was inspired by a poem. A poem called “Ode to Joy” by one Friedrich Schiller. The poem is about hope, friendship and union, encouraging humanity to come together as one. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony aspired to convey the triumph of humanity coming together against hopelessness. It was the last symphony he finished.

How great would it be if in the future Beethoven’s Ninth better represents the sentiment of climate activism than his seventh? If we could play an ode to joy – to humanity – when the governments of the world finally take the necessary action.

Beethoven loved nature, I’m sure he would approve.