The Music of Sustainability

Posted on September 30, 2012


At a recent event three musicians from the band Didjitalis gave a short but enchanting performance of ‘the music of sustainability’. The three instruments were a didgeridoo, a cello and electronic keyboards.

Everyone in the audience was captivated by the music. The didgeridoo player produced a polyphony of what can be called ‘nature’s music’ – sounds and harmonies that felt as though they emanated straight from nature. Some mellifluous, some harsh, dissonant and almost feral. The cellist set a background theme of melodies in ‘classical music’ style, simultaneously incongruous yet complementary to the sounds of the didgeridoo. ┬áThe electronic keyboard provided the final leg – the synthetic sound of modernity.

Almost everyone in the audience had a different take on the music, and the musicians themselves had their own perspectives to add. But what struck everyone was how well three completely different instruments from three completely different human eras could be made to work together. The music was an introduction to a salon evening organized to generate conversation about what a sustainable future might look like. And it turned out to be a great start to the evening. For me, the message from the music was clear. A sustainable future can only be built if we learn to harness all that we have and all that we have learned. The Didjitalis musicians took three fundamentally different instruments and made them work in harmony. If we are to find a sustainable future we need to learn to do the same. Yet we are far from there.

The language of sustainability has become the language of conflict. Some don’t like modern technology, others like this technology (solar panels) but not that (GM foods); the only acceptable form of progress is to fight progress itself so we can move backward to some previous state imagined to be idyllic (the conservationists’ paralysing ‘historical model’); if you don’t buy into my world view, then you are the enemy to be vilified and called immoral; if you have doubts about what we should do about climate change, you’re to be branded a ‘denialist’ and shunned; you’re either part of the ‘green’ tribe or you’re not – and if you are, you must not dare pronounce anything other than the standard narrative; some believe there is only one way forward and it’s their way – let’s tear down the whole corrupt capitalist system and replace it with… what, exactly?

This language and culture of conflict has come to permeate the whole environmental debate. Conflict is even rife within the church of environmentalism. Yet this all simply creates more conflict and works directly against our ability to build a sustainable future.

Didjitalis’s music of sustainability showed us how the past, the classical and the modern can – indeed must – be made to work in concert to produce a wonderful output. Not only is winding the clock back not an option – it is an utterly ridiculous notion. Conversely, there is much that the past can teach us as we incorporate it into our modern present and post-modern futures. We can only successfully create a sustainable future by embracing both our past and the wonders of modernity – wonders that have brought so many people out of poverty and continue to improve the longevity and quality of life for billions of people.

One of the main challenges to creating a sustainable future lies in whether we can jettison an environemntalist culture that is focused on conflict and put our energies into making the past, the classical and the modern work together to create our future.