Ecological Wisdom, Living Soundscapes

The geopolitics of our time frequently divides the world’s people and ecologies into two categories: “center” and “periphery.” The world of global environmental politics is not particularly appreciative of the musics of the “periphery”—or of music in general, for that matter.

Written By

Priya Parrotta

Affirming nature through music is not a new phenomenon. Cultures around the world have been practicing environment-based music for millennia, and many of these traditions continue to the present day. Using an example that is both ancient and contemporary, I will illustrate how much can be learned from musical traditions which anchor spiritual, romantic, and/or social life in the rhythms of the Earth.

The first post in this series opened with a description of the urban culture of Washington, D.C. Given that D.C. is one of the world’s most powerful political and economic centers, perhaps this is not surprising. Many explorations of social change, whether in writing or in speech, anchor themselves in cities like Washington or New York or Brussels. After all, these are the places in which so many influential decisions (including those related to both cultural policy and climate change) take place. Yet often, discussions about critical topics such as culture and climate do not extend beyond the borders of these cities and the institutions that they house. That is to say, debates about the proper course of action in the face of pressing issues rarely consider the insights that people in other places on Earth have developed over centuries and have enshrined in their social and artistic practices. For instance, while prevailing cultural forces tend to prioritize noisemaking over listening (as was explored in the previous post), there are countless places on Earth which have developed profound cultures of listening. They have affirmed “eco-soundscapes” in which both music and landscapes are approached with mindfulness and appreciation.

There are countless places on Earth which have affirmed “eco-soundscapes” in which both music and landscapes are approached with mindfulness and appreciation.

Our methods of solving global problems (specifically, climate change) sideline musical and ecological wisdom, rendering them neither “advanced” enough, nor “relevant” enough, for the task at hand.

The geopolitics of our time frequently divides the world’s people and ecologies into two categories: “center” and “periphery.” With some exceptions, the “center” is typically understood to include countries in the “global North”: the United States, Canada, parts of Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, as well as active centers of commerce in countries like China and Singapore. Though not all of these places are actually located in the northern hemisphere, they share political and economic characteristics that qualify them as geopolitical “centers.” The “periphery,” by contrast, is comprised by countries in the “global South.” And the label “global South” encompasses pretty much everywhere else: Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Islands.

In spite of the astonishing ecological and musical diversity that has developed in these enormous swaths of land, political and economic decisions made in the so-called “center” are often premised on the easy assumption that the solutions to global problems are most likely to originate in the “global North.” This assumption is convenient for those making sweeping decisions on tight schedules; perhaps this is how it acquired so much traction in the first place. However, it is wildly problematic for many reasons—not the least of which is that it automatically denies the wisdom that has developed in the global South, and continues to define the worldviews and lifestyles of millions, if not billions, of the world’s people.

The world of global environmental politics is not particularly appreciative of the musics of the “periphery”—or of music in general, for that matter. The overarching framework which governs climate-related decision making on a global scale has recently come under criticism for several reasons. All of these reasons are relevant to those of us who believe in the power of music to mitigate environmental crisis.

First, technology seems to rule the roost in climate negotiations. Many high-level decision-makers assume that technology will provide the solutions to most, if not all, of our climate-related concerns. The tech wizards of today have developed solutions to many seemingly intractable problems; surely, then, they can solve our ecological challenges. This emphasis on technology tends to sideline arts and culture, distracting both policy makers and the public from the power that arts and culture often have to inspire, comfort, and unify people in the face of shared challenges. Music, of course, is one of humanity’s most ubiquitous artistic and cultural phenomena. Climate change, I argue, is humanity’s greatest challenge. That the two rarely come together in high-level negotiations is more than a little unsettling.

Second, much of climate-related problem solving in the “centers” is premised on a certain conception of science. (Though often, as we are seeing now, even science itself is discredited by our most powerful leaders—but this topic is too unreal for this particular post.) The methods and metrics of “Western” science are seen as more valid forms of environmental insight than, for instance, traditional ecological knowledge systems that have been maintained for centuries by societies around the world. Many of these knowledge systems incorporate music, with ecologically derived instruments, compositions, and performance norms reinforcing the links between humans and the eco-soundscapes which surround us. These two cultural characteristics—ecologically minded resource management and ecologically minded music—accompany each other too frequently to be mere coincidence. Though these connections are rarely probed by mainstream music lovers, they exist and could possibly yield essential insights if observed.

These features of global environmental politics marginalize ecological knowledge in the global South and music in general. This is unfortunate, because when these two come together, we find some of the wisest expressions of both sustainability and musical culture in existence.

Take, for instance, Vedic chants. Vedic chanting is an oral tradition from the Indian subcontinent. Composed in Sanskrit, the Vedas constitute the earliest body of Sanskrit literature, as well as the oldest Hindu scriptures. Vedic chanting is often considered the oldest unbroken oral tradition in existence. And it is a living tradition, as relevant and sacred to the world’s Hindus as it ever was.

One of the most acclaimed albums of Vedic chants in recent history is Chants of India, directed and arranged by Ravi Shankar and produced by George Harrison. In an interview several years later with Krista Tippett, Ravi Shankar’s daughter Anoushka Shankar (who also worked on the album) discussed the relationship between these ancient chants and the natural world. She explains that most Hindu gods—to and for which these chants are typically sung—are connected to natural elements such as water, fire, or earth. She goes on to say that “om,” the primordial sacred sound, is supposed to contain “the full power of the universe.” These features of Vedic chants are not merely points of conceptual interest. On the contrary, they are inseparable from the actual vibrations that are produced by this music. This music has been engaged in the practice of attaining harmony with the universe from the very beginning. We might say, then, that this tradition comes to us today with thousands of years of ecological nuance in its history.

Here we see that if we celebrate the ways in which music and ecological knowledge have co-evolved in our world, then this could open up not only a new policy arena in the world of climate change. It might allow us, for instance, to broaden our conversation about how ecological awareness might be promoted to a wider public. At present, most people associate climate awareness with statistics and photographs too sad to recount. But ecologically oriented music could inspire the artistically and culturally minded among us to participate in a wider process of consciousness raising, with creative possibilities we may not have considered before.

The resonances between music and ecology also create space for a new worldview. This worldview affirms the capacity of art, and humanity, to generate the insights required to change our unsustainable lifestyles at their foundations. With all due respect to technology and Western science, I believe that wisdom, a change of heart, and cultural joy are required in order to turn this proverbial boat around.

Centers of power need to recognize the cultural expertise (ecological and musical) contained within societies in the global South.

In my view, the lesson to be learned from this is that centers of power need to recognize the cultural expertise (ecological and musical) contained within societies in the global South, and defer to their leadership in the world of climate mitigation—particularly its social dimensions. Amplifying the message of organizations and collectives that are currently affirming these connections (one of which will be explored in the next post), and doing everything in our power to ensure that they have the resources and global platforms necessary to continue their work, are possible ways to support such leadership.

Because in all honesty, which is a more enlivening expression of humanity’s power and beauty: a morning raga or one of those diagrams depicting how geo-engineering is supposed to work?

I, for one, have my answer ready in case policy makers ask. And I hope they will.