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Patti Smith, Thom Yorke and Flea Rock Out at Pathway to Paris Concert

Is it possible to have a music concert in Paris after Nov. 13? And, if so, can the music give voice to the emergency of climate change and the desperate hope for a meaningful climate treaty, which is now being drafted in this very same city?

The answer is a grief-filled, joy-filled, resounding yes!

Under tight security on Friday, Dec. 4 and Saturday, Dec. 5 musicians and activist-organizers Jesse Paris Smith and Rebecca Foon brought the Pathway to Paris concert to the Le Trianon music hall in the bustling Parisian district of Montmarte.

On both nights, every seat in the house and in both tiers of balconies was filled to overflowing. As were eyes of everyone who sat in those seats, listening to voices of the musicians and speakers on stage who, all together, delivered a cathartic message that somehow variously soothed the audience, brought us to tears and called us to the streets in the fight for climate justice.

On all counts—as balm for a terrorized city, as a cry for political engagement with the most urgent of planetary crises and as a fundraiser for 350.org, which is helping to lead that charge—Pathway to Paris delivered.

In sum, the concert felt like a blood transfusion. It was quite possibly the most amazing public event I've ever attended.

The musical genius of Pathway to Paris was to showcase the human voice, from the sweet, keening cries of Radiohead's Thom Yorke to the defiant, prophetic refrains of poet and singer-songwriter Patti Smith, who, together, bookended the concert and served as its headliners.

Backed by her daughter, Jesse Paris Smith, on piano and Rebecca Foon on cello, Smith opened the evening with an unaffected spoken word piece, “Nature Is…" that catalogued the living world in elegiac, Shakespearian rhythms (“The fox. Eclipse. The bumblebee.")

Congelese singer-songwriter Fally Ipupa and Tibetan exile and musical legend, Tenzin Choegyal, brought more poetry to the stage. Quietly translated by Jesse Smith, Choegyal's soaring, prayerful composition named the planetary elements and called them into harmony. (“May the element of water not rise up against you.")

So the tone was set: We will mourn the dead. We will take stock of the living. In the face of those who seek to terrorize us and destroy “this blue planet, our only home," we will go forth with purpose and joy.

And in the hands of Flea (Red Hot Chile Peppers) and Warren Ellis (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds), that message was taken up, virtuosically, by bass guitar, violin and flute.

It was as if musical instruments themselves were transformed into human voices—soothing, cathartic, urgent celebrational, grieving, bold—delivering a redemptive message at this historic moment of multiple emergencies.

And this was exactly the intent of this event, according to 350.org's founder Bill McKibben, who served as master of ceremonies. “In addition to entertaining you," said McKibben, “the job of these musicians is to turn you into warriors for the fight ahead. We have to fight and fight hard."

The scope of that fight was explicated in detail by concert's various all-star speakers, who addressed the crowd between the musical numbers.

McKibben said the fight for climate justice is two-fold. First, we need to send a message to those who are now negotiating a climate treaty “on the other side of town" and who are “doing nowhere near enough" to come up with something meaningful.

The chances of a durable, binding treaty are nevertheless higher than they were six years ago at Copenhagen, said McKibben. There is now less squabbling among nations and a greater sense of shared purpose. That change in tone, said McKibben, is precisely because we have already built a people's movement powerful enough to halt the all-but-assured Keystone XL pipeline, shut down coal mines in Australia and ban fracking in France. [Author's note: we also achieved a fracking ban in New York State!].

So far, the climate change movement has been powerful enough, he reminded us, to deprive the fossil fuel industry of $3.4 trillion dollars via divestment.

But, to win more victories like these, the climate justice movement must grow, said McKibben. And the necessary work will necessarily involve civil disobedience. “We need a lot more people going to jail."

That was an applause line.

Second, said McKibben, we must direct confront the source of the problem itself: “The real power rests with the fossil fuel industry, so that's where we take the fight." Chief among them: ExxonMobil, who McKibben accused—as he donned a shirt emblazoned with the trending hashtag #ExxonKnew—of “building a network of denial and confusion" as part of coordinated disinformation campaign about our unfolding planetary catastrophe.

Feminist and ecologist Vandana Shiva, who was welcomed to the stage with joyous ovations, urged her audience to understand that climate action necessarily also means confronting “the Exxons of agriculture." Ushered in by World War II, fossil fuel-dependent farming means that the food on our plate is grown by fertilizers made from natural gas and brought to market on a river of petroleum.

“We are all eating oil," Shiva said. Calling “climate smart agriculture," which relies on genetically modified seeds, a false promise based on a “fictitious creation myth," Shiva spoke to the need to look at carbon-sequestering powers of soil, seed saving and the empowerment of small-scale farmers as fundamental parts of the solution to the climate change problem. Fully half of all greenhouse gases derive from systems of agriculture, she said.

In her own talk, author and social critic Naomi Klein explored the nature of the word “emergency." When the declaration of a state of emergency on terrorism is used as a tactic to distract attention away from the emergency of climate change, the effective message, she said, is to say to those, for example, drowning in India from catastrophic and unprecedented storms that their lives do not matter. For many of the world's poorest and most politically marginalized people, there is “nothing far off or abstract about climate change."

Further, when political leaders claim climate change as an emergency but do not take appropriate actions—as is done with security emergencies or economic emergencies—they reveal the meaninglessness of their words.

The climate change talks began 21 years ago and have produced no coordinated plan to tackle the problem. A decades-long debate among nations is not an emergency response system, Klein asserted. “Which crises get action and which do not depends on who stands to gain."

Happily, she continued, “regular people can declare an emergency. They can declare a crisis from below." And regular people can identify and demand solutions that solve multiple and overlapping emergencies all at once and all together.

For example, renewable energy provides six to eight times more jobs than oil and gas. Thus could an emergency response to the climate crisis also relieve the employment crisis. But such solutions are held hostage by “the irrational logic of austerity."

Putting climate negotiators on notice that those on the front lines of climate change will not settle for “self-congratulatory photo ops" if the treaty now under negotiation fails to deliver a strong, binding agreement, Klein called her audience into the streets of Paris at high Noon on Saturday, Dec. 12 for some “climate disobedience."

All on their own, the words of the Pathway to Paris speakers were powerful. Here was the unexpected strength of oratory in the context of Pathway to Paris: The words that were spoken redirected the words that were sung.

“I was a wing in heaven blue" (Patti's Smith, “Wing") was no longer a metaphorical celebration of personal freedom. In the context of a climate change concert, it became a statement about our relationship to the physical atmosphere.

A call for a return to “the peaceable kingdom" became a cry against species extinction.

The mine into which the singer falls and the world that comes “crashing down" in Yorke's “Present Tense" became, for us during this concert, an actual mineshaft on a dying planet.

In the alchemy of Pathway to Paris, all songs about lost love seemed intended for the Earth itself.

Then, when our hearts were entirely broken open, it was time for Patti Smith to remind us in her encore, which called all the musicians and speakers to the stage, “The people have the power / to redeem the work of fools."

And knowing now exactly who these fools are, we poured forth, past the security guards, into the streets of Paris. And it was beautiful. It was beautiful.

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