Sting: 'Dear Leaders, Please Do Something Quick, Time Is Up, the Planet's Sick'
By Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
Sting and ecotheology? Seriously? What possible connection could there be between the famous pop music artist and the study of ecology and religion? Read on!
My husband Jim Schade (himself a professional musician, a seasoned jazz drummer) gifted me with Sting's new album 57th & 9th for Christmas, knowing that I have been a huge fan since the Police in the 80s and throughout his solo career in the subsequent decades. I had been looking forward to hearing what one of my favorite singer-songwriters had produced after a three-year hiatus from recording. The album met and exceeded my expectations. Titled after the street corner he crossed daily on the way to the recording studio, the album not only exemplifies the trademark "Sting sound" of intellectual pop his fans enjoy, the songs plumb the depths of human experience and provide a poignant soundtrack for our time.
The multivalent meanings of Sting's poetic lyrics are one of the things that keep me hooked on his music and this album does not disappoint. His songs are at once self-reflective, philosophical and poignant. They invite multiple listenings to ponder and puzzle out the hidden treasures of the words nestled between polyrhythmic drum beats and richly-layered chords.
The first two songs, I Can't Stop Thinking About You and 50,000 were each smartly arranged with a driving rock beat. Down, Down, Down and If You Can't Love Me are both quintessential Sting lovelorn melancholia, reminiscent of King of Pain and When We Dance. Sting does heartbreak well—not quite wallowing, but deeply engaged in the emotional pain of loss.
Longing is another theme that drifts through this album. Heading South on the Great North Road follows the yearning of wanderlust that seeks but never quite finds fulfillment; while the The Empty Chair, written for a documentary about a photojournalist who was murdered in Syria, is saturated with longing for the seat of the dead to be filled with more than just memories.
But it was when the song One Fine Day came on and I listened to these words that I realized Sting had entered new territory on this album:
Apologists say, The weather's just a cycle we can't change.
Scientists say, We've pushed those cycles way beyond.
Dear leaders, please do something quick,
Time is up, the planet's sick...
I nearly missed my turn while driving as I listened—Sting wrote a song about climate change! After listening to the song twice, I stopped the CD to read the liner notes about this piece:
Lately I've begun to pray that those who regard climate change as a hoax, a hoax perpetuated for the express purpose of hobbling our economies and the profit margins of energy corporations, are correct! Perhaps it is in fact a deliberate hoax and we can all just carry on with our rapacious and profligate behavior in regards to the finite resources of this planet without a thought for future generations and the depleted world they're likely to inherit. I sincerely and passionately hope that the skeptics are right and that the majority of scientists in the related fields of research are full of baloney, and for that ... perhaps we'll all be grateful ... one fine day!
That kind of response is one I've given in one form or another to so many people who have argued that climate change either isn't real or is not caused by humans. To hear the bitter irony of his words woven into a song that will be heard by thousands, perhaps million, was a much-needed balm for this weary climate activist's soul.
It's no surprise that Sting would write a song about a politically contentious justice issue. Songs such as Driven to Tears (world hunger), Russians (the threat of nuclear war) and Children's Crusade (child slavery and drug addiction) are just some examples of his socially-conscious songs. His social activism is well known, having lent his music and concert appearances for causes such as Live Aid, disaster relief and numerous human rights issues.
But what makes 57th & 9th worthy of an Ecopreacher review is the fact that three of its songs connect the subjects of climate change, religion and the refugee crisis in Syria in a way that illuminates the intersectionality of these issues. Following One Fine Day, the song Petrol Head barrels down like a ZZ-Top roadster, with Sting taking on the persona of a burly truck-driver. His growling, gravelly voice sings:
You'll know me just like I know you,
Where every gospel word is true.
I'll drive this car, I'll be your guide,
Just fasten your seat belt, let's go for a ride.
I'll take you someplace that you've never been before.
A place you might have only dreamt about what's more...
Now don't you worry your pretty little petrol head.
Where the Patriarchal Western Industrial Complex has taken the world is certainly "someplace we've never been before." The polluted and overheating planet we now inhabit is a direct result of the kind of arrogant masochism typified in this song.
But more, the song's lyrics also highlight the complexity that religion brings to the phenomenon of consumerism fueled by oil, coal and gas:
I speak in tongues, in tongues of fire.
With sixteen wheels for my desire...
Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O Clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
Like Moses driving to his promised land,
Left turn at the burning bush, a stick shift,
Two stone tablets,
God's commandments in my hands.
Sting is a self-avowed agnostic, but he knows his biblical references and religious imagery. "Tongues of fire" appeared over Jesus' disciples' heads on the day of Pentecost (Acts Chapter 2). A "chariot of fire" is what whisked the prophet Elijah to heaven (2 Kings 2:11-12). And the burning bush was the site of God's revelation to Moses to free the Israelites from Egypt (Exodus 3). All three of these fire images in the Bible symbolize the Sacred, the divine light that is meant to free the oppressed, announce God's justice, and shine hope into a dark world.
But in Petrol Head, the images burn with an unholy fire and the lyrics demonstrate what many Christians have done with this religion. They have used Christianity to justify a commercialized Manifest Destiny that masquerades as a holy edict while plundering land, water, natural resources and native peoples. As I have previously explained, fossil fuels are not God's gift to humanity—a belief often touted by those wishing to bless extreme energy extraction with faux religious benedictions.
Where the consequences of Petrol Head and One Fine Day come together on Sting's album is in the song Inshallah, a poignant elegy about the refugees from Syria who are fleeing their war-wracked homeland.
The title is an Arabic word meaning "if it is God's will then it will come to pass" and brings yet another religious angle to the album. The song puts us on the boat with a Muslim father and his wife, with his child sleeping on his shoulder as they cross a dangerous sea to flee the war and seek a new life. The beautifully somber music and Sting's plaintive voice not only evoke tearful pathos, the song is perhaps one of the most effective artistic devices I've encountered to help make this humanitarian crisis real for us. Reminiscent of his song They Dance Alone, about the mothers who danced for their sons and husbands who were "disappeared" by the 1970s Pinochet regime in Chile, Inshallah takes us to that place of desperation and fear, this time spraying up like the waves from the dark and threatening sea on which they travel.
Sting has said of his more politically controversial songs: "I never tackle political issues head-on. With something like 'They Dance Alone,' and the Pinochet regime, the metaphor was of the poor women dancing alone in front of government buildings; you could understand that metaphor whether or not you knew the political issues. I've never set out to write a song that is about, for example, the environment. Songwriting is much more veiled than that. The meaning reveals itself as you go into it. A song should be plastic enough for you to find different meanings there. That's what all art does, all poetry, if you can call it that."
He said those words in an interview with The Times in 2001. Fifteen years later, he has now written songs about the environment—and in exactly the way he describes. One Fine Day, Petrol Head and Ishallah reveal their meanings to us not just as individual songs, but in conversation with each other. And their poetry contains the essence of what it means to be human in the face of inhumanity. For example, consider this lyric in Inshallah:
Sleeping child, on my shoulder,
Those around us, curse the sea.
Anxious mother turning fearful,
Who can blame her, blaming me?
In that last line we feel the piercing unfairness experienced by a man determined to be a protector of his family, yet powerless to do so in the face of forces completely beyond his control. And with One Fine Day and Petrol Head already in our ears, we start to realize the ways in which fossil fuels, climate change and the Syrian refugee crisis are all interconnected. As I explain in a previous post, what most people don't realize is the role that climate disruption and environmental devastation have played in exacerbating the situations in Syria and other war-torn areas.
Climate change leads to drought and increased crop damage from insect infestations and blights in some places, which drives farmers away from the land and leads to uprisings. When this many people are forcibly displaced from their homes—a number higher than it has been at any time since World War II—it creates the conditions for corruption, violence and authoritarian regimes thrive. Which means that for those of us who live in countries that have burned the most fossil fuels, polluting the planet and sending the atmosphere into feverish sickness, we share some responsibility for the refugee crisis.
Like most pop music with a social conscious, Stings songs do not offer solutions to the dilemmas they portray. But that's not their job. The bard's role is to tell the story, to give witness to what is happening and to set it to music that enchants our ears on its way to our souls. My hope is that 57th & 9th will raise awareness of the interconnected issues of fossil fuels, climate change and the humanitarian crises to a point that listeners will be driven to take action.
Now if we could just have some powerful songs about climate change written and performed by some high-profile Country music artists ... When this happens, we'll know that the issues of climate change, human rights and the need to care for God's Creation have finally begun to sink in. Garth Brooks? Toby Keith? Miranda Lambert? Keith Urban? Carrie Underwood? George Strait? Anyone? Anyone?
Leah D. Schade is the author of the book Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015). She is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky, and an ordained Lutheran (ELCA) minister. Visit her website www.creationcrisispreaching.org and her blog www.ecopreacher.blogspot.com.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Emily Grubert
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
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What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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