As the climate changes, it’s not too late to save ourselves. There is cause for both optimism and pessimism—salvation could take the form of easy technological fixes or cataclysmic climate events that force us to work together. Barring a groundbreaking technological breakthrough, one of the most likely pathways to climate action is via social movements. Activism through nonviolent protest has been found to be successful in achieving its goals if a critical mass of 3.5% or more of the population is mobilized, In other words, if 11.5 million Americans march in the streets and stay engaged, they can help bring about the radical social and political transformation needed to stop climate change. Beyond responses to repressive and autocratic rule, though, there are very few examples of sustained activism at this level of engagement.
So what will it take to get millions of Americans to do what is needed to stop the climate crisis?
Shared cultural experiences have the capacity to serve as platforms for civic participation and activism that can mobilize the masses. Given the overwhelming evidence that young people are concerned and anxious about how the climate crisis affects them, it makes sense to activate them at events where emotional energy can bring about laughter and tears in equal measure—music does both.
Music travels everywhere. Bands play in red states and blue states, to audiences of all races, genders, and sexual orientations. For the 90 minutes or so of a live concert, everyone is united. These events have the potential to serve as on-ramps to engagement and climate activism.
On AJR’s 2022 tour alone, nearly 400,000 people in the United States are joining the band at various venues, creating a shared experience. Add these numbers to the audiences of other major touring artists and we might just be approaching the critical mass required. Think of the possibilities if even half of those people channeled their energy and enthusiasm from the music into the climate movement!
Building On-Ramps to Climate Activism
However, artists need to do more than just mention the issue or provide press-worthy gimmicks to show how technology might save us. Fans riding bicycles to power the stage, or jumping on tiles to produce energy may provide some limited carbon offsets, but those actions don’t connect to any meaningful level of engagement that continues the work after the show is over; fans can’t bring the bikes or floors home with them. True on-ramps involve information dissemination along with opportunities for connection with like-minded individuals and organizations both at the concert and beyond.
Social movements have long struggled with the challenges of getting sympathizers to do more than worry about an issue. Concerts have the capacity to serve as a catalyzing tool for change, connecting those who care to what they can do about it.
This is why partnerships between organizations and superstars like Harry Styles, Billie Eilish, and Drake are valuable. They bridge the energy of a concert to the impassioned activism of a protest, giving audiences numerous opportunities to get involved: voter registration, canvassing by environmentally friendly candidates, incentivizing climate action through carpool deals and vegan food options, offsetting emissions to travel to the event, food waste donations, partnerships with local and national organizationsand charitable contributions through ticket add-ons.
But once they get involved, how do we keep them engaged?
Sustaining the Activism After the Show
Not only can concerts provide on-ramps to climate activism, but they can also create connections that will keep fans involved through follow-up actions on social media and in person. What starts with opportunities at events can bloom into communities of engagement as the message gets passed around and friends and family are activated. For example, after learning about oil and plastic pollution at an AJR concert, a young high school girl in Indianapolis started a campaign to end all single-use plastic in her school’s lunchroom. The petition grew so quickly that, not only her school, but the entire school district banned all single-use plastics. One individual inspired her community to make a concrete difference.
Concerts have the potential to build collective identity in ways that are similar to protests—bringing together like-minded people with a common interest to create a sense of solidarity and focus their collective efforts for social change. We know that protest events have the capacity to channel participants into other forms of activism and electoral engagement, like participating in voter registration drives, canvassing, and town hall meetings in their communities. During the four years of the Trump Administration, for example, numerous large-scale demonstrationsincluding the Women’s March, the People’s Climate March, and the March for Our Lives connected participants to political campaigns in Congressional districts around the 2018 midterm elections.
Although the groups working to mobilize support for social and political climate action are numerous, organizations with strong local ties that are deeply embedded in communities can be particularly transformative. Change that comes from the grassroots has lasting effects in between election cycles. Local groups have proven capable of connecting people directly to the climate struggles going on in their communities, their counties, as well as their states.
Dreaming of a New World
Concerts are an escape. But there are other worlds that these concertgoers also dream of living in. A world without a climate crisis that is exacerbating extreme weather events such as hurricane, droughts, floods, heatwavesand wildfires. Resultantly, a world with less famine and fewer refugees. A world without pollution that causes cancer and asthmaand deforestation that leads to global pandemics.
As our leaders struggle to implement meaningful climate policies during this period of record-breaking oil prices and the highest inflation in 40 years, millions of Americans are wondering what they can do to make a difference. Music provides an ideal on-ramp to reach the millions of Americans who want to make change in the world, but don’t yet know how. In 2022 alone, over 70 million people will come together to experience live music, far more than the 11.5 million threshold that the research suggests could lead to a social and political transformation.
With the right partners in place, music can connect these concerned concertgoers and provide them with opportunities to make a difference in their communities once the band moves on to the next city. Individual climate action can take a diversity of forms, from planting trees in communities to reduce the heat island effect and limit stormwater runoffto limiting plastic pollution in schools, or electing politicians who refuse fossil fuel money and prioritize climate action. In addition to the many civic groups doing locally embedded climate work, there are a growing number of service corps being coordinated around the country with the mission of training young people to work on climate resilience in their communities for pay. Rather than just putting interested individuals on email lists, these projects are truly energizing the masses to take climate action.
The time is now to take advantage of all the potential onramps to activism, especially through music. By connecting people from all walks of life to sustainable efforts to protect our planet, we can all work together to reduce the risk of a cataclysmic climate future.
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