There’s no denying the influence Brian Eno has had on the world through his musical contributions (from Roxy Music to his solo work to his production for bands including Talking Heads, David Bowie and Devo), but his impact on the planet, through his organization EarthPercent and his climate album ForeverAndEverNoMore, could turn out to be just as significant. Combining ambient, operatic pop, synths, strings and more, Eno created an environment-themed album that eschews being preachy, optimistic or fatalistic in favor of being nuanced, personal, tender, haunting and hopeful. At the most recent SXSW, Eno had a conversation with fellow musician and multimedia artist Beatie Wolfe about making art in the midst of a climate emergency. The following is an abridged version of their eye-opening discussion.
Beatie Wolfe: We have a shared passion of making sure we’re protecting the one home that we have and using art as a vehicle for that. How did you originally get involved in your environmental work?
Brian Eno: Well, the long-term inspirations for being an artist, for me, were two things. One was that I grew up in the country and I’ve always drawn on that experience of rural life and the feeling of watching how nature works. And when I was a young artist I read something by John Cage that art should imitate nature in its manner of operation. And I always liked that thought—that you could think yourself into being a part of nature, which of course we are, and that making art is a part of that sense of one’s being. Then I started becoming very interested in evolution theory and what thrilled me most was the idea of complexity arising out of simplicity. We normally think that if something complex exists, it must have been designed by something even more complex. But that isn’t the case in nature. Things started out simpler and they’ve ramified into more and more complex and beautiful things.
And I thought, wouldn’t it be nice if you could make art like that as well? If you could somehow plant seeds that then open up into things of greater complexity and beauty than you, the so-called creator, could have imagined. So this became an idea for me. And I was doing this on a planet where suddenly, quite noticeably, conditions were becoming worse. And I thought there’s an odd paradox here. I am celebrating nature and at the same time, I’m watching it disappear. And it seemed to me that I should be joining in the fight to stop its disappearance as well as celebrating its existence. How did you start out in this?
BW: I too grew up feeling deeply connected with the natural world but for me the real nature train kicked in when I was a teenager and I went to see An Inconvenient Truth in the cinema and it was one of those experiences that imprinted so deeply. I left the cinema horrified and went home and wrote this song “From Green to Red” thinking, “I’ll never have to record this because everyone will see the documentary and we’ll be on a completely different path in five to 10 years.” And obviously that didn’t happen. And then running concurrently, I was always interested in art as something core to our wellbeing. Oliver Sacks, the great neurologist, documented the power of music across a range of neurological conditions and showed it as a medicine, a tonic, a way in, when nothing else could penetrate. And I believe that art and nature are the two things that we cannot live without. Well, we can perhaps live without them, but we won’t thrive by any means. Technology did such a wonderful job of fast-tracking everything it means to be a human being on this planet, but it did not reflect the true costs in the process and it shortchanged us in many ways. And I think art and nature got fast-tracked in the process.
BE: Well, of course, what you are talking about is the value of art. Now, to me, this is a very interesting subject because there are very few interesting books about it and very little discussion of it. We all spend a great deal of our lives enjoying or consuming art in some way or another. And the question that has interested me for most of my life is why do we want art? What does it do for us? If you say that to most people, they say, “Well, it’s nice, isn’t it?” But the question is, why is it nice? Why are we finding it enjoyable? And this has been the single intellectual thread that’s run through my life of trying to think what art is doing for us. My very simple answer to that question is that we make art to imagine other worlds.
Feeling is really the beginning of thinking
Now if you talk to scientists about feelings until recently, they’ve said, “We don’t really deal with feelings because they’re hard to quantify.” But lately there’s been a change in that and people are starting to realize that feeling is really the beginning of thinking. Feeling is what we do before we turn things into language, before we turn them into tangible arguable thoughts. So my feeling about art is that it’s the practice of the most human quality of all, which is imagination. That is the thing that separates humans from any other creature that we know. We are not the only creature that has this ability to anticipate, but we have it in such a large quantity. We are born with the ability to imagine just like we are born with the ability to talk. However, we need to practice both: children don’t just start talking, and you need to keep practicing. I think art is one of the ways in which we practice.
BW: There’s a lovely William Blake quote in that vein which is “to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.” I think that we can look to nature and if we don’t know how to imagine, it’s a gateway into that. And with art, like nature, there’s also something that is inexplicable. There’s something that is truly magical and divine. I think the best art, it reflects our humanity, but it also reflects something of our divinity, and it points to something inexpressible, something that you can’t articulate with words or with any other form.
During this music dementia research project, which I started almost 10 years ago, I witnessed people who were catatonic getting up and dancing, people who were nonverbal singing along to songs they’d never heard, and I was so struck by how deep music and art goes to a point where I believe we still don’t really understand it. And so, I feel that there is also a spiritual aspect of art that opens up this ability to access and imagine other worlds so naturally.
BE: In tune with that Thomas Mann said, “art is to the community, what dreams are to the individual.” He was saying that art is a place where we can collectively imagine and socialize the act of imagination and that seems very true. A few years ago, I read a report of a group of Danish academics who were studying health in old age in Denmark, and because you have a socialized healthcare system, you have good medical records for people going back a very long time. They decided to look at what the relationship was between lifestyle choices and good health in old age. And the top three factors were singing, dancing and camping, and I think that’s so interesting because cigarettes didn’t figure in the top three, alcohol didn’t, diet didn’t, what really seemed to figure was the ability to engage in these social activities. I have an a capella singing group and I love it more than anything else. It’s not professionals, there are a couple of musicians in it, but there’s lawyers and actuaries and social workers and all sorts of people. The beauty of it is that bond of friendship that is formed between people when they do something like that together, something that somewhat exposes them and where they show their vulnerability. That seems to me, one of the healthiest things you can do. It really opens you up and fills you up as well.
BW: Yes, and I love how art can create bridges between different groups which typically don’t really talk to one another. I’ve ended up working with neurologists and astrophysicists and all these different types of people that have incredible knowledge, but not always the easiest way of communicating it. I think art is such a wonderful way of communicating some of the fascinating things in this world that are hidden in plain sight. After this talk I gave at JPL, one of the chief engineers showed me these CO2 graphs dating back 800,000 years. I had the same feeling I had in the cinema of, “How are we here?” and how have we only exacerbated this crisis in our awareness of it compared to any other time. I wanted to take this data, which is cold and unrelatable for so many people, and turn it into something that everyone can feel and absorb via the power of art.
BE: This is a good instance of an aphorism I’ve come up with recently, which is science discovers and art digests. I think that the beauty of science is that it tells us what’s happening in the world. The beauty of art is that it gives us a chance to see how we feel about it and to decide whether we ought to do something about it.
BW: I think one of the hardest things to do is to activate awareness. We all have blind spots, we all have things that we just don’t necessarily see, but once you become aware of something, it’s very hard to backtrack. We do need that sense of being shaken awake but we also need the signs of hope and there are so many wonderful initiatives doing grassroots, local stuff which is how we’re going to have to approach this. It’s going to be hyper-micro and local. There won’t be a one-size-fits-all or one technology that we invent especially as the best technology already exists in Mother Earth. We just have to give her, and many species, the chance to regenerate because nature’s regenerative powers eclipse any technology we could invent.
BE: Something I find exciting is what’s happening in economics, which is that in the last few years more and more women have been entering economics at a very high level. People like Mariana Mazzucato, Kate Raworth, Kate Pickett, Carlota Perez who all come with an entirely different picture of how the wealth of the planet is maintained and for whose benefit. They’re talking about the original meaning of the word economics which was household and that sensibility of thinking and caring about the whole system. It’s not just about creation of wealth which it was in Milton Friedman’s day 50 years ago or in the history of economics since Reagan and Thatcher. What these new economists are saying is: no, that is not the primary objective. The primary objective is a healthy ecosystem where everybody is doing well.
BW: There’s a lot in that, especially rethinking our vision of success to no longer be based on growth and starting to factor in those costs that have been left out. It’s like borrowing money you don’t have. We live on this planet with finite resources. It will not go on indefinitely if we keep borrowing from it. I think people are having to wake up to that because it’s hitting us in the face faster than any of the scientists or climate specialists predicted. It’s happening now. And when people step out of the boxes, we’re all sentient beings along with every other creature on this planet. And we’re all deeply interconnected. And I constantly come back to that feeling when you look at a healthy ecosystem and every species is thriving. Those species can only do well if the whole does well. And we are exactly the same. We are not apart from that. [There is] the mentality of ‘it’s not on my doorstep, so I won’t deal with it.’ Well, it is on your doorstep, even if it isn’t literally.
BE: That’s very beautifully put and I completely agree with you. You can’t take apart complex ecosystems and think that you can get rid of one bit or not care about one bit and the rest will do fine. It might work for a little while. It has worked for a little while, but then there are costs to pay, and the complexity of the whole system constantly cross checks and rebalances itself, unless you really put it out of joint and we have really put it out of joint. It’s not sentimentality to say that there really are only two worthwhile growth industries. One is creativity and the other is love. We need to be growing the things that count for us.
BW: And we can all make a difference. Those small decisions that we think of as being irrelevant make a huge difference. How we travel, eating vegan, eating locally, knowing what you’re supporting and where your money is going. I think there are a lot of things that we can all do and often it can feel overwhelming, but we have much more power than we realize.
BE: We have so much more power. This is the biggest movement in human history. There’s never been any movement that has consumed humans as much as this one does. There are billions of us working on it, but we don’t know about each other. The media is studiously looking in the wrong direction, expecting change to come from the normal places, like from Washington and London. And there’s a lot of change happening, but it isn’t coming from there. It’s coming from people; it’s coming up through the ground. I think we have to start acknowledging that we are where the power is.
You need to have hope, but you also need to have the ferocity to carry through with it
BW: And it’s also not doom or utopia. Everything that we can do will affect how much of an earth we have that’s thriving and habitable. The difference between .5 and .6 is gigantic. And it’s important to remember that because otherwise it can feel like it’s hopeless.
BE: Yeah. It’s not hopeless. There’s an English politician called Tony Benn and he said you need hope and anger. Neither of them are very useful on their own. So you need to have hope, but you also need to have the ferocity to carry through with it. It’s going to be a struggle and there’s going to be resistance, but we are going to have to do it.
Hero image of Brian Eno’s ForeverAndEverNoMore, courtesy of the artist