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Music and the twenty-first century eco-warrior

Abstract

Humanity is currently faced with the extreme effects of anthropogenic climate change and, within the cultural realm, music and activism have important roles to play. This interaction between musical cultures and those engaged with environmentalism is explored in this paper, which focuses on the concept of the eco-warrior as a driver of direct environmental action, and the relationship between eco-warriors and music activism. Warrior culture is examined through various musical genres, focusing on its manifestation in a range of environmental movements from Earth First! to Extinction Rebellion. We discuss the role of warrior culture in these musical genres in reflecting the eco-warrior archetype, and follow the transition of this music to more mainstream styles, with a parallel activist shift from aggressive action, to non-violent direct action. We offer a definition of the contemporary ecowarrior—a generalized archetype of an activist for whom musical culture may play an important role in identity shaping and action—via analysis using Collective Action Framing. The findings are contextualised in conclusion through Social Movement Theory proposing a link between musical style and types of action.

Introduction

As a global community, humanity is faced with the effects of anthropogenic climate change, whereby the destruction and exploitation of the natural world for resources has led to global warming with potentially devastating consequences (IPCC 2018). While climate change is a natural process that is the focus of much scientific investigation, Mike Hulme (2010) argues that current anthropogenic causes and impacts on humanity remind us “that we are intimate co-workers with the non-human in the mutual shaping of our present and future worlds, rather than being lords of all we can see” (274). This “embeddedness of humanity in Nature” (Hulme 2010, 270) challenges dominant cultural paradigms which have developed from a westernized Anglo-American background, and bridge natural and social scientific enquiry, offering a causal and moral narrative through which to understand climate change (Hulme 2010).

Beck (2010) questions where support for shifts in ecological thinking is supposed to come from, highlighting that shifts, “in many cases would undermine [people’s] lifestyles, their consumption habits, their social status and life conditions … [which is also] politically suicidal” (255). But as anthropogenic causes and the risks of climate change become more known, individuals and communities are increasingly demanding industry and legislative reform. While entrenched political, economic and cultural paradigms are resistant to change, the recent rise in the frequency and magnitude of climate activism globally, including civil disobedience and direct action, depicts an emerging and growing climate justice movement (Jamison 2010) demanding change with an increasing intensity.

Tim Hollo, co-founder of the environmental organization Green Music Australia (2015) reflects on “how little theoretical and critical analysis has been undertaken on the role of the creative arts in climate change action” (2), a point this article seeks to address. Music has often played a key role in social movements, which “provide spaces in the broader culture for new forms of knowledge-making and socio-cultural learning as a central part of their activity” (Jamison 2010, 813). Tia DeNora (2000) describes music as a force binding “the polis, the citizen and the configuration of consciousness” (162), describing it as an empowering force facilitating the construction of personal identities. As climate change is being reframed as a climate crisis and the global climate justice movement continues to grow, it is fitting to seek to understand how music might be influencing these changes; eco-warrior culture is one way in which climate action is manifested through music.

Scarce (2016) defines eco-warriors as those who pursue their environmental agendas head-on, through direct action. Their endgame is a return to ecological states that existed before “people interfered with [the Earth]” (5). This article focuses on what is framed as a musical eco-warrior culture—a highly visible form of activism that highlights the changing face of activism within eco-warrior subculture, as reflected in musical style and function. Popularised warrior culture may also influence the development of eco-warrior groups; therefore, the expression of the populist warrior in environmental activism is explored, focusing on its expression through music. A list of warrior traits is drawn from relevant literature, which is explored through the analysis of a variety of musical styles and artists. Through an exploration of the changing musical eco-warrior scene, this article presents an amended list of warrior characteristics which are representative of contemporary eco-warrior culture and its relevant musical and extra-musical context.

Collective Action Framing (CAF) is adopted as a framework within which the various functions of music in eco-warrior culture can be understood. Through sharing their message and educating the public, many activists aim to create collective action frames (CAF), which are “action-oriented sets of beliefs and meanings that inspire and legitimate the activities and campaigns of a social movement organization” (Benford and Snow 2000, 614). In doing so, activists may aim to educate the broader public, “develop[ing] a message that tells others what the problem is and who is to blame (diagnostic framing), present[ing] the movement’s solution (prognostic framing), and explain[ing] why the listener should join the movement to fix the problem (motivational framing)” (Pullum 2014, 1381). In this way the number of individuals sharing a collective identity in relation to the issue at hand, where collective identity is “a set of values or precepts or beliefs that empower those who share and identify with them (Jamison 2010, 813), grows, and through motivational framing, leads to greater action. Music in activism aligns with diagnostic and prognostic framing through its ability to be educational, and with motivational framing through providing a sense of community and belonging. As Pullum (2014) argues, to recruit members for the new movement, activists must persuade aggrieved individuals that their problems are collective, urgent, and amenable to change. Music can play an important role here, as it enhances the urgency of action, shares stories and imagines alternate realities and futures (Hollo 2015).

Warrior culture

Historical warrior cultures include the Spartans, Vikings, and Samurai, for example. The term warrior culture broadly describes a communal proclivity towards certain war or warrior-like tenets: military prowess. Contemporary use of the term is somewhat broad. For example, criminologists sometimes discuss gangs as relating to warrior culture (see Etter 1998; Joe and Robinson 1980; Pinnock 1997, 2016) and the term is also sometimes used when discussing sports, especially those with an implied discourse of violence. Gee (2009) details how elements of North American ice hockey are promoted to resemble a state of conflict and militarization, fostering a dominant, hyper-masculine discourse resembling a warrior culture. She notes too that similar states might exist in other nationally revered sports like rugby union in New Zealand or association football in Europe and South America. Perhaps the most pervasive recent use of the term refers to the modern military, more specifically the service branch of the United States armed services, the United States Marine Corps (USMC). Not unlike the manifestation of warrior culture in television shows like Vikings, their conservative discourse frames warlike qualities in a positive light, centralizing tenets of honor and purpose while foregoing the potentially ugly reality rendered by their practice. USMC Lance Corporal Joseph Michael Herring (2004) embodies this notion in proclaiming: “I am a warrior; I am a United States Marine. I go to war to maintain my honor and to build upon that which I believe in”. The term warrior culture has also been invoked to describe the activities of certain radical subcultural groups (Etter 1999). Etter describes skinheads as embodying many characteristics of traditional warrior cultures, namely a valorization of toughness and aggression, exclusionary politics, and frequent reference to historical religious and cultural practices from past warrior cultures, specifically Norse and Germanic ones.

Warrior culture also manifests in popular culture—a site in which meaning is constructed, values created or reinforced, and actions justified. Milkoreit (2019) analyses how “pop-cultural artifact” Game of Thrones influences responses to climate change politics in the USA, demonstrating how political opponents can use the themes of the TV show to sway their audiences toward their own views on climate change. In doing so, Milkoreit concludes that this presents a “powerful form of creative political engagement with the potential to reach millions” (80). Warrior culture in the West is increasingly visible in popular culture—and as argued here, influential in attitudes to climate change—through dramatical television series, with two contemporary examples being Vikings (2013–) and Game of Thrones (2011–2019). This cultural appropriation is certainly not a new phenomenon, as popular television shows such as Samurai (1962–65), Xena: Warrior Princess (1995–2001), and Spartacus (2010–2013) attest.

Clearly the usage of the term “warrior culture” is broad and variable, but based on a review of the literature on warrior culture, certain common traits consistently emerge as a consistent ‘warrior code’:

  • Warrior culture values aggression and/or action.

  • Warrior cultures value the group and the cause over the individual, although personal reputation and integrity is highly valued.

  • Warrior culture is generally exclusionary and skeptical of outsiders.

  • Warrior culture is concentrated around a “code”; the adherence to an ethical or moral framework and an aspiration towards a goal.

  • Warrior culture frames its actions consequently. In other words, the potentially ugly realities of its methods are justified by their end results, which are treated as ethically negligible.

While this list of traits is not intended as definitive, they have been evident in certain actors within the climate change movement and provide a useful reference point for discussion of evolution of climate change activism. As is discussed below, the eco-warrior culture is constantly evolving, which is reflected in its music. This list of traits will form the basis for discussion of this evolution in the latter sections of this article.

Eco-warriors

Scarce (2016) cites Greenpeace (Zelko 2017), Sea Shepherd (Brown 2012), Earth First! (Wall 2002) and the Animal Liberation Front (Henshaw 1989) as examples of eco-warrior groups, but suggests that much radical environmentalism also occurs through individual activists. Scarce notes that most eco-warriors act without the hope of enacting the change they seek in any immediate sense; instead, they attempt to draw attention to their problems by expression in communication media around publicized actions. Such actions range from legally permitted manifestations such as die-insFootnote 1 or occupations of temporary autonomous zones to more illicit activities like tree spiking and monkey-wrenching. They may be done autonomously, with smaller groups, as well as when working with larger mainstream groups (Wall 2002).

Conversely, Likar, a Professor of Criminal Justice, characterizes many eco-warriors as dangerous terrorists engaging in vengeful and short-sighted activity (2011). Under this banner Likar situates groups like the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front. Journalist Vanessa Grigoriadis (2011) recounts stories of the glory days of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF known colloquially as the “Elves”) in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and their guerilla tactics, histories of arson and consequent massive property damage. Earth First!’s slogan “No Compromise in the Defense of Mother Earth” betrays their paramilitary bent. For Grigoriadis (2011), groups like Earth First! and the Earth Liberation Front have seemingly transitioned towards a broader anti-authoritarian, anarchistic, and Marxist ideology—one that represents a more general stance of extreme-left thought. This dynamism within ecowarrior circles is something that is given support by Foreman (2016) and ALC (2019), and reveals that within a social movement there are varied currents and collective action frames at play over time with some in the ascendancy at any given time as counterframes interact with each other in a marketplace of ideas. Framing actors as eco-warriors allows for a more nuanced and dynamic descriptor than, for example, extremist, or radical, especially more recently as non-violent direct action assumes its place in the cycle.

Physical damage or disruption is only one tactic, amongst several, through which activist causes can be articulated. This is true of the more momentous property destruction perpetuated by groups like the Earth Liberation Front, but it potentially filters down to all levels of activist actions, momentous or modest. Rather than requiring the warrior culture of this discussion adhere to physical action (violence and physical property damage, for example), it is valuable to contemporize these stakes. An example might be ‘hacktivism’, a type of cyber vigilantism (Davis 2012). Hacktivists are interested in myriad causes including environmentalism, the hacker collective Decocido #ϴ for example being closely linked with Earth First! (Leyden 2010), but especially freedom of information. Wikileaks and Anonymous have clearly dominated public discourse around hacktivism in recent years (Beyer 2014). In a technologically dominated world, this type of damage is analogous to the physical destruction perpetuated by the Earth Liberation Front in the early twenty-first century. Beyond this difference in means, there are many similarities between the hacktivist culture and warrior culture: both are cultures of action over passivity; hacker actions are framed by the ‘hacker ethic’ and are consequentialist, albeit in a more haphazard sense than the clearly demarcated codes of warrior cultural history. Most importantly, hacktivists commonly see themselves on the frontlines of social, political, or environmental issues, the tip of the spear for a new generation, whether this perception is accurate or otherwise.

Comparing these most extreme of environmental groups with the characteristics of warrior culture outlined above shows a strong alignment. These groups are assertive and they value action over theory. They are militant in nature, that is, aggressively active for a cause, functioning beyond the realm of a legal system that they consider to have failed nature and the natural. The externally perceived criminality of these groups (in-group perspectives may not see their acts as criminal) and the transgression of norms seem vital symbols for the urgency of their messages, a kind of ‘propaganda of the act’ for their struggle and its inevitability. Nevertheless, they are centered around a consistent moral code, which at times may be surmounted with consequent, collateral damage or destruction that is accepted as a side-effect of successfully achieving their aims. Thus, their discourse is often equivalently aggressive: members of the culture discuss its necessity and impulsion in unambiguous terms.

Musical eco-warriors

Hardline and hardcore music

The Canadian punk rock band D.O.A. are often described as the founders of hardcore punk music. Forming in 1978 they engage with a range of political issues, including environmentalism, in their songs. Their slogan, “Talk minus action equals zero”, exemplifies the warrior ethic. While folk music style allows the lyrical content to dominate, supported by the music, in hardcore music, the message is moreso communicated through the sonic landscape of loud and angry overdriven vocal and guitar sounds, the lyrics often (un)intelligible, or captured in short, repeated catch phrases.

Earth First! also released compilation albums with much heavier punk and metal musical material, most notably incorporating music from the extreme Californian Vegan Straight Edge movement (signified as “xVx”), a movement whose bands are more closely related to the Animal Liberation Front. This movement, defined by bands Vegan Reich and Raid, is an extension of the Straight Edge movement. Named after the Minor Threat punk song, “Straight Edge”, released in 1981. Minor Threat spearheaded this movement in the 1980s extolling a ‘straight edge’ lifestyle that refrained from tobacco, alcohol and recreational drugs, and sometimes of promiscuous sex, as well as following a vegetarian or vegan diet (Wood 2006).

An extension of this movement has come to be called “hardline”—an extremely conservative and even militaristic ideology that represents perhaps the clearest example of a musical environmentalist warrior culture. Hardline proponents believe in deep ecological tenets of a natural order: other animals are equivalent to humans, and industry is a destructive force on the Earth and its eco-systems. They maintain straight edge tenets of avoiding drugs and alcohol and believe sex should be only for reproduction (Hughes 2018). Pieslak delineates Vegan Straight Edge from Hardline in the latter’s violent stances on its subjects. The former often extols a kind of individualism; engaging in its practice for itself. Contrarily, the hardline subculture unambiguously promotes violence to others through its lyrics. Pieslak (2014) invokes the lyrics from the Vegan Reich song “This Is It” to exemplify just how extreme this worldview is, which make reference to a “final solution” (prognostic) of a “vegan revolution” (motivational) or “you’ll face extermination”.

This is clearly a warrior culture of action—one with a wholly unique code of ethics and aims. Its parameters are strung in a similarly apocalyptic language as found within extreme religious groups. Vegan Reich, in the liner notes to their debut EP Hardline, exemplify this perspective:

The time has come for an ideology and for a movement that is both physically and morally strong enough to do battle against the forces of evil that are destroying the earth (and all life upon it) (Sanneh 2009).

Grouping the more militant of Vegan Straight Edge and Hardline bands, the list could include Earth Crisis, Chokehold, and Conflict in addition to the previously discussed acts. These bands, as compared to the folk contingent of Earth First! are quite prominent in the punk, hardcore, and metalcore scenes (generating hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube). Metalcore band Earth Crisis formed in 1989, ten years after D.O.A., and advocated for both animal rights and environmental action, drawing the support of animal liberation and earth liberation activists. In line with the warrior traits discussed above, they take action through diagnostic framing via the distribution of direct action literature at their shows, and many of their songs are motivational, promoting violent action. Earth Crisis’ most recent album, Salvation of Innocents (2014) focuses on animal testing, but its lyrics expound an aggressive warrior stance: “From conviction to commitment, Liberate through action” (‘De-Desensitive’); “Fight to hold the high ground” (‘Tentacles of the Altering Ground’); and “Won’t stop resisting” (‘No Reason’). Many current hardcore bands espouse politics of animal and environmental rights, for example Goldfinger (1994–) actively support and promote the Animal Liberation Front; Propagandhi (1986–) support several activist organizations, often donating money from record sales, and Rise Against (1999–) whose music videos feature documentary footage highlighting abuses of animal, environmental and human rights. In line with the warrior code, their videos have received criticism for violent themes and accusations of calls to violent action.

Extreme metal

At its foundations in the late-eighties and early-nineties in Scandinavia, black metal was a musical movement which often professed love for, and the influence of, its environment, even if this aspect was heavily overshadowed by its anti-religious, white-supremacist, nationalistic, and indeed violent proclivities. It should be noted that while the black metal style may be known for its history of violence (Moynihan and Soderlind 2003), these bands, in spite of the loudness of their message and their (in some instances) deep ecological lifestyles, did not engage in any direct environmentalist action. However, the black metal movement has globalized since, and within its sprawling sub-styles is a movement with ecological and environmental concerns at its center. This movement encompasses U.S. “Cascadian black metal” with bands such as Wolves in the Throne Room, Aggaloch, and eco-metal band Avakr from Indiana, amongst others (Riccio 2016; Skylar 2012). These “enviro-metal” bands and their burgeoning scene promote a deep ecological lifestyle; some farm and raise animals and their ideology rests on a harsh critique of modernity (Skylar 2012). Moreover, members of these bands favorably discuss the exploits of the Earth Liberation Front, and of Finnish eco-philosopher Pentti Linkola (Davis 2007), who advocates a swift and decisive dismantling of industrialized society (Pentti Linkola 2011).

Some metal bands beyond this subculture engage in environmental messaging too. Famed French eco metal band Gojira are outspoken in their environmental interests, especially evident in their partnership with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (Bonoguore 2011; Brown 2012), who edited a 2014 music video for the single Ambergris released by Italian eco-metal band Klogr. Gojira’s 2005 album From Mars to Sirius, amongst their most celebrated works, is a concept album which encompasses many environmental themes (Ferris 2009). The album cover depicts a whale, the symbol of many environmental movements, against the backdrop of two stylized planets/moons, the message clearly being one of planetary environmentalism. The imagery also resembles the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society logo. In what could be described as a kind of poetic prognostic framing, the album is based on the concept of bringing a dead planet back to life through an interplanetary quest, and the issue (diagnostic) of environmental devastation is both implicit and explicit throughout.

Folk music and earth first!

In his account of the music of radical subcultures (especially “REARA”: Radical Environmental and Animal Rights Activists) Pieslak (2015) explores musicians directly connected to Earth First! and the Animal Liberation Front. His first example, David Rovics, is a folk-styled musician who has devoted much of his musical output to supporting the values of Earth First!, as well as recounting their exploits in an almost bardic presentation. His song “Burn it Down” exemplifies this approach, with lyrics such as “We don’t like the condo and we’re gonna burn it down”, and references to pouring petrol on the floor and lighting it, as well as to “corporate terrorists”. Rovic clearly exemplifies the warrior traits of aggression for a group cause, and an ethical framework which justifies extreme action. Pieslak draws attention to the disconnect between such an intense and uncompromising message and its generally stylistically reserved musical presentation, but, as he notes, it is the extremity of this message that makes Rovics an interesting case study for the more extreme of eco-warrior musicians, rather than the style of music itself as is more evident in the above examples. Whether extolling its glory or propagandizing its goals, Rovics’ lyrics are a musical counterpoint to the extreme activities of the Earth Liberation Front (Curry 2011) and Earth First! His musical presentation (best classified as folk) seems clearly secondary to this message, though drawing on existing and familiar musical traditions can prime the listener to be open to new messages (Eyerman and Jamison 1998).

Music’s affective and story-telling qualities helps the listener to question their perceptions of, and relationship with the environment, to re-evaluate their values and to trigger connections to more general beliefs. It can also act as a social legitimizer, building community and popularizing social issues. In this way, Rovic’s approach is seen as foremost an expression of activism: his music, itself typical of a particular stylistic trope within Earth First! of grass roots folk and campfire singalongs, is his method of making a difference. Reflecting all three modes of the CAF (diagnostic, prognostic, and motivational), Rovics himself (in Cushman 2002) states:

The military uses music to inspire their troops. I use music for my troops. It's the same basic function that music is playing.... That's what we're using music at marches and rallies. It's to inspire the troops. And in other settings it's to educate people about things that are happening and to talk about it in a way that hopefully might be more memorable than a speech.

Other folk music has been associated with more aggressive action for environmental causes, especially those musicians associated with Earth First! For example, Judi Barri and Darryl Cherney were arrested and described as eco-terrorists in 1990 during their campaign against the destruction of old growth redwood trees in California. The arrest came after a pipe bomb exploded in their car, with ongoing suspicion of government involvement in the attack. Pieslak considers the acoustic guitar in Cherney’s song “Who Bombed Judi Bari” to be the locus of this style; songs can be fast or slow; earnest or sarcastic, but the instrument and stripped back presentation is a constant not only in the musical culture of Earth First! but of folk and protest songs in general. Through its strong alignment with the Civil Rights Movement, contemporary folk music (post- folk revival) has a strong tradition of protest songs, so this alignment with radical environmentalism is not surprising.

The alignment of contemporary folk music with environmental commentary is also consistent with the history of the genre, going back at least to Pete Seeger’s 1966 album God Bless the Grass, which marked a turn in his career, and more broadly in society, from human rights activism to environmental activism. The style of folk music relegates the instrument to background support for the lyrical message, and it is in vocal quality and tone that extreme messaging is communicated. Ingram (2008) refers to these as “folk ‘songs of persuasion’—works of agitation-propaganda, in which artistic form was considered secondary to content, and language was intended to be a transparent means of communication” (23).

Summary

The musical and paramusical links between the above examples and eco-warrior culture are clear. In terms of heavy metal, there are links to black metal which was originally linked to warrior culture through its promotion of Norse mythology and Viking themes and the paganism of Norse religions, which ultimately was codified in Pagan Metal (Weston 2011). The style indicators connote power and aggression through heavy riffs, intense drumming, extreme vocals and thick sonic texture. Straight Edge and Hardline have their origins in punk, and extreme leftism, associated with minority action. Sonically, the music is agitated, with harsh declamatory vocals sending a clear call to assertive action. Not all of the musical styles described are extreme however, with the music of Rovics for example, clearly drawing on the folk tradition, however it is in the militancy of his lyrics that the warrior mentality finds its expression. They clearly meet the criteria of the warrior code outlined at the start of this article through valuing aggression and action; favoring group action while valuing individual reputation; espousing ideals in a way which may exclude outsiders; having a clearly defined code and ethical framework; and prioritizing actions over consequences. Contextualized within the CAF, each artist, in their own way, offers diagnostic, prognostic and motivational framing of environmental issues.

Mainstream eco-warriors

It is not difficult to fit the above genres into the warrior framework. However, given the popularization and mainstreaming of warrior culture, it is important to consider more commercial styles of popular music which draw attention to environmental concerns, and call audiences to act on them. As Dunlap (2015) explains, “the manner in which conditions are framed as problems requiring action is crucial” (798), especially because, as Benford and Snow (2000) posit, CAFs preface collective noncompliance, protest, and/or rebellion. While the traditional eco-warrior culture might inspire some to fight for the cause, it is also often too confronting and outside of the majority’s frames of reference to build rapid support. Non-violent direct action, while still purposely disrupting mainstream social conditioning and ‘business as usual’ is proving to be gaining rapid support. But where does this fit within the eco-warrior framework?

It is increasingly common to see renowned popular music artists engaged in environmentalist agendas. Rolling Stone provides an overview of examples, from Dave Matthews’ mitigation of his band and touring party’s entire touring carbon footprint, to U2’s partnering with Greenpeace to protest the destruction of the Khimki Forest in Russia, Jack Johnson’s All at Once organization, Willie Nelson and Neil Young’s soy-based diesel alternatives, and countless others (RollingStone 2014). These agendas are both practically effective and socially acceptable. Radiohead, Björk, Midnight Oil, DJ Spooky, Pearl Jam, and Sting – successful, commercial rock and pop artists – all actively advocate for environmental action in their own way. These broad expressions of environmental activism are the musical voice of a growing community of various forms of twenty-first century environmental and social justice movements, greatly supported by social media. But are these artists eco-warriors if they raise awareness but do not themselves take direct action? Does “talk minus action” as D.O.A. propose, “equal zero”; does it constitute the greenwashing of the environmental movement, words but no substance, and a ‘feel good’ message in an industry that is arguably unsustainable itself? While the group cause and ethical framework of the warrior code presented above are pertinent, clearly aggressive activism and justification of any means are not, nor are these artists exclusionary—mainstream popular music by its nature is clearly the opposite.

Environmental activism however need not be extreme: interventions such as guerilla gardens (Trigger 2017), pop-up venues, and “subversive use of advertising billboards” are all examples of urban hacktivism, and a response to the “growing disenchantment with mainstream institutions, pervasive neoliberalism, and cultures of consumption” (Byrne and Osborne 2016), and of action over words. Activism takes many forms—many music festivals, too, are taking action in adopting a green-friendly agenda; a necessary situation considering the well-publicized damage gigantic festivals like Coachella generate (Newstead 2013). There is significant variety in these initiatives, from enormous festivals like Bonnaroo employing solar power and water-filtration systems (Grist staff 2007), to the Secret Solstice in Iceland using geothermal energy from the underground volcanoes below, to Lightning in a Bottle in the US building staging out of recycled waste (Parkin 2016).

Direct action may even come in the form of musicians actively supporting causes. For example, in 2013 Australian artists Ash Grunweld, Xavier Rudd and Andrew Stockdale were involved in direct action against coal seam gas in Northern NSW, Australia, coming to the scene of a protest and staying to show their support. On this Hollo (2015) stated, “While no musicians were arrested in this protest action, it is not inconceivable that there will be cases in the increasingly volatile environment surrounding coal and coal seam gas developments in Australia where arrests will be made” (44). This kind of illegality for a cause is closely aligned with warrior culture, but more recently, non-violent direct action, illegal or otherwise, has become the modus operandi of the eco-warrior. The eco-warriors active in global environmental movement Extinction Rebellion (XR) are now presented as an example of this transition.

Extinction rebellion (XR)

As a global and, at the time of writing, rapidly growing community response to catastrophic climate change, XR is an interesting and relevant lens through which to examine the intersections of warrior culture and mainstream music. Emerging in May, 2018, its characteristics are in many ways indicative of the transformation of traditional warrior culture to its populist form. The organisational culture of XR has developed from a mix of activist and business cultures. The overall modus operandi is to loosely follow holocracy (Wilson 2020), which has developed from sociocracy (Bockelbrink et al. 2019), rather than the consensus cultures found in many social movements. In praxis this means that decisions are delegated to circles and then subcircles. These subcircles operate as agile teams, which act autonomously, within a mandate from their enveloping circle. This is at odds with the exclusionary aspects of the definition of warrior above, and yet emphasises the focus of a group cause. From an eco-musicological perspective, this means there are aspects within XR where different circles will carry out different aspects, for example in England, the Arts Circle envelopes the London Arts & Culture Circle, yet musicians may be within a different Connecting Communities Circle as a group of fellow musical professionals. This framing prompts a collective action that is bounded by defined roles, yet as XR has grown beyond the UK, where it was founded, musical cultures are found in many other places and not necessarily in such bounded structuring or roles. XR rebels fit the profile of eco-warriors through aggressive direct action for a common cause, using whatever means are appropriate for the desired end, and adherence to an ethical framework. At the same time, they challenge it through their holocratic and inclusive structure and adherence to non-violent direct action, collectively referred to as regen or regenerative culture (Wilson 2020). As contemporary eco-warriors, their use of music also differs to that described above.

Music and XR

Music is used throughout XR both by professional musicians, and also by ordinary rebels (as XR terms all of its activists). These ecorebels are using music externally, to reach audiences beyond XR, and internally to build, strengthen and define the culture of XR (Everything 2019) as a collective action frame. Music also helps to maintain non-violence in direct action, which is important because “any violence detracts from the protesters’ message and from [their] integrity as practitioners of non-violence, and moves media focus from the protest issue to one of ‘law-and-order’” (Branagan 2005, 39).

XR arts activist Lola Perrin is a London-based classical piano composer and founder of the initiative ClimateKeys, which aims to present “concerts to help normalise telling the truth about the planetary emergency” (La Frenais 2020; Perrin 2019). In an interview with one of the authors (November 27, 2019) Perrin describes herself as someone who “creates works around climate change to bring issues into performing spaces”—a clear example of diagnostic framing. She tells, “I became active in climate aspects in 2011. But I felt what do I do? I was not a scientist and so did not see a way in. There seemed amongst us all silence. There was just silence and I realised that my role was to get people talking.” (Perrin) This diagnostic framing has extended to motivational framing by holding themed concerts evoking direct action to find solutions and thus implement them. After seeing a video of Roger Hallam giving the Heading for Extinction talkFootnote 2 Perrin relates how she, along with a fellow rebel approached Hallam, who agreed that ‘people won’t come to a political meeting, but they will come to music’. They subsequently formed the Arts and Culture Group in Extinction Rebellion and began to recruit artists in environmental ‘artivism’. Perrin then tells how during Rebellion Week in April 2019 she coordinated the delivery of a grand piano to Marble Arch, a concert with “35 concert pianists dressed up as if they would be playing at Carnegie Hall … as professional musicians, classical music”. (Perrin).

Perrin has used classical music in performance art as well. For example the dramaturgy of Carmen to challenge BP, sponsors of the Royal Opera House, to “expose that they are the worst greenwashers in the world” (Perrin). Perrin’s ecowarriors brought their action to the doors of BP’s London headquarters (later joining a die-in organised at the Opera House), in the form of a four-hour procession through London handling out thousands of informative leaflets, with a “Carmen dressed in a 3 m oil slick train … an opera singer … accordion player and a bassoonist and the Toreador Song [for which April] de Angelis rewrote words … about greedy oil men and that they are going to kill us all. So tell them to keep it in the ground” (Perrin). The procession visited several petroleum companies en route to BP, pushing copies of the XR publication “This is Not a Drill” through the front doors that had all been locked shut to keep the rebels away. They achieved motivational framing at the Opera House as Perrin relates: “people were walking over the die-in to listen. Why have I paid?! It’s on the street … they were—‘Oh my God the music is here!’” She believes in “using classical art to get into the establishment” and while this discussion has focused on popular music because of its mainstream communicative potential, it is important to emphasize that all kinds of musical activities are inclusionary and can reach a wide audience. Targeting the classical music world reaches an audience that might not be receptive to other kinds of music.

The breadth of musical activism within XR in the UK extends from a Baroque orchestra playing at the Daily Mail offices and a very large samba band tradition—there are 3 in London—which Perrin regards as “completely accessible to the non-trained musician.” Perrin and de Angelis are establishing a 'Ukulele Army' to increase inclusive street musical activism, the instrument being accessible to untrained musicians. Perrin describes a wide range of XR related musical projects and arts groups throughout the UK, and “because singing is so accessible quite a few XR choirs.” The choirs and group singing which is so accessible provide an interesting manifestation of regen culture (Wilson 2020) with songs related to caring for the Earth and all who dwell upon it. They also are quite close to chants that seem to have a strong motivational framing. Chants not only motivate action, but build solidarity between rebels. Perrin relates how there are “Chants—in every sort of road-block and during arrests. While people are being de-glued they seem to be said at moments of protest when the state is present as a way for collective expression through a chant.” Furthermore, songs have begun to be written down that are XR songs, available in written form as the Extinction Rebellion Noise/Song/Chant Sheet.Footnote 3 Other chants and songs and even physical movements (Klein 2011; Szolucha 2013) are spread in meetings both virtual, such as when using internet telephony, or in physical gatherings such as during occupations in Rebellion Week. Music in the form of chants plays a significant role in ecowarriors’ lives in influencing activists. Some examples from occupations are:

Never doubt that a small group of people can change the world, indeed it is the only thing that ever has - which comes from Margaret Mead and can be heard sung during the Lambeth Bridge occupation in London (Rinvolucri and Cherry 2018).

We are the change, We are the ones we are waiting for, We are rising up - performed on Waterloo Bridge as a chant (Lowe 2019)

Rise-up now, people on the Earth Tribe Rise-Up Now! Some say namaste! Some say aho mitakuye oyasin! Some say Aum! Some say shalom! We all call the Earth our home! Protect her! Respect her! sung at Westminster Bridge (Lowe 2019)

Participation in music is as important to activism as its consumption, if not more so: “doing music … not just consuming it, is an extraordinarily powerful mode for both solidifying commitment to social movements and for helping them achieve their goals” (Roy 2010, 86). Roy (2010) describes the action of ‘tuning in’ through (for example) chanting, as “one of the major mechanisms by which the content of artistic expression affects recruitment and commitment. The impact of the message depends not only on whether it resonates with a receiver’s values and worldview, but also on the circumstances under which it is communicated, especially the presence of others” (89).

Mainstream music and activism

Popular music and XR

While the music used in XR described above arguably has more collective function than that of the subcultural music described in the first part of this action, commercialized popular music too has its role to play in XR culture. Veteran musical activists for example have also lent their support to this young movement. Billy Bragg (as cited in Willhardt 2017) at the 2019 Bristol Summer Uprising after singing his altered version of “Which side are you on?” said, “Extinction Rebellion Youth you must know that you are not the first people to have fought these fights and you are joining a long tradition of people who have struggled for a better world and we say welcome to you”. Bragg claimed centrality and by showing solidarity ironically used a mining union song to adopt the collective action framing of extinction rebellion for social justice.

There are many commercial popular songs which refer to environmental issues, and arguably such songs while perhaps raising awareness are descriptive, fulfil a diagnostic function in framing rather than a motivational activist one. However, popular songs can also intersect with direct action, for example the recently (2019) released collaboration between English pop rock band The 1975, and Greta Thunberg, the 17-year-old Swedish activist who has protested outside the Swedish parliament since 2018 about the need for immediate action to combat climate change. The opening track (titled 1975), in which the words from Thunberg’s first major speech are set to music, was written in support of XR, in a clear example of diagnostic and prognostic framing as described in the CAF schemas. XR responded to the release of the song by saying “Music has the power to break through barriers, and right now we really need to break through some barriers if we are to face this emergency” (Extinction Rebellion 2019), which directly functioned to align the purpose of music with the movement’s perspective. This intertextuality mix of music and polemic has then been remixed into different musical genres: Swedish Death Metal “How Dare You” by John Mollusk (Mollusk 2019); electronic dance music “Greta Thunberg—HOW DARE YOU—extended Dance-Version! by Fatboy Slim; trap and hardstyle versions also exist (Simon 2019). These thus reach even wider audiences and act in motivational framing in wider society when promoted by climate SMOs. Thunberg has also taken part in XR events and has in many ways become the face of the climate anxiety movement, whose strategy of non-violent resistance and direct action to force government policy changes relating to catastrophic climate change resonates with the warrior code.

Environmental activist music organisations

Music has an important role to play in framing discourse and action around climate change, and music organizations have their role to play in rallying musical eco-activists. Green Music Australia is, as its name would imply, an Australian organization dedicated to approaching environmental issues through music. Established in 2013 with an initial aim to ‘green’ the music industry (through sustainable touring, festivals etc.) is has developed into an activist organization supporting protest movements such as #STOPADANI (a grassroots movement to block the development of a coalmine in Australia’s north-east) and “There’s no Music on a Dead Planet”, which is undersigned by hundreds of music industry stakeholders to call upon the government to take urgent action on climate change. GMA’s UK equivalent, Music Declares Emergency, describe themselves as an independent group that includes individuals who have been directly inspired by, or involved in, Extinction Rebellion (XR) and Culture Declares Emergency. Their website describes the organization as “a group of artists, music industry professionals and organizations that stand together to declare a climate and ecological emergency and call for an immediate governmental response to protect all life on Earth. We believe in the power of music to promote the cultural change needed to create a better future” (www.greenmusic.org.au). Climate Music is a US organisation which aims to connect science and music to educate audiences about the negative impact of climate change. Their mission is framed diagnostically and motivationally: “We communicate a sense of urgency about the climate crisis by combining climate science with the emotional power of music to drive meaningful action … We created The Climate Music Project to harness this universal language to tell the urgent story of climate change to broad and diverse audiences in a way that resonates, educates, and motivates” (www.climatemusic.org). While not framed by individual action, these organizations arguably embrace a warrior culture in their discourse, which focuses on rousing the individual to act assertively for the common good.

The twenty-first century eco-warrior & social movement theory

The activist music and music organizations covered in this article range from the subcultural and extreme, to the commercial and mainstream, with widely varying musical styles, and yet share a common goal—to take action on environmental issues. Arguably, the more extreme styles are musical and paramusical expressions of the more extreme activism of their audiences and subcultural members, while more mainstream musical styles tend to collectivity and non-aggressive action in their adherents. Interestingly, as the musical styles explored became less extreme in their sonic footprint, so did the organizations with which they were aligned—Gojira’s endorsement of Sea Shepherd being a case in point (Munroe 2017). Examined through the CAF framework, they all enact their aims through diagnostic, prognostic and motivational frames. However, the initial definition of warrior presented at the start of this article, while reflected in extreme music and culture, is not represented by the mainstream music exemplified through XR and environmental music organizations.

Returning to the initial warrior code, listed below is the same set of characteristics, but modified to encompass the eco-warrior culture expressed by more mainstream artists and the music being adopted by XR. There is no clear divide between the two musical cultures, with the transformation being transitional and therefore overlapping. For each point, the original characteristic, as presented earlier in this article, is listed first, followed by the evolved characteristic, with added words italicized.

  • Warrior culture values aggression and/or action: Eco-Warrior culture values direct action however that action may be symbolic and is usually non-violent.

  • Warrior cultures cultures value the group and the cause over the individual, although personal reputation and integrity is highly valued:

  • Eco-Warrior cultures value the group over the individual, although personal reputation and integrity is highly valued, and a spokesperson is common and accepted. Participation in the group is holocratic and non-hierarchical.

  • Eco-Warrior culture is generally exclusionary and skeptical of outsiders: Eco-Warrior culture is generally inclusionary and proactively seeks to draw in outsiders.

  • Eco-Warrior culture is concentrated around a “code”; the adherence to an ethical or moral framework and an aspiration towards a goal.

  • Warrior culture frames its actions consequentially. In other words, the potentially ugly realities of its methods are justified by their end results which are treated as ethically negligible: Eco-warrior culture frames its actions consequentially. Consequences can be physical, but also symbolic and draw attention to a cause in a confrontational way rather than engage in violence.

  • Engaging in the cause of the warrior culture is seen as unlocking a sense of personal and cultural value which may also apply to audiences active in the virtual sphere, who understand the power of mass (social) media.

NVDA (Non-Violent Direct Action) is the modus operandi of the twenty-first century eco-warrior and the shift from the violent to the non-violent aligns with current broader societal values. Social Movement Theory provides an appropriate context in which to understand the relationship between direct action and warrior culture. While various theories surrounding social movements have emerged since the 1960s (Benford and Snow 2000; Benford 1997), there is a general consensus that there are four stages they may pass through: (1) emergence; (2) coalescence; (3) bureaucratization; and (4) decline (REF).

Within the emergence stage, while there is widespread discontent, individuals may not view problems as collective grievances nor consider they can be addressed (Pullum 2014). Thus, there is little mass organizing effort to mobilize people to action. There may, however, be individuals and smaller groups attempting to bring concerns to public attention. The Earth First! and ALF movements and their associated musical cultures fit this stage.

Once individuals recognize others with similar views and challenges, a more clearly defined sense of discontent emerges and the movement enters the coalescence stage, which is where XR and its related musical activities find their voice. During this stage, there is a collective understanding and expression of the causes of the discontent, and activists start to recruit people to their cause (Pullum 2014).

The third stage is bureaucratization, which sees the development of organizational structures, creating more resources, such as paid staff. Charities and companies may also form or adapt to align with the cause. The final stage is decline, which may be positive or negative: Positive decline occurs when new legislation or policies have been created and implemented, and so the social movement is no longer required; negative decline results from repression or dissipated momentum, with people abandoning the cause from lack of hope, results or a host of personal and social reasons (EBSCO 2009). The focus of this article has been the emergence to coalescence trajectory of the climate justice movement, as this is where we situate the eco-warrior.

The “process of articulating a movement identity” (Eyerman and Jamison 1991, 4) is called cognitive praxis. This element of Social Movement Theory emphasizes that action is preceded by the creation of knowledge, where movement intellectuals attempt to ‘rewrite’ the cognitive understandings of their social environment. This, as Ron Eyerman and Andrew Jamison (1998) argue, “is a central catalyst of broader changes in values, ideas and ways of life” (7). Music has an important role to play in knowledge creation, and as Branagan (2005) explains, its entertainment factor can lighten confronting messages. He explains that while anger is important for activism, it is not sustainable for long periods of time, and audiences also turn off if they are continually bombarded with angry emotions, being counterproductive to the movement. Music, however, can also communicate playfulness, experimentation, diversity, freedom, ambiguity and lessened obedience to authority, which can be pivotal to contributing to enduring social change. For the activists themselves, music can promote networking, aid group dynamics, enhance bonding and solidarity, prevent burnout, fortify and empower them to continue to act, and encourage further involvement.

Eyerman and Jamison (1991) argue that music is a structure of feeling, not only communicating common purpose, but also for embodying, preserving and creating the mood of the movement. As Earth First! musician Roger Featherstone highlights, individuals’ hearts also need to be captured and steered (in Branagan 2005). Eyerman and Jamison (1998) summarise:

… music, as an aspect of the cognitive praxis of social movements, has been a resource in the transformation of culture at [a] fundamental, existential level, helping reconstitute the structures of feeling, the cognitive codes, and the collective dispositions to act, that are culture. (173)

Conclusion

As the above discussion has highlighted, a particular warrior culture was reflected in the more extreme expressions of music and their arguably parallel extreme activism and environmental affiliations. Given its pre-internet context, this warrior culture was necessarily local, enabling various subcultures to emerge. The music of this period was specific, focusing mostly on diagnostic and prognostic frames that were often extreme and violent in nature. Over time, an eco-warrior culture has emerged with less aggressive and more collectivist traits, which is also reflected in less aggressive music genres. Connective technologies have allowed the global transmission of the eco-warrior message, which have also necessitated a broadened and diversified type of music. As climate change increasingly becomes a climate and ecological emergency, eco-warrior culture has focused greatly on motivational framing, focusing on the coalescence stage of social change and illuminating the global imperative evidenced by the scale and ramifications of climate change. Bureaucratization in this movement is emerging, such as Green Music Australia, but it too is working to coalesce more people into environmental action. While it is yet to be seen whether the decline stage will be reached through success or failure, it appears that music will continue to play an important role in shaping a global identity that won’t go down without a (NVDA) fight.

Background: The climate anxiety movement

In 2018, two new climate activist organizations appeared and grew rapidly. They have had some synergy with each other and have led to interactions with other organizations in shaping their approach to the climate crisis.

The first of these organizations is called Extinction Rebellion / XR. It was founded May 2018 by Rising Up! which “was formed by activists who have also been part of Compassionate Revolution, Earth First! Occupy, Plan[e] Stupid, Radical Think Tank and Reclaim the Power” with Compassionate Revolution Ltd. as its holding organization (Bradbrook 2015) in the UK. XR was not founded in a vacuum, there is a long green and alternative social movement history in Stroud where it was founded, which along with active links with Preston New Road anti-fracking campaigners (Frack Off 2018; Willmott 2018) for example continues to influence the movement. Compassionate Revolution, unusually for a SMO, had its own song and so music was an important part of its culture from the beginning (Dinesh 2016).

The second of these organizations arose from a school strike initiated by Greta Thunberg in Stockholm, Sweden (Thunberg et al. 2019). In the Swedish case this has led to the ‘Fridays For Future’ movement/FFF (began August 2018), which includes the Parents For the Future/Parents for Climate Action (originally who were people saying “I stand with Greta”), the School Strikers and various solidarish groups such as Scientists 4 Future (Germany) and FridaysForFuture JYU, which is part of Jyväskylä University staff’s response to declaring a climate emergency, that are neither parents nor school pupils, but are inspired by these actions.

Other groups XR and FFF have interacted with include: CEDAMIA (Climate Emergency Declaration and Mobilisation in Action) and CACE (Council Action in the Climate Emergency) (both set-up in Australia after the first Climate Emergency Declaration in Derebin in December 2016); Ende Gälende, a German based camp for climate action that protests via annual camps at different locations against fossil fuel (particularly lignite/brown coal) use in energy generation (with the first German camp in 2015); The Climate Mobilization (launched September 2014) which uses a war metaphor in its thinking and the Sunrise movement (started in 2017), the latter 2 of which are based in the USA.

All of these groups are relatively new, and have appeared since or during the year of the Paris Accord adoption by consensus in 2015 (Tollefson and Weiss 2015). As a result, they can be considered a product of the millennial generation. They are influenced by earlier movements and cultures of activism which include the Occupy movement (Drott 2017; Writers for the 99% 2012), Alter-globalization (Steger and Wilson 2012), the Stop the War Coalition (Murray and German 2005; cf. Roussel and Lechaux 2010) and more distantly in time anti-roads protesters such as Reclaim the Streets (Jordan 1998; Wall 2002) and anti-nuclear actions such as the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camps (Reading 2015) or X-tausendmal quer (Fischer and Boehnke 2004). Black-block anarchist practices of mass action (Gebauer and Rücker 2019) are known to their members, but equally so are Anonymous hacktivism and other forms of digital activism deriving from hacker culture (Sterling 1992). They may be considered as part of the environmental justice trend of activism and climate justice or climate citizenship concepts apply to them. These operate on a global not national nor local scale.

The climate justice movement incorporates a range of perspectives beyond just the climate, it considers ecological sustainability, decolonization, social justice and intergenerational fairness. There have been several waves of climate justice, a first wave mobilized around the Earth Summit in Rio 1992 and the poster child for that was Severn Cullis-Suzuki with an outcome of the Agenda 21 community action resulting. A second wave around 2007 began with the Live Earth concert in 2007 which was supposed to use music to catalyze action on climate change in the same way that Live Aid had done for international development in 1985 and ran till COP15 talks in 2009, when hope for meaningful political action collapsed into a failure in Copenhagen.

That failure has partially helped to create a doom mongering narrative informed by biopolitics and then a topo-political discourse. This third wave that we are in now can be called the climate anxiety wave and takes the view that we are in a hopeless situation; the degree of hopelessness varies from Bendell’s (2018) nothing to be done except grieve, though there is still some hope if we only act now of Read (2019). The place of art and specifically music in relation to this wave can be seen by how musicians have responded and the reflections of this situation in music. A dystopian future is captured in “Prayer in C” by Lilly Wood and the Prick with “when seas will cover lands, And when man will be no more… And when life will be over” (2010 release and 2014 hit). A more hopeful narrative from Paul McCartney in “Despite Repeated Warnings” tells us “Despite repeated warnings, From those who ought to know … If we can do it, we can save the day” (2018).

Data availability

Data sharing not applicable to this article as no datasets were generated or analysed during the current study.

Notes

  1. 1.

    A protest in which participants lie down as if dead.

  2. 2.

    A public lecture was given by various XR rebels across the UK explaining climate change scientifically along with motivational descriptions of NVDA prior to the initial rebellion actions (Knights, 2019). It was called, Heading for Extinction and What to do About it.

  3. 3.

    These are principally in English, however, a German translation has been made entitled Singing for Survival: A Collection of Songs and Chants for XR Action.

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All authors contributed equally to the study conception and design. The first draft of the manuscript was collaboratively written and all authors commented on previous versions of the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Donna Weston.

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Weston, D., Coutts, L. & Petz, M. Music and the twenty-first century eco-warrior. SN Soc Sci 1, 245 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s43545-021-00253-z

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Keywords

  • Eco-warrior
  • Collective action framing
  • Social movement theory
  • Eco-musicology
  • music activism