Björk’s Fearless Environmental Activism
If you had to hazard a guess at the people Björk considers an inspiration, you might go down the obscure-Scandinavian-folk-hero route. Or maybe the daring-feminist-culture-jammer avenue. You probably wouldn’t immediately think of the octogenarian naturalist David Attenborough.
In a world where artists do themselves no financial favours by voicing critical political sentiments, Björk’s iconoclastic position and perspective is almost unique. Despite having made zero concessions to commerciality in her music, she has sold millions of albums, and remains as vital today as she was a quarter of a century ago.
But while her relentless boundary pushing as an artist has undoubtedly given her the platform she has, Björk has consistently chosen to use it to champion an environmentalist perspective. And although avant-pop musicians are generally not renowned for being nature-hating, tyre-burning petrol heads, Björk’s forthright and steadfast advocacy still stands out like a gleaming, glorious wind turbine in a sour-faced Home Counties retirement village.
Björk has been a vocal critic of the Icelandic Prime Minister’s plans to push through industrial development in the wild highlands of the country, describing him and other senior politicians as ‘rednecks’ for their bullish approach to an area that many Icelanders consider serenely sacred. Along with a handful of other high-profile artists such as Thom Yorke, and more recently ANOHNI, Björk has leant her voice to campaigns looking to build public and political momentum around climate change, telling Rolling Stone magazine at the tail end of 2015 that although we should have switched gear 50 years ago, “this is our last, last, last chance to do it now. I’m an optimist. I think we can still do it…”
Her advocacy is unusual and inspiring, but it is the way in which she has integrated her environmental passion into her creative catalogue that is even more remarkable. Björk’s admiration for Sir David Attenborough’s slow reveal on the beauty and fragility of the natural world culminated in a 2013 documentary exploring the relationship between music, nature and technology, When Björk met Attenborough.
The encounter is pretty bizarre: if you ever wanted to have the world’s most out-there science teacher and her indulgent grandfather explain why music, maths and the deep structure of the natural world are basically the same thing, then this is definitely the documentary for you. Attenborough says that the range in our vocal chords is way beyond what we need for everyday, functional talking, which suggests that singing could have developed prior to speaking in early humans – Björk quips that this means we’re all born free-jazz singers.
It’s kind of awkward, but it’s also – like so much of Björk’s work – a peculiarly beautiful thing, and part of the sprawling suite of inter-connected outputs that comprised her Biophilia (‘love of nature’) phase, at the centre of which was the beautiful/brutal Biophilia album, a complex audio artefact that aimed to join the dots between music and the natural world via some pretty niche apps. If that sounds like just another vehicle for an arch-experimenter to conduct her creative alchemy in, then Björk had one eye on a very pragmatic aim: translating the Biophilia concept into a set of teaching materials that were used across Scandinavia.
One of her most recent interventions was to cancel her performance at Iceland Airwaves festival at the tail end of 2015, and then replace her show with a press conference alongside Icelandic conservationist Andri Snaer Magnason, calling for an emergency national park to be created to prevent the development of an energy pipeline in Iceland’s highlands exporting volcanically-heated power to the UK and elsewhere. Björk said: “I’ve decided to put all my energy into Iceland and all my time away from my music I’ve put into this battle…I can be more valuable here in Iceland and get more done than…if I were to fly around the world and fight global warming.”
Her comment zeroes in on a catch 22 for many musicians, or any other high-profile figure with a global audience, international engagements, and an eye-wateringly high carbon footprint to go with it. In the same way that no-one likes hearing lectures on poverty alleviation from tax-dodging smarm-bots like Bono, there is a sense that messages about curbing carbon are not best delivered fresh from the airport. Perhaps as a result, it is much easier for artists – visual or musical – to engage with tangible events and injustices.
"Björk has not only given something of herself to the campaigns she has supported, she has also engaged creatively with climate change"
Björk’s preference for concentrating her advocacy on a battle that is concrete, and in principle winnable, reflects the vast majority of environmental campaigning. Over several decades, a pretty predictable formula has been perfected: mobilise public opinion around some new infrastructure, a particularly offensive polluter, or a ‘moment’ in the global political calendar. But while this kind of ‘take action, solve the problem’ approach is great for some kinds of single-issue campaigns (like banning plastic bags) where there’s an obvious end-goal in sight, it doesn’t really cut it for the diffuse, abstract, and much more important problems like climate change.
Here, artists can arguably contribute something significantly more powerful than licensing their tracks to a Greenpeace compilation, or sticking some solar panels on their tour bus. They can help create a social reality, and a cultural meaning for climate change that is strangely, troublingly absent. No matter how many handwringing scientists tell us that we’re sleepwalking into uncharted territory, it doesn’t feel like much is up. Our rational brain says “shit, we really need to get this sorted out”, and our infinitely more appealing emotional brain argues the opposite. “Don’t worry”, it purrs, “if things were really that bad, it’d be all anyone was talking about on the news; popular culture would be screaming it back to us…”
But it isn’t, and that’s the problem, more than the minor hypocrisy of jet-setting artists extolling the virtues of a simpler life. What Björk’s multi-layered advocacy and creative engagement with environmentalism does is crucial: it is that rare thing, a cultural signal to our limited, hazy, attention spans that this is something we need to be thinking about.
Björk’s position is unusual precisely because, in her own sideways kind of way, she has not only given something of herself to the campaigns she has supported, but also engaged creatively with climate change – the thing that we keep telling ourselves is the defining issue of the 21st Century, but that you’d struggle to detect in the fossil record of 21st Century popular culture.
Check out the rest of Björk: In Focus, an exploration and celebration of our September cover star