THE LIVE Earth concerts over the July 7-8 weekend were an easy target for cynics. Many sneered at the hypocrisy of self-indulgent rock stars like Madonna - termed a "climate-change catastrophe" with her nine houses, fleet of cars and private jet - promoting a more modest lifestyle. Others criticised the absence of clear goals, and the ubiquitous presence of preening politician Al Gore. They may have rocked the world, the pundits said, but they did little to change it.
Which is more absurd - the fact that we expect rock stars to change the world, or that we no longer expect politicians to do so?
In many ways, the criticism aimed at Live Earth was not an indictment of the concerts themselves, but of the world they sought to change. In an interview with Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper before the event, Gore explained why he had given up on politics as a vehicle for saving the environment: "The problem with the political system is that it's so mortgaged to self-interested lobbies that the rules of logic and reason no longer apply. We have to build a grassroots movement to make changes."
What this means - beyond the fact that state capture is far from only a Slovak phenomenon - is that the only way of getting governments to accept emissions caps and other green legislation is to get people around the world to demand it. And the way to get people to demand it is to convince them that not doing so is dangerous, short-sighted and wrong. In other words, to appeal both to their self-interest and their sense of justice.
This kind of shift in public perception cannot be achieved overnight. It requires creating a tension in society through films, concerts, media coverage, advertising campaigns and local events until people begin to ask: Why isn't anything being done about this? The recent anti-terrorism hysteria has shown us how much can be achieved in a short time, and what kinds of inconveniences (travel restrictions and high fuel prices) and rights violations (Guantanamo, "renditions", domestic surveillance) people are willing to put up with to combat a relatively insignificant threat. How much more would they put up with, and how much more cheerfully, if it were a matter of saving the planet?
The Live Earth event thus has to be seen in context, not ridiculed for failing to produce change immediately. It is part of a longer campaign to make people sufficiently uneasy enough about the environment that they demand action. It also cannot be compared to similar but failed events in the past, such as Live Aid and Live 8, which sought to relieve poverty and famine in the Third World; by contrast, the environment is a direct concern wherever you live.
The Live Earth message, with its emphasis on justice and its anti-establishment undertone, is ideally suited to rock music. The fact that it sounded hollow in the mouths of Madonna or Snoop Dogg did not reduce the importance or impact of that message; it merely highlighted what a bloated and gutless swamp the music industry has become since the heyday of Bob Dylan.
Likewise, the media reception that message received would have driven Cassandra to drink (Cassandra was cursed by Apollo with prophesying correctly but never being believed). As one Slovak commentator observed, "if the only result of all of this was that people learned to buy energy efficient light bulbs and to spend less time in the shower, then that's not much for an international show". Actually, if the concerts achieve that, they will have been a brilliant success.
Politics may be hostage to lobby groups, but journalism is just as clearly hostage to cynicism. For the environment, one is as bad as the other.
By Tom Nicholson
16. Jul 2007 at 0:00