Taking the first step

On July 7 this year, the Live Earth rock concerts will be held on all seven continents. They aim to promote awareness of global warming, but can music really change the world? Dan Hancox talks to their official spokesman, Yusef Robb.

Can rock concerts change the world? It is a question that was asked repeatedly last summer when “Live 8” asked for a mass movement to fight global poverty. This time around the question being asked is “can rock concerts save the world?”

On July 7 this year (07/07/07) concerts on all seven continents will be held to promote global awareness of climate change, and kick off “a multimedia mass persuasion campaign.” Pop stars from Madonna to Shakira, from The Police to Snoop Dogg will perform at concerts held from Shanghai to Rio de Janeiro.

I spoke to Live Earth’s official spokesperson Yusef Robb about reducing the event’s carbon footprint, educating rock stars and changing the day-to-day behaviour of the entire world…

chinadialogue: How do you see the Live Earth concerts pushing the green agenda forward in the music industry?

Yusef Robb: We not only want Live Earth to drive people to be a part of the solution, we want the concerts themselves to be part of the solution. We are ensuring that Live Earth will have as low a carbon footprint as possible. We hope that the protocols we develop and follow in Live Earth will form a blueprint for future live events around the world.

cd: And presumably this is why you’ve launched the ‘Green Event Standard’, to set a benchmark for future concerts?

YR: That’s right. People think of live events as one-offs, but of course they’re happening everywhere every day – maybe the circus is in town today but not tomorrow, but it’s going to be in another town, and something else is going to be in its spot.

cd: How will this work in practice?

YR: Working side-by-side with our production staff are “sustainability engineers.” So when the stage producer says “we need x watts of power, the sustainability engineer finds solutions for on-site power generation, or sources green power produced by the sun or the wind. Another example might be that the stage designer says “I want these wonderful-looking purple lights”, to which the sustainability engineer steps up and says “well here’s a different kind of light bulb that uses less energy.

But we’re covering a broad spectrum. We’re encouraging people to take mass transit to our shows, looking at how we power and light our shows, looking at what containers our concessions will be served in… we’re trying to “design out” the carbon from every aspect of our production. As a last resort we will offset [using “carbon offsets” such as tree-planting]. The reality is you can’t completely zero the carbon out, otherwise we’d all stay at home.

Our first priority is to design out the use of carbon in our concerts: carbon offsets are great, but we believe they should only be used when there’s no other alternative. For example, we’re not going to sail from Los Angeles to the London show; we’re going to be taking an airplane because there is no other alternative. So we’ll be offsetting that travel. But in a choice between an incandescent light bulb and a compact fluorescent light bulb, we’ll be going for the latter.

cd: You mentioned sustainability engineers earlier: do you think this kind of job description is one that is going to become more common? I doubt there was such a thing as a sustainability engineer10 or 20 years ago!

YR: I think it’s great that Live Earth is creating this kind of job description: there will now be people with expertise in rock and roll stage lighting that is kind to the environment – that’s a pretty niche role! And we want to have people all across the world, from all walks of life, to do just as the artists have done: stand up and say “this is a priority to me” – and also to force the corporations they do business with, and the governments that represent them, to take the steps we need.

It’s rather ridiculous, we think, that we’re using essentially the same internal combustion engine as we were in 1900. The same goes for the light bulbs we’re using. So what we want to do is get this massed group of people to stand up and say “this is important to me” and the markets will respond.

cd: What materials are being prepared to go alongside the entertainment side of Live Earth?

YR: As well as the book by David de Rothschild [The Live Earth Global Warming Survival Handbook”], there will be lots of information and materials available on the web – lots of it coming from our NGO partners. The Alliance for Climate Protection is really a consortium of many organisations.

We’re also working with an organisation that produces official school curricula for thousands and thousands of schools around the world, and we’re working with them to develop curricula around the climate crisis, which we think is a great way to reach kids but also to reach their parents.

cd: How are you communicating this message to the artists performing at Live Earth? Will you be gently advising them not to take their entourages in extra private jets to the shows, for example?

YR: We’re working closely with our artists in providing them with information and tips on how they themselves can reduce their carbon footprints. Live Earth is not only going to be inspiring people around the world, but also the people we’re working directly with – whether that be artists, or our corporate partners, who are pledging to enact environmental measures. That also extends to our staff here at Live Earth: we’re now using recycled paper for our press releases, we’re using reusable cups at the water cooler, new light bulbs in the office.

We really want this to be a starting point for everybody. We’re not interested in throwing stones at past sins, we’re looking for people’s commitments to moving forward.

cd: If these concerts are supposed to see the initiation of a global movement – as has often been said – how do you foresee the movement developing after the dust settles following the 7 July concerts?

YR: We see it as a multimedia mass-persuasion campaign. Live Earth is about bringing together a huge group of people, and engaging them in actions against global warming. And once someone’s taken that first step – i.e. Live Earth – people need to be reminded to take a second step, third step, and so on. And that’s what Al Gore’s group, the Alliance for Climate Protection, will do.

cd: So they will pick up the baton after 7 July?

YR: Exactly. And they will use some of the same messaging and branding and music from Live Earth to ensure that there’s continuity in that message. So just as Coca-Cola has its ‘message’ on television adverts, billboards, websites, radio ads… so will this mass persuasion campaign: Save Our Selves has commissioned 60 short films about the issues; we have a book coming out; obviously there is the music and television from the Live Earth concerts; and we’ve also commissioned global public service announcements for TV and radio with celebrities.

Live Earth is the kick-off party for an ongoing campaign. So maybe on 7 July the call to action will be quite simple: “change your light bulb”, or “adjust your thermostat – things like that. But making that first step opens you up to taking that second step. Think about it in rock and roll terms, The Beatles are a perfect example: when they started they were making poppy music for 12-year-old girls, and six years later they’re hardcore hanging out with Ravi Shankar, taking god-knows-what and making full-on rock and roll. You get a little bit of a taste, you take the first step and the next thing you know you’re barrelling down the highway. And that’s what Live Earth’s about: getting people to take that first step.

Dan Hancox is a London-based journalist and blogger, writing for The Guardian, New Statesman, The Word, and a variety of music blogs.

Homepage photo by Gaetan Lee