Defending Live Earth

Live Earth apparently didn’t do so well in the TV ratings, and has taken some criticism for being hypocritical and inherently flawed. I think most of it’s bogus.

I agree that the message was confused. There was no consistent Thing To Do – there was vague talk of a petition, lots of generic ‘let the government know’ messages, and a confusing array of text schemes – and plenty of the advice seemed (although actually wasn’t) generically Green rather than specifically targeting global warming. This is a shame, but nevertheless I don’t think anybody came away not understanding the point of the concert: global warming was front and centre.

Firstly, criticising the singers and celebrities involved because they’re the worst offenders is silly. International rock bands cannot travel by public transport, and nobody would watch a concert without major stars, and the concerts were carbon neutral. That’s presumably why the tickets were quite so expensive (£55 each!). I think this was done with ‘carbon offsetting’, which admittedly takes a while to have any effect. But will do eventually. It is nothing like so bad as you’d think from all the goddamn complaining. It’s one of those arguments that clearly makes people feel clever, like saying ‘how can global warming be real if they can’t even predict next week’s weather?’, but is easy to refute. That’s all your standard critical chaff. The major question is: why have the concerts in the first place?

A common complaint is that ‘everybody already knows about global warming’, so what’s the point? Well, people trying to spread the word about global warming have a problem: there are a lot of global warming skeptics out there. They come in two flavours: those who think that it’s all made up, and those who think there’s still genuine scientific debate over the role of humanity in causing the problem. Most of the former are probably not going to have their minds changed, but they’ll be affecting people who’re on the fence – ‘of course I know better’ is always an appealing attitude. The latter are simply uninformed, and can hopefully have their minds changed by the evidence. It’s also a strange thing to complain about, as the problem is nevertheless there – even if it weren’t man-made, it would still be our problem. So how do the concerts help? I think they lend gravitas to the campaign.

For all the boring complaints of ‘oh, yet another major concert’, it’s still big enough to be of interest to anyone interesting in modern music.Which is a lot of people, and most of them young. And there’ve only been three major concert in two years, so shut up. For many people global warming can seem distant and, if not unimportant, something that doesn’t affect you. Intellectually we know it exists, but it’s something that Other People deal with. A massive event such as Live Earth makes it personal: if you’re a massive Metallica fan, and you see your favourite band suggesting that maybe this is worth a look, it’ll seem more of a real thing. It’s not that people didn’t believe or know about it before, it’s that this kind of thing makes it increase in stature: it’s like following a trend on the internet, and one day seeing it on the evening news1. We knew it was cool before, but now it’s a much larger Thing, and one that now seems to matter more. Of course many people knew this intellectually, and for some reason feel patronised when somebody tries to spread the word, but we’re all affected by this kind of perception filter. Politicans, comedians, celebrities and massive rock stars all saying the same thing at nine major concerts worldwide is genuinely going to have an effect. So yes, I do think it’s worthwhile.

Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe I’m fooling myself: I was there, after all, and don’t want to think it was a wasted event. But there’s a general rule that the worthiness of a project is directly proportional to the cynicism that surrounds it. Global warming isn’t a small thing: it’s not a political issue that will fade in time. When the Live Intelletual Property Rights Concert is on at Wembley, I’ll agree things have gone too far. But this is important stuff, and saying so shouldn’t get you sneered at.

New Humanist recently ran a great (if weirdly short) interview with Richard Curtis2. He said (something like) ‘Cynics Red Nose Day never raised any money or helped anyone’, which is about right. So yeah, slag off Live Earth for all the usual reasons: vain celebrities, everybody knows already, it’s naive, blah. But these people are trying to do something good, and undoubtedly succeeding, to an extent. More people are talking about global warming today than would have otherwise. What the hell good is complaining about it?

  1. I’m thinking of podcasting, but there are plenty of others []
  2. the man is a hero, if you ask me, but is widely reviled by cynical journalists and self-important social critics – don’t get me started []