Music and climate change

Connecting dots between tar sands, NE Conservatory

WHEN I WAS 14 YEARS OLD, I decided I would become a professional musician because it had nothing to do with oil. I was born in Fort McMurray, Alberta, home to Canada’s notorious tar sands and the world’s third largest oil reserve. For a time, I lived in a neighborhood called Petrolia. Our hero was Wayne Gretzky of the Edmonton Oilers. The McDonalds had a pumpjack in the playground.

Since then, the tar sands have grown into one of the largest industrial projects in the world, and I’ve become a professional musician. At the New England Conservatory, I prepare the next generation of musical leaders. On the surface, there isn’t much that connects my two lives. But a few years ago, clashes over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline made Fort McMurray front page news as the source of the “dirty oil” to be carried through the United States to the Gulf of Mexico. The images of surface mining were shocking. Vast lakes of toxic process water. The biggest trucks in the world. The earth skinned alive – all underway in my hometown.

It’s time to connect the dots. The evidence is in on the human causes of climate change. Exxon knew in 1977. I’ve known since I was 14. But for most of my life I used music like a shield. When the news troubled me, I’d tell myself that my response would be, as Leonard Bernstein used to say, “to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” But as I prepare my students to enter a precarious profession on a precarious planet, I know this is not enough.

Music is an instrument of change, and we are all musicians. Singing, playing, whistling, choosing a song to change your mood: these are musical acts. We use music to know our place in the world. We use music to pierce the veil of the everyday and shape the world in which we wish to live. So I’ve begun to tell a new story about music and oil.

In 2016, I went back to Fort McMurray for the first time since my childhood. I stood in uncomfortable places: in a wood-paneled kitchen as a fisherman incanted the names of lost species like the names of friends who’d passed on; on the porch of a woman who listed the neighbors who’d died of rare cancers; at the counter of the local Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment, requesting a report on my stepbrother’s death in a pipeline explosion when I was 11 years old. I spoke with people on all sides of the issues: engineers, oil patch workers, indigenous elders, activists, and members of my own family. And I’ve been weaving their stories, and mine, into the conversation I’d longed to hear.

Warren Senders and his man with a sign campaign.

Many people in Alberta don’t want to talk about oil. The oil and gas sector is the province’s largest industry, and when you pull on the thread, the social fabric puckers. People are pragmatic: there’s a global demand for the energy we produce, and the Canadian economy depends on it. People have pride: for many families, like mine, oil has paved the road to a better life.

What can any of us, musicians or otherwise, do about oil and climate change? If you want to change the world, you might as well start with yourself.

Recognize your own climate denial. The cynical claim, “there’s nothing I can do” and “I won’t be around to see it happen” are forms of denial. The impacts of climate change are happening now.

Change your story. When I thought that music had nothing to do with oil, I saw climate change as a story that was happening to someone else. Now I see that it’s the story of my life.

History is a weapon against hopelessness. History is full of examples of seemingly hopeless causes (same sex marriage, voting rights for women) and cultural shifts (tobacco, women in the workplace). We are in the midst of a revolution of energy consciousness and energy alternatives. To believe things are hopeless is to ignore our own story.

Meet the Author

Tanya Kalmanovitch

Professor, New England Conservatory
Every weekday morning at rush hour, my New England Conservatory colleague Warren Senders stands at Medford’s Roosevelt Circle. He does his daily vocal practice while holding a sign that says “Climate Change Is Real.” He is 177 weeks into his “man with a sign” campaign. Maybe you see him as you drive by. Maybe you don’t. It’s easy enough to write off artists and activists as dreamers, out of touch with reality.

But we are all musicians. 

Tanya Kalmanovitch is a musician and New England Conservatory professor who was recently named to the Grist 50, a curated list of environmental innovators, in recognition of her Tar Sands Songbook, a documentary project about growing up in the early days of the industrial mining of Canada’s Athabasca Oil Sands.