To accompany our stories about how people are responding to climate change, we looked for environmental anthems built on metaphors. These songs stretch from 1953 to 2019, from Billie Holiday to Billie Eilish, and include elemental metaphors of rain, floods, and fire.
Our mix includes rock, folk, and soul music from the birth of modern environmental consciousness. Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” was released within weeks of the first Earth Day in April 1970; Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” came out a year later. The Beatles’ “Across the Universe” first appeared as the version included here, on a 1969 benefit album for the World Wildlife Fund. The song, which John Lennon considered one of his best, looks inward and outward, to transcendental meditation and creative expression. But its chorus, “Nothing’s gonna change my world,” can also read as defiance; it inspired the album’s title, “No One’s Gonna Change Our World.”
In the 1980s, global temperatures started to rise and the threat of greenhouse gases began to attract attention. R.E.M.’s “Fall On Me,” from 1986, evokes the fear of acid rain — also caused by fossil fuels. “Buy the sky and sell the sky,” sings Michael Stipe, “and ask the sky, ‘Don’t fall on me.’” Stipe’s quietly sarcastic lyric, “We have found a way to talk around the problem,” could be voiced by frustrated climate activists today. “The Big Three Killed My Baby,” from the White Stripes’ 1999 self-titled first album, is a Detroiter’s protest against his city’s auto industry for churning out cars that don’t last and guzzle gasoline.
Two songs released in 2019, Billie Eilish’s “all the good girls go to hell” and Lana Del Rey’s “The Greatest,” mention California wildfires in lyrics about a wider sense of decline. Eilish encouraged fans to join the September 2019 climate strikes in the YouTube description of her song’s fiery video. “The River in Reverse,” the title song from Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint’s 2006 album, was written in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Today, it suggests the threat of rising seas.
Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power,” another Detroit rocker’s protest, envisions a global movement for peace, and tolerance, and environmental revival: “We can turn the world around/We can turn the Earth’s revolution.” Smith co-wrote the 1988 song with her late husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith of the MC5. Today, Smith performs the song at benefit concerts for her daughter Jesse Paris Smith’s climate-change nonprofit, Pathway to Paris.