07 July 2007

Singing in the dark

I'm a great fan of concerts. I'm a great fan of saving the planet. I'm a great fan of anything that raises awareness and anger with respect to the plight of the third world poor. But I do get a feeling that concerts in support of causes have now eclipsed the causes themselves.

It strikes me as tragic that we have to spend millions on a large entertainment event to raise money for the starving ... but if that's what it takes, then I'll not gainsay it.

Today's Live Earth concerts around the world are, no doubt well intentioned. For not one moment do I doubt that some of the artists involved are giving of themselves entirely out of commitment to the cause (though I am equally sure that some others are in it purely because it's a good career move). But the amount of environmental damage which they will cause either directly or as acts, organisers and attendees swarm across the planet to reach them, is hair raising. And how many people who attend, or watch on television, will go beyond the music to "change four light bulbs", or buy a smaller engine car, or make more use of public transport, when they return to their daily lives?

I truly hope that the environmental pay off will be enough to make the cost insignificant - but I'm not holding my breath. But many (AL Gore amongst them) would point out to me that that isn't the point - the point is produce an awareness tipping point and produce a cultural shift in attitudes ... and, I have to agree, to pull that off would be worth all the temporary cost (and all the hype, and all the hypocrisy, too).

So, in a hypocrisy of my own, I will boycott Live Earth myself while passionately hoping that such a tipping point will indeed be created. Whether it succeeds or fails, I really do believe that we need to find other ways of achieving social ends than pouring millions of dollars, millions of human commitment hours, kilotonnes of atmospheric carbon, untold kilowatt hours, into concerts.

Many of the teenagers I know "collect" wrist bands ... but ask one of them about the important causes represented by those on her/his wrist (breast cancer, make poverty history, save the whale...) and you may too often get a shrug or an embarrassed but honest admission that "I don't know". They teenagers are not bad or callous; on the contrary: most of them are overflowing with idealism yearning for an opportunity to be of use.. They just don't (like most people) have any real idea of what starvation, or breast cancer, or a whale, is. A concert is not going to change that.

Truth to tell, the only reason I am committed to causes is that I was brought up face to face with them by chance currents of my life. My childhood showed me the slums of Calcutta and Mumbai; my employment (to cut a long list short) dropped me into the middle of the Ethiopian famines. Otherwise, I would be unaware and uncaring.

I have never, personally, known anyone who actually saw what any of these causes is about and came away unchanged. And by personal testimony they change a certain number of other people with whom they come into contact. But they are a vanishingly small minority. If there were more of them, there would be more awareness. I reckon if they were 5% of the a developed world population, a tipping point would have been reached.

Every year, British charity Comic Relief puts on what my US friends would call a telethon. All the acts from Live Aid and Live Earth are there - but, interspersed, there are short films of celebrities visiting real places: slum kids picking a living from rubbish tips, refugees dying in Darfur, AIDS victims ... and the rest. Despite my dislike for the cult of celebrity, many of these are doing a good job - using their celebrity, and the entertainment, to focus public eyes at home onto unwelcome sights which need to be seen. How much better if the other senses could also be brought into focus as well: if people from home could be placed in the same context.

I have this fantasy (in both quality and likelihood of fulfillment, a bit like Simon & Garfunkel's Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream). In this fantasy, all the money spent on concerts for good causes is redirected towards placing people in contact with the cause itself.

Perhaps buying a wristband, or a badge, or whatever, buys you a lottery ticket - and the prize is to be given a free exposure to your chosen cause ... whatever. This is a fantasy - details can be ignored. However it is organised, my fantasy has breast cancer clinics, humanitarian aid flights, scientific teams travelling to the arctic icemelt, homeless hostels, etc, making available just one place for an ordinary citizen of the US or EU to spend time (a month, perhaps) at the sharp end, seeing what the cause really means. Not specially created places, please note - special flights to a famine zone or to the arctic would be another waste of money (have you any idea how much famine aid can be bought for the price of one conventional air ticket to Africa, never mind all those air miles of carbon footprint?) and would defeat the whole object. The costs of this are, in my fantasy, met partly by the costs no longer poured into concerts ... but partly also by governments, perhaps as partial alternatives to military conscription.

It's a wonderful fantasy. I spend many happy hours there. But now - back to the real world and doing something concrete towards a better world instead of just dreaming about it.

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