Rocking through the Anthropocene
There are few greater cultural influences than music and during the last century some of the greatest and most influential albums have been released. These albums redefined genres and influenced popular culture.
Another tremendous shift that occurred during this century involved our climate. The planet’s climate system went from a stable system that featured CO2 concentrations below 350 ppm, considered the safe upper limit for this important greenhouse gas, to a system on track to exceed 400 ppm and temperature anomalies frequently more than 1°F above the 20th Century average. While all of this was happening, while our parents and grandparents were cruising around in their Buick or Chrysler, many landmark albums were produced. During this time, gigatons of carbon were released into the atmosphere. This is a story of the state of the climate when these albums were released, and how it has changed within mere decades.
The first album on our list is Carl Perkin’s classic Whole Lotta Shakin. Released in 1958, this album marked a transition to a more modern rock compared to the cheesy tunes of the 50’s. This year also marked the beginning of CO2 readings at Mauna Loa Hawaii as scientists became more concerned about the effects of excess carbon in our atmosphere. When the album was released, CO2 concentrations were at 316 (89 ppm lower than today) and global temperature anomalies were just +0.2°F above average. Ask your grandparents, they were probably cruising to this album, but of course also adding CO2 to the climate as they did so. A whole lotta warming was in store.
Moving into the strange decade of the 60’s, there were many prominent experimental strange and psychedelic albums. The most noteworthy of these had to have been Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The year was 1967 and the hippie movement calling for love and peace had finally made its way into mainstream music. When the album was released and controversy and debate rose about the meaning of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, readings at Mauna Loa showed a CO2 concentration that was now at 322 ppm. This was a 6 ppm increase from just 9 years before.
The strange and arguably drug influenced musical style continued into the 70’s with the release of Pink Floyd’s classic album, The Dark Side of the Moon. The year was 1973, and CO2 concentrations increased by 8 ppm more to 330 ppm. At the same time, this particular year saw a global temperature anomaly of +0.31°F.
It took until the 80’s for America to realize that the spacey psychedelic tunes of the 60’s and 70’s had come and gone. A new movement in music, one full of rhythm and soul emerged. With artists like Michael Jackson emerging onto the scene, the disco of the 70’s was transformed into groovy pop. Jackson’s explosively popular album Thriller was released in 1982. Upon its release, CO2 concentrations hovered just 9 ppm below the critical 350 ppm threshold. At 341 ppm, CO2 levels were 11 ppm higher than just the previous decade. From this point on, CO2 levels are increasing at about 1 ppm per year, and as more and more people discovered the joy of jamming to Michael Jackson in the car, on their way to work or with friends, this number continued to increase.
The 90’s were an awkward time culturally and musically. Grunge and garage rock inspired millions of punks to spike their hair and rip their jeans. At the same time, the world had become serious about reducing its CO2 emissions. In 1992, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted. At the same time, Nirvana released its album Nevermind. History shows that the United States ultimately stepped out of the Kyoto Protocol, an extension of UNFCCC, and said never mind to committing itself to global climate action. At the time of this legendary 90’s album, the threshold of 350 ppm was surpassed. With a CO2 level at 356 ppm, there was a 15 ppm increase from the previous decade. Global temperatures were beginning to respond as well, climbing to 0.47°F above average. From here on, the main driver of the climate change was human activity.
As quickly as it came, the 20th century went. This passage of time allowed for yet more unique genres and a growing underground scene. A particular musical duo used synth pop influences to describe an increasingly technological world. Daft Punk released their album Discovery in 2001. It was beyond its time as it featured a full array of electronic instruments from the synth to the drums, the music scene had clearly changed. At the same time, C02 levels continued to increase. At 371 ppm, CO2 concentrations had risen 15 ppm in a single decade. Global temperatures also continued to climb, moving dangerously close to the 1°F mark at 0.99°F above average.
The early 2000’s came and went, musical trends changed and our climate began to truly show signs of changing. In response to the lack of political action on climate change, the musical scene assumed a role as leaders and communicators of critical environmental ideas. In 2010 The Gorillaz released their concept album Plastic Beach. This album was a response to the excesses and pollution caused by a consumerist society. With strange musical styles and hard hitting lyrics, the album was an instant success. CO2 levels at this point were approaching a new milestone, 400 ppm. At 390 ppm, 19 ppm higher than the previous decade, the globe was entering a climate system unseen in millions of years. Temperature anomalies were 1.26°F above average.
Our story ends in 2016 with David Bowie’s mysterious album Black Star. Shortly before his death, Bowie released one final album. While people were speculating whether or not he predicted his own death with the song Lazarus, CO2 levels did something they hadn’t done in a very long time. They surpassed the 400 ppm mark. At 404. ppm, CO2 levels increased 14 ppm from 2010, and 2016 was the warmest year on record at +1.71°F above the average.
Now we sit at a crossroads. You wouldn’t tell based on my generation’s party themed music complete with hard base drops and catchy lyrics, but the climate is in grave danger. We are moving into a climate system not seen on Earth for 50 million years. Now we wait as temperatures continue to catch up.
Temperature data obtained from NOAA National Centers for Environmental information, Climate at a Glance
Carbon dioxide data obtained from NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory, Global Monitoring Division