A worm tells summer better than the clock,
The slug’s a living calendar of days;
What shall it tell me if a timeless insect
Says the world wears away?

Dylan Thomas - Here in this Spring

Some of you already know, and many will have suspected it for a while, knowing me as a sensitive viola-da-gamba-playing kind of guy. But I feel that it’s high time for me to say it publicly.

Yes, that’s right.

I’m an environmentalist. 

A Gaia lover.

What's so special about admitting you're an environmentalist, you ask? 

Nothing, really. Let alone in the mad and worrying world of 2017. People have been particularly open about it in the West since the 1960s, and not just the hippies. Governments are finally showing active commitment to the environment globally and are shamed if they don't. And there are indigenous communities  whose harmonious co-existence with Mother Earth has been rooted in the core of their being for millennia. The reason I'm writing this now, speaking of harmonious co-existence, is that I’m not only an environmentalist but also a professional classical musician. Being both of those together is difficult. It's difficult in particular because we musicians are required to tour all over the world, often in gas-guzzling aeroplanes, in order to make a living from our noble and privileged task of transforming and elevating the passing present moment through sound. 

It’s now normal for whole UK orchestras to fly to China or New York for a mere 24 highly air-polluting and - especially in Beijing - air-polluted hours, several of which are spent being frisked in customs, and one or two spent doing a jet-lagged gig which just might move and transport a lucky audience to a place far more beautiful than the other side of the globe. I’ve done the New York hop as part of a London-based full symphony orchestra, and spent twice as much time sorting the visa as doing the trip. At least I got a free t-shirt. I have also done an orchestral tour through Europe where we were required to fly back to the UK after every gig so the company could avoid having to pay hotel fees on the continent. As an approximate guide, a n individual's round trip from Europe to New York generates approximately the same carbon emissions as an average EU citizen does heating their home for the whole year. When one factors in the suspected significant effects of contrails  and the obvious unbudgeted costs to musicians in terms of exhaustion and jet lag, and then multiplies them by 20 for a small orchestra, or 50-80 for a full symphony orchestra, our industry's current attitude towards flying strikes me as an unjustifiable price to pay for our beloved art. It seems an ethical choice out of tune with the global picture in which we are all players.

This regrettable norm is set against the backdrop of steadily growing commitment to the greening of the arts in general.  Julie’s Bicycle based in London and The Green Arts Initiative in Scotland work closely with some of the UK’s well-known music venues and organisations.  Art Not Oil  was a major force behind London Southbank Centre's dropping of Shell's fossil-fuelled sponsorship in 2014. Art Not Oil is currently, supported by the likes of Margaret Atwood and Mark Ruffalo , putting pressure on the British Museum to find alternatives to BP's sponsorship.  Culture Unstained  has just launched its  Fossil Free Tickets campaign for alternatives to the RSC’s BP-sponsored £5 tickets and found high-profile support from the likes of Mark Rylance, Mark Ruffalo, Emma Thompson & Vanessa Redgrave:

"In the end individuals will make the difference. We must individually stop supporting those who, like BP, deny by their actions that humans and many other living beings are facing a mortal crisis of global warming. This ticket scheme allows young people who wish to attend a Shakespeare
play to do so without being associated with BP." (Mark Rylance, quoted on Fossil Free Tickets Twitter feed , 03/06/2017.) 

Within the classical music community in particular there is  Zero Emission Baroque Orchestra in Italy, and there are various current creative projects with climate issues as their theme. But - forgive me if I'm wrong - my general impression is of a classical music industry with its head in the clouds far more than its hands are in the compost, even as many members of the community feel deep concern for our environment but feel trapped within the status quo.

And that’s the main problem: most often the justification for the unsustainable status quo is that well-paid one-off New York gigs and fossil fuel sponsors help substantially to keep UK classical music's budgets afloat, most of which are melting in the heat of the funding cuts like icebergs. Of course, talking of budgets, how on Mother Earth are we to put a reasonable price on the true value of a musical masterpiece life-transformingly performed on the one hand, and the true value to us of our life-sustaining environment on the other? Yet my great fear is that, unless the western classical music community greens its act, as the oceans acidify, the bees die, the crops fail, and humans fight each other for what we can get, all but the most lucky or socially inconsiderate will revise their mental budget sheet and reduce the potential huge and universal value of classical music to that of a mere expensive privilege bought by the few from the less fortunate. And then where will we all be?

On the one hand, western classical music with its air of elitism has often been guilty as charged. Over the centuries, almost all great composers, music organisations and musicians have depended on the patronage of aristocrats and other wealthy individuals whose priorities will likely not have been impeccably clean ethical and environmental standards, and who therefore have factored into their patronage regrettable costs to less fortunate humans one way or another. Today, the highest quality live performance unavoidably costs a huge amount to put on, even when it’s not Mahler’s Symphony Of A Thousand or Stockhausen’s Helicopter String Quartet. The biggest portion of any music budget is rarely covered by the punters’ pounds and therefore still depends heavily on private and public sponsorship for which the argument can easily (but not always wisely) be made that these funds would be better spent sustaining struggling schools, hospitals and nursing homes. 

On the other hand, the classical music community has worked wonders as a force for social inclusion and cohesion - a tradition going at least as far back as Handel and the Foundling Hospital . The last few decades in particular have witnessed not only the development of high-profile projects such as El Sistema and Buskaid but also the growing commitment of most performing orchestras and music organisations to inspirational education and outreach programmes. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s Education arm , and  Spitalfields Music  come to mind. This tradition sustains western classical music, often as it confidently embraces other music traditions, as an invaluable unifying, uplifting and moderating social and spiritual force in a world where the extremes political, social and environmental are currently winning. Yet it requires very little imagination to see how, if this tradition is to stay alive, the classical music community and industry must recognise the social and spiritual implications of a changing climate and pro-actively account for them before the tipping point is reached, leaving classical music high and dry, isolated by its inaction on climate change from the overwhelming needs of the rest of the world and meaningful to the few only for the heavy price of guilt or shame. 

Perhaps there are some ways for musicians and the industry to reduce the environmental cost of our vocation, without incurring any huge cost to self or organisation. Perhaps there are even added benefits. By the end of this Summer 2017, I will in 18 months have opted instead of flying to travel overland, cello or viol in tow, to and from concerts in Austria, Poland, Italy, Switzerland and around ten locations across Germany and France. Travelling by train I will have used significantly less CO2 as opposed to flying, in some cases paying less than for plane tickets, in some cases paying a little more. Instead of passing my hours sweating through airport security, I have wound through glorious Alpine landscapes, spent a few quiet minutes in Cologne Cathedral, relished fresh croissants in Paris, read books, listened to music, studied music scores, occasionally had a delayed train like people occasionally have delayed planes, eaten the best waffle of my life in Brussels, caught up on boring but necessary admin, picked up tongue-burningly strong Swiss cheese on my way down to Italy, stopped off with friends in Berlin, and occasionally, where time and costs allowed, stayed on after a gig to discover a new place. This Spring I stayed on in Florence for a weekend, regretting nothing except my decision - acting on my conviction that if you’re going to kill an animal you should use every last bit of it - to try the tripe.

Yet I’m fully aware of the hidden and often unbudgetable costs that offset my enjoyment of travelling overland instead of flying: time not spent at home with my wonderful wife, cats and less attractive housework on the occasions when the overland option takes longer than the flight would have done; time taken by orchestral administrators to deal with my email requesting to opt out of flights and receive instead a train travel allowance; time not spent hanging out with musician friends and colleagues on travel days. And on the occasions when I am invited to play concerts - particularly single gigs - outside of Europe for which flying is inevitable, what do I do then, caught between love of the music, loyalty to the groups I play with, and determination to live my life without perpetuating the extractivism of earlier generations? 

And so, seeing as things become easier when they become a norm, my hope is that these thoughts will find resonance with some people reading this. I hope that you might also be prepared to help develop and amplify them in order that we can inspire outward-thinking sponsors to support the greening of our fragile art for the sake of our fragile environment, accepting the inevitable additional costs as integral parts of the engaged and engaging classical music community of the future, just as we now do the costs of outreach and education work. Sponsors must be pro-active in helping the classical music community to evolve out of the current status quo; but the classical music community must also whole-heartedly demonstrate its commitment to the environment if it is to have a hope of attracting the sponsorship of the pioneering big green industries - electric vehicles, clean energy, ethical investment - whose future it is, if it is anyone’s . Here's a thought: imagine an ensemble whose music-making has moved audiences and impressed critics, which has engaged in excellent outreach and education projects and shown real commitment to the environment. What message might that give out to a prospective concert promoter anxious to demonstrate not only artistic quality but also broader reach and relevance to sponsors?

So please use these handy buttons on the left to share, like or comment on this page on your preferred social media platform if you also share my wish that our classical music community commits to

a.) avoiding single gigs on the other side of the world, at least as long as flying is unsustainably dependent on fossil fuel;
b.) reducing the general environmental impact of classical music. 

This could be by:

developing live-screening events such as those from the New York Met,  the Berlin Phil’s digital concert halleven though no amount of technology can ever truly replicate the electricity of live performance; 

pursuing orchestral residency / orchestral house swap programmes enabling foreign orchestras to spend longer abroad in a single place and thereby reduce the number of flights per gig;

making train travel the default travel option to concerts within Europe (here’s hoping that UK groups still get gigs in Europe after Brexit): this is ever easier with the steady expansion of the Eurostar network and websites such as Loco2 and The Man in Seat Sixty-One  but ideally requires a neater arrangement with Eurostar for transportation of big instruments such as cellos and double basses; 

offsetting carbon emissions of musicians' travel by default: this is obviously not a perfect solution but far better than not doing it;

supporting fossil fuel divestment from all arts funding (for a start, click here );

pursuing sponsorship from green businesses and ethical banks;

fostering little mini-festivals in villages, towns and cities across the UK, often run by musicians and tight-knit teams of volunteers and sponsors within a few miles of their homes, as a healthy model of non-touring, site-specific, community-centred, potentially world-class music in a local area; 

greening concert halls and rehearsal spaces with the basics of an uncertain resources future: i.) solar panels and turbines for clean energy; ii.) water butts and grey-water filters for taps and toilets; iii.) retro-fitted heat insulation; iv.) reduced size and use of paper programmes; v.) fair trade and sustainable food products in concert venue cafés and bars; vi.) recyclable food packaging such as Vegware ; vii.) composting toilets and waste food & paper wormeries for fertilising bee-friendly herb-, veg- and fruit-laden roof-top gardens similar to those on London’s Southbank Centre

funding compositions, education and outreach projects exploring the theme of climate change and the environment: a song cycle for bees; a Four Seasons for a changing climate ...

As far as I’m concerned, this isn't simply about the goal of “saving the environment”, whatever that is supposed to mean. There is no definable end achievement to aim for (what does 2 degrees actually mean, even if we achieve it?) and no denying that the current general trend is downwards for almost everything except the sea level and the average global temperature. I also sincerely hope that my frequent flyer friends and colleagues don't feel preached at by my writing this: I know that our first job as musicians is to share our music with people, and that there is no simple formula for making sense of our world. Yet I can't escape the belief that through active commitment to our environment the classical music community can help to sustain our world’s failing health, and itself, for the benefit of future generations; and that so doing we will also transform and elevate the passing present moment into a more beautiful thing by investing it with our care and humanity in a way which speaks volumes to those who choose to give their attention to it. 

Am I wrong, or is that not what we musicians do best?

Jonathan Rees, 9 June 2017

Let me know your thoughts here

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Arts fossil fuel divestment campaigns to support and follow

Culture Unstained
Fossil Free Tickets on Twitter
Fossil Free Tickets Crowdfunder
Art Not Oil

For train travel in Europe and Worldwide

Loco2: The site for train travel across Europe
The Man in Seat Sixty-One: The other site for train travel acros Europe

Other sites

El Sistema
Sistema England
Foundling hospital
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment Education
Spitalfields Music
New York Met's Livestream
Berlin Phil's Digital Concert Hall
Zebo (Zero Emission Baroque Orchestra)
Julie’s Bicycle
Green Arts Initiative Scotland