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Beetles and Birds

Sitting in the morning sun on the front porch of my house next to the Cascadilla Gorge in Ithaca, New York earlier this week, I listened to a cardinal singing to the accompaniment of the rushing creek below. The duet was interrupted by the sound of a plane overhead. For the first time in weeks the sky was not only blue but also scarred by a jet contrail.

The nearly silent roadways and empty skies are now as they should be in a rational world in which climate catastrophe would be recognized as an existential threat greater—albeit on a longer timescale—than that of the Corona virus. Even in the short term, the effect of vastly lower emissions has been beneficial to human health. Stanford University Earth Systems Professor Marshall Burke conservatively calculates that twenty times more Chinese lives were saved thanks to improved air quality during the pandemic than were killed by the virus.

You might well say that basking in the sun and smiling smugly at the paradoxical rightness of the carbon caesura, while continuing to draw a salary from the large university just up the gorge, is a self-indulgent luxury. That university’s students have been dispersed around the globe, and are now reassembling in Zoom classrooms, being fed various forms of digital content by a professoriate scrambling to produce something even while it shelters in place.

Another temptation is to smile smugly at the momentarily shrinking carbon footprint of mass music culture—operas, festivals, stadium concerts—even as the price of oil drops to historic lows and construction on the KSL pipeline resumes. Large and well-funded cultural institutions, from the Berlin Philharmonic to Jazz at Lincoln Center to the Metropolitan Opera, are offering free streaming presentations. It remains to be seen whether this will lead to increased concert-going when “normalcy” returns or will fuel stay-at-home cultural consumption. Even if the current digital altruism brings to the fore the absent social interactions that give life to the concert and other forms of performance, the continued retreat from the public enjoyment of music is more likely to accelerate in the aftermath of this crisis.

However welcome the mostly silent skies and however pleasurable grand opera from your sofa may be, they should not still the necessary truth that mass music consumption is a destructive force. The Cloud is not a harmless metaphor floating in the blue beyond, it is powered by huge server farms busy burning up the planet 24/7.

But these are exigent times, and perhaps tonight’s tonic should be the Met’s 2017 production of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette. There’s no need to hop in the car from the suburbs, pay parking, or the exorbitant price of admission. You don’t even have to recycle the ticket stub. No physical trace remains of your night at the opera—except all those electronics in your living room. Come to think of it, if you’d updated all this gear before the shit hit the fan you might have enjoyed Gounod’s bombast even more. Once Best Buy opens up again I’ll head to the mall (if it isn’t defunct) and load up. Or just get all the latest stuff online …

Streaming offers the convenient illusion of sustainability but is far more environmentally calamitous than any of us care to remind ourselves. A 2019 study undertaken by researchers at the universities of Glasgow and Oslo paints a grim, ever-worsening picture. Kyle Devine, a professor at the University of Oslo led the investigation into the environmental costs of various recording formats: “From a plastic pollution perspective, the good news is that overall plastic production in the recording industry has diminished since the heyday of vinyl. From a carbon emissions perspective, however, the transition towards streaming recorded music from internet-connected devices has resulted in significantly higher carbon emissions than at any previous point in the history of music.”

In a well-researched, wide-ranging, trenchantly argued, and wryly devastating article entitled “Decomposed: A Political Ecology of Music” published in the academic journal Popular Music in 2015, Devine throws buckets full of bracing scholarly water on the convenient myths that have sustained the “recording industry”—his emphasis landing on the word industry. However high the fidelity of these various technologies and delivery systems may be, none of them faithfully record their impact on the natural world.

Devine divides his article into three sections: “shellac” (the 78), “plastic” (LP and CD), and “data” (the MP3 and streaming), each corresponding roughly to half-century-long periods beginning respectively in 1900, 1950, and 2000. The numbers he cites are staggering: billions of shellac records were produced across the first half of the 20th century; in 1978 alone nearly a billion LPs, amounting to 160 million “toxic tonnes” of PVC, were sold. Devine also reminds us that the machines manufactured to bring us recorded sound—gramophones, turntables, iPods, and all their successors—must be disposed of, too, when the paradigms shift. The inexorable progression is towards diverse, if ever greater environmental costs, as the Glasgow study confirms.

Devine expands these findings in a 2019 book that shares its title with his article. I haven’t been able to lay my hands on the volume yet, as the local university library is shut and off-limits. And I’m not going to order it up from Amazon or download it.

Devine’s Popular Music articles lays bare the global networks of labor, commerce, and innovation that churned out records by the billions. Right at the beginning of the recording industry vast resources were extracted. It takes millions of lac beetles in India a year to make a single kilogram of shellac, a resin secreted by the insects on tree branches; production in that country peaked around mid-century at 40 million kg, most of it for 78s.

Yet the substance made up only a fraction of the material in 78s; the filler was ultimately provided by limestone, most of it from Indiana. (It was one of those curious linguistic coincidences of colonialism and capitalism that united, literally, the beetles of India and the stone of Indiana.) Indianapolis became a center of production for industry concerns like RCA Victor.

Devine deftly captures the global interconnectedness that marked the decades of the 78s dominance: “using ‘shellac’ as shorthand for the 78-rpm record is actually something of a misnomer: the critical ecosystems for 78s were as much the quarries of Indiana as they were the forests of India.”

Although hundreds of thousands of acres were dedicated to shellac forestry in India with far-reaching environmental consequences, Devine does allows that “the rapid lifecycle of the lac beetle is such that shellac is a renewable resource.” But there is always a catch: monoculture, use of pesticides and the like meant that “commercial shellac cultivation and harvesting shares in many of the controversies that mark forestry and agribusiness writ large.”

Devine’s work makes me look at and listen to my 1930 HMV gramophone with new eyes and ears. But at least it’s not moldering in a landfill. The ingenious, fully portable machine is powered by the human arm—wind-up (not “clean” wind) energy.

On the negative side of the environmental ledger: I found the gramophone in the UK and flew it back here. I bought the Savoy recording of Parker’s Mood seen in the photo above on eBay and had it delivered, the composite of Indian beetle juice and Indiana limestone trailing carbon as it came. But it also transported Bird: when it plays he seems to stand and play his room in the room—or on the front porch.

In the end the most environmentally responsible music comes from nature’s first source: your own voice —or pursed lips, maybe even whistling in concert with that cardinal.


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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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