The music legend talks optimism, holograms, and the future of the planet
Brian Eno is known for creating soundscapes so vast you might as well take your shoes off and live in them for a while. From his album Music For Airports to iconic track An Ascent (Ending), he is a master of creating huge, immersive sonic ecosystems. He once said he wanted to make tunes that are “a bit like going for a walk in the forest”, and described this composition process as making “the sort of places that I would like to spend time in”.
Little surprise, then, that Eno is a passionate environmentalist. From constructing audio ecosystems to discussing the role of Indonesian tree frogs in actual ones isn’t such a giant leap for a restless brain like his. (As well as a musician, Eno is a philosopher, visual artist and more.)
Change Incorporated marched across Kensington Gardens one frosty morning to find Eno at the We Make Tomorrow conference, organised by the music business’ go-to sustainability action group Julie’s Bicycle. Discussing the climate emergency, futurism and the Chinese government’s attitude towards pollution, we find Eno in a relatively hopeful mood.
The Chinese now are the world's biggest producer of solar panels by far
“Some signs of hope are very trivial,” he says. “For instance the fact that Marie Kondo had a very successful book about essentially living a life of minimalism is important actually. The fact that several million people were enthusiastic enough about the idea of consuming less as a key to a better life, that's quite dramatic.
“Then there are other signs of the future, for instance I read just last week that the first AI created antibiotic has just been found… As soon as I heard that I thought, ‘okay well what about carbon capture?’ What about thinking about technologies like that in the same way, of saying: ‘what has a tiny little bit of hope of working, and now can we game it to improve it?’”
In his role as Trustee of non-governmental organisation Client Earth, who use legal tools to hold governments to account on the environment, he has seen how promising signs can come from unlikely places. “I'm made optimistic by the fact that the government of China contacted [Client Earth] and said, 'could you come to China and train 23 Supreme Court judges in Environmental Law, and 400 prosecutors?' and we said: 'Yes, but... why?'"
He says the Chinese government have identified pollution as the country’s largest threat to social harmony after monitoring citizens’ concerns on social media (“which we may not like, but they do it”). “It's partly because they know that in this huge country, the chain of connection between a distant citizen and the government is so fragile and so susceptible to corruption along the way,” he explains. “Somebody out in Guangzhou Province reports that a factory is dumping ‘shit’ into the water, sends that report to the local party official who's paid off by the factory owner, so the report goes no further.”
It’s not the most uplifting sounding story, but he continues: “When a government of that size and with that number of people commits itself for whatever reasons—even if they're entirely pragmatic, like 'we don't want to be taken out of power'—to saying we've got to solve this pollution problem, that's good news. The Chinese now are the world's biggest producer of solar panels by far, and they're also the most active researchers in that whole area of renewables. So these kinds of stories I think don't really make it, they're not clickbaity enough.”
Outside of his work with Client Earth, the obvious reason to speak to Eno about the environment is the decades he’s spent orbiting the stratosphere of the music business. He has worked with everyone from Nico to the Talking Heads to David Bowie, U2 and Coldplay, and rose to fame as the synth player for Roxy Music alongside Bryan Ferry. His rolodex is the size of a Yellow Pages and twice as heavy. Surely he’s in a perfect position to assess how seriously a business can evolve to fit the times.
I remember I went to visit U2 once when they were on tour and they had 57 articulated lorries. It was quite fun then but now, it's stupid
“The consciousness is quite advanced. Certainly the people that I interact with in the music industry, both the artists and the business people, are very aware of this issue and really want to do something about it,” he confirms. “What isn't so advanced yet is the machinery for actually doing something about it, which is why we came up with Earth Percent. It’s a way of saying, ‘let's take all of your revenue streams and tap off a little percentage and send it to organisations that we absolutely have vetted and can guarantee do good work’.”
This new initiative stands a good chance of success, he says, because it doesn’t require anyone to reinvent the wheel. “Musicians are used to thinking that if you release an album, there are so many income streams from it, this agency taking their little cut, the producer taking his cut, all these different cuts, so the whole system is set up to do this anyway. You just add another stakeholder to all the ones who already exist.”
Other ways the music industry needs to change involve the nitty gritty of how tours are run, like standardising equipment to avoid lugging huge amounts on world tours. “I remember I went to visit U2 once when they were on tour and they had 57 articulated lorries carrying the whole set and the band's equipment and the PA and so on,” he says. “I thought, ‘this is kind of stupid really isn't it’. Now. It was quite fun then but now, it's stupid. Why don't you just get what's local, make something out of that. Specify it in advance, but all that travelling, carrying stuff across continents... it doesn't make any sense any longer.”
There are other ways in which performance could be revolutionised to reduce emissions. He points to a recent occasion where he appeared virtually at an opening of his visual art in Riga, Latvia, sharing a glass of wine with attendees and showing them round his studio through a video link that accurately simulated his presence. He’s also interested to see whether hologram tours could be an interesting alternative to bands dragging around truckloads of equipment, a la that U2 tour.
Time will tell whether these innovations can ever rival the traditional communal experience of a gig in a way that will meaningfully cut down on emissions. For the time being, Brian Eno will continue to do what he does best: restlessly exploring every avenue of possibility. That, after all, might be the best way to ensure Earth remains the sort of place one would like to spend time in, just like one of his soundscapes.