Got the Green on the Mind: the Best Songs About Environmental Activism

One of the most amazing qualities of music is its ability to chart, and shape, culture throughout time. Music has always been part of the fabric of society. Whether acting as champions of groups, or critiquing politics, music has an exponentially large voice in the public arena. In a world of plenty of ‘hot button issues’, one of the most discussed is the impending doom of the planet. As a champion of green energy myself, these five songs tug at the heart strings of anyone who has the least bit of concern for, you know, the earth at large, and all its creatures.

5 Hey World (Don’t Give Up) – Michael Franti & Spearhead

Michael Franti and Spearhead is known for being quite liberally minded in his music. Not only is he quite talented, an inspiring live performer, and a champion of social justice issues, he’s also really tall. Okay so that wasn’t quite relevant, but he is. Hey World (Don’t Give Up) is more about the relationship between humankind and earth than about the environment itself. The message to be gleaned from the perfectly quiet song is that as people treat each other badly, we treat the environment badly. As our world is degraded, so are our interpersonal relationships. The only thing that can fix it, really, is love – not just romantic love, but to be with “someone who believes in me, like I believe in you”. The “you” in this case is not just a person, but the world. The song is decidedly sad, but there is a bittersweetness to that sadness. As we keep plugging along and trying. If we don’t give up on the world’s people, trees, animals, then in turn the world will not give up on us.

4 Moon Over Marin – Dead Kennedys

Not exactly a band you’d expect to end up on the environmental activist list, The Dead Kennedy’s Moon over Marin is actually quite the champion of environmental rights. With lyrics like “Shimmering moonlight sheen upon//The waves and water clogged with oil//White gases steam up from the soil”, this song takes issue with the way we treat our oceans. In the wake of the BP Gulf oil spill, it’s easy to see that even a song from twenty years ago is still as poignant and meaningful today. The Dead Kennedy’s perfect punk rock guitar and accentuated melody makes this song exciting and easy to listen to, while the overarching theme is still imparted unto you. The perfect balance between the medium and the message, Moon over Marin is at both a lamentation about how we treat our life-sustaining oceans, and a really good punk song.

3 Big Yellow Taxi – Joni Mitchell

A song that deserves to be written about until the end of time, Big Yellow Taxi is about Joni Mitchell’s realization that the beautiful ecosystem is being destroyed… By parking lots. The story goes she went to Hawaii and looked out of her hotel window and saw a giant parking lot – and then she sat down and wrote Big Yellow Taxi. Joni Mitchell’s distinctive voice is in full force in Big Yellow Taxi, and you can feel the frustration she experiences as the disappearing nature around her. A song that is still weighty in our current environmental times, Big Yellow Taxi has been covered by plenty of contemporary artists.

2 This Land is Your Land – Pete Seeger

The quintessential song about environmental activism, That Lonesome Valley is one of the anthems of the green living movement. Pete Seeger himself is a champion of the environment, and is one of the most well-known musicians-turned-activists. It’s no surprise, then, that this song means so much to those who are both lovers of music, and the planet. This Land is Your Land is perhaps the greatest song about the earth to date. While the locales described are inherently American, the fact of the matter is that the song espouses a global, humanitarian approach to the way we treat the earth – and each other. You cannot, cannot, listen to Pete Seeger sing this song and not feel like crying. Not because you are sad, but because there is still a hope in the heart of humanity, through people like the incredible iconoclast Pete Seeger, a hope that we will come together and treat each other and our earth with the respect that every living creature deserves.

1 Mercy Me (The Ecology) – Marvin Gaye

King of soul, with a voice like velvet, Marvin Gaye’s Mercy Me is one of the most heartfelt, honest songs about the environment that exists. You don’t even realize that you’re listening to a song about the earth. You would at first think it’s a song about a lost love, something gone that can never come again. In fact, that is what this song is about. The beautiful instrumentals highlight Gaye’s voice impeccably. The swelling horns feel like the ebbs and flows of waves. The gentle, chiming bells are reminiscent of tweeting birds. The background vocals sound like echoes of the rainforest. There is nothing short of brilliant about this song, and the words are perfectly selected to reflect an honest sadness, without feeling as if you’re being clubbed with the “message” of the song.

These are only some of the amazing songs about environmental issues that the world has to offer. But these five songs illustrate that environmental activism isn’t reserved for new-age hippies, inspired by the likes of Pete Seeger. It stretches from folk to punk, beyond borders and ethnicity, to reach an audience of music lovers who take it in kind and hopefully pay it forward, by bringing these songs, and their messages, to one another.

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