Is it ethical to stage a rock concert?

Our ethical columnist gives his views on the Live Earth events, and the people who'll be performing in them.

Ethan Greenhart

Topics Politics

Dear Ethan,

I was wondering what you thought of the forthcoming Live Earth concerts. They seem to me to be a fantastic opportunity to encourage everyone, but especially young people, to take on board the message about the damage that we are doing to the planet. What do you think?


Steven O’Shea
New Jersey

Dear Steven,

I would be only too delighted if this coming Saturday, many millions of people would stop to consider the effect of human beings on this small, fragile pebble lost in space that we can, for a mere blink of an eye in the aeons of time, call home. Unfortunately, it would appear that the organisers of Saturday’s efforts haven’t done so, nor given proper consideration to the message they are sending out.

The belief that a rock concert can save the planet is a bit like thinking that Christmas or Thanksgiving can save turkeys. That’s because rock stars are by far the most obnoxious, selfish, relentless consumers of all. They don’t just consume, they make a song and dance of their consumption (if you’ll excuse the pun). If P Daddy or M&Ms or whatever they’re called aren’t ‘blinging it up’ with ludicrous quantities of jewellery plundered from the soil of Sierra Leone or South Africa – just to show how rich they are, frankly – they’re whizzing all round in the world in fast cars and faster planes burning up fuel like it’s going out of fashion. And when they sit still for more than five minutes, they’re flying-in vast quantities of goods from France, Colombia and Afghanistan. (I’ll leave you to work out the exact nature of the products involved but they don’t suggest a clear-headed approach to the planet’s problems.)

Even the most ‘right-on’ performers are every bit as guilty. Wasn’t it Bono, so-called saviour of Africa, who booked a first-class seat on a flight to Milan for his hat? His HAT! And when they’re not performing at eco-concerts, they’re polluting the planet as they tour from one city to another, one country to another. According to those forensic analysts at, Madonna’s last world tour produced 440 tonnes of carbon in just four months! That’s the equivalent of thousands of Malawians – like her new ‘son’ ‘David’. She should have left the boy there to reduce his impact on everyone else in Africa. And then there are those entourages, those collections of truly pointless individuals whose only purpose is to join in all the needless travelling and consumption. Some of them are huge – both the entourages and the people who make them up. Have you seen these people? Some of them are the size of baby elephants. They’re not so much flown about as airlifted.

And the whole thing is fronted by the former vice-president of the USA – United States of Avarice! A man after his own name: ‘Al Gore-ge myself on electricity for my mansion and my lavish lifestyle!’ They’re even saying this man could be the country’s next president, which would be absolutely fitting. Americans are the very people who are doing their level best to make sure we won’t have a Live Earth in a few years. In fact, if you wanted to take a big step towards reducing our footprint on the planet, putting up a big sign on the US of A saying ‘closed due to enormous eco-impact’, and sending everyone to live like simple peasants in Mexico, would be a good idea.

But you won’t be hearing any solid, practical policy suggestions like that on Saturday. You won’t hear anyone suggesting that the concerts should be part of a closing down ceremony for stadiums like Wembley which use up massive amounts of resources to build only to lie empty most of the year (and attract hordes of people the rest of the time). No, the big, fat message of Live Earth will be that it’s okay to be a hypocrite. It’s okay to be filthy rich as long as you stand on stage once in a while and tell everyone else how to live their lives. The only people who should be telling the population how to live are those who are already striving to ‘live the dream’ of a carbon-neutral, zero-footprint lifestyle – which, in my own modest way, I’m trying to do with this column.

Of course, the organisers say they’ve made the event ‘carbon neutral’. What does that mean? That they’ve planted some trees somewhere to cover the carbon produced by getting the performers there or in powering their ludicrously powerful amplifiers? Or they’re running education schemes in Uzbekistan to warn people off the cancer of development (actually, that’s not such a bad idea). That doesn’t make up for the hundreds of thousands of people travelling to the concerts, with the tonnes of rubbish they will produce, or the millions who’ll be watching on television when they could be doing something less resource-intensive instead.

And as some dreadful band ‘rocks the planet’ at Wembley and all those other stadiums, has anyone calculated the effect of the noise on the local flora and fauna? Who can tell if the sound of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers at 110 decibels isn’t making a nearby chaffinch infertile? All the people in the stadium will no doubt be another step or two along the path to some form of nasty ‘buzzing’ deafness, though perhaps the volume of such concerts is a necessity given that the audience members have often wrecked their hearing already blasting music through their iPod headphones at thermonuclear levels.

There’s a book-of-the-concert, too, providing lots of tips on how to live an eco-lifestyle. You know the sort of thing, culled from other ‘ethical living’ columns that pussyfoot around the problem: oh, buy a few low-energy bulbs, do your washing at 30 degrees, try walking once in a while (you waddling, wobbling great mound of rotting lard)… This is all just tinkering at the edges. The real question is: WHY CHANGE THE LIGHT-BULB WHEN THE WHOLE HOUSE NEEDS RE-WIRING? I’ve always been opposed to the production of such books. Not only do they suggest that we can maintain our current lifestyles with little change, but they cause plenty of destruction of their own. Those who churn out these books have sap on their hands. (On the other hand, it is clear that such books have some impact… I do wonder whether one small publication of my own might be justified.)

Ultimately, the big problem with Live Earth is that it is built on one of the worst drugs of all: fame. This induces a kind of megalomania which suggests that people actually want to see YOU in the flesh – hence, all the touring, publicity, photoshoots, appearances. Why can’t people simply produce music to make a point and perform it at a local community centre? Or they can sing into a webcam if they really insist on a ‘global’ audience.

I’m sure it was this obsession with fame and all the other trappings of the ‘biz’ that prevented me from achieving a greater impact with my music. I had a loyal and vociferous following in my youth, with such songs as Why Can’t It Be The Humans That Die Out?:

The dodo is extinct, that bird is gone forever,
We’ll never see it’s funny face or gaze upon it feathers,
But we’re the ones to blame, we’re just ecological louts,
Why can’t it be the humans that die out?

Of course, there were comparisons with Dylan. But I knew there were dangers, too. I was getting too big, too hooked on that drug of fame. Things came to a head when one night, as I launched into the chorus of Why Can’t It Be The Humans That Die Out?, I realised with horror that all 12 audience members had pulled lighters from their pockets and were waving them in time to the music! Never mind the implication that they were all smokers – what about the propane? I walked away from it that night (admittedly, shouting ‘IT’S NOT A FUCKING POWER BALLAD YOU KNOW!’). Now I simply amuse myself at home trying to work out how to play the three-pronged nose flute I bought from a sustainable music stall at the local farmers’ market.

Which is what everyone should do, instead of going to an eco-concert.

Ethan Greenhart is here to answer all your questions about ethical living in the twenty-first century. Email him at {encode=”” title=””}. Read his earlier columns here.

Read spiked‘s Live Earth analysis in full here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today