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Madarshahi:A New Paradigm for Advancing SDGs - How Music Can Help?
2021-11-04 ICCSD

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Professor Mehri Madarshahi

Former Senior Economist of the United Nations, member of the Advisory Committee of ICCSD and Visiting Professor of South China University of Technology

Karl Marx's analysis of the crisis of the earth in mid-nineteenth century led him to a concept of sustainability that became central to his vision.

He believed that any systematic, forward-looking ecological vision must include elements such as ecological crisis and its relation to human production.

The environmental and ecological movement is, however, a recent development in modern advocacy of ecosystems. This movement calls for the sustainable management of resources and stewardship of the environment by changes in both public policy and individual behavior.

The exigency for "sustainable   development" became an internationally recognized need with the Brundtland Report. The term did not incorporate culture into its triad of society, economics, and the environment. 

The Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, was first to articulate 1972 (in Stockholm) a truly global vision of a healthy and sustainable environment.

With the momentum from this conference, the UN General Assembly established the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP).

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The overarching discourse about the importance of the links between art/music and sustainability has grown vastly since then. Increasingly, in  the past 20 years sustainability advocates call upon culture, including the arts and music, to help break through this alienation - often for the utilitarian purpose of making people care about climate change. We have seen significant shifts at  the international level from culture being a weak thread in international  development discourse, to the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) suggesting to Cities that culture be recognized as the fourth pillar of  sustainable development. 

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Based on the UNCTAD "Creative Economy Report" in 2011, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution calling for the mainstreaming of culture in development policies. While there was no direct reference to culture among the goals articulated by the 2005-2015 Millennium Development Goals, the successor Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) highlighted culture's importance only in their implementation. Despite all efforts, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted in 2015, failed to recognize the importance of culture and the arts as a main pillar of development.

Soon after the adoption of the SDGs, ECOSOC held that culture including artistic creativity, heritage, knowledge, and diversity due to their pivotal roles in economic, social, and sustainable development should be "mainstreamed into development".  

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At the beginning of the 21st century, with the ecological crisis as a sobering experience for mankind, we are challenged to define and encourage a new approach. 

Current mass species extinction rates are continuing unabated. Deforestation has not only removed habitat but also forest ecosystem services that help regulate climate and absorb carbon dioxide. Furthermore, ocean acidification has increased, leading to increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, imperiling the survival of corals and endangering entire ocean ecosystems.

These are mere samples of the many ecological/social issues that humanity must address to avoid irreversible ecological tipping points.

Through ignorance or indifference we can do massive and irreversible harm to the earth environment on which our life and well-being depend. Accordingly, our task today must be to revert to an ideal world mapped by philosophers and social ideologues such as Confucius, Zoroaster, Saadi and alike who invited humanity to act as humanist and emphasized the necessity of collective thinking about the multidimensional aspects of human living. In doing so, we must share one common human culture. As is evidenced by the evolution of eco-efficiency from theory to practice, the environmental awareness is growing day by day and it has led to the belief that environmental problems are interconnected and multidimensional and cannot be dealt with separately in well-defined boxes.

This principle must be achieved through popular participation, through communication, through dialogues, through scientific cooperation and through an open mind to understand the diverse universe of mankind  to which culture is a matrix of infinite possibilities. It could act as a bridge to the sustainable development goals by contributing to a more harmonious world and durable peace. 

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All those who are engaged in environmental advocacy know how fundamental it is to organize sustained public awareness campaigns, especially regarding the preservation of water/ocean, forest and energy.

It is a common belief that music is essential to human survival and human development, it is the lifeblood of culture and individual as well as collective identity. Participatory music, in particular, could play a critical role in enabling human response to climate change. Its ability to draw upon and elicit deep levels of both verbal and non-verbal imagery, symbols, emotions and social-knowledge-structures make it a vitalizing element for our current journey towards sustainability. Renewing bio-culture is essential to connecting and living well together. To empower sustainability, – researchers, program managers, activists, engineers, and others engaged with practical sustain-abilities – need to actively create music through public education as an integral component of practices from which a sustainable culture can emerge.

Music is among the possible artistic approaches that can be used in Environmental Education. The United Nations has recognized the value of music as such, and, therefore, it has launched the United Nations Music and Environment Initiative that is managed by UNEP.

According to UNEP "music is one of the most powerful media to communicate environmental messages to billions of people worldwide – irrespective of race, religion, income, gender, or age".

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By counteracting ignorance of and indifference to environmental issues, Environmental Education is seen as one of the means of tackling the environmental crisis that humanity faces. Given the urgency, it would seem important that environmental educators should try to reach as many people as possible, with all of their diverse learning preferences and contexts, to help them to find for themselves an overarching sense of value for the global ecosystem of which we all are a part. To that end, examining and using diverse pedagogical approaches seems a logical idea. 

Although to date, there is a limited amount of literature on the role that music can play in the delivery of formal, informal, and non-formal environmental education, it is a general belief that music can provide a powerful platform for delivering messages – and for receiving them by changing the paradigms, cutting across borders and transcending many cultural taboos.

There is a growing belief that to successfully advance in solving global problems, we need to develop new paradigms, to elaborate new moral and values criteria, and, without doubt, a new pattern of behavior. Bringing environmental topics into the entertainment sphere and modelling can help normalize the act of caring for the environment. There are many elements within music that make it a natural fit to work in conjunction with other programs towards the achievement of the SDGs.

Music has a direct positive effect on physical, mental, and emotional health. Furthermore, music can help in alleviation of poverty, create awareness on the preservation of water, act as a tool that can be effective in educating and spreading valuable information about health, including COVID, HIV/AIDS prevention and immunization campaigns in general. Music is also an economic force in the world. Music encourages participation and can help to create an atmosphere of hope and excitement around any cause aimed at the social good.

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The COVID-19 pandemic brought most social activities to a screeching halt for over a year. We weren't allowed to eat in restaurants, exercise in gyms, meet with friends, or visit with extended family. So many of us were left feeling bored, anxious, and lonely. While under full lockdown, we saw how music joined neighbors together. in Italy, Spain and many other countries, neighbors sang from their balconies and managed to connect with one another even when they couldn't be in the same physical space.

In the last 30 years, music's role in fighting poverty has become larger and more diverse. Whether raising money to fund NGOs, or teaching values through their craft, musicians continue to play a unique role in poverty reduction efforts across the globe.

A great example of these efforts could be traced to singer-songwriters Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, who founded "Band Aid" to raise money for anti-poverty efforts in then famine-stricken Ethiopia. In 2014, Geldof and Ure revived Band Aid for its thirtieth anniversary, in order to combat the spread of Ebola in western Africa. On November 17, 2014, Band Aid released a re-recorded, Ebola-themed version of "Do They Know It's Christmas? The "El Sistema" (Venezuela) constitutes a different kind of initiative. It uses music as a direct means of combatting poverty, beginning with young students and musicians.

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Everyone from pop stars to metal urchins to avantgarde experimentalists are grappling with the grief and anger that comes with living on a planet careening toward environmental disaster. In recent years, as the climate crisis is spiraling towards its breaking point, artists everywhere are returning to the Earth to ask what can still be learned, and what might still be saved.

Songwriters imagine worlds for children in which carbon continues to snuff out life. Electronic musicians compose elegies for lost species. Pop musicians use it to sound notes of fashionable doom, or to stir up some easy indignation. The sounds have grown more gothic and severe as climate change has started to look a lot less like soft, everyday environmental degradation and more like certain death, barreling down.

Metal and punk, of course, were built for end times and societal collapse, and it's no surprise they have a head start on music about environmental disaster. As the '70s soared into the '80s, punks quickly took over environmental degradation when the hippies abandoned it.

Metal, likewise, has built up a long and proud history of environmentalism, from California thrashers Testament's 1989 track "Greenhouse Effect" to Polluted Inheritance's Ecocide in 1992 to the French metal band Gojira, whose somber 2005 concept album From Mars to Sirius included songs called "Ocean Planet" and "Global Warming".

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Experimental musicians from across the globe have found ways to reckon with environmental destruction: Joseph Raglani's 2018 album Extinctions features buzzing sounds from our globally collapsing insect population.

The Alaskan-born composer's electro-acoustic work mixes strings and woodwinds with the unearthly hum that glaciers make right before cracking. Scientists have only recently learned to read these sounds.

Other artists have employed this sort of subliminal activism, hoping to communicate urgency in terms other than graphs with alarming curves or dire headlines. In his 2019 work Climate, the San Francisco-based electroacoustic composer Erik Ian Walker mapped climate data variables onto his compositional framework - rising atmospheric carbon dioxide correlated to tempo; ocean PH to "form", near-surface air temperature to pitch and harmony; incoming and outgoing longwave radiation to distortion, modulation, and what Walker called "chaos." "If all of the variables are relatively normal, the music will sound relatively normal", Walker has explained. "But as the variables change, it may sound like the musicians are playing out of key, playing different pieces, or sounding like it's going through… a meat-grinder."

The composer John Luther Adams is a naturalist and environmentalist who has made his life's calling to document the sense of planetary loss we are living through, both through his music and his writing. Adams spent four decades in Alaska, working as a conservationist and an activist, before shifting into music full-time in the '80s. He holed up for years in a cabin with nothing more than an old piano deep in the Alaskan wilderness. His heaving 2013 piece Become Ocean was perhaps the most soothing statement imaginable about the threat of rising sea levels, precisely because it was so impersonal. The blooming piano pushed underneath the low-lying coronas of horns and strings, sounding like a force with no interest in or awareness of our mortal struggles, or our inability to change the course of our actions.

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The public policy framework must, therefore, be translated into national action plans, which can bring a holistic and inter-sectoral focus to cultural policies as an instrument of social transformation and citizenship. The new policies should underline the important role of culture in tackling ecological challenges, coping with climate change, preventing biodiversity loss and ensuring environmental sustainability.

If we are to achieve the goals set out by the UN's SDGs, we must focus on utilizing all tools available. Explicit within the SDGs is a mandate that we begin to encourage a 'global partnership for development'. To create a true partnership there must be a willingness to work in interdisciplinary teams, and on multiple levels. 

As an extremely powerful tool, the United Nations, governments, and all entities working towards the achievement of these goals should effectively use music. 

To illustrate the power of music, the attached video that was dedicated by Maestro Tan Dun to the Melody for Dialogue among Civilizations Association on the occasion of its 5th conference and concert devoted to water, held by Melody in Hangzhou, China, could illustrate how a brief musical interlude - accompanied by visual messages - can effectively convey environmental messages far more effectively than thousands of words. 

The science is certain, even if our long-term future is not: We are poised on the brink of immeasurable loss. Staring at the ceiling of our planet's capability to sustain us, led by wavering and uncertain governments, economic development should not be at the expense of clean air and water or the preservation of our natural heritage. We stand to lose. Certainly, how much we lose remains in our hands, and recent reports suggest that immediate action has the potential to stabilize the climate, but it is likely that we have insured our suffering to a certain extent. Loss - immeasurable, irreconcilable loss - faces all of us.

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To put it in Freudian words: this crisis looms like the struggle of Eros and Thanatos, or, better, the struggle of "life against death". 

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