Sustainability: That Ain’t Country?

Written by Ashford King

In the US, the fight against climate change often looks more like a fight to achieve the public recognition that climate change is real. Flat out denial of science by the dominant strain of conservative politics and the reticence to take bold action on the part of moderates, combined with the self-interested, well-funded and short-sighted survivalist instinct of the fossil fuel industry, continues to hamper sustainable development in our country. We stagnate at home even as we attempt to export models for sustainable development to other parts of the world. 

In our national culture, broadly speaking, we still uphold the rugged cowboy individual as the model for how to exist in the world. Recently, researchers at the University of Virginia pointed out the degree to which Americans’ individualism hindered our collective response to the coronavirus. Lately, science and individualism haven’t seemed able to get along.

A good cultural marker for this is country music. In the US, recent years have given us country songs like “Coal Keeps the Lights On” by Jimmy Rose (championing a phrase that has been used widely in the coal industry’s propaganda campaign) and “Coal Town” by Taylor Ray Holbrook (the music video for which was produced in partnership with the United Mine Workers of America). It is worth noting that these artists are rather marginal country artists, both little known and both hailing from Appalachia, but have taken on specific significance in the debate around the political and cultural value of coal. More widely popular country music artists, at least those that produce popular music that is marketed as “country,” eschew the specifically political in favor of a few main themes: booze, romance, and general patriotism (guns, religion, troops, sports, farming, hunting, the paterfamilias, etc.). The wildly popular band Florida Georgia Line, in their summer 2020 hit “I Love my Country”, exalts the use of styrofoam plates while rattling off a list of American stuff: “Barbecue, steak fries / styrofoam plate date night.” It seems that, regarding sustainability, American country music either takes a hard pro-fossil fuels stance, or nonchalantly implies approval of the status quo. As far as the market is concerned, apathy towards climate change reigns. This is not entirely surprising, given the political climate.

What is surprising is how the analogous genre in Mexico, música regional, compares. Many of the themes heard in contemporary American country music are still present, both the good (importance of family, romantic love), the bad (binge drinking, misogyny) and the more complicated (guns, dogmatic religion). Mexican country music is even starting to incorporate Latin hip-hop and pop into their music, similar to how bands like Florida Georgia Line imitate rap lyricism in their own vocals. This all makes sense; to paint with broad strokes, it’s safe to say that Mexican society and cowboy culture developed in a manner parallel to the development of their American counterparts, and pop musical trends, such as the increasing relevance of hip-hop forms across the boundaries of genre, are increasingly global phenomena. However, Mexican country music, despite its conservatism, finds it within itself to engage with climate change. 

At approximately the same time Florida Georgia Line was working on “I Love my Country”, Edén Muñoz, the lead singer of the Mexican group Calibre50 (“50-Caliber”) was working with fellow artists Alfredo Olivas, la Arrolladora Banda el Limón (“the Irresistible Lemon Band”), Pancho Barraza and C-Kan on a song called “Corazón Verde” (“Green Heart”). The song amounts to an impassioned plea for the listener to become conscious of climate change, understand how it is detrimental to human society, and actually do something about it. Pancho Barraza sings: “Estamos cavando nuestra propia tumba / y no es por asustarlos, viene lo peor” (We are digging our own grave / and not to scare you, but the worst is yet to come”).  He goes on: “Falta de conciencia y no es coincidencia / que todos los días haga más calor” (“[There is] lack of awareness, and it’s no coincidence / that every day it gets a little bit hotter”). Tough solutions are not proposed, just tough rhetoric about what is happening right now. The music video shows the artists planting trees (which is more symbolically important than it is effective as a long-term strategy). Still, it’s a fine start, at least rhetorically. 

Perhaps most importantly, the artists express concern for future generations: “¿Para qué esperarnos? Limpiemos el mundo / y cuidemos la casa. O ya se preguntaron / a tus hijos y a los míos / ¿qué les vamos a dejar?” (“What are we waiting for? Let’s clean up the world and take care of our home. Or have you already asked yourselves what’s going to be left for your children and mine?”). In the words of the singers, recognizing and fighting climate change is an urgent civic duty. The fact that this urgency is absent from cultural representations of American patriotism is baffling. 

I mention this song not to hold up Mexico as an exemplar of environmental or cultural sustainability, or as an example of a society that always leverages science to increase the public good. Certainly, in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, Mexico has hardly stood out as successful in its response. What’s more, these artists don’t exactly have a blank check to claim the moral high ground on whatever topic they choose. The same artists that here sing about making cultural and political shifts to fight climate change also sing in a glorifying way about guns, corruption and cheating on their wives and partners. I make this comparison between American and Mexican country music to illustrate that, outside of the US, even politically conservative cultures and ideologies elsewhere pass the very low bar of urgently believing in science. It is a bar that the US needs to pass soon. Coal may “keep the lights on” for now, but it will eventually burn down the house.

Ashford King is a PhD student in Spanish and Portuguese at Princeton University. He is also a musician and poet. He is originally from Kentucky.

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