Lately Brian Eno has developed an interest in subjects he never thought he would want to know about. He is fascinated by technical research into how to increase the photosynthesis rate in crops, “which, it turns out,” he says, “can be done using coloured light. If you put red filters over the greenhouse, you can increase the take-up of light by about 40 per cent”.
Eno is not concerned only with the climate emergency, but also what he calls the “climate opportunity”. As we rethink how we live to address the environmental crisis, might we have the chance to overhaul so much else of what is wrong with contemporary society?
This sense of experimentation has long been evident in Eno’s artistic output, since his days playing synthesiser in the Seventies glam rock group Roxy Music, to his pioneering ambient recordings and his work as a producer and collaborator with artists such as David Bowie, Grace Jones and Coldplay. Eno is a theorist as much as an artist, a philosopher as much as a musician. Evidence of his conceptual approach exists in Oblique Strategies, a deck of cards he developed in the mid 1970s with the artist Peter Schmidt, which is designed to combat creative mind-blocks via lateral thinking.
Eno, 74, is also one of the UK arts scene’s foremost spokespeople on the climate. He is a trustee of ClientEarth, a law firm working on behalf of the planet, and in 2021 he launched EarthPercent, a charity that asks people who work in music to pledge a small proportion of their income to climate causes. The money is collected by EarthPercent, which divides it up between the environmental organisations doing the most “impactful” work, according to the charity’s advisory panel.
“As an artist there is always this issue of: how do I use my voice?”, Eno says, as he sips a glass of white wine — Sancerre, “really rather good” — after his keynote conversation at the Green Events and Innovations Conference in Kensington, west London. EarthPercent is his way of using his voice without “shouting propaganda at people. I don’t want to say: ‘You should change what you’re doing now.’ I don’t like that didactic, bossy approach. What I’d rather say is: ‘Look, here’s an opportunity for an amazing adventure.’”
The purpose of today’s environmental movement is, according to Eno, “to create enough force to change the world in a way that will produce not just the end of collapse, but the beginning of something new”. For that “something new” to work, “it has to ensure women’s rights, it has to ensure indigenous rights, it has to ensure conservation of forest, it has to do all the things that we would do anyway to make a better world”.
It’s an appealing vision but, unfortunately, we tend to get distracted. Eno makes a distinction between propaganda, which tells you what to think, and “prop-agenda”, which tells you what to think about, and which he believes is the problem. “As long as your thoughts are in with the Kardashians’ arses and all the other things that social media wants you to think about — we’re dependent, we’re all on drugs in a way, on gossip drugs — as long as that’s where your attention is, unfortunately you won’t be doing much with your life.”
[See also: The pop stars tackling climate change]
Within the music industry Eno has noticed that more and more artists are “walking the walk as well as talking the talk”. Performers such as Massive Attack, Coldplay, Billie Eilish and Bring Me the Horizon are investing time and money in low-carbon touring measures.
But more are put off from publicly voicing their concerns about the climate for fear of being labelled “hypocrites” — for pledging to plant a tree for every concert ticket sold, and then travelling to the venue via aeroplane, for example. “The charge of hypocrisy is a weasel defence really,” Eno says. “It’s saying: ‘Look, I don’t really want to think about it, so I’m going to criticise you for thinking about it. I’m going to make myself feel better in my ineffectiveness.’”
What’s more, “We’re all hypocrites, but we cannot help it. We’re stuck in a system that only gives us that choice, unless you’re going to stay at home and eat dandelions and never do anything else. You have to use phones. All right, you don’t have to, but Jesus, it’s a tough life if you don’t.” He taps his iPhone on the table next to him. It has a Cop26 sticker on its case.
Complaining about the “system” without acting, however, is to assume that “some kind of mythical top” will reform it, he continues. “Well that isn’t going to happen. It’s us at the bottom who are going to reform it. We’re going to reform it by changing our behaviour, and that will start to filter up.”
Behaviour changes are about trying to be better, and it’s the trying that is important to Eno, who believes that “the best is the enemy of the good”. It’s a conviction he lives by. “I have a long argument with nearly everybody I know about nuclear power. I’m a supporter of nuclear power. Nearly everybody I know from the environmental movement is not. I think this is a kind of sentimentality on their part; they think it’s mad technophilia on my part. Nuclear power, I know fully well, is not the best solution, however it’s a very good solution for the moment.” Nuclear fuels are, like fossil fuels, non-renewable, and there are concerns about storing and disposing of nuclear waste safely. But nuclear plants have far lower carbon emissions than fossil fuels and the highest capacity factor of any energy source, making it more than three times as reliable as solar or wind.
EarthPercent is a logical, financial attempt at addressing the climate emergency, but it is via art that Eno believes solutions come. “I think art is how we start to think,” he says. “It’s an arena that gets left out of discussion normally because it’s hard to quantify. This is why governments never really care about art education or the humanities: you don’t know how to measure it. You don’t know how it fits in, which of course is precisely why it’s important.
“Science discovers. Fabulous! It’s the greatest human invention, except for art. Science keeps producing amazing new things: revelations, new understandings, new technologies. But then there’s us, and we have to try to understand those things. We have to try to digest them, to see what we feel about them. And how do we do that? We do that through art.”
Music, literature, cinema and visual art help us to imagine alternative futures or ways of being. They make us ask: what would that feel like? “All of our thoughts and our whole intellectual conversation starts from that question,” Eno says. “And that’s the question that art asks us.”