Re-exploring Earth Song

Music is a universal language that transcends borders, reinforces beliefs, has the power to become a catalyst for social change, and can possibly heal the world. Michael Jackson’s Earth Song, released in 1995, continues to be relevant today, and this essay explores the profound messages communicated urging viewers to adopt environmental rights as a way forward.

The hopes that 2021 would usher in technological breakthroughs and unprecedented development to take humanity into the future, into a utopian reality, has come to a complete standstill. The continuous onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic has strong-armed even first-world countries, as humanity continues to grapple with an unprecedented threat to life. The most popular cities in the world resemble deserted cities described in distant dystopian futures—like the Handmaiden’s Tale. As the death toll continues to mount, it is an opportune moment to re-explore the profound messages communicated in the Earth Song.

The pandemic is an eye-opener and serves as a wake-up call for humanity. If one contemplates and carefully studies news reports, there have been a number of indicators. Recent events leading up to the disease outbreak globally reveal a pattern leaving a trail of destruction behind. This is not the first time that a health scare has knocked on our doors, seemingly unannounced. Previously, we had the Nipah virus, SARS, and HINI that posed a threat to human lives. At the same time, bird flu has been reported in certain parts of the world leading to the mass culling of countless birds, namely chickens and ducks, who are part of the poultry sector. The primary source of the COVID-19 strain has been attributed to the illegal wildlife trade in China. Therefore, the links that connect human health and our treatment of non-human species cannot be conveniently ignored anymore.

Other recent disasters, often accelerated by human activities, include the Australian bush fires, the Amazon forest fires, floods, and hurricanes. This serves as an urgent wake-up call for climate change deniers and leads us to further interrogate the capitalist structures that have contributed to the current sorry state that exists today. This is precisely the question that Jackson also asks, “What about sunrise? What about rain? What about all the things that you said we were to gain?” This is a comment on how industries have exploited the environment, non-human animals, and unsuspecting humans.

Jackson’s Earth Song

The opening scene in the music video depicts a beautiful forest with non-humans in their natural habitat living in harmony, which is disrupted by a tractor felling trees as a group of helpless indigenous people watch in horror. The home that these inhabitants have protected for centuries—both human and non-human—is destroyed within a matter of hours, leaving them with nowhere to go. A paradise on Earth is razed to the ground paving the way for yet another soulless concrete jungle adding a few more billions to the coffers of corporations. The following scene shows Jackson standing amidst felled trees and a forest that is still burning—much like the harrowing scenes witnessed during the Australian bush fires—that represents results of the onslaught on forests. Innumerable species of trees met the axe, wiping out a number of species from the face of the Earth, and displaced indigenous communities are forced to abandon a sustainable lifestyle they led as they are ushered into a world driven by capitalism.

Another poignant scene represents the destruction and devastating effect of war. Jackson says, “Did you ever stop to notice all the blood we have shed before? Did you ever stop to notice this crying Earth, these weeping shores?” The COVID-19 pandemic too is much like a war, rather a consequence of a war which has been waged against the environment and animals other than humans. Each tree felled, each forest cleared, each species annihilated, and each assault on the environment has given rise to the current circumstance that we find ourselves in. At the same time, it presents an opportunity to descry the destructive path we are on, to end the blatant violence, and embrace sustainable practices. As ecofeminist Vandana Shiva (2005) states in Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability, and Peace, “In nature’s economy the currency is not money, it is life.”

The value accorded to all forms of life is one of the key takeaways that we must learn from the pandemic that plagues our present and near future. The most vulnerable sections of society are affected the most—homeless, elderly, differently abled, economically backward, and not to forget captive non-humans. Lisa Kemmerer (2011) in Sister Species: Women, Animals and Social Justice states, “In Western patriarchal culture, both women and nonhuman nature have been devalued alongside their assumed opposites—men and civilisation/culture.” In doing so, nature, and by extension non-human animals have been further pushed to the margins and treated as the other. This sentiment is echoed in Jackson’s music video as people, the indigenous people and those affected by war, fall to their knees and clutch fists full of sand, seeking forgiveness from Earth, which is then accompanied by the chorus “What about us?” that is repeated continuously.

The crucial juncture that humanity and the world has reached brings into perspective a number of important questions. While some may be quick and short-sighted to cheer on human casualties as an equaliser endorsing an ecofascist narrative, but nihilism is not a solution. Any form of violence perpetuated is never justified and it brings to light the parallels between various oppressive forces—based on gender, class, species—that are often perpetuated in the world. These forces need to be challenged and similarities across social justice movements (human rights, women’s rights, animal rights, and environmental rights) that call for both individual and collective action to strong-arm policymakers, embraced. Policymakers need to listen and endorse legislation that will help heal the world, one policy at a time.

Jackson’s music video draws to a close by rewinding past events—the destruction of the forest, the murder of humans and non-humans, and displacement from their homes—as people began to realise the value of the environment once again. This scene presents the vision of the environment beginning to heal, thrive again, and while non-humans reclaim their place on Earth. Jane Goodall adds, “To reconnect with nature is the key if we want to save the planet.” A window of opportunity for humanity to take corrective measures exists as it is still not too late. The current situation draws our attention to the need to rethink our relationship with the environment, including non-human animals, and challenge the common oppressive, capitalistic structure that is anything but sustainable.

In Conclusion

It seems fitting to conclude, on an optimistic note, borrowing a few lines from John Lennon’s Imagine, “You may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one. I hope someday you will join us. And the world will be as one.”

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