April 2010 -
Deforestation, land mines, mass extinctions – these are just some of the environmental and humanitarian issues that Bruce Cockburn sings about, inspiring activists and ordinary citizens the world over to act to end injustice and environmental destruction.
"My role is as an attention-getter," said Cockburn. "People come to me with a request to help get attention and raise awareness about something."
And the Canadian singer/songwriter has been doing just that for the bulk of his career. This year he was presented with Earth Day Canada’s Outstanding Commitment to the Environment Award, in recognition of three decades of being an outspoken voice on issues relating to the environment.
"There’s a steadily unfolding tragedy out there," said Cockburn. "And it’s enough to piss us all off."
In addition to producing a repertoire of 30 albums, Cockburn has performed benefit concerts for a myriad of small environmental organizations in the U.S. and Canada, including an upcoming concert for the Siskiyou Land Conservancy scheduled for April 23 at the Arcata Theatre Lounge.
One of Cockburn’s most popular songs, If a Tree Falls penned in the mid-‘80s, poignantly evokes the devastation wrought by overlogging. The song later became the title cut for a 1996 album produced to benefit Southern Humboldt’s Trees Foundation.
Although some interpret the lyrics to describe the destruction of the Amazonian rainforest, Cockburn said that the song was inspired by a radio documentary on the disappearing woodlands in Borneo along with his own experiences driving through the diminishing forests in British Columbia.
"It was easy to make the connection between the tropics and the northwest rainforest," said Cockburn.
Born in Ottawa in 1945, Cockburn attended Berklee College of Music in Boston in the early ‘60s, but gave up jazz guitar for rock ‘n’ roll and folk music. His 1979 hit, Wondering Where the Lions Are, gained him recognition on this continent when it reached the top 25 on the U.S. Billboard charts.A Respect For The Wild
Cockburn said he learned to love the wilderness as a young child during summers spent at a camp at Algonquin Park in Ontario.
"We would go on extended canoe trips, sometimes a hundred miles," he said. "Paddling through that wilderness and seeing traces of where there had been logging in the past drove a respect for the wild into me, and that shaped my whole attitude toward the world."
His awareness of the fragility of the environment grew in the early ‘70s, Cockburn said, when he lived in a truck and spent much of his time traveling through western Canada.
"You’d see something for the first time and it was amazing," he said. "Then the third time through you’d notice it wasn’t there anymore – it’s got a development sitting on it."
"There’s a heartbreak in that," he said. "It’s like this was a beautiful thing and it ain’t there anymore and it’s never coming back."
Music isn’t the only medium that Cockburn uses to raise awareness about environmental and political issues. During the late ‘90s he was deeply involved in creating the film River of Sand about the effects of desertification in Mali, and 2008 saw the release of the Canadian film, Return to Nepal in which Cockburn examines the connection between humans and the environment.
"The desertification of Mali is a lot about deforestation. When you talk to the old people in those villages, they can remember looking up at the hillsides and seeing them covered with trees," said Cockburn. "And there were animals in the bush - lions, birds. And it was all cut down for firewood – there’s no more animals, there’s no more trees, there’s no more water."
The musician has worked since 1995 on the international effort to ban land mines worldwide.
"Landmines are evidence that war is the biggest polluter of all," he said.
The musician joined with activists in an effort to bring about a international ban on the destructive military practice.
Enough pressure was brought to bear that an international treaty was signed in 2007 banning landmines, said Cockburn. Around 450 countries, including Canada, are signatories to that treaty.
"But the big ones haven’t signed yet," he said, noting that the U.S., China and Russia have resisted signing the treaty. Cockburn has performed several benefit concerts to raise awareness on this issue and to galvanize grassroots support in compelling the U.S. government to sign the treaty.Take A Stand
Whether your pressing issue is deforestation, species extinction, climate change or another manifestation of a world out of balance, Cockburn says to get involved in whatever way you can.
"To the extent that we still have democracy you’ve got to keep pounding your representatives in government about this stuff – because they run on votes and if they think they’re gonna get voted out they’re gonna listen," he said.
"It’s a slow and frustrating process but it’s the best thing we’ve got right now – other than taking direct action of course and getting in the way."
Cockburn acknowledged that the direct action route is not open for everyone.
"That is an option of course for those who can do it and are inspired to do it," he said. "But for everybody else, the 9 to 5ers, those with kids in school or other concerns – it’s through the political arena that we can make things happen."
He pointed to the Siskiyou Land Conservancy (SLC) as a positive effort to make effective change. The organization purchases land parcels to hold in conservation.
"The strategy is effective and it’s a way to do an end run," he said. "This is how we got the land mine treaties signed, they did an end run around the formal political processes and went ahead and fixed it."
Finding ways to circumvent obstacles makes good activism, Cockburn said. "If the government isn’t going to protect the land in question, buy it and protect it yourself."
You can’t take on everything, Cockburn tells those who would change the world. "Go for the thing that looks like you can grab it. If everybody did that I think the world would be in a less dire state than it is," he said.
"And for those that are spiritually inclined at all – pray like hell."
~Reprinted here with permission from ECONEWS - Northcoast Environmental Center, written by Sarah O'Leary.