This story is part of “Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration cofounded by Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation strengthening coverage of the climate story.
The climate emergency deserves its own soundtrack. Social movements throughout history have used music to inspire activists to persevere in the face of apparently long odds. Music also offers solace for the losses that accompany struggles to build a better world, and it can wake up the unaware or apathetic, propelling them to join the fight. A stunning new cover of the 1960s protest anthem “Eve of Destruction,” produced by the South African nonprofit news site the Daily Maverick, delivers on all counts.
The original “Eve of Destruction,” released in 1965, protested America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Written by P.F. Sloan and recorded by pop singer Barry McGuire, the song became an instant hit thanks to its octave-jumping hook—“And you tell me, over and over and over again, my friend, you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction”—and an infectious groove supplied by drummer Hal Blaine of the Wrecking Crew, a renowned Los Angeles session band. The verses, penned by Sloane at age 19, channeled the growing fear and anger of American youth as more and more of their generation were sent to fight, kill, and die in Vietnam.
The Daily Maverick’s journalistic chops shine in the music video for the new “Eve of Destruction,” a relentless stream of images from the onrushing climate emergency: gray smoke and yellow flames billowing from refineries and petrochemical plants, vultures feasting on drought-desiccated cattle, the swirling eye of a hurricane seen from space, an oil-soaked seabird attempting to free itself from the muck, and a bulldozer crane tossing around logs in a recently leveled rainforest.
The melding of such images with the haunting vocals of South African singer Anneli Kampfer triggers goosebumps. In the video, her eyes are closed, as if she can’t bear to watch the stupidity and suffering that she’s describing, and she sings in a tone at once baffled and confrontational. The lyrics of this cover were tweaked to shift the song’s emphasis from being anti-war to being anti-climate catastrophe. The original lyrics observed that the soldiers being sent to Vietnam were “old enough to kill, but not for votin’” before adding, “You don’t believe in war, but what’s that gun you’re totin’?” The new lyrics put more onus on the listener: “You’re bad enough to scream, but your throat is choking / You don’t believe in oil, but it’s your car that’s smoking.”
Writing in 2020, journalist Kendra Pierre-Louis listed 10 other songs that referenced climate change, though less overtly. She began with “All Star,” which the band Smash Mouth released in 1999. Featured two years later on the soundtrack for the movie Shrek, the song’s upbeat tempo and generally can-do lyrics contrasted with the verse’s closing lines: “The ice we skate is getting pretty thin / The water’s getting warm so you might as well swim / My world’s on fire, how about yours?” Next on Pierre-Louis’s list: “All the Good Girls Go To Hell,” released in 2019. In the music video, pop phenom Billie Eilish poses as an angel fallen from heaven, mocking humans for making “hills burn in California … [as] the water starts to rise” before snarking, “Don’t say I didn’t warn ya.” And in “New World Water,” rapper Mos Def was already singing in 1999 about how, “New world water make the tide rise high / Come inland and make your house go ‘bye.’”
A more explicit reference to climate change came from jazz giant Sonny Rollins with his 1999 album, Global Warming. In addition to its eponymous instrumental track, Rollins wrote a poem, printed on the album’s inner sleeve, that reads, “We got to stop assumin’ / We can just go on consumin’,” before concluding, “Not that much time left neither.” Going back to 1971, Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology),” didn’t name global warming—a term that wouldn’t enter mass consciousness until the late 1980s—but Gaye did nail how reckless pollution was creating an unprecedented new reality: “Oh, things ain’t what they used to be.” Joni Mitchell offered a similar caution in 1970 in “Big Yellow Taxi”: “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” And in 1965, the same year the original version of “Eve of Destruction” was released, Bobby Hebb recorded the imperishable, “Sunny.” A love song with no overt political message, “Sunny” was singled out in 2021 by author and activist Bill McKibben, who cited its title and especially its lyric—“Now the dark days are done, and the bright days are here”—to hail “Sunny” as “an ode to our nearest star and to our collective hope for an easier time ahead.”
There’s room, and need, to add still more songs to the climate emergency soundtrack. Smash Mouth guitarist Greg Camp, who wrote “All Star,” told Pierre-Louis in 2020, “I’m hoping that the generation that’s writing songs now will speak to their generation, because it may be the last generation that can actually stop this tipping point.”
Certainly the activists among today’s generation have stepped up. Globally, young people lead the fight against the climate emergency, most visibly with massive street protests that foreground climate justice. In the United States, young climate activists turned out the Generation Z vote in record numbers in the 2018, 2020, and 2022 national elections. A “youth wave” of voters in the 2022 midterms prevented climate-denying Republicans from gaining control of both houses of Congress.
Bringing history full circle, today’s college students might not be eligible to vote in the first place if it hadn’t been for the original “Eve of Destruction.” When Barry McGuire’s version was released in 1965, the voting age in the US was 21. As more and more people heard the song (even though some radio stations banned it), growing numbers sided with young organizers who were demanding that 18-year-olds be able to vote. In 1971, Congress passed and president Richard M. Nixon signed the 26th Amendment, which guaranteed the right to vote to all Americans age 18 and older.
Years later, McGuire proudly claimed that the lyrics of “Eve of Destruction” were written into the text of the 26th Amendment. While that’s not quite true, visit the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library and Museum website that describes passage of the 26th Amendment and the social impact of “Eve of Destruction” is clear: The lyric “old enough to kill but not for votin’” sits above a photograph of US Marines blasting a 90-millimeter gun into a Vietnam jungle.
Which suggests a final song for the climate emergency soundtrack: “Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up.” Although composed almost 50 years ago, the song’s closing lines capture today’s political moment, when, after decades of lies and stalling by the fossil fuel industry and its political allies, more and more people finally recognize the truth and are rising up to say they won’t take it anymore:
You can fool some people sometimes
But you can’t fool all the people all the time
So now we see the light
We gonna stand up for our rights!
The Climate Soundtrack
Anneli Kampfer, Eve of Destruction
Barry McGuire, Eve of Destruction
Billie Eilish, all the good girls go to hell
Mos Def, New World Water
Sonny Rollins, Global Warming
Marvin Gaye, Mercy, Mercy Me
Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi
Bobby Hebb, Sunny
Bob Marley, Get Up Stand Up