SEASON 2, EPISODE 4
Bjork vs The World
Björk didn’t want to be seen as a political figure. For her, the music mattered most, and it existed in a sphere beyond the day-to-day squabbles of politics. But there is one issue that activates her: climate change.
Here I’ll trace Björk's progression as a climate activist — from reluctant protester to national leader. And I’ll examine the impact this activism has had on her music and the world.
Savannah Wright: In the first episode of season 2, we talked about how Bjork didn’t want to be seen as a political figure. For her, the music mattered most, and it existed in a sphere beyond the day-to-day squabbles of politics.
But there is one issue that activates Bjork.
That may be because nature is such a part of her identity. She grew up surrounded by nature, composing songs on her long walks through the highlands. Iceland’s natural features inspired Homogenic and the lyrics of countless other songs in her discography. Bjork has even said that if she did have a religion, it would be nature.
And that’s a common feeling in Iceland. The Icelandic historian Guðmundur Hálfdanarson said that nature is so indelibly written on the Icelandic psyche that it’s “close to replacing language as a symbol of Icelandicness.”
So when Iceland’s growing industry sector threatened its natural beauty, Bjork took a stand. And so began her decades-long battle to preserve Iceland’s environment — one that would turn Bjork into a national political figure and international activist.
In this episode, I’ll trace Bjork’s progression as a climate activist — from reluctant protester to national leader. And I’ll examine the impact this activism has had on her music and the world.
Quick history lesson. Iceland is an extremely young country. While America and Europe industrialized slowly over hundreds of years, Iceland industrialized in a matter of decades. To put this in perspective, Bjork’s grandfather lived in a house made of mud. Little did he know that his granddaughter would grow up to use touch screen apps and virtual reality to share her music.
So in the 1970s, while environmental movements sprang up in the U.S., Iceland was enjoying relatively untouched natural resources. When there were environmental concerns, like overfishing, international NGOs like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth would intervene because Iceland didn’t have its own environmental group.
But as industrialization accelerated, some Icelanders took matters into their own hands.
In 2004, Icelandic actress Magga Vilhjálms organized a concert called Hætta, which means “stop,” to protest the construction of a third aluminum smelter in Iceland. This particular smelter was for an American company Alcoa and would create a series of huge dams that would threaten nearby wildlife.
Bjork performed in that concert along with Sigur Ros and other famous local musicians. But despite the concert’s popularity, it didn’t change the outcome.
After that Bjork knew she had to do more than just perform.
She said, “I had believed it would be stopped. There were a lot of people in government who were against it, but it still didn’t get stopped. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself, when I’m old and looking at my grandchildren, unless I at least gave it a whack.”
So a few years later, when another series of smelters were planned, Bjork and her friends founded the Nattura organization.
In an interview with Pitchfork, Bjork explained, “In a way, it's just me and four other people who share a Google group. The other people include Andri [Snaer Magnason], who has written this book [Dreamland: A Self-Help Manual to a Frightened Nation] and Magga Vilhjálms, who has been my friend since I was 11.”
Several groups supported the construction of the smelters. After all, this was 2008. Iceland was hurt by the Great Recession, and the smelters seemed like the quickest way to get them out of debt. But Bjork reasoned that the long-term costs of the aluminum industry outweighed its benefits.
[Nattura explanation 0:40 - 0:59]
There [are] a lot of amazing ideas in Iceland for young companies that could do. If the money for the next aluminum smelters would go into supporting these businesses, we would be in much better position Iceland in five years time. Both economically and also just image-wise or dignity-wise, and this is what I would like., hopefully, this song to spread out this message.
And she didn’t stop there. She also funded the solution. That same year she partnered with Auður Capital, a Reykjavik-based investment company founded and managed by women. Their mission was to fund sustainable small businesses in Iceland.
She also worked with the University of Reykjavik to identify startups in Iceland that needed this financial support.
She said, "We wrote a manifesto, not a thick one but just a functional manifesto and took it to the Prime Minister and said ‘These are laws that you can change now and they’d make things easier for little start-up companies.’”
Before 2008, Iceland had thrown its money into the stock market. Through Nattura, Bjork would turn its economic focus back to the people. Supporting sustainable small businesses would not only revive the local economy, but it would also protect Iceland’s natural environment.
Some critics questioned why she, a singer, was getting involved. But Bjork pointed out that running an incubator and running a record company aren’t that different.
“For me... it's like an indie label in a way. It's grassroots, where all these people can come and feed off of each other and get support. Where if one person gets a good idea, the other five will help them.” (Pitchfork, 2008)
Of course, being an international pop star turned climate activist had it perks. Like a dedicated audience. So, to bring attention to her organization, Bjork recorded a song called “Nattura” with Thom Yorke.
[Nattura explanation from Bjork 1:15 - 1:40]
The lyric in Icelandic says, it's just worshipping nature and how magnificent it is and to be humble in front of it. and the money that will come in from buying the song will go into supporting these young companies in Iceland. They'll be sustainable, green, and if we have to dam something for them, it will be done in a sustainable way.
That summer, Bjork also organized the Nattura concert in Reykjavik, where she and Sigur Ros headlined to raise money and awareness for the cause.
[clip from Nattura concert]
In her announcement for the event, Bjork stated, “I would like to point out Iceland’s uniqueness : Iceland and its pure untouched nature are synonymous. If that is lost, our uniqueness is lost. Just as if Paris lost its fashion, New York lost its skyscrapers, Los Angeles its Hollywood.
Our politicians must not get away with working against nature. We have to keep them on their toes. The damage could be too great, much greater than the short term profit.”
Although the concert attracted 30,000 people — a tenth of Iceland’s population — and earned Bjork and Sigur Ros the title of “Friends of the United Nations,” the event did not move the needle on the smelter deals.
An article by The Reykjavik Grapevine reveals why: “Even from way up close the message was hazy... The voice of the artists, the connection of their music to the message and the message to the audience was not vocalized by either of the headlining acts. `After Björk’s grand encore where she commanded her army of brass with throws of her hands, chanting ‘Náttúra ! Náttúra !’ the crowd dispersed to reveal a blanket of trash. As I survey the scene a woman looks at me and says indignantly, ‘What is it that we’re supposed to be fighting for?’ before leaning over to collect the half-full bottles of Icelandic Spring Water into a plastic Bónus bag.”
In the wake of the concert, Bjork also felt that she hadn’t done enough. In an interview with Pitchfork she said, “I'm gonna have to have one more whack at it, and try to be functionalist and not just ideological. As much as I don't want to get my hands dirty — I would rather just do music — I have to follow this up, or it was totally pointless.”
Her next opportunity came in 2010 when the Canadian Magma Energy Corporation purchased an Icelandic energy corporation. Iceland’s Left-Green party and Bjork, were concerned about the environmental implications of this sale since the company would have control over an important peninsula for the next 65 years.
She needed signatures to protest the sale. So in true Bjork fashion, she organized a three day karaoke marathon to do that.
She gathered about 46,000 signatures in all. A few weeks later, she led seventy protestors in a march to the Prime Minister’s office. The PM invited Bjork and a few protestors inside and accepted their petition. She even sang with them outside afterwards. But no referendum on the sale was held.
However, Magma Corp. eventually agreed to sell 25% of its corporation to Icelandic pension funds, which allowed Iceland to retain up to 25% ownership in its geothermal power. It was something, but not exactly what the protestors hoped for.
After this disappointment, Bjork took a break from activism for a few years. She decided the best way she could help was by making music.
She said, “That was actually one of the driving points, emotionally, for Biophilia. Instead of standing on a chair and criticising and going ‘Ner-ner-ner-ner-ner’ why didn’t I come up with solutions?... After trying to encourage people who’ve got nothing, to tell them: ‘Come on! You could start your own fishing company! You could grow mussels! Harness the tide! You can do it!’ Then when you come back to your home, to your studio… you cannot be lazy... You have to practise what you preach, you know?” (Drowned in Sound, 2011)
So Bjork made Biophilia, which became an opportunity for Iceland’s software developers to create the first app album.
[“Mutual Core” clip]
During this period, she also collaborated with The Dirty Projectors on their Mount Wittenberg Orca EP to raise money for the National Geographic Society Oceans Initiatives.
[Mt Wittenberg clip]
But she couldn’t stay away from climate activism. In 2014, she helped to organize Stopp, Let’s Protect the Park — a benefit concert to preserve Iceland’s natural wilderness. The concert went on to raise over $3 million, with plans to use the money to establish a national park.
So yeah, that was a pretty big victory.
A year later, the government threatened to install power lines through the center of Iceland’s wilderness. Bjork created another petition.
In her video to promote it, she wears a mask of transparent white material embroidered with black, green, pink, and white thread. She stands in front of a mural of the forest spirit from Hiyao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke.
[Bjork calls for global action clip]
Bjork felt comfortable being the spokesperson for this issue because she saw how unpopular it was among Icelanders. Surveys showed that 80 percent of them would rather have the highlands preserved as a national park.
Still, she had some misgivings about being a prominent activist.
In an interview with Icelandic Magazine in 2016 she said, “I regularly get these anxiety attacks : Perhaps people are just thinking Björk‘s on this, so I don‘t really need to do anything. Because it‘s so extremely important that everyone takes a stand and takes responsibility for our environment. Not least because of the changes to our climate. Once we thought we had half a century to change our energy sources, but we really only have eight years. If we want our grandchildren to have a chance to live here on earth, we must all become active and fight for the environment."
If Bjork sounds urgent then, imagine her reaction the next year when Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement.
[BBC sound bite about coming up with a plan]
I was devastated when Trump resigned USA from the Paris Climate Accord. But I think having six younger siblings and being the oldest, then being a mom really young and having two kids, I think it's just a reflex or an instinct to say, "Ok, let's come up with a plan. How can we tackle this?"
And I think it's [a] very natural, maternal instinct.
That plan took musical form in her next studio album, Utopia.
[“Paradisia” clip from Utopia]
Bjork wrote Utopia in the midst of political upheavals, rising nationalism, and natural disasters. In an interview with Time Out, she said that the album was a reaction to Trump’s election. She knew he would not only stall but reverse the world’s progress on slowing climate change. Yet through Utopia she suggests that there’s still hope — and that it starts by making a plan.
Keep in mind that this album was also the followup to her heartbreak album, Vulnicura. So on the surface, the record sounds more like a recovery, like she has fallen in love again. But if you listen closely, some of the lyrics also comment on our relationship with Mother Nature.
Take “The Gate” for example.
[“The Gate” - verse 1 (“My healed chest wound / Transformed into a gate / Where I receive love from / Where I give love from”)]
Bjork sings about how her heart, once racked with pain, now brings her joy. Pretty straightforward relationship stuff.
But if you listen with an environmental lens, this image also reflects the way humans use technology. Up until now, we’ve largely used it to harm the environment, but we could use that same technology to repair the environment.
The chorus even sounds like a plea from Mother Nature.
[“The Gate” chorus - if I care for you, will you care for me?”]
With the ominous instrumentation, this song feels like a final appeal to take action. We have the power to change our fate, but we can’t delay.
You hear that urge to act again in the third verse of the song “Utopia.”
[Verse 3 of “Utopia” - “My instinct has been shouting at me for years / Saying, "Let’s get out of here!" / Huge toxic tumour bulging underneath the ground here /Purify, purify, purify, purify toxicity”]
Again, she’s probably referring here to the end of her relationship with Matthew Barney — but the repetition of “purify” also feels like a rallying cry. We all need to band together to save the planet from our own toxicity.
The climate message becomes more explicit near the end of the record. In “Future Forever” she sings…
[“Future Forever” verse 1 - “Imagine a future and be in it / Feel this incredible nurture, soak it in / Your past is on loop—turn it off / See this possible future and be in it”]
But the message comes through even stronger in the instrumentation. She uses exploding synths that imitate bird song:
[“Arisen My Senses” intro]
And field recordings of birds that sound like synths:
[clip from “Utopia”]
This interchange between the natural and the technological reveals Bjork’s vision of utopia: a place where technology and nature peacefully coexist.
In a self-interview in W Magazine, Bjork shared why she wrote Utopia. “As a musician I feel I can suggest the musical poetic angle which is that after tragedies one has to invent a new world, knit it or embroider, make it up. it’s not gonna be given to you because you deserve it, it doesn’t work that way. You have to imagine something that doesn’t exist and dig a cave into the future and demand space. It's a territorial hope affair. At the time, that digging is utopian, but in the future it will become your reality.”
Of course, once you have that vision of utopia, you need to act. And Bjork continues to do that by amplifying climate issues. For example, in her Cornucopia residency at The Shed, she featured a recorded message from Greta Thunberg.
[a message from Greta Thunberg]
Many people say that Sweden is just [a] small country and that it doesn't matter what we do. But I know that you are never too small to make a difference. And if a few children can make headlines all over the world just by not going to school, then imagine what we could all do together if we really wanted to.
The message of Utopia encapsulates Bjork’s approach to climate activism. She’s rallying her community around a utopian vision and digging into the future. As we’ve learned, she often doesn’t see results, which could make her efforts look foolish or futile. But she keeps hoping, keeps digging, and keeps trusting that they’re creating a utopia day by day.
She plays her part, and most importantly — she keeps playing.