Neil Young does what Neil Young wants to do.
The singer-songwriter has had a penchant for speaking his mind since he first rose to fame in the ’60s. From the protest anthem “Ohio” with supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young to his indictment of the American South on “Southern Man,” Young has used music to voice his political and social opinions — and not without some pushback (see Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama”).
Time has not slowed Young down. Shortly after becoming a U.S. citizen in 2020, the self-described “Canerican” wrote an open letter to then-president Donald Trump, criticizing him for his management of the climate crisis. And in 2022, Young pulled his entire catalog from Spotify to protest Joe Rogan’s podcast, which he believed was spreading misinformation about COVID-19.
On his 2022 collaborative album World Record with Crazy Horse, however, Young enacts his protest through the spirit of love. On songs such as “Love Earth,” for example, he encourages listeners to initiate change by appreciating the world around them. The message is deceptively simple, but it’s one that proves comforting as the climate becomes increasingly unpredictable and doomscrolling feels inevitable.
Young’s climate activism has even reached beyond the music he pens and into the way he envisions the future of touring. While many contemporary artists opt for shows with smoky pyrotechnics and several costume changes, Neil Young’s West Coast Solo Acoustic Tour consists of just him, a few setpieces and, of course, his myriad of instruments.
In an interview with The New Yorker in 2022, Young said of his touring plans: “I’ve been working on it with a couple of my friends for about seven or eight months. We’re trying to figure out how to do a self-sustaining, renewable tour. Everything that moves our vehicles around, the stage, the lights, the sound, everything that powers it is clean. Nothing dirty with us. We set it up; we do this everywhere we go.”
Bringing a holistic approach to his tour’s externalities, Young refuses to play at venues that serve food from factory farms. For Young, this means choosing sustainable food from “real,” local farmers, including a host of meatless options. As concertgoers lined up at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, many expressed confusion at the “plant-based salmon burger” and “organic fries” on the menu. But again, Neil Young can do what Neil Young wants to do — and what Neil Young wants to do is protect the environment from irreversible degradation.
Unlike Young’s most famous protests, which often dealt with specific political and cultural moments, his treatment of the climate crisis takes a broader, long-term look at the Earth — one that extends beyond even his own lifetime. Throughout his catalog, Young expresses a palpable understanding that one day he must grow old. Now, at age 77, he seems less concerned with the loss of youth and more concerned with those still living it.
A similar sentiment has also been expressed by folk singer and Civil Rights activist Joan Baez, who has openly expressed her admiration for 20-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg and participated in the Pathway to Paris Concert For Climate Action. During her conversation with Native American scholar and activist Greg Sarris at the 2023 Bay Area Book Festival, Baez took time to offer advice to younger members of the crowd hoping to combat the climate crisis. While she did not downplay the gravity of the situation, she also inspired hope for the next generation.
The fact that famous protest artists from the civil rights movement wholeheartedly advocate for the environment in the present day speaks to the importance of intergenerational equity, or the idea that future generations have the right to the same resources and livelihoods as those before them. As the present population uses up the environment’s resources, conditions will only become more dire for those in the future. Tackling climate change means considering the rights of those who aren’t even alive yet — even if that means denying today’s immediate desires.
As Young, Baez and more express their support for the younger generation, they demonstrate that their activism goes beyond themselves. The rebellious spirit of the 60s has carried into the modern day, and though it can’t enact much change on its own, it does provide some much-needed hope, as well as a rough blueprint for those hoping to enact change.
At the end of his set at the Greek Theatre, Young gave an encore performance of “Love Earth.” It wasn’t one of his popular hits — in fact, very few songs of the night were — and it wasn’t known by much of the audience. Yet, as the crowd sang and swayed along to the chorus, even plant-based salmon burger skeptics could feel the shared camaraderie. It’s the type of love that makes you want to take off your shoes, hug a tree and start taking action — if not for yourself, then for the people to come.