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Pop culture rarely addresses climate change. This 1993 album is a welcome exception.

Donald Fagen’s Kamakiriad recognizes how complicated a problem climate change is, intentionally or not.

Cover of Donald Fagen’s Kamakiriad
Cover of Donald Fagen’s Kamakiriad
Reprise Records

By nature, human beings aren’t psychologically equipped to deal with climate change. It’s too big, moves too slowly (though not slowly enough), and could result in consequences that are still uncertain yet unquestionably catastrophic.

Granted, the international dialogue about global warming is louder than it’s ever been, with some truly major developments and innovations happening in the past year alone. But we still have a long way to go, and, on the whole, many folks would just as soon not include climate change in their everyday conversation. It’s not because they’re deniers or don’t care about the planet; for some people, addressing — let alone combating — a potential mass extinction is just too much to handle.

That’s why in a 2015 special for National Geographic, Bill Nye portrayed himself as coping with climate change the same way one might cope with the death of a loved one. Titled The Five Stages of Climate Change Grief, the special featured the Science Guy working his way through overwhelming feelings of denial, anger, bargaining, and depression so he could eventually accept the reality of climate change. At the end of the hour, he felt motivated enough to get up off the couch of his therapist (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) and actually do something to fight the problem.

Five Stages is one of the few instances of pop culture to examine climate change realistically. No, Nye isn’t actually wandering the planet in the stupor of a crippling “global meltdown,” as the program states, nor is Schwarzenegger actually his therapist (or anyone’s therapist). But Nye does interject the fictional framing device with real-life interviews and demonstrations explaining climate change, its effects, and possible long-term solutions. Even the therapy segments serve a definite purpose: to unpack the psychology of why most of us have such a hard time coping with a very real, very big problem. Regardless of its comedy and wistful concept, The Five Stages Of Climate Change Grief still has the air of a documentary.

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bill Nye The Science Guy in National Geographic's The Five Stages of Climate Change Grief
The Five Stages of Climate Change Grief.
National Geographic Channels/Gina Cholick

When it comes to straight-up fiction, though, very few films, books, or TV shows examine climate change with such a sharpened sense of accuracy and actionability. Very few films, books, or TV shows examine climate change at all. But why? Why is the most famous fictional film about the topic The Day After Tomorrow, a movie that, while not as far-fetched in its concept as was once thought, is still more concerned with refilling disaster-porn spank banks than making any kind of realistic statement? There’s plenty of good art devoted to racism, class divides, war, and other big-picture problems of the world. So why not climate change?

“I generally blame the deniers,” Nye tells me over email. “They have been so successful in introducing the idea that scientific uncertainty, plus-or-minus two percent, say, is the same as doubt about the whole phenomenon, plus-or-minus 100 percent. Climate change brought on by global warming is not in fiction because it’s not in our general awareness — not yet.”

There are a lot of (not great) songs about climate change

The pop culture medium to most frequently discuss climate change is arguably music. Everyone from the Beach Boys to Neil Young to Cake has sung about how the human race is killing the planet, but few of these tunes actually go beyond a simple acknowledgement of the problem. And the ones that do tend to offer solutions that are either too vague or just plain unattainable, Bad Religion notwithstanding.

And therein lies the trouble with writing about the fight against climate change: Right now there isn’t any one-touch, catchall fix. Many activists and scientists believe that keeping the planet below the disastrous threshold of 2°C of warming requires global mobilization, and that even if every country that attended the landmark Climate Change Summit in Paris in 2015 hit its pledged emissions target, the cutbacks still wouldn’t prevent a number of climate-induced natural disasters.

In other words, to realistically address climate change in a song is to admit (and accept) that even under the very best of circumstances, we might not be able to save everything.

One album recognizes just how complicated a problem climate change really is

There’s at least one album out there that addresses these hard facts. Released in 1993 and set shortly after the millennium, Kamakiriad — the second solo record by Steely Dan frontman Donald Fagen — takes place in a future United States that’s being ravaged by climate change.

At the start of the record, the middle-aged narrator embarks on a cross-country trip in the car of the title (“kamakiri” is Japanese for “praying mantis”). The imaginary automobile moves slowly, runs on steam, and — as revealed in the opening track, “Trans-Island Skyway” — even has a bionic vegetable garden in the trunk.

“The car is going through territory in which tide pools are boiling and plates are grinding,” Fagen told the radio program Words and Music around the time of Kamakiriad’s release. “[T]hese are really natural disasters.”

And that’s just in the first song. Throughout the next seven, the narrator encounters several more residual effects of extreme weather, from an alien invasion that takes place during a summer heat wave (“Tomorrow’s Girls”) to a city that’s permanently iced over (“Snowbound”).

And yet, for an album that takes place in apocalyptic times, there’s very little sense of external panic to Kamakiriad. Sonically, it recalls Fagen’s latter-day work in Steely Dan (think Aja and Gaucho); the arrangements are a chrome cocktail of pristine jazz rock (Walter Becker, the other half of the Steely Dan brain trust, produced). But where Fagen’s most famous artistic outlet is widely known for acidic lyrics juxtaposed with this kind of majestically groovy instrumentation, the words on Kamakiriad are more straightforward and human in their concerns.

The album conveys a sense of resignation toward the fact that many of the worst parts of climate change have already happened, which frees up the narrator to fret over matters more inward in scope. Middle age becomes a concern throughout (Fagen released the album when he was 45, after a lengthy bout of self-examination and writer’s block), as does the emptiness of nostalgia.

In “Springtime,” for instance, the narrator stops at an amusement park called Laughing Pines, where he can project his favorite memories onto a screen in a virtual movie theater. It’s fun at first, but he eventually realizes he’s trying to recreate a time that has long since passed him by. When his real-life lover takes his hand, her touch breaks the sentimental illusion, prompting them to venture downtown and live in the moment for the rest of the night. Later, in the album’s penultimate track, “On the Dunes,” that same lover abandons him on a shoreline that’s encroaching on more and more of the country’s dry land.

Kamakiriad’s neuroses make it oddly optimistic

Midlife crises, a fixation with nostalgia, and heartbreak all sound like they’d only make a post-apocalyptic album that much bleaker. But alongside Kamakiriad’s calming arrangements, they end up adding a sense of comfort. There’s this idea that even in a world where natural disasters have run rampant, its characters can still be human beings and have the same insecurities as human beings in today's world.

Nye expects that’s how it would happen in real life, should enough people survive the effects of climate change. “Our human proclivities will always be with us no matter what we’ve done to our home world,” he explains.

However, Nye doesn’t agree with my notion that this consistency is a source of comfort in any piece of art. He points out that it embraces a fatalistic outlook that can keep real progress from happening. Rather than view weather-induced disasters as inevitable, Nye says “we have to remain optimistic about solving the troubles brought on by climate change, or we will not get to work.” This echoes Five Stages’ thesis of fatalism creating mental blockage that gets in the way of real action.

While I certainly agree that we should do everything we possibly can in the present to prevent cataclysmic disasters in the future, I still take solace in an album that shows humans dealing with their usual neuroses in an apocalyptic wasteland, for it’s these neuroses that make us, well, human. It’s comforting to think that idiosyncrasies so specific to our species might not get frozen in an ice age or washed away in a flood.

There’s also the outwardly optimistic tone of Kamakiriad’s closer, “Teahouse on the Tracks,” where the heartbroken, severely confused narrator stumbles into the most barren environment yet, a place called Flytown “where the shallows meet the scratchlands.”

At this point, “psychologically, he’s totally abandoned, and just about ready to cash it in,” Fagen said in his Words and Music interview. Then he hears a jazz combo playing from a second-story window, leading him into the ramshackle speakeasy of the title. He’s so moved by the music that he experiences a spiritual and mental renewal that sends him back to his car the next morning, and on to the next adventure.

That ends Kamakiriad with a truly valuable lesson: Amid the concurrent hardships of climate change and mental anguish, art still exists. It still has the power to inspire and transform. Even in an unrealistically alarmist vision of the future where our great-grandkids would need to wear gas masks or miraculously grow gills to survive, they could still be moved by the right piece of music. They could still be moved by the right piece of art, just like Fagen’s narrator.

Donald Fagen probably didn’t intend to comment on climate change

It’s important to note that Fagen, though consistently liberal, has never been any kind of vocal environmentalist. Rather, the landscape of Kamakiriad most likely comes from his love of science fiction, a genre that’s been speculating about the decline of human civilization and physical alteration of the planet since its inception.

“Working in science fiction allows you to maintain a certain detachment from the material,” Fagen says in the intro to Kamakiriad’s making-of featurette. “Also, you get to invent technology that hasn’t been invented yet.” When he describes the kamakiri as “environmentally correct,” it’s probably not as much an enthusiastic endorsement of green technology as a prediction of where he saw automotive advancement going as he thought about it back in 1993.

Scott Hull, who mastered Kamakiriad as well as Steely Dan’s Grammy-winning Two Against Nature and Fagen’s most recent solo album, 2012’s Sunken Condos, recalls their discussions having little to do with the narrative.

“We did not discuss the story at all,” he says. Instead, they focused on minute adjustments to balance and tone. “Donald is and was very meticulous. It was interesting how balance and tone [EQ] were very related to him. More so in his music than most, the balances within the mix change subtly when you change the EQ.”

Hull also remembers Fagen only using “pianos and electric pianos that could be tuned manually. He was so used to the sound of a stretched tuning, like a grand piano, that that’s what sounded right to him.”

It makes sense that a mastering engineer would talk more about an album’s sonic textures than its story with a musician, especially a notorious studio perfectionist like Fagen. However, the fact that Kamakiriad’s concept never came up at all in conversation points to its climate change commentary being somewhat accidental.

But does that really matter? Does it matter that Kamakiriad might be about climate change in the same way Game of Thrones is about climate change?

Of course not. Although Hull says he had never considered the climate change angle to Fagen’s music, he still recognizes that it’s a valid way to view the work. “To say that Donald didn't discuss the meaning or story behind the lyrics with me [doesn’t] mean that their role beyond a melody was unimportant [or] irrelevant. My imagination fills in the gaps for me even when I'm working on music in languages I don't speak.”

There’s also such a dearth of interesting pop culture addressing climate change at all right now that we should take whatever we can get, even if it’s an album from more than 20 years ago; even if it’s an album whose creator may be more interested in his main character’s personal struggle than the planet’s external one.

That’s a sentiment Fagen would go on to revisit more blatantly almost 20 years later on “Weather in My Head.” Throughout the fourth track on Sunken Condos, he equates his own middle-age turmoil with a variety of natural disasters: Typhoons explode in his eyes and rogue waves wash over him.

“They may fix the weather in the world / just like Mr. Gore said,” he sings. “But tell me what’s to be done / Lord ’bout the weather in my head.” It’s a line that could refer to the physical battle with climate change as well as the psychological one. If more pop culture addressed these topics, maybe we’d be more inclined to fix both.

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