It’s a bleak chorus. “The ice age is coming, the sun is zooming in / Meltdown expected, the wheat is growin’ thin / Engines stop running, but I have no fear / ‘Cause London is drowning, and I, I live by the river,” Joe Strummer sings on The Clash’s 1979 song “London Calling,” the title track to the album of the same name. Environmental apocalypse looms in Strummer’s vision, and for good reason.
1979 was a bleak year for the global environment. In the first few months, the United States Environmental Protection Agency released startling findings from the Love Canal disaster in Niagara Falls, New York that revealed chromosomal damage and high white blood cell counts in residents who had long been exposed to the toxins around them. On March 28th, a reactor core melted down at the Three Mile Island power plant in Pennsylvania, sending radioactive gases into the atmosphere and confirming the worst fears of many concerned with the growing reliance on nuclear energy (the “nuclear error” Strummer refers to in the song). By late December, the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan and Cold War tensions between the superpowers ratcheted up after years of détente. The prospect of nuclear war – with its staggering human and ecological consequences – soon returned.
The Clash, “London Calling,” London Calling, Epic, E2-36328, 1979.
“London Calling” captures the concerns of global ecological catastrophe and decline that these events portended and yokes them to larger concerns that had become apparent in the 1970s. Strummer’s lyrics bespoke the downsides of modern society and limitations of future economic growth. Oil shortages following embargoes in 1973 and 1979 and projections of resource decline from books such as The Limits to Growth suggested the abundance that had shaped the post-World War II era for Western Europe and the United States would come to an abrupt end. Engines across the world might “stop running.” Strummer’s reference to the “wheat growin’ thin” implied large-scale famine, which many people feared as concerns about runaway population growth pervaded the international politics of the decade, too. At the same time, the Three Mile Island incident exposed dark ironies of technologies that had helped to generate that abundance (the “nuclear error,” as Strummer calls it). They contained risks, some hidden, some all too apparent, and the trade-off for cheap energy and consumer goods was that any point some unanticipated technical or human error could lead to disaster.
The song conjures a similar sense of impending doom from these trends. The phrase “London Calling” is a reference to BBC reports that were broadcast during the darkest periods of World War II. “This is London Calling,” a voice would say, before delivering the news to people who worried about their very survival amid the most destructive war in human history. By 1979, Strummer felt that a similar situation was on the horizon.1
Strummer envisioned such ecological pressures and environmental disaster as unfolding on the local, blighted urban landscape of London. The London Strummer depicts in the song is a dystopian one: children quiver in “cupboards” as Strummer beckons them; Strummer calls out to the “underworld”; the only high is one that comes with “yellowy eyes” (Strummer himself had contracted hepatitis a year earlier). These all reflected a harsh economic climate. The country faced high inflation, rising unemployment, and growing social unrest capped off by the myriad strikes that gripped the country during the “winter of discontent” in the unusually cold months between late 1978 and early 1979. But it also spoke to grimness of the built environment. Strummer’s London was a microcosm of the deindustrialized, blighted landscape of late 1970s urban Britain. He saw a world of unevenly distributed environmental risks and dangers, where poverty represented more than just low income levels. It meant poor health, crumbling infrastructure, and uncertainty about the future - the widespread sources of disabuse and rage to which punk rock gave voice.
Strummer needed look no further than his own immediate surroundings to feel such concerns first hand. In 1979, he and his then fiancée rented a small flat in an old building along the River Thames in Chelsea. The Thames had suffered periodic flooding throughout its history, and in the late 1970s the city began an expensive barrier building program to blunt future flooding.2 So he quite literally “lived by the river,” and he worried that the barrier technology might fail amid rising waters and imperil his home.
One of Strummer’s many virtues was his ability to link highly local and individual concerns with broader global trends. In this way, Strummer not only adumbrated the most prominent physical manifestations of global climate change – rising sea level – but also struggled to make sense of how to redress it. For despite the clear environmental threats so evident to Strummer, he encounters apathy in others. “London calling and I don’t want to shout / But while we were talking I saw you noddin’ out,” he writes. He hears the stories of impending doom; he makes them clear. He doesn’t want to have write and sing repeatedly about environmental cataclysm, but his subject here is too bored, too disinterested, or too high (or all of them) to care much. The song is a compendium of environmental perils, but it is just as much a call to arms to awaken those who do little in response.
One need not know much about the Thames floodplain or British industrial policy to share such concerns today. Scientific data and expert knowledge about climate change has only grown stronger since the release of “London Calling.” The material situation is immeasurably worse. In 2018, political will has evolved in most places to respond to both these changes. Yet in the United States, the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world, much of the Republican Party, the sitting president, and his administration reject the scientific consensus on climate change and seek to block, curtail, or revoke policies that will mitigate future warming and help citizens here and across the world adapt to unfathomable ecological danger. In this moment, we would do well to play the song and imagine ourselves as Joe Strummer. The world is drowning, after all, and soon enough we’ll all live by the river.
Stephen Macekura is Assistant Professor of International Studies at Indiana University-Bloomington.
Stephen Macekura, "London Calling," Enviro-History.com, March 16, 2018, http://Enviro-History.com/london-calling.html.