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Every Voice Counts

In praise of a cacophonous theme song for Copenhagen

By Juliane Poirier

I love music like I love life. But sonic branding—is that like a Nike swash for the ear? Some of my best friends are in marketing, but I confess I'm unmoved by the sound logo that's supposed to represent COP 15, the United Nations Climate Change Conference set for Copen–hagen next week. Nikolaj Abrahamsen composed a five-note piece suitable for cell phone tones, a three-second sound byte. I listened, but it didn't work for me. If anyone else out there prefers a more mystical vein of music, raise your index finger and bring it down to click on any website that will play a recording of my counter suggestion: the singing of the humpback whale. Too heart-wrenching for a cell ring, and with musical phrasing much too long, I'm sure. In that mammalian sea music resides the pathos of all living things whose tenuous futures depend in part upon what happens in Denmark Dec. 7–18.

I could use more soulful music on this topic, something to calm the jitters, because there's been such a build-up to the Copenhagen summit that the stress is getting to many. Some grumpy environmentalists are critical that Obama will only attend the meeting for a day; Greenpeace accused the president of just showing up for a photo op. But I am thrilled and counting my blessings. For once, I don't have to suffer humiliation for being American when informed minds in the universe say, "Hey, there's a global crisis! Let's meet and make a plan." I finally have a president who will show up to the meeting—even for a day—to speak articulately on our behalf, comprehend the urgency of the issues and tell everyone that we're in this and we mean it.

The last time the United Nations tried to hammer out a climate-protection plan, the Bush administration refused to cooperate, opposing all efforts to create mandatory cuts in greenhouse gasses. President Obama, on the other hand, will attend on Dec. 9 and acknowledge to humankind that at long last we, the second biggest polluters on the planet after China, are going to join the rest of the world in setting greenhouse-gas-reduction goals. We are not as ambitious yet as the European Union, which overshadows our 17 percent reduction target with a 30 percent reduction, while Japan's offer is about 25 percent. China ambitiously promises to cut carbon emissions by 40 to 45 percent by 2020.

So back to the sonic-branding thing. My preference for a whale song unites me to others who share my naturalist sensibilities, as Abrahamsen's concise tones bind him to people who share his musical preference. There can't be just one tune; no single set of tones can summarize ("brand") the hope and fear we feel about the climate crisis. Instead, without knowing it, we are all together, albeit cacophonously, creating an unplanned theme song for Copenhagen. It's our cry for survival. And however heartfelt it may be, it sounds pretty strange.

It's similar to the one in Horton Hears a Who. In that Dr. Seuss tale, the inhabitants of Who-ville have to make quite a loud sound in order for their world to survive destruction by Horton. And they do, but only after discovering that every single voice among them mattered; the last and smallest voice to join the fray gave the last dose of decibel needed to avert disaster. So maybe it doesn't matter which music says it for you, as long as you make sure the notes get out there somehow, live or recorded. I am a great believer in the power of music to help avert planetary disasters.

Last month, a friend and I climbed Malibu's Point Dume, where we fell in with whale watchers and I saw closely for the first time two spouting humpback whales. Mesmerized, I said, "I wish we could hear them singing underwater." The man beside me smiled, reached for his iPhone, tapped it a few times and held to my ear a beautiful recording of humpback whale song. The experience was profound.

When humanity's cacophonous theme song hovers over Copenhagen next week, I hope Obama can hear the whales.

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