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How Music Can Support Sustainability Work

Sustainability jobs can be emotionally challenging. Can music help us keep going?

NBS Community Manager Abby Litchfield cares about sustainability – and music. 

Litchfield brought her two passions together with a performance at the 2023 Responsible Management Education Week

In an original song, she expressed the “beauty and pain” of working on sustainability. 

Listen to Abby’s song to explore your emotions around sustainability work – and enjoy the music! 

In the video:

  • 1:30: Abby performs “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong, which was also sung by choirs across the world to draw attention to a letter-signing campaign around COP26. 

  • 6:00: Abby sings her original song, Give her space.

Watch the performance here:

Prior to finalizing and performing her song, Abby spoke at a storytelling event in Toronto about “what it’s really like to work in the climate space.” She wrote and told a story about the process of writing the song — and how it helped her uncover and process her emotions about climate change. Here’s that story.

How I Found Pandora’s Box of Climate Emotions

One Saturday afternoon a few weeks ago, I sat down at my piano to write a song. I was all set up for success: I had found a chord progression, and I had some ideas in mind… the next step was just to open my mouth and see what lyrics flowed. 

But when I opened my mouth, I was completely caught off guard. Because what flowed out was a deep sob. And then another one. And they just kept coming.

Because instead of lyrics, I found what I’m calling my “Pandora’s box” of climate emotions that I didn’t even know I had. 

If you haven’t heard the Greek Myth, essentially, Pandora had a box, and when she opened it, all the “ills of the world” flew out — although there was some hope in there too.

Here, I want to tell you how I wound up opening my personal box of climate emotions – and the healing that provided.

My job is sorting information about sustainability

Every day, as Community Manager at the Network for Business Sustainability, I encounter and sort through a lot of information about sustainability. 

There are emails, newsletters, new research, webinars, stories from colleagues, social media… you get the idea.

As I make sense of it all, I do my best to sort the information into different categories. For example:

  • New research on the link between re-wilding landscapes and carbon sequestration might go into the pile to consider profiling in some of our future work at NBS.

  • The webinar on “Canadian companies tackling net zero effectively” goes into the inbox of my colleagues who are in a research deep dive on that. 

  • An article on “how to identify greenwashing in carbon offset solutions” might go on the list to be shared with our readers on social media.

  • The headline that says “Is AI a more existential threat than climate change?” goes in the “ignore for now” mental disposal because I don’t know how to begin processing that one just yet.

And all the while, the all-too-familiar “tick tick tick tick tick” sounds away in the back of my mind. That’s the sound of the climate clock that’s been lodged in my mind since one 2018 headline that really stuck… The one that said, “We’ve got 12 years to change things before irreversible damage and climate catastrophe.”

My secret sorting compartment: Pandora’s Box of climate emotions

Day by day, headline by headline, the sorting goes on, as the years “tick, tick, tick” by.

But what I didn’t realize about my information sorting process is that for each and every headline, some information was going into Pandora’s box, too. A little bit of guilt here, anger there… a sprinkle of overwhelm… All tucked away in Pandora’s sneaky little box stored deep in my unconscious vault — without me even noticing.

Music is my outlet for emotions and expression

For me, it wasn’t until that day, sitting at my piano, that I figured out how to find and unlock my box – using music.

Now, that might sound weird to you, but it shouldn’t have surprised me. For as long as I can remember, music has been an outlet for me. I play the piano and sing to evoke all kinds of emotions. For the most part, I stick to singing other people’s songs. I see injecting my emotions into other people’s words as plenty vulnerable enough.

But in the last few years, I’ve increasingly dabbled in writing, recording, and releasing music. And through that process, music has grown into another solid half of my identity – along with the half dedicated to promoting climate action in the face of the “tick tick tick.” And so I’ve often wondered: what would it look like to weave these two halves of my personality into a whole? 

Recently, a cool opportunity has come up for me to try. I was asked to sing at a conference co-sponsored by NBS, about climate and responsible business education in June in New York. And although there are plenty of good protest-y and environmentally-focused songs I could cover, I decided to try weaving my two halves into a whole by writing my own song. 

But here’s the thing: doing that has been scary. It’s vulnerable

Because writing a song about climate isn’t the same as writing the articles I usually work on at NBS. I didn’t want to wind up singing some cliche song about 1.5 degrees and planetary boundaries that no one wants to listen to. I knew If I wanted to write something meaningful, then I needed to tap into a realm that I usually leave more on the sidelines of my sustainability work. 

I needed to look into Pandora’s box of climate emotions.

How I looked for Pandora’s Box

Now, I say “look for it” because I know myself. As a chronic “bottler” of emotions, I knew that tapping into the emotional side of my sustainability immersion wasn’t going to come easily.

So, I set myself up carefully to get there. On my Songwriting Saturday, I spent the whole morning quietly reflecting. Instead of my usual routine of filling my brain space with podcasts and audiobooks (more info to sort!) I filled it with nothing but instrumentals. I gave myself plenty of space just to think and reflect. 

And after a whole afternoon of reflection, I hit the living room floor with my sketchbook to brain dump and see what I found. 

Out came images, like seeing the sun come through the haze of a forest fire. General themes and concepts, like the sense of urgency and complexity. Lines from presentations that really resonated, like one about how “it’s never been the earth who needs saving, it’s been us.” 

And sure enough, bit by bit, I was able to pull a few strands of emotion out of the box too. 

How I unlocked Pandora’s Box – using music

It wasn’t until I sat down at the piano, though, and thought about all of these things set to music, that the box really flew open. 

Only then, when I opened my mouth to sing, did the threads of emotion I’d been pulling on turn out to be whole spools. Years of the emotional side of every headline came back out of their neat little storage compartment and into my conscious mind. 

As the sobs came out, I couldn’t help but laugh at the same time, because I know I shouldn’t be shocked. I’ve seen the headlines about climate grief, about climate anxiety. And I know this isn’t my first time putting my emotions to the side. 

But somehow, I was still blindsided by the sheer volume of it all. The complexity. The crashing waves of grief, overwhelm, panic, love, gratitude, guilt, obligation, passion… The simultaneous privilege and burden of caring so deeply about what I do, that it has generated this whole spool of messy emotions all locked up in Pandora’s box.

And at that point, I was just about entirely emotionally burnt out. All I could do is lay back on the living room floor and process it all. 

Why I’ll keep cleaning my box of emotions

Then, as I lay there thinking, I was filled with gratitude. Because even if it took a while, at least now I know where to find the key to my Pandora’s box, and how to open it at the piano after taking some time to reflect. 

If there’s one thing I know about little hidden boxes of emotions, it’s that while they might be very useful for sorting information day-to-day, they don’t live in our subconscious rent-free. And they aren’t (unfortunately) bottomless. One way or another, they need to be cleaned out, cared for and addressed. 

Now, since I don’t expect the climate clock “tick tick tick” to go anywhere soon, and I do expect to continue encountering a lot of information about sustainability – I’m certainly going to need to keep up a routine box-clean-out. So you’ll find me (probably sobbing) at the piano at least once a year for “spring cleaning” from here on out.

And I hope that the many other people in my world – who I know have a little Pandora’s box tucked away like mine in order to protect themselves, and to keep going in their roles every day – I hope they can find the keys to their boxes too. 

Additional Resources on Arts and Sustainability

  • NBS Workshop 2021: Art and Purpose: Enabling Radical Change?A keynote session at the 2021 Sustainability Centres Community conference where Tima Bansal (NBS Founder) interviewed Christoph Thun-Hohenstein (Director of the Museum of Applied Arts) about how art can support purpose in business and society.

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  • Abby Litchfield
    Community Manager
    Network for Business Sustainability
    Honours Business Adminstration, Ivey Business School

    Abby Litchfield is the Community Manager at the Network for Business Sustainability, overseeing partnerships, processes, social media, and all things graphic. Abby is deeply passionate about bringing people and organizations together to advance sustainability, and loves creating new content with NBS collaborators because it's an opportunity to do just that.

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