It wasn’t a mid-life crisis, more of a mid-career awakening.
Having opened up my heart and mind to the world as a musician, something else ended up in there.
I was in my mid-30s, and having survived as a musician for 10+ years after graduate school, I was starting to feel, if not prosperous, at least stable in my “playing the bass and living hand to mouth” lifestyle. Most of my career ambitions were focused around auditioning for orchestras and subbing and schmoozing my way onto a Broadway show. While I’ve always had an interest in history and current events (and had taken Joseph Polisi’s “Artist as Citizen” course while at Juilliard), what was happening in the larger world did not seem as immediately important to me as being a better player and making enough money for rent.
I subbed on my first Broadway show, “1776” in 1999, and I was thrilled. However, it wasn’t long before the real world rudely intruded into my musical one. In March 2003, facing an existential threat to the future of live music in Broadway pits, I participated in Local 802’s strike and the union’s “Save Live Broadway” campaign to educate the public about protecting an essential part of the NYC theater industry. I had seen how my talented and hard-working colleagues who had helped make Broadway so profitable were facing the possibility of smaller pits and electronic replacement in the upcoming contract, and I knew it was worth fighting against. Strangely, now I was one on those people handing out flyers to strangers on the sidewalk.
Fast forward to 2006. I’m not sure why I decided to see the movie “An Inconvenient Truth,” but it changed me. It clearly (and frighteningly) laid out the science of climate change, its human-made causes, and the ways we can change our energy consumption habits to slow down the damage to our air, water and planet. It sounded the alarm within me to act.
So I got the eco-friendly lightbulbs, and the reusable shopping bags, and started taking public transportation whenever I could. It was better than nothing, but I knew I needed to do more. After learning about the devastating environmental impact of the meat industry, I decided to become a vegetarian. While it felt good to be doing something every day that supported my environmentalism, after a while I felt I needed to do more. I kept reading up on the subject, looking for the next step. During one particularly tough stretch of gig-less-ness (and feeling that I was bass fiddling while Rome was burning), I even considered giving up music and going back to school in environmental studies. Then the phone started ringing again, and I was back in musician mode, but a shift was starting to take place. I was starting to think beyond my own needs and to see the bigger picture.
It was through Facebook that I started noticing posts by an old bass player buddy who was involved in a grassroots environmental group that fights for clean energy and protecting the environment against climate change.
350.org was founded in 2008 by author Bill McKibben and a group of students at Middlebury College. In just a few years it has blossomed into a global, volunteer grassroots organization that is a major voice in the struggle to protect our environment, with chapters in 188 countries. The name of the group refers to parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere. 350 parts per million is the cutoff amount that scientists, climate change experts, the United Nations and progressive nations say we need to stay below in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change. The world is currently at 400 parts per million – and climbing. The situation is dire, but not hopeless. Other countries are leading the way in switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources and we could (and should) be a leader in the green energy revolution.
350.org’s focus is to slow global warming by keeping fossil fuels in the ground. This can be achieved by divesting from the fossil fuel industry, promoting renewable energy initiatives, and demanding action from our elected leaders to regulate polluters, develop sustainable energy policies, and sign climate treaties.
As I learned more about the environmental movement, I began to understand its similarity to the labor movement.
Without protections, both the working class and our planet are vulnerable to exploitation in the pursuit of the greatest profit. This “race to the bottom” mentality is prevalent in our world today. It’s there when a production company decides or threatens to use non-union musicians or when a business relocates its operations to a place where pollution regulations are more lax.
I attended my first meeting of 350.org last June. (I joined 350Brooklyn, my local affiliate.) Eight of us sat around a table. There were petitions, reading lists and an alphabet soup of government agencies and activist groups – most of which I wasn’t familiar with. I was a complete novice sitting in with experienced activists who knew a lot more than I did. Undeterred, I came back for the next monthly meeting and listened as the group planned its trip to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia to push action on climate change onto the party’s platform. I couldn’t go to that one; I had a gig.
I was loving the energy at the meetings, and feeling good about my “activism,” even though I hadn’t actually done anything yet. It wasn’t long before I was asked if I could work a two-hour shift at my local farmers’ market to collect signatures for petitions and encourage people to get involved in the fight against climate change. This was my first nudge towards stepping up my game. I did my shift on Sunday mornings, knowing that I could still make a matinee if called. Here I was, handing out flyers to strangers again, not really that comfortable doing it, but doing it anyway.
In the fall, I missed a general meeting, and found out that, in absentia, I was nominated to lead our outreach committee – my second nudge. I had no idea how to do the job, but that hadn’t stopped me before. Plus, that was my head talking. My heart wanted me to do more, and here was an opportunity.
With the election of Donald Trump, the environmental movement is facing a dangerous enemy. Since November, our monthly meeting has grown from about seven people to 100! People are turning to us to push back strongly on Trump’s anti-environmental, pro-business agenda, and we need to harness that passion. With so much that we hold dear under attack, where do we start?
It is clear to me (and to many of my colleagues whom I’ve spoken with) that the Trump presidency is not something that we can afford to just wait out. I hope that everyone reading this can find some way to resist the onslaught on our values that is currently coming out of Washington. If I may make a few suggestions:
- Pick one or two groups to get involved with and get to it. You might want to fight for many just causes, but we are more effective when we focus our energies. The two groups I’ve chosen are Local 802 and 350.org.
- Get ready for a long haul. We need to resist now, and organize for local elections, the national midterms in 2018, and of course, the 2020 presidential election.
As a musician, I know that I am a link in a chain, part of a lineage that has received guidance and inspiration from those who came before me, and that I have a responsibility to pass this along to the next generation. The same is true with protecting the planet. Someone wise once said that this planet does not belong to us, we are merely borrowing it from our grandchildren.
And I also want to stay focused in the labor movement. While I have been active (on and off) with 802 in the past, I intend to be more active going forward in defending our union and the labor movement in general. One issue to keep our eyes on is the November ballot question to amend the New York state constitution. The labor community and Local 802 are very concerned that the risks of amending the state constitution outweigh the rewards. Opening up the state constitution to well financed and high powered anti-labor special interests could undercut the protections we’ve gained over the last 60 years. See Christopher Carroll’s article from the February Allegro for more information. A group called Musicians Indivisible (www.musiciansindivisible.org) is mounting a campaign to encourage a “no” vote on this ballot question.
Of all of Trump’s repulsive policies, his threat to the environment is one of the most pressing. If climate change continues unchecked, we will reach tipping points that will become irreversible. Unlike many other issues, where we may be able to regain some lost ground, climate is an area where if we lose, it will likely be impossible to reverse the losses.
Please consider volunteering with or supporting an environmental group such as 350.org. We are fighting for a future with clean energy, air, and water, an end to fracking and pipelines, as well as planning for resiliency as the planet heats up. To learn more about what we do, please visit 350NYC.org (for Manhattan) or 350Brooklyn.org. Our main focus this spring is supporting the Peoples’ Climate March in Washington D.C. on April 29. It’s gonna be huge. For more info, please visit newyork.peoplesclimate.org. I can personally attest that getting active has helped me get through the last several months. Channel your passion: your heart will thank you.
Bassist Marc Schmied, a member of Local 802 since 1996, currently plays for Tommy Tune, the rock band Tamika and The Slay, and everything in between.