Karine Polwart on how climate change impacted her music
Interview for The Sunday Times
Image by Paul Heartfield
You might expect Karine Polwart to be ecstatic. Last year, almost two decades into her career, the Scottish folk singer-songwriter landed her first Top 40 album, while her critically acclaimed theatre piece Wind Resistance is returning to the Edinburgh Lyceum this spring after selling out venues across the country. With her participation in the Bruce Springsteen tribute concert at Celtic Connections tonight, she’s also fulfilling her goal of working with Roddy Hart as part of his Roaming Roots Revue series of gigs.
Polwart’s mind is on her children, however. With councils across Scotland proposing cuts to music education, she is concerned students will miss out on developing key skills. “I live in Midlothian and my kids go to school here. I've been involved as a parent in the process of trying to find a way to make music tuition sustainable. I think councils are under a lot of pressure, and I've got empathy for the really difficult decisions they’re being forced to make, but I think music education is vital.
“There are some fantastic people out there like Nicola Benedetti articulating its value, not just in terms of producing professional musicians but for all the things that it brings into children's lives through the education system. Confidence, collaboration, creativity. These are qualities as people that children need to develop. Music is a perfect medium for that.”
In Wind Resistance, a collaboration of her own with sound designer Pippa Murphy, the birth of Polwart’s son is set against the backdrop of the Lowlands’ ancient peat bogs. As looming threats to humankind have come to the fore, she says the fear of what legacy we are leaving for the next generation has seeped into her work. Her new stage production, The Only Light Was Stars, will premiere as a work-in-progress at the Hebridean Dark Skies festival next month. It explores, amongst other things, nuclear waste and supernovae. 
The latter refers to the explosions of stars. Fiery death on a monumental scale. It’s hard not to draw comparisons to the bushfires in Australia, and the existential threat global warming poses. How could a parent not worry when our survival as a species is at stake? “Everything I write about now is through the lens of the climate emergency. Not just the new theatre piece but pretty much all my work over the next year has been formed by that. I can't really see past it.
“Dominant in the landscape that I grew up in is the Grangemouth petrochemical plant, which is the number one carbon polluter here in Scotland. It’s physical, immediate evidence of the kind of harm that we're causing to the environment and the climate right here on our doorstep.”
“It’s in my kids’ consciousness. They know who Greta Thunberg is. They talk about it at school amongst their friends. It's an issue that's in children's dreams.”
When Polwart was a child, it was nuclear war that her generation feared most. She speaks of having government literature posted through her letterbox giving guidance on how to survive a nuclear blast, and living in fear that the Forth Valley landscape she calls home would be obliterated. The irony of nuclear power now being hailed as “the great white hope” in combatting climate change is not lost on her. “All of the problems that there have been around the safe use of nuclear power have tended to be issues that have arisen in response to circumstances that we couldn't have imagined. We don't have full capacity around how these things work. We have, under what appears to be our control, huge forces of potential destruction.”
“We're leaving to subsequent generations literally hundreds and thousands of years into the future waste that will not decay for a quarter of a million years. It's mind-blowing expanses of time. I find it morally repugnant and scary. And at the same time, these are the forces in our sun and in the stars, which are also generators of life.” 
A common thread between Wind Resistance and The Only Light Was Stars is what Robert Burns referred to as “tyrannic man’s dominion”. Polwart says a key character in the new theatre piece is Sir Martin Ryle, a Nobel Prize-winning astronomer and former Astronomer Royal who was critical of the way in which fundamental science is abused politically and militarily. “He was highly revered as an astronomer, but also had these very public political views around nuclear weapons. The science of supernovas is the science of nuclear power that we now exploit as humans here on the planet. I'm really interested in the questions that he asked towards the end of his life because I feel like they are the questions of our time: What is our knowledge for? What good is it? Who controls how it's used?
“That's what gets us to where we are now in terms of the climate crisis. We have great knowledge and great capacity but we don't have equal control over how it’s utilized. That's the shift that's required, ultimately, to get us out of the hole that we're in. We have to start caring about other things.
“We're not the only life form that inhabits any landscape. But we have such power over everything, and also such power over ourselves and whether we make it or not.”
Polwart believes it’s the same qualities her children develop learning about music that are needed to ensure we do “make it”. “The arts and the cutting edge of science are all about hunches and glimmers of things that you don't understand yet. It's going to require imagination and collaboration to step outside of the box that we're in. 
“What's needed is a very, very deep change in how we inhabit the place that we live.”

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