I am about to show my age, but hey-ho. Do you remember the song Big Yellow Taxi?
Joni Mitchell sang it and the chorus went:
“Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone?
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot”
It’s a song about the people and the things we take for granted – which is something we all do. Even the most careful among us.
Right now, having moved house, I for one realise just how much I took the beautiful walks around Dornoch for granted.
And, being in temporary accommodation while the manse is finished, with all our things in storage, I am conscious, too, of a whole list of items I’m used to being able to reach out and put my hand on which are just not there right now. Everything from a printer to kitchen utensils to clothes.
Joni Mitchell’s words could have been written with me in mind.
But, then, for a song from 1970, it has an amazingly contemporary feel about it because its focus is primarily an environmental one.
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot
The story goes that Mitchell wrote the song on a visit to Hawaii. She’d wakened in the morning and thrown back the curtains to see the most beautiful mountains in the distance.
But between her and the mountains was an enormous car park which seemed to go as far as the eye could see and it reportedly broke her heart. That was when she wrote the line: “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot”.
There are, though, other references to environmental issues in the song.
A call to farmers not to use harmful insecticides, for example, where Mitchell sings: “give me spots on my apples but leave me the birds and the bees”.
There were other songs by other artists at the time that were every bit as concerned with how the planet was being treated. Where Do The Children Play? by Cat Stevens, for example. Or Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush.
A heavy oil spillage off Santa Barbara in 1969 had shocked people and caused outrage and that spill, along with one or two other incidents, sparked a new environmental awareness in many people. Over 50 years later, and it seems we have been so slow to listen to the message these songwriters were firing our way.
COP26 is on the minds of most young people
Later this month, world leaders will meet in Glasgow for the United Nations’ Climate Change Conference (COP26). It seems a bit incongruous that so many people will be flying in to discuss how to reduce carbon emissions and carbon footprints, but it is what it is.
Already there are people walking to Glasgow from across Europe. In the main, they are young environmental activists who are keen to hold governments and leaders to account for a world they are deeply concerned for and worry about.
A recent survey suggests that this is the single biggest issue on the minds of under-30s today.
There has been a relay of young people from across the United Kingdom, who set out weeks ago from the south of England and who hope to cross the border into Scotland in around three weeks’ time.
People are putting in such an enormous effort because they realise the truth of what Joni Mitchell sang – we don’t know what we’ve got ‘til it’s gone, and by then it’s way too late.
We must all hold leaders to account
There is a danger that Greta Thunberg’s fears about the conference, will turn out to be true. The young Swede worries that these five-yearly gatherings don’t, in fact, do very much.
She is concerned that they end up being nothing more than talking shops, where a kind of creative accountancy is practised to make figures fit, rather than bringing about real and much needed change.
I very much hope that doesn’t happen and, in a sense, people like you and I have to ensure it doesn’t by continuing to press our leaders to take the issue seriously and holding their feet to the fire until they do.
In the meantime, I think it might be a good idea for everyone to listen to Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi at least once a day between now and the opening of COP26, because we really don’t want to miss what we’ve got when it’s gone. Instead, we want our young people to inherit a wonderful world.
The Right Rev Susan Brown is the former minister of Dornoch Cathedral and the former moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland