A few days before the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War, Serj Tankian is sitting in an Austin hotel room and ruminating on the costs of the endless battle. But Tankian isn't talking about dead soldiers or civilians; he's talking about the cost to the Middle East's environment, an issue that few people have raised. "The topsoil there has been destroyed," he says, "and who knows what kind of damage all those bombs have caused to the ecosystems in the Middle East?"
Many bands these days are claiming the "green" label, but their concern often starts at the merch table and ends at the recycling bin. Not so for the System of a Down frontman-turned-solo artist, who sees beyond silos and realizes that issues like electoral reform, recognition of the Armenian genocide, poverty and the environment are all related. As the four-day industry party that is South by Southwest rages below him, Tankian is serious but not humorless; clad in jeans and a T-shirt, he fiddles with his iPhone and shows off pictures of his dog before settling in to ponder weightier issues. Later that night, he brings the seething, schmoozing Stubb's crowd to a halt when he plays three haunting acoustic tracks at a show to celebrate the release of the "Body of War" documentary.
For Tankian, preaching about taking action is not enough. Rather than simply paying lip service to green issues, he founded a Web site, skyisover.net, to connect his fans to environmental and social justice organizations. He also fuses the message to his music and the accompanying visuals; the video for "Sky Is Over" shows him literally erasing the sky, a comment on the growing deterioration of the ozone layer.
He also founded a nonprofit, Axis of Justice, with former Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello. "Serj and Tom are really committed to getting music fans to get involved with local organizations and be active on a grass-roots level," AOJ media director Jake Sexton says. "Serj is extremely informed about how the way we live our lives impacts others and the need to a change in consciousness."
"The organization has grown and morphed, and we really see the environment as being tied to social justice and human rights causes," Morello says. "We both realize that while people can do things on a person-by-person basis to make the world more green, massive levers need to be thrown to cause any real change."
Tankian is spreading his green message on the road and working with environmental nonprofit Reverb to make sure that his current tour leaves as small a carbon footprint as possible. With the organization, he ensures all the food served backstage is organic and locally grown, that recycling bins are available throughout the venues and that fans can buy energy credits to offset their travel to the show. Still, Tankian recognizes that it's not enough. "This is all great," he says, "but it's not going to stop the destruction. Right now the Earth has a fever, and based on the accelerated rate of population growth, the way we live now is completely unsustainable."
Many artists are becoming more active in promoting green issues, but you seem to be one of the few who actually go a step beyond and connect environmental issues to issues of poverty and war. How do you see the relationships between these causes?
For me, it all stems from the need to promote justice. I called my organization Axis of Justice because I didn't want to focus on only one issue. The connections can be drawn because they are present in so many places; for instance, poor urban neighborhoods have higher asthma rates. When a city wants to build a dump or get rid of radioactive waste, they don't put it in the nice part of town. Even materials that are supposed to be environmentally friendly can be harmful to poor communities. Biodiesel, for example, uses up farmland that could otherwise be used to grow food for starving people.
How did you first get involved in green issues?
I've been a supporter of Greenpeace and the Sierra Club for years. I have a place in New Zealand, and I was really impressed with a Greenpeace action that took place down there recently. Greenpeace folks boarded a Japanese whaling ship to try to shut it down, and in the midst of the conflict, both ships ran out of fuel. When a rescue ship came, the Greenpeace people tried to disconnect the fuel lines to the whaling ship, even though it meant they'd be stuck as well. It was kind of crazy, but sometimes you have to be ballsy and put yourself out.
Do you ever worry that you are just preaching to the choir and the people who are driving around in Hummers and living in McMansions are just ignoring the message?
I sat next to an oil executive on the flight to Austin, and he started talking to me about how absurd it was that every day when he drives to work, the highways are full but trams and buses are empty. I think people are starting to hear what environmentalists are saying. "An Inconvenient Truth" was a huge wake-up call for a lot of people.
Have you ever been confronted with having to eat costs to be greener? Have you paid extra upfront for organic merch or greener touring? If so, how much?
Click here for the full Q&A, including the business decisions behind going green, the idea of holographic tours, how green is impacting other social issue and more.