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Like Music and Oil. Perfect Together?

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With few exceptions, it's now possible to say that most everybody everywhere is an environmentalist, especially politicians running for higher office. Even the major oil companies and oil rich Gulf state are sponsoring environmental initiatives and research into alternative energy sources.

Of course, we all want to wean the world, and ourselves, off of fossil fuels to the extent possible. If you've had at least $23,000 to buy a new car in the last year, chances are you've seriously considered a hybrid (and chances are also good that if you have two or more young kids, you decided that the only hybrids that get really good mileage -- the Prius and Civic hybrids -- are just too small to function as family cars. Why haven't Toyota and Honda put out hybrid Siennas and Odysseys?!). Perhaps you've even bought a solar system if you have $15,000 to spare and are spending enough on gas and electricity to recoup the investment within 15 years (note to southern California readers: this is the excuse you've been waiting for to buy that hot tub you don't really need).

But for everyone of us who daydreams -- as do I -- about pulling our plug-in Prius into the garage, filling it up with relatively clean Compressed Natural Gas using our home nozzle (if the Pakistani government subsidizes the conversion of cars to CNG, why can't the US?), and recharging the hybrid batteries using the energy produced for free from our home solar panels, there are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Americans who have barely enough money to pay for heat in their drafty apartments or homes during the winter, or for gas for their beat-up, 2nd or 3rd hand -- and most likely environmentally incorrect -- 12-year-old Fords.

For the majority of working class Americans, barring an unprecedented and highly unlikely (no matter who wins in November) government investment into creating an inexpensive post-petroleum consumer infrastructure, the majority of their fuel, whether for their homes or cars, is going to come from petroleum and their main concern is going to be how to afford the oil and gas they need to live rather than how to spend enough money to purchase more fuel efficient cars, solar systems, and other costly contraptions that while crucial to saving the environment are still far out of reach for too many Americans.

Enter "Music is Our Oil," a recently created collaborative venture, whose two principals, Mikal Kamil and Dan Levin, are music industry pros who have set before themselves the task of galvanizing the entertainment industry and the energy industry into what they are calling the "Great Collaboration".

As Mikal explained it to me, the Great Collaboration "will manifest itself in the form of a worldwide concert tour/film titled "Music is our Oil" (MIO) whose goal will be to barter American entertainment, goods, and commodities for oil. Specifically, we intend to barter the performances of well-known hip-hop and rock artists for 20 million barrels of crude oil produced by OPEC member nations.

The venture didn't start out as such a complex and far-thinking program. Instead, it started in Philadelphia, where Kamil and Levin are based when the two brought in rap heavyweights like Public Enemy and The Roots to help raise money to pay for heating oil for the city's poorer residents.

"We stumbled into this thing, thought of great way to bring immediate relief to people in community by doing a benefit that combined the entertainment and energy industries, two of the most important and far-reaching business sectors in the world today, whose activities touch the lives of nearly everyone."

We were mentored by other festivals like Farm Aid and Citizens' Energy, who introduced us to the idea of bartering, and then, of all companies, Venezuela's national oil company, Citgo, came in and helped tremendously getting oil to poor inhabitants of Philly and other cities. It wasn't until we began producing events for Barack Obama's campaign in Philadelphia that we learned from his skilled team what our responsibilities as Americans were. We are forever grateful to his campaign for awakening our potential and changing our lives."

I will say that my knee-jerk reaction merely to the suggestion of working with ExxonMobil and other major oil companies was extremely negative. But the tens of millions of poor people in this country can't afford to take principled stands when they can obtain the fuel they need at prices that could spell the difference between making it through the next month or seeing their homes foreclosed or cars repossessed.

As Kamil explains, "The idea is to prove naysayers wrong about grass roots activism," by showing how even two industries as seemingly at odds as the environmentally uber-aware music business and the ultra-polluting petroleum industry can work together to address the urgent needs of millions of citizens, then we an also work together to solve the pressing long term problems associated with global warming.

What struck me as someone who works on issues related to oil and the economy is that the project is neither selling out to the major American oil companies nor merely lending them desperately needed credibility, but going more directly to the source in the countries who produce most of the foreign oil purchases by the US, while at the same time creating linkages to pre-existing infrastructures, industries and technologies to have immediate impact.

On the music side, Kamil has already lined up cooperation from The Roots, Public Enemy, Erykah Badu, Stanley Clarke, Stanley Jordan, Everlast and other acts, and is reaching out to others with the hopes of lining up a tour that can generate millions of barrels of oil -- 20 million barrels, in fact. The oil will be the "barter" with which the OPEC and non-OPEC governments in whose countries the artists play will pay for their services (the artists would donate most of their normal fee,. allowing the oil to be given directly to the needy through the use of a new currency called the Mio, which will be based in gallons of gasoline rather than US dollars and giving out gas cards which can be redeemed at most service stations.

If all goes well, the tour will begin in June 09 in Canada and move on to Norway, Russia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and finally Latin America, before ending six weeks later in the USA. There will also be a film documenting the whole tour, tentatively titled "What The Hell Is Going On."

That is certainly an apt description for what in fact is going on when it comes to oil and the various mechanisms surrounding the huge rise in oil prices in the last few years. At the very least, bringing artists on a grass roots endeavor to engage the peoples of countries that are often in tension with the United States (as are many OPEC nations) can increase international goodwill and ease geopolitical tensions at a time when both are needed. And bartering with governments in the Middle East seems to be an eminently more practical approach to dealing with our need for foreign oil than bombing or occupying them. So even if you already drive a Prius or own a solar system, if you see the MIO tour coming your way, do yourself a favor and check it out. The music will be great, message important, and you'll be helping some of your less fortunate neighbors pay for the gas and heat that is becoming an increasing burden for millions of low income and elderly Americans each year.