Listen to Driving Towards Environmental Awareness in a “Big Yellow Taxi” Podcast Below:

Welcome back to protest anthems, the podcast about all things music, social justice, and protest. In this episode, Arianna Markatos, discusses Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” and it’s legacy about environmental awareness, justice, and change. Written and released at the beginning of the 1970s, during an era of new found concern for the environment Joni Mitchell was able to create a song that called for activism and protest. “Big Yellow Taxi” has remained a timeless piece of music as the development of environmental activism has evolved. 

Canadian singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell, is a free spirited artist who speaks her mind and sings the truth. With her timeless song “Big Yellow Taxi”, released in 1970. The song was inspired by Mitchell’s eye-opening trip to Hawaii. While looking out her hotel room, she thought she’d be able to soak in all the beauty Hawaii had to offer but her view from her room was ruined. And this epiphany about the disruption of nature by the encroachment of civilization is capture in her opening lines:

With a pink hotel, a boutique, and a swinging hot spot. Don’t it always seem to go, that we don’t know what we got till it’s gone. They’ve paved paradise, put up a parking lot”

This moment, while a unique experience for Mitchell, has become relatable to everyone who has been noticing and feeling the heavy losses of nature. In 1970, Joni Mitchell was writing this song during a time when the environment was being used and abused by big corporations who didn’t have any regulations or restrictions stopping them from destroying the environment. Before the release of Big Yellow Taxi, Rachel Carson a biologist, writer, and conservationist released her book “Silent Spring” in 1962.

In a video segment from American Experience: “Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring” on the PBS Learning Media website, they explained:

“Until the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, people were generally unaware of the toxicity of pesticides. But Silent Spring transcended the pesticide issue and forced people to think about the environment in a new way, and within a decade, sweeping environmental laws were enacted.”

As they explained, this was the first major book that brought up this issue of using toxic pesticides and the need for governmental regulations. Rachel Carson brought awareness to how pesticides like DDT were ruining the environment and people’s health. Joni Mitchell brings this up in her song: 

“Hey farmer farmer, put away that D.D.T. now. Give me spots on my apples. But leave me the birds and the bees”


Not only was Joni Mitchell influenced by Rachel Carson’s book, but she was also impacted by the new rise of environmental activism during a time of what South Africa Journalist, Charles Leonard described as a time of “environmental angst.” This angst and activism was a nationwide reaction to one of the worst oil spills in American history happening in 1969…7 years after Carson’s book and 1 year before the release of “Big Yellow Taxi.” In a YouTube excerpt clip from the Sand Sun Oil and Gas a documentary covering the Santa Barbara oil spill we can hear the first hand accounts of the disbelief of this spill.

“…Here we are at Santa Barbara’s once beautiful harbor. How serious is the oil situation?”

“Yeah it is really deteriorated, it’s a uh-bad situation, it’s a complete mess throughout the-the marinas and has affected every boat in the harbor…” 

According to the LA Times it was “estimated [that] 3-million gallons of crude oil [went] into the ocean, creating an oil slick 35 miles long [all along] California’s coast and killing thousands of birds, fish and sea mammals.” This event triggered a string of protests throughout the country. Resulting in tighter legislation surrounding big corporations and the establishment of the first Earth Day in America. A YouTube video from the Howard Baker Center for Public Policy Channel talks about the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the impact of Earth Day,

“Earth day helped to build political momentum for a tough new law…the response was nothing short of remarkable…on April 22nd 1970, 20 million people mobilized for the first nationwide demonstration on environmental problems.”

Mitchell’s, “Big Yellow Taxi” is a song that calls for environmental awareness and a need to change, through its lyrics, 

 “Now they took all the trees, and put ’em in a tree museum. And they charged the people a dollar and a half to see them. I said, don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you got till it’s gone”

With the song being written in the midst of a huge rise in environmental concern during the 1970s the song drew inspiration and highlights this new found social awareness of environmental justice. In a clip from American Masters film, “A Fierce Green Fire” from PBS Learning Media website we can hear the kinds of things being said at these demonstrations.

“If we do not save the environment, then whatever we do in civil rights or in a war against poverty will be of no meaning. Because we will have the equality of extinction.”

“The big picture is that we live on a finite planet with a limited capacity to sustain life” 

But that history of concern is just as important then as it is now, especially with the rise of climate change. On BBC News report they discuss the impact of climate change on the world,

“…The number of weather-related disasters has increased five-fold in the past 50 years. That’s according to the world meteorological organization. On average an event linked to weather, climate or water hazard has killed 115 people every day since 1970. Many of those events can be blamed on climate change…”

Today there’s a much bigger emphasis in pop culture and social media on reducing our environmental impact. For younger people and kids YouTube is a great and accessible resource to learn about topics, like ecology and sustainability. One of the most educational and influential channels on YouTube is “Crash Course.” It’s a very popular video series for teachers to use as a means of introducing important topics like climate change and its impact on our environment. In an excerpt from their “5 Human Impacts on the Environment: Crash Course Ecology #10” video, Hank teaches the importance of our ecosystems, 

“The ecosystems of the world are working very hard for us every day, filtering water, sucking carbon dioxide out of the air, producing all the food we eat…all very important ecosystem services”

Companies have now taken bigger strides to create more eco-friendly products through the encouragement/demand of their consumers. We see them showcasing their new environmentally friendly products through TV commercials. General Motors, one of the largest automakers in the United States created a quirky Superbowl commercial in 2022. Featuring Doctor Evil from “Austin Powers” who has “taken over” General Motors and is now doing-plot twist- the “good” thing by having this new eco-friendly angle, 

“Ladies and gentlemen our take over of General motors, is complete.”

“Dr. Evil we can now use GM’s optimum platform to power our whole operation.”

“Now we can reduce tailpipe emissions!”

“I’m sorry, am I no longer Doctor Evil? I’m Doctor Good now, I didn’t get the memo”

“Climate change is arguably the number-one threat to the world now.” “Doctor Evil, you are now the number-two threat to the world.”

So while the representation of the issues brought up by “Big Yellow Taxi” have continued to expand onto different media platforms, Joni Mitchell’s song still has a strong presence in the music industry. Her song is reflective about our relationship with the environment and how abandonment goes both ways. You don’t take care of the Earth, you can’t expect it be able to stick around long enough to take care of you. In her live performance Joni Mitchell alters the song lyrics to drive the point home.

“Late last night, I heard that screen door slam. And a big yellow tractor came along, took away my house and took away my land! Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. They paved paradise And put up a parking lot”

Artists still use her protest song as a means of continuing the conversation about conserving the planet and its resources. Since its release “Big Yellow Taxi” has been covered and sampled by many singers ranging from different musical genres, helping the song reach different groups of listeners. Some of the most notable artists who have covered this song include Counting Crows featuring Vanessa Carlton in their 2002 cover. They give Big Yellow Taxi a Indie, Rock, and Pop twist

“They paved paradise put up a parking lot. Hey now-now, don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you got till it gone? They paved paradise put up a parking lot. Why now they paved paradise and put up a parking lot”

And most recently in 2020, pop icon Harry Styles covered Joni Mitchell’s song on Radio 2 Breakfast,

“Hey farmer, farmer put away the DDT now. Give me spots on my apples, just leave me the birds and the bees. Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you got till it’s gone. They paved paradise put up a parking lot”

Overall, these covers and samples demonstrate how people are still drawn to this song. The catchy lyrics hook people in, but it’s the meaning behind the lyrics that have made it so timeless. Drawing on her folk music roots, Joni Mitchell brings people into the song with it’s simple imagery while her singing voice hones in on the urgency of the song’s message, which is a need for change.

“Don’t it always seem to go , you don’t know what you got till it’s gone, they’ve paved paradise put up a parking lot…They took away my house, they took away my land! And I said, don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you got till it’s gone. They’ve paved paradise put up a parking lot.” 

Her trembling and howling voice unlocks this sense of nostalgia and awareness. While her song creates a beautiful space to enter into conversation about environmentalism and conservation. Joni Mitchell’s song evokes such strong feelings of loss. Like we can’t help but feel like nature is slipping through our fingers while listening to her sing. Since the song’s release there were many strides made by the government towards protecting the environment with things like the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. In more recent years there has been a bigger push in funding and supporting renewable energy sources. In National Geographics YouTube video, Renewable Energy 101 they discuss how beneficially renewable energy is, 

“Renewable energy, can decreases pollution and therefore reduce threats to our health. Wind, solar, and hydroelectric systems create no air pollution emissions”

This public backing has encouraged so many innovative discoveries. Unfortunately, these positive changes have been severely weakened since the Trump administration. According to The New York Times, since Trump took office “more than 90 environmental rules that have been reversed or weakened.” This has not gone unnoticed, one of the youngest most well known climate activists of my generation, Greta Thunberg, has spoken out about this negative impact on the environmental movement.

 “The real danger is when companies and politicians are making it look like real action is happening, when in fact almost nothing is being done.”

This is just another reminder that going forward, we have to be diligent to make sure that we address climate concerns. Making sure we push to maintain and improve the legislation that is in place to protect us and our environment. While environmental activism has grown since “Big Yellow Taxi’s” conception, the quest for change isn’t over yet. These songs and young voices create such a great emotional appeal to the world as Greta Thunberg explained,   

If a child or a young person talks about these issues, of course it’s more powerful in a way, because we are not the ones who have posed this crisis. We just happened to be born in a world where there is existential crisis. That has a lot of impact on people-people feel very guilty when a child says, ‘you are stealing my future.'” 

Big Yellow Taxi” is an important piece of protest music because it makes us reflect on our relationship with the world. Making us wonder if we have what it takes to stop repeating mistakes done by previous generations. Joni Mitchell leaves us this choice to if we’re capable of “knowing what we got” and not letting it go. Protect paradise or risk taking a taxi cab to a very dismal future. I’m Arianna Markatos and this is Protest Anthems. 


Audio of Joni Mitchell’s singing came from her live performance: