Monday, August 19, 2013

Outside Lands, Music Festivals and the Ecologically Unconscious

This year I was able to go to the San Francisco based music festival, Outside Lands. I was able to attend this festival of music and technology because I was fortunate enough to table for the Plastic Pollution Coalition. For those unfamiliar, the PPC is an organization whose sole purpose is to educate on and attempt to eliminate the dangers of plastics in our society and ecosystem. The PPC had a booth at Outside Lands in an area known as “Ecolands.” The organizers at Outside Lands put together “Ecolands” to be “the zeitgeist of sustainability and environmental consciousness of Outside Lands.” It housed a few eco, voting and preservation issue oriented groups, a water station where you could refill your bottle for $1 (or for free if you bought their $15 reusable container) and solar powered entertainment.

In this role we tried to teach and engage festival goers about the impacts of their activities and to bring awareness of the alternatives of plastics.

It was refreshing to see so many people come to the booth and actually learn and become engaged with the information and volunteers. The crowds seemed to really love the spinning trivia wheel game where winners could win sustainable prizes like reusable bags, canteens and stainless steel straws.

Along with “Ecolands,” the festival also partnered with Clean Vibes to offer incentives for festival-goers to pick up the detritus of the event including the mounds of alcohol containers, plastics, bio-plastics and cigarette butts. One of the prizes was even tickets to the next Outside Lands. They also had staff set at each waste station to help sort recyclables, compostables and trash.

We already know that music festivals are environmental disasters and, while they can be economic and media boons to a local economies, the payoffs seldom are more than the costs. Many familiar with these impacts shudder in fear at the last Orange Crush festival.

It is true that Outside Lands did make an effort to include a sustainable microvillage to educate participants of the festival and made an effort to incentivize the event to pick up after themselves that, in the end, was rather successful. Some may even say that it is the "Best Music Festival in America." That being said, there were some issues that need to be addressed.

1. A sequestered “Eco-Area” does not make an environmental event.

Taking a look at the map of Outside Lands, you can see that, compared to the entire festival, the areas where participants could learn about their festival footprint were miniscule and concentrated. The groups discussing the issues need to be distributed out throughout the grounds to truly reach a wider audience.

Map - If you click on the image above notice that there is a tiny “eco lands” area. While this is great and keeps in the theme of segregation of certain aesthetics like "chocolands" it would have made more sense to have different groups spread out more for a larger impact.

While it makes sense to thematically group together areas, if you want good distribution of information, why not make sure there is a booth in every area where people can learn more about pollution, their own impact and how to change their practices?

You will also notice an area known as “wine lands.” This housed some great samples of wines and sakes from all over where festival goers could taste and drink wine at the event. The proximity of this tent was ultimately annoying for those attempting to fight the use of plastics and plastic containers. Those wishing to, could only get a wine or sake drink with a plastic cup that they had to buy from the desk. They could not use their own container or cup or even a compostable cup from one of the beer stations.

The beer stations also would not allow you to use a reusable container, only their “bioplastics” and, in most instances, a new cup for every drink. This was because the operators of those stations tracked how many drinks were served by how many cups were used. While “bioplastics” could be considered better than plastics, you have to remember they still take energy to produce and compost or recycle as the case may be. Imagine if every festival goer used their own reusable container for this event. The impact would drop dramatically.

I am not going to go into it too deeply, but the festival also hosted Drakes Bay Oyster Farm products and a sign attempting to save the dubious farm from returning to wilderness, a sticky issue with me.

2. An incentive program should not be necessary, but if you are going to use it make it bigger.

It was refreshing seeing volunteers not only picking up various pieces of rubbish including giant bags of cigarette butts. When I learned about the incentive aspect attached to it, I was equally impressed at the ingenuity of the staff and organizers of the event. As I looked to the larger crowd, however, I felt my heart sink at the realization of the reality of the nature of the beast. Not only were a large portion of the revelers leaving their trash and plastics strewn across Golden Gate Park, there were hoards who were almost violently littering. Examples of people throwing bottles into the air, stomping on bioplastic cups, and tossing items into the brush. This shameful example of humanity’s lack of respect for their surroundings was very upsetting, though not surprising.

If the organizers created this incentive program on the current level, why not go the next step. By having stations and booths across the event (as described above) where people could interact and learn different new knowledge about waste in the event and beyond you can turn the program beyond just a reward system to a scavenger hunt of knowledge.

Imagine that those participating in such a scavenger hunt had the opportunity of being recognized publicly for their efforts and, with the right celebrity buy-in, able to meet and chat it up with some of the acts.

It is just an idea but such a larger scoped program will create better cooperation between groups, more incentive for alternative participation and even competitive jealousy with those who find themselves unaware or not interested in eco-awareness.

3. Taking Outside Lands to the Next Level.

Music festivals can be about more than just about sex, drugs, rock and roll and food, they can be educational tools to a demographic where such outreach is sorely needed. If the anecdote above doesn't illustrate the need for an adjustment of focus and self awareness, here is one other observation. While entering into the park on my second day of volunteering I came across a small group of young adults (I use the term "adult" here very loosely) who were outside the entrance chugging down beers in large cans.

One of them, a girl in cowboy boots and a flannel shirt, drop-kicked her beer into the woods of Golden Gate Park. Unable to control myself I started walking towards the violently distributed litter to pick it up, saying a little too loudly "Are you [expletive deleted] kidding me?"

One of the men in the group hurriedly walked to the container to pick it up and stated, "Just go away, take your liberal ideals somewhere else." 

I was taken aback at the statement. When did not being a slob become a liberal ideal? Can you only be a true red-blooded conservative American if you mindlessly kick your garbage all around you?

Environmental organizations, celebrities who care about the environment and event organizers need to capitalize on the audience that they have in front of them. We all need to recognize that it will be very difficult to approach these attendees in the traditional means. While we may get about 1-5% of the attendees, we need a larger approach.

Combining a rewards program with public shaming of those who wantonly stomped on plastics or tossed them like the park was a landfill is a good start but the organizers need to remember that they have stages with celebrities that can be influential.

Celebrity buy-in to conservation in these instances, reinforcing the need to clean up our acts especially at events like these, must be explored for the future of these festivals. Otherwise it will just be a large group of mindless drones unaware of the world around them, a smaller group looking for reimbursement for cleaning up and an even smaller group disgusted by the dregs.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Jumping the Shark Week Shark

For those who are engrossed with the Discovery channel, pop culture, Twitter or Will Ferrel and John C, Riely movies; Shark Week is an epic frenzy of attacks, blood filled oceans and sexy celebrities. For those in the Ocean conservation and science realms it is a jagged double edge sword.
On one side, for as well intentioned as the Discovery Channel may be, Shark Week presents a situation for the need for fact checking and correcting a lot of the misinformation out there.  This year Shark Week began with an epic movie about the Megalodon. This ancestor of the Great White Shark was a mighty and giant predator which gives fright to the bravest amongst us.

The problem here is that the program presented the Megalodon as a contemporary of present day man when the actual animal has not been alive for million of years. At the end of the program a brief flash of an explanation of truth flashes across the screen. This truth, in hummingbird speed, explains that the creature has been extinct for some time. This outraged Ocean Scientists, internal parties, and opened the door to justifiable criticism. The Daily show pointed out the ridiculousness of the situation and even the current Nerd King (and always Wesley) Wil Wheaton stated that Discovery owed an apology to its viewers.  
This situation brought to a head the question, does Shark Week help the Shark Conservation Conversation or hinder it?
On the other side, Shark Week brings the numbers. Streams throughout the internet are abuzz with activity around Sharks and the ocean like no other time of the year. Millions across the globe are glued to their televisions brought by fear, bemusement or morbid curiosity. This is an audience that can easily be led to actually learning about Sharks and the peril the Ocean is in. 

It is such a landing point that non-profits, such as Upwell have even begun to teach virtual classes on how to maximize on the impact of Shark Week through “Sharkinars.” Upwell also provides tide reports that highlight different spreadable and actionable activities. One shark scientist, most easily found by the Twitter handle @WhySharksMattter, has exploded on twitter for laying down shark truths throughout Shark Week. He is even getting his own “Ask Me Anything” session through the popular internet forum Reddit right now (well, 12:00PM EST 8/9/13).

The point that I would love for all non-profits to realize is that Shark Week is a unifier. During this week, it is relatively easy to join into a massive, global, cross-platform discussion that is instantly engaging to a mass audience. It is a period of time where, for a brief moment, divergent and usually competing non-profits are all participating and adding to the conversation. The lesson we, as those who work in advocacy and non-profits, need to learn is that Shark Week is an amazing example of cooperation and collaboration. It even gives the chance to share a well used infographic showing the gravity of the situation. As much as it may frustrate some, it is important to remember that it is bringing new people to the table. Those new people are important.
We can create other opportunities to work with both likely and unlikely partners to amplify the message of all those involved. Things like "Sharktober" or "World Oceans day" can turn into huge campaigns if the right collaboration and programming were made. Getting a popular, attractive celebrity wouldn’t hurt either, but who is counting.

Happy Shark Week and remember two things; 1. When something brings a new player to the conversation, educate and hope they can be brought on as a partner. 2. By working together, our message amplifies.