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.

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