Amidst the acres of paper, beer cups, abandoned tents and mounds of rubbish left behind by patrons, how responsible are music festivals in the current haemorrhaging of the earth’s natural resources?

On the weekend of 15 August 1969, an estimated 400,000 people from all corners of America descended on a 600-acre dairy farm in New York State to attend the Woodstock Music and Art Fair. Forever etched in history as the pinnacle of the hippie movement and the cultural peak of the love parade, it set the benchmark for all other music festivals to follow.

What is often overlooked, when seen through rose-tinted glasses, was how the ineptitude of the organisers also created the benchmark in how to negatively impact the surrounding environment. Festival-goers were treated to an array of malfunctioning toilets, mud-caked fields and traffic jams leading into the festival that stretched some 20km from the site. The bottleneck was so severe that U.S. Army helicopters were deployed to help shuttle band members to and from the fiercely “anti-war” gathering,

One tragic story told of a tractor that was hauling away sewage from the portable toilets, accidentally rolling over and crushing to death a sleeping 17-year-old boy. In total 100,000 US dollars was spent to clean up the decimated festival site. A huge hole was dug in the ground and was filled with tons of waste and set on fire. The garbage burned for days and brought criminal charges against the organisers.

It’s not easy being green

In an age where it’s more common to be judged upon your collection of material possessions instead of the sum of your individual achievements, it comes as no surprise that the earth is taking a back seat to the consumer push for “more is better.”

Research indicates that most of the change in the global climate in the last 50 years is due to human activities, with ten per cent of the hottest years on record occurring since 1990. The effects of climate change include rising sea levels, loss of bio-diversity, more extreme weather conditions and natural disasters. Many of these changes can be attributed to the burning of fossil fuels emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Further research from the U.S. shows that car fumes also cause asthma, resulting in a six-fold increase in diagnoses over the last 25 years.

Amongst the carefree air at music festivals, issues of traffic congestion and travel, waste management, carbon dioxide emissions, noise pollution, water usage and land damage are of major contention. With the consequences of their actions being the furthest things from the average festival-goer’s mind, perhaps the most difficult task on hand is getting the message across to them about the immediate harm being done to the environment.

7 July 2007 saw a worldwide series of concerts whose prime focus was to highlight the depleted state of the earth’s resources and the effect of climate change. With 150 music acts performing at 11 locations around the world, Live Earth’s message was subdued by the overriding contradiction that it was preaching concern for the earth whilst staging a series of events that were in themselves negatively impacting upon natural resources.

The concerts were lambasted in the media from the outset, with headlines screaming “Private Jets for Climate Change.” Performers flew about 360,000 kilometres — the equivalent of nearly nine times around the planet — to their respective concerts. Estimated at 74,500 tonnes, the total amount of carbon emissions produced during the entire event would require the planting of 100,000 trees to offset. Such blatant contradictions amidst the soap boxing ensured the concerts were widely considered a failure.

But it isn’t all bad news

Amongst the frenzied finger-pointing have emerged examples of music festivals that are striving to reduce their damage to the environment. The Greener Festival awards are handed out each year to festivals around the world helping contribute to a better future. A team of environmental auditors visit individual festivals to assess environmental good practice and effective green policies based on a 56-point checklist that covers all of the detrimental effects a concert has on the environment.

This year saw 16 festivals worldwide recognised for their efforts in greenery in England, Australia, America, Scotland and Italy. Some of the inspired initiatives included printing with soy-based ink in all t-shirts and merchandise, artists transported to stage by bicycle rickshaws and the recycling of tents left behind in previous years.

Other inventive solutions included free beer in exchange for handing in recyclable bottles, extensive bicycle parking stations, compost toilets and security horses being employed instead of vans, with all resultant manure being used as compost by neighbouring farmers.

Local efforts

On the local stage in Finland, Helsinki Rooftop Ninjas are one local group committed to organising events that do not chew up the earth’s resources. “I think there’s a lot of people who have similar attitudes but don’t have the opportunity to act on it,” says Gavin Kalan of the local collective. “We’re bringing together likeminded people and plan to make other events eventually in other places around the Baltic.”

One of the more innovative ideas they have produced is that of a bicycle generator, utilising good old-fashioned pedal power to run equipment at gigs. “The Hki RtN bike generator can produce enough electricity to power all of a DJ’s equipment — and you can toast sandwiches,” he offers. “It is a start, because it’s imperative that we get off oil as a society.”

The most affective alternative available to the world’s dependence on oil is biofuel. Touted as a cleaner-burning fuel than petroleum, vegetable oil and crops high in sugar content are capable of producing this suitable replacement. The 2008 Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee boasted 100 per cent of its generators being run on locally sourced biodiesel, and the Atlanta Jazz Festival has incorporated a biodiesel-recycling plan for waste vegetable oil from food stands. As it’s proven productivity becomes apparent, more and more festivals in the future will come to the biofuel party.

The other side of the coin

Meanwhile, in stark contrast to the panic of social conscience, the festival manager of Roskilde Festival has a different perspective on the environmental damage done by festivals. Henrik Bondo Nielsen claims that the 75,000 guests visiting the festival each year might actually halt the drain on the earth’s resources.

Each member of the crowd spends four days without using their own personal transport, home electricity, water or lighting, as well as not watching TV or playing music on their own ‘PA system.’ “Could it be that in fact organising a festival has a very positive influence on the environment?” he asks. Until there is a more accurate measurement of the impact of festivals, this remains to be seen.

James O’Sullivan