Music festivals are in the common position of contributing to the climate crisis while being weighed down by their own practices. Trash cans overflow with plastic cups, bright lights and booming sound devour energy; fans and artists drive and fly from all over the globe. For a few days, festivals manufacture bliss in a blocked-off camp and parks. They sell the transgressive power of song at the GrubHub-sponsored stage. But the summers are getting hotter, the storms are fatal, and the windows for hosting outdoor gatherings are shrinking. What’s the point of music if it’ll only hurt us in the end?

“This summer, what we’ve seen meteorologically are a great number of incredible record-shattering heat waves, downpours and flood events. When you have thousands of people congregating together outdoors or in partially exposed circumstances, those are precisely the kinds of conditions in which extreme heat and storms are a pretty big problem,” said Daniel Swain, a UCLA climate scientist.

Last month, Governors Ball celebrated its 10th anniversary with a multiday bash in New York. ­Organizers moved the festival from Randalls Island to Citi Field because of its proximity to the subway and “flexibility with potential weather events” after the 2019 festival ended in complete disarray. After teasing a potential cancellation with a storm on the way, organizers decided to open the gates on Sunday afternoon for the festival’s final day. Within hours, rain began to pour and the stages went dark. A voice came over the speakers, instructing attendees to immediately evacuate the island. Jacked-up teens tore down brand displays and broke through plexiglass photo backdrops. Chaos ensued, as thousands spilled onto the Ward’s Island Bridge, destroying everything in their path.

This time around the event page promised, “We’re decking out asphalt areas with high grade AstroTurf to add color and comfort.” It was unusually hot for late September, and overstimulated Gen Zers and millennials moved in packs of neon leotards and basketball jerseys. The lot was a large, immersive commercial with a live music soundtrack. Honda offered free tattoos. Red Bull set up “Sky Seats,” where attendees competed for a chance to drink free energy drinks on a sad-looking platform. When I tried ordering a whiskey sour at the Jim Beam booth, a woman directed me to a bank of iPads. “You have to take this quiz,” she said. “It’ll match you with a flavor based on your personality.”

The argument that festivals are no longer “about the music” is a moot point. Festivals are tourist attractions that fuel a wildly lucrative business. By next year, the live music industry is projected to be worth $31 billion globally. And, in line with contemporary big biz, entertainment companies are encouraged to reflect on their carbon footprint and outline goals to make their productions more sustainable. Artist and fan transportation is said to be the most environmentally taxing aspect of putting on a festival, so some events have instilled incentives for carpooling or taking public transit.

Coachella, in the desert three hours east of Los Angeles, created “Carpoolchella” to reward attendees who travel together via car. Still, even as one of the largest and most profitable music festivals in the world, its initiatives are flimsy. Coachella’s sustainability webpage is filled with fluffy rhetoric such as “Speak up about the impacts of climate change,” “Deploy a Waste Gang team to increase recycling & compost,” and “Share best practices.”

According to an environmental impact report on Coachella and other festivals held on the Indio grounds by event organizer Goldenvoice, these events generate an estimated 1,612 tons of solid waste annually, or about 107 tons per festival day. Only 20 percent of that waste is recycled.

This isn’t uncommon. Dogan Gursoy, whose book “Festival and Event Tourism Impacts” studies how mega events affect their host communities and the environment, said 70 to 80 percent of festival waste isn’t sorted into recycling. Sending the waste to landfills is, of course, cheaper. “Many companies are just greenwashing or paying lip service, only focusing on the activities that can help generate more revenue,” Gursoy said. “Festivals need to focus on sustainability efforts that may not help their bottom line, and they need to provide actual data on their environmental practices. The end goal should be zero carbon emissions, zero carbon footprint.”

Walking around Governors Ball, I spotted green gestures in the form of vegan tacos, scattered recycling receptacles and canned water. Cocktails were, notably, served in single-use plastic. A plot of fake grass led me to the “freeloader” area, where VIPs enjoyed free alcohol and a break from the hordes of less important Ps. Jason Littrell, a bartender and alcoholic beverage industry consultant, was mixing tropical drinks at the Vice x Broken Shaker stand. Part of his business, he later told me, uses data to help clients plan out exactly what they need for a given event — cups, liquids, ice, labor, etc. — saving them money and avoiding overconsumption. Littrell’s years of working festivals and big events has taught him that excess is the norm.

Organizers calculate what to buy and how much of it, factoring in potential contingencies, and then order more. “You can never be totally right, and you can never run out,” he said. “There are a lot of reactive elements. Despite the fact that we may be serving 30,000 people, we’ll still send somebody to deplete every Walmart of 10-ounce cups. It happens all the time. The accessible things are all cheap, single-use stuff. That’s just the way it is.” Hosting a free-for-all bacchanal like the unlimited beverage service at the freeloader area necessitates that kind of expenditure. “Festival companies sequester people inside the grounds and then make sure they buy stuff. That’s how these things create thousands of jobs,” Littrell half laughed. “They’re basically creating a city. . . . They have to find resources, pack in all the water, equipment . . . and then in a few days, it’s gone.”

By this point, performers are well aware of these negative ­impacts. Back in 2019, the band Massive Attack commissioned a study of the live music industry’s carbon emissions. The band’s ­vocalist Robert Del Naja admitted they might cease touring altogether, writing, “In an emergency context, business as usual — regardless of its nature, high profile or popularity — is unacceptable.” Coldplay also paused their touring schedule until they were able to produce carbon-neutral shows, which they will launch in March.

“I’m scared of the sociopolitical state of the world, scared about climate change, scared about covid,” the group’s Naomi McPherson said. The band ­recalled scenes of fans passing out from the recent heat waves. “I’m scared every day. Things are getting more extreme.” Muna tries to make “ethical” choices, such as printing merchandise on vintage shirts and using reusable water bottles. “It’s the same as any individual who’s trying to figure out how to make changes in their life,” Gavin said. “We’re not a huge company. We’re just three little guys on the road. We care about being of service as artists, and I think sometimes people just want a ­moment of losing themselves to music.”

“It’s a microcosm of the larger problem. Individual decisions are important, but you’re constrained by the decisions available to you,” Swain, the UCLA climate scientist, said. “[Organizers] have to make it easier to make good choices.”

The nonprofit organization ­Reverb has “greened” over 250 tours, working with big acts like Dave Matthews Band, Dead & Co., Billie Eilish and Tame Impala. Its efforts include distributing ­reusable water bottles and setting up refill stations, implementing recycling and composting systems, hosting “action villages” for local organizations, and donating unused items such as toiletries and batteries. The goal is to eventually make all tours “climate positive,” meaning events eliminate more greenhouse gas pollution than they create.

“It’s an ongoing issue. We’re seeing wildfires out west and flooding in the east. People are starting to pay attention,” co-founder Adam Gardner said. Lately, he has noticed an uptick in festivals and venues calling about partnerships. “Festivals are in a unique position because they’re often building from scratch. And there’s an opportunity to effect change by engaging all those fans.”

More festivals are finding room for creative solutions. Glastonbury, in southern England, banned single-use plastic bottles and started using compostable or reusable plates and cutlery. Bonnaroo planned to build a solar-powered stage for panel discussions, as well as a “learning garden,” where attendees would be taught how to grow their own food. Gursoy suggests building added costs of sustainability efforts into the price of admission. Susan Clark, the director of the sustainability leadership masters program for the University at Buffalo, said festivals may become smaller and more localized to cut down on travel and reduce overall risk. Plus, in the event of a cancellation, fewer people means fewer wallets to refund.

Jon Christensen, who teaches environmental communications at UCLA, is confident the industry will adapt with cost and insurance adjustments. But carbon offsets need to play a constructive role in the solution, as well as rules and incentives for both organizers and attendees.

“The desire to celebrate together through music will not be ­repressed,” he said. “If we can’t have beauty and joy while addressing the climate crisis, we won’t succeed.”

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