It was an odd moment: Greta Thunberg on the Pyramid Stage, her surprise appearance rumoured on Twitter just hours before, addressing a crowd of mostly attentive, generally supportive hedonists. “If a bunch of school kids were able to get millions of people on the streets and start changing their lives, just imagine what we could all do together if we try,” she said, reading from a stack of A4, her words only just audible to those not at the front.
There were a few dissenters, cries of “boring” and a clear, pervasive cynicism at the thought that Glasto — a 200,000-person party fuelled by booze, narcotics and jet-setting headliners — was the right place to be talking up the environment. But as Greta finished up her sermon, clearly aware of her set and setting, she deployed a classic trick of crowd engagement. “When I say climate, you say justice,” she cried. “Climate…” At which point, with convincing enthusiasm, the revellers belted their response: “Justice!”
Within minutes a photo began trending on Twitter, showing a deserted Pyramid Stage covered in litter: “Leave a pile of shit after virtue signalling about climate about sums it up,” one tweet said, to 75,000 likes. It was misinformation. The photograph was actually from 2015. Even so, people’s readiness to dismiss Greta’s speech indicated a scepticism towards the potential positive impact of festivals on the planet. A 2018 study found that UK festivals produce 23,5000 tonnes of rubbish every year, with most of it ending up in landfill.
But the message was a momentous one: Greta’s appearance at Glastonbury, introduced by organiser Emily Eavis, signified the 19-year-old’s belief that the biggest festival of all could do more good than harm. Speaking on a video link at 11am the day before, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy described Glastonbury as the “greatest concentration of freedom” in the world. A sleepy, hungover crowd cheered its approval. David Attenborough, the world’s other foremost environmentalist, spoke at the festival in 2019. Maybe because they’re all on psychedelics, or maybe thanks to some other shared mentality, issues of the Earth seem to resonate with festival goers.
“The best thing for the environment, obviously, is not to run the festival at all, isn’t it?”
– Michael Eavis, Glastonbury cofounder
“The best thing for the environment, obviously, is not to run the festival at all, isn’t it?” said Michael Eavis, Glastonbury cofounder, last year. But is that true? In a recent study for environmental magazine Eco Experts, Josh Jackman found that Glasto actually has a net positive impact on the planet. “I would have to respectfully disagree with Michael Eavis,” Jackman tells me. “And I’m sure that ultimately he would disagree with that point of view as well, even though he expressed it.”
Taking into account air pollution, waste, water and noise, Jackman calculated that Glasto’s carbon footprint sits at -596.25 tonnes of CO2e — meaning more than 500 tonnes below zero. For perspective, if these 200,000 people didn’t go to the festival, they would produce around 17,000 tonnes of CO2 just by their normal activities over the course of five days. The festival of course has an impact on the environment, by creating rubbish, using fossil fuels and inviting all those people to travel to their site, some from overseas. But they counteract this by recycling, composting, using solar power, using less water and planting trees. They also donate millions to charities like Greenpeace, Oxfam, and WaterAid, including £3 million in 2019.
“It’s just crucial to have events that put the idea in people’s head that the environment [is] worth saving”
– Josh Jackman
“It is a net positive for the world,” says Jackman. “Not just because of its emissions, or lack thereof, but because of the impact it has on the culture. It’s just crucial to have events that put the idea in people’s head that the environment, the climate, is important, and worth saving, and that climate change is real and worth fighting.”
Festivals like Glastonbury were built on a love for nature. “Man is fast ruining his environment,” said Andrew Kerr upon cofounding Glasto in 1970, shortly after persuading Eavis that his farm was the perfect site for the festival. “He is suffering from the effects of pollution, from the neurosis brought about by a basically urban industrial society, from the lack of spirituality in his life. The aims are therefore: the conservation of our natural resources, a respect for nature and life and a spiritual awakening.”
But as the festival industry took over the world, corporate sponsors poured in and soon it seemed like money was their primary focus, not the conservation of natural resources — “capitalism and climate change are so intrinsically intertwined,” says Jackman. These days, however, an environmentally positive outlook is an essential part of a festival’s image.
South London’s Wide Awake festival describes itself as “Environmentally conscious, socially aware and musically relevant … a party for people who care about music and more.” The event pledges a positive sustainable policy that includes burying no waste in landfill, eliminating all single-use plastic on the site and only permitting biodegradable stage effects. Organiser Jamal Guthrie explains that Wide Awake is working with organisations like A Greener Festival and Music Declares Emergency on how to make their event more sustainable, offering solutions to existing problems and providing slogans like “NO MUSIC ON A DEAD PLANET”.
“There’s a difference between just the messaging and action,” Guthrie says. “Rather than just sticking ‘no music on a dead planet’ on a t-shirt, there’s action going on year round, working on policy, what we can improve on and so on.” Like any festival, Wide Awake depends on sponsorship from big name brands, the like of which are often questioned for their impact on the environment.
“These brands, obviously if you dig into them there’d be issues with any company of that size,” Guthrie says. “Sometimes it’s the lesser of some evils. But they’re unfortunately a part of big festivals. They need to be financed in a way. And then there’s certain ones that just aren’t right for our festival, so it’ll be a criteria of like, finances one, but do we think they’re a good company? If they’re not the most amazing company in the world, why do they want to partner with us?”
Also significant is the role festivals can have in changing the conversation. Jackman stresses the importance of Glastonbury’s cultural impact as much as its own carbon footprint. “From my point of view it’s the most important challenge we face in our lifetimes,” he says. “Saving the climate, preventing as many terrible effects of climate change as we possibly can, and whatever we can do to move the dial on that is a win.”
He goes on: “Every important piece of progress that activists have called for in the last 100 years has been met with resistance from people who don’t like change.” He mentions the Suffragettes and the civil rights activists of the 60s. It calls to mind another talk at last year’s Glastonbury. On a far smaller stage in a quiet corner of the festival, BBC presenter and all round good egg Chris Packham spoke to a small but engaged audience. “To achieve change, all you need is support from 25% of the population,” he said. He was talking about living with autism and changing attitudes towards the disorder in society, but his words are relevant to just about any movement for change. If Greta and co can get the festival goer on board, there might just be hope for the planet yet.