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Festivals Driving Change

I was recently asked by a local university to write about festivals as a site for the development of social capital (building participation, kinship, participation and leadership within communities).

As an environmentalist and aspiring sustainabilitarian, I’m particularly interested to explore the extent to which certain local and international festivals offer opportunities to raise environmental awareness and promote action for sustainability.

Without delving too deeply into the associated literature, my initial thoughts are that festivals provide a lucrative context within which to position environmental education programs and social change messaging.

I’m not convinced that festivals which refer to themselves as “environmental” necessarily “walk the talk” or reach diverse audiences.

From my observations as a former festival programmer and workshop presenter, there’s a great deal of preaching to the converted. This is valuable for deepening people’s knowledge, practice, and networks, but I’m not necessarily convinced that focusing on green sub-culture events necessarily contributes to wider social change in the short term. Over time, maybe. But I suspect there is a more immediate opportunity that festivals (which don’t necessarily think of themselves as “environmental”) can offer – the opportunity to raise awareness amongst mass audiences through guerrilla environmental campaigns.

Popular festivals (whether they’re a music festival, a cultural tradition, a tourist attraction) provide a market through which environmental education programs, activities and messages can be delivered in both subtle and “in your face” ways. I suspect this is possible irrespective of whether the festival organisers actively engage with sustainable event management or environmental programming. Whether part of the formal festival program, fringe events, or simply emerging from the people on the street, environmental messages and learning can be experienced in interesting and unexpected ways within a major festival environment. Sometimes this awareness-raising occurs because an event seems so “counter-environmental”.

San Fermin Festival
Take, for example, the Fiesta de San Fermin in Pamplona Spain every July. The Rough Guide to the World’s Best Festivals describes it as follows: “For one week every year, the Spanish town of Pamplona parties so hard that the foothills of the nearby Pyrenees start to shake. Nothing can prepare you for your first Pamplona experience: the constant flow of beer and sangria, the outrageous drunken partying, the hordes of excited people in the streets, and, most of all, the early morning terror of the encierro, the daily bull run…the Fiesta de San Fermin is simply the scariest, loudest and most raucous [party] you’ll ever come across. It’s the Bruce Lee of world festivals: it hits you hard and fast and leaves you feeling like you’ve been run over by a bus – or, more accurately in the case of the slower runners, a bull…” (2007, p.32)

Fiesta de San Fermin attracts thousands of festival participants every year, and the program features a bullfight every night of the festival. This is considered by some as the “raison d’etre of the festival” and by others as “a barbaric and undignified form of torturing innocent animals” (The Rough Guide, p.39).

What is interesting is that Fiesta de San Fermin has become the annual site of a highly publicised animal rights action that began in 2002 and is now a firm feature of the festival.

Organised by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), The Running of the Nudes is an annual anti-bullfighting peace protest and celebration that occurs during the festival. It presents a very serious message in a fun way – animal rights protest accompanied by lots of music, dancing and a great party afterwards.

What’s worth considering is that the success of this annual protest has only been made possible because of its strategic positioning within a much bigger cultural event.

As The Rough Guide highlights, with more than a thousand people waving “stop bullfighting” signs and running through the streets wearing little more than fake horns and red neckchiefs (maybe some undies), it’s enough to get the protestors – and their message – noticed. That this awareness-raising action hasn’t led to the festival stopping the bullfighting and running with the bulls isn’t really the point. It’s about using the power of ideology / binary oppositions / juxtaposition to get the message (and action) noticed. It also raises awareness amongst those who do engage in animal cruelty that their actions and behaviours do not go unopposed.

I really like the idea of exploring how festivals which don’t promote themselves as “environmental” (and in some cases might seem “counter-environmental”) might become sites for powerful environmental messaging, learning and actions.

There are countless festivals to explore from this perspective. From Lewes Bonfire Night in England where a sleepy town is transformed into a night of pyrotechnic horrors and Halloween meets Mardi Gras spectacle, to Esala Perahera in Sri Lanka where night-time parades featuring drummers, dancers, torch-bearers and no less than 100 costumed elephants offer an all-out assault on the senses…from Rustlers Valley Festivals which transform a politically conservative region of South Africa into a hippy-drenched sweat-lodged community of music, food and family fun, to good old Burning Man in the Nevada desert where countless “anarchists, deviants, mad scientists, techno-heads, trace-dancers and freakish performance artists… arrive from all over the world every year” to try their luck at consuming vast amounts of alcohol and drugs under the searing heat of a relentless sun (The Rough Guide, p.182)

Irrespective of the festival fancy, these cultural events offer an interesting context for us to “think global” and consider the often complex values that human beings seek to celebrate within diverse natural and urban environments.

If nothing else, we sure know how to throw a great party!

Image: www.patxitaxi.com / PETA

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