BLOG: Already existing experiments (or how the camping music festival tells us about some social dynamics that sustainability experiments tend to forget)

Dr Alison Browne, Geography, University of Manchester

wet festival photo 2

Festivals, and particularly camping music festivals in the UK, are characterised by many as hedonistic playgrounds. They are not necessarily ‘low impact development’ (cf Pickerill & Maxey, 2009) and they do come with substantial environmental impacts including the carbon emitted by people travelling to get to them, the energy consumed in running them, and the now iconic images of waste strewn fields full with abandoned tents, rubbish and single use items.

Camping festivals are, however, spaces where attendees are generally required to experiment with ‘off-grid’ ways of doing daily life – changing personal washing, toileting and laundering were the examples we were interested in. Mundane daily practices linked to cleanliness, hygiene and sanitation at the festival entail greatly reduced water and energy consumption compared to ‘normal’ mundane lives. At festivals, these cleanliness and hygiene practices mostly occur around standpipes or taps in fields, perhaps a drinking water station. Toileting is done in chemical portaloos and sawdust toilets.

The interest here for us is not the megalitres of water saved throughout the festival or even the idea that temporarily living in less resource intensive ways can be an educational moment to encourage resource reductions in everyday life. Instead, our interest in the camping music festival is that it is a space of already existing sustainability experimentation. The camping music festival becomes interesting because it provides insights into social and cultural experimentation, and more broadly experiments in the socio-materialities of everyday practices, that orthodox and often technologically gilded sustainability experiments tend to forget or minimise.

As a community of researchers interested in sustainability experimentation, there are very few contexts where it would be ethical to ask people to decouple themselves from the centralized water supply systems to which most are now accustomed in the UK. Eco-communities perhaps offer one such space of experimentation yet are composed of people most often ‘bought into’ the lifestyle or at least invested into the technological imaginary of a ‘low impact’ lifestyle. Yet at a festival people from all walks of life are choosing to enroll themselves in a temporary, large socio-material sustainability experiment. Festivals are a good example of an under-researched ‘already existing’ collective experiment.  We find it surprising that the sustainability scientist interested in sustainability experiments in the Global North has yet to mobilise substantially around the festival as a potential site for understanding responses to futures of wide scale infrastructural disruption.

Everyone who has been to a festival expects to be a little dirty for a few days, but our results show something deeper – namely how fast participants adapted to the new norms. This shows us that while our everyday practices of cleanliness and hygiene mostly happen in private and behind closed doors, our ideas about cleanliness are actually social, and can shift stubborn practices when we connect with new social situations, or encounter different infrastructures. The festival highlights then the importance of considering the social legitimisation of alternative practices, and in giving up practices.

The festival, and other spaces of temporarily experimenting with everyday practices, should be taken more seriously by researchers and policy communities interested in the social, cultural dynamics of experimentation and in invoking a social practices and everyday geographies analysis within wider research debates sustainable futures, socio-technical transitions and sustainability experimentation.

Acknowledgements: Follow the links to download the findings in two open access papers in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism (Hitchings et al, 2018) and Geoforum (Browne et al., 2019). This project was conducted by Dr Alison Browne (Geography/Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester), Dr Russell Hitchings (Geography, University College London) and Dr Tullia Jack (Malmö University/Lund University, Sweden) who attended two music festivals in England, where they interviewed 60 attendees as well as issuing 250 questionnaires. With thanks to Stefan Ramsden for his fieldwork assistance, and colleagues for comments on earlier drafts. The research was funded by ESRC Patterns of Water project (RES-597-25-003) and the UCL Bridging the Gap fund.

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