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Guest Blog: Em Weirdigan, Green Gathering Director, on planning a festival amidst a pandemic and the climate crisis

The Green Gathering is the original off-grid, inclusive, sustainably-created and run UK festival, designed to be a space in which festival goers can explore new ways of living, and showcase them at their best. Em Weirdigan became director of the Green Gathering in 2013 after working in the festival industry for 25 years, she has volunteered as an assessor for A Greener Festival and curated the Solution Zone at Extinction Rebellion’s Spring Uprising in 2019. In this guest blog Em shares their journey to deciding to run the 2021 edition of Green Gathering, navigating the restrictions imposed by the global pandemic, and why they believe that bringing the community together is so vital despite the difficulties presented by the uncertainties ahead. 

“Writing in the early days of February 2021, our mission to hold The Green Gathering this summer holds firm. With the world as it is, in the throes of a pandemic and an extreme climate crisis, we want to explain why. 

Since its inception in the 1980s, The Green Gathering has always been about more than just one weekend. We call it ‘the festival beyond hedonism’ because it combines embracing life passionately and joyfully with a call to action and a sharing of the tools needed to put the world we love to rights. Beyond the festival, the effect of the gathering ripples far and wide, leading to lasting changes in behaviour which benefit the planet and those who live on it.

The pandemic we are all living through does not exist separately from the cause we’ve been championing for years. Covid is a zoonotic virus, jumping from animals to humans as we decimate habitats, as much a symptom of our degradation of ecosystems as floods and devastating wildfires. Our festival has been prescribed as an antidote to climate grief, a way to process the visceral emotion provoked by the climate crisis and biodiversity loss, through collective processing and, yes, partying. Now more than ever, we need outlets for joy and pain; we need community; and we need signposts to action so we can each do our part in creating a better world.

So how do we achieve this at our festival, and are we going to be gathering this year?

The Green Gathering is the original off-grid, inclusive, sustainably-created and run UK festival, designed to be a space in which we can explore new ways of living. The festival site is the foundation from which these explorations can begin, as well as a fabulous showcase of alternative ways to organise and sustain ourselves. The festival’s electrical needs are met by solar energy, supported by a little wind, batteries powered by the journey to site, and pedal power. Saunas and showers are wood-fired, sourcing from sustainably managed woodland and scrap wood. Wood-fired and solar ovens cook food and heat water. Besides travel and some gas for caterers, we’re close to holding a zero carbon event.   

It’s incredible and inspiring to be on a bustling, vibing festival site with almost everything around powered by sun, wind and people. It offers a roadmap to show how any site can be powered without fossil fuels, from a large-scale event to your own tiny home or garden shed. Once inspired, we equip visitors with the tools to learn, in workshops where you can discover skills such as how to wire a solar panel or build and use biochar, wood-gas and rocket stoves. 

One of the key areas where The Green Gathering has an impact is dietary choices. To mitigate the worst of the climate crisis we must reduce meat farming on a planetary scale. All food vendors at our festival are 100% meat and fish free, one third are entirely vegan and almost all have a wide range of vegan options. Our catering terms and conditions are stringent, ensuring the food on offer is largely organic, local or sustainably sourced – often all three. It is also high quality, delicious and cooked with love.

Our commitment to ethical eating on site yields positive change in the outside world. Surveys show almost a quarter of visitors pledging to eat less meat and 14% ready to embark on a vegan diet. We’ve also helped vendors adopt more ethical practices, not just at our festival but throughout their season, for example by switching from multinational to co-operative suppliers and avoiding palm oil products.

Over the long weekend of the festival we address a kaleidoscope of needs for individuals, communities and the planet which are relevant now more than ever. A positive side-effect of the dreadful pandemic we’re living through has been a widespread return to basics; baking, crafting, mending, repairing and valuing what we have. We’re expecting a population itching to relearn what our grandparents knew, and we’re ready to teach them – from crafts which are made to last to permaculture techniques which will sustain land and get hands back into the earth. 

We also offer a space to discuss what is happening in the world. Rooted in campaigns and protest, we explore direct action and empower individuals to make their point with bodies and voices. Our Speaker’s Forum is an area to debate, share knowledge and build awareness, and as an event which more than welcomes families, we have spaces for young people to not just listen, but be listened to as well. With much of the global action for climate change coming from young voices, it is vital events make room for the people whose futures are on the line to be heard as equals.

Are we preaching to the converted here? We think not. In our 2019 post-festival survey, just 18% said the festival can’t impact their behaviour because they are already living in fully ethical and sustainable ways. Many feel, in the throes of their complicated busy lives, that they should or could be doing more – and it’s these people, as opposed to committed climate change deniers and the like, who are open to being inspired and emboldened to make changes in their own lives or to demand change on a local, national or global scale. People who’ve already decided to take one step to put the planet before themselves are more likely to do it again – especially if supported by a community of fun loving changemakers.

Of course, the moments which are often the most unforgettable at any festival come from performance. Dedicated to heart-filling, rebel-rousing artistic expression, our stages host over 100 live acts: music, magicians, mystics and more, from poets to cabaret artistes to wandering storytellers. Lockdown has been hard on those who rely on income from events, and where would be without art in this pandemic? Without stories, shows, music, poetry and films to remind us we’re not alone, no matter how much it feels like it at times? We must do our best to provide spaces for these to flourish again.

We’re consulting covid experts continually – whilst becoming some kind of experts ourselves – to decide if all this magic can be brought into being this year. We’re working to set dates where key decisions will have to be made, to protect festival-goers, artists and other contributors. Multiple risk assessments are being written for every eventuality, to be selected and updated as situations unfold. Right now we’re examining the results of an extensive survey we sent out to our followers, so as to understand what will make people feel safe at our festival, without ruining their enjoyment. We want to have covid safety by consensus, respecting different levels of vulnerability, to create a kind and inclusive space for coming together again. 

Ultimately the safety of the local and wider population, of our artists, crew and festival-goers, will of course come first. Until we have more information, we’re exploring a world where we can meet in some form of community celebration. This is a deep human need, as demonstrated by traditions of festivals and fairs from the millions-strong Indian Kumbh Mela to the village fete with a dozen attendees. It could well be that as the world recovers, small scale festivals, risk assessed with mitigations in place, will be the safe places in which we can come together to experience the diversity of thought needed to build collectively and push forwards in these times of crisis.” Em Weirdigan, Director, The Green Gathering

 This guest blog originally appeared in our February 2021 Vision: 2025 newsletter. Sign up to receive monthly event sustainability news, case studies and guest blogs direct to your inbox using the form below.