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Blog: Natasha Martirosian on ‘The role of festivals in climate positive behaviour’

Vision: 2025 team member, Natasha Martirosian, shares the gold from her MSc in Environmental Policy and Management on creating a policy framework for the future sustainability of UK festivals. Her research finds a hidden, largely unharnessed power in festivals to promote climate positive behaviour. Read her blog below:

“I’ve always been interested in human behaviour. How we interact with the environment has both fascinated me and become part of my career path, no matter what industry I’ve worked in. The relationship with our environment tells the story of our cultural values: From how we treat the natural world, to our own built environment, to the temporary cities that come to life for our entertainment at festivals.

Over the last couple of years, I started learning more about the inner workings of festivals when I spent two summers traveling and working at them, getting to know the culture from within. I noticed the differences between each of the events that I worked at and attended. Some promoted climate positive and sustainable behaviour, while some solely promoted consumption and nihilism. I started thinking about why they were so different.

When it came time to write my dissertation for my MSc in Environmental Policy and Management in the summer of 2020, there was no festival season due to the pandemic, but it still seemed natural to conduct research for creating a policy framework for the future sustainability of festivals in the UK. I really wanted to answer some of the questions I’d been asking myself.

When the pandemic hit the world, we were unprepared. Governments scrambled, everything shut down, and the festival industry, the creative outlet of the world, lay forgotten in a corner. With a New Year and vaccine, there is a real opportunity to start fresh in 2021 and break from the individualism that led to humanity’s disconnect from both nature and one another.

We adapt quickly, that’s what makes humans so special. We have, in the span of months, created a whole new social culture around social distancing, mask wearing, and hygiene. But how long we will live this way really depends on how we, the global society, respond to the earth’s system being manipulated by the mishandling of resources and stored carbon energy. It has been said that this is the first of many global pandemics. The new genetic mutation found for Covid-19 has certainly shown us that things are progressing much faster than previously understood. Normalcy is just out of reach and our previous normal wasn’t working. We can only move forward, but how?

Further, the pandemic has shed some light to how connected we are. Not only with each other, but with the earth and all other living things. As we move toward connection and understanding, we must find a way to change the trajectory of mankind quickly, as we are running out of time.

Studies about behaviour change have shown that individual behaviour has an impact on the collective and it takes a just a few leaders to exemplify change and innovation. I’ve been asking myself how we can get everyone on board to change quickly enough to respond to the climate crisis as they’ve responded to the pandemic. My dissertation research implies a hidden, largely unharnessed power in festivals to promote climate positive behaviour change.

To understand why festivals are a key tool in the climate crisis, it’s important to know their history. When festivals emerged in the 1960s, they were born of counter-culture and rebellion. They gave birth to free movements and were associated with alternative lifestyles. As the business market changed, commercial sponsorship emerged and long-distance travel became more accessible, resulting in an increase in the number of people traveling many miles to an event. With these shifts, festivals became products to be consumed and gave birth to festival tourism.

Today, festivalgoers have a higher than average income, and with it a higher Carbon footprint. Festivals’ scope have been broadened to include mainstream popular culture, reaching people of many different backgrounds; the very people whose behaviour needs to change are the ones who festivals now reach.

The popularisation of festivals is not just a drastic shift from classic festival culture. Hidden within festival culture is a useful tool for governments in the fight against climate change, the power to change behaviour and impact the collective.

With the emergence of the consumer festival, it now made sense to me why there were such drastically different festivals out there. But regardless of their ethos, they all had to operate within the boundaries of the local council’s policy. Why then, with national goals to reach net zero, has policy in the UK not evolved to include sustainability at its core? This apathy for the industry could be due to a lack of understanding as to why festivals are so important to the future of our society.

In cities like Amsterdam, who have ambitious goals to create a circular economy, they have recognised that all things are connected and that change comes first from the creative industries. Local council has partnered with DGTL, using them as a living lab for experimenting with new technology to solve urban planning issues, such as waste management and water recycling. Sustainability is part of the licensing process, so it isn’t an afterthought. It’s embedded into every aspect of the festival’s process. Their innovations are mind blowing and exemplify what is possible when government steps in with support for the industry, gaining useful knowledge in return.

One of my favourite examples of festivals driving behaviour change is Shambala. When they went meat free, many previously carnivorous patrons followed (over half), really proving that festival attendees are paying attention to their experience at the festival. There is a call for further academic study on the relationship between festivals and climate positive behaviour change, but it is apparent that there is something there to study.

If the government really wants to meet net zero goals and create a circular, sustainable economy for future generations, festivals will play a key role. With this understanding, the rebuilding of the economy should not forget the opportunities that the industry offers. With the industry hanging on by a thread, it’s crucial for the government to understand this and act in favour of saving the industry and harnessing its power to reach national goals.  In the New Year, I hope that everyone comes together to really create change in 2021.”

This guest blog originally appeared in our January 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.