Greenfield greenwash: Music festivals and contradictions of the counter culture

This is a sample of a short e-book I’m working on. It collects various bits of research I’ve been involved in around festivals environmental impact, as well as thoughts about the big picture of it all. It’s targeted at a general audience, maybe the kind of thing I would have found useful as a student or anyone with an interest in festivals, green politics and general environmental management. Subscribe to the blog or send me an email ( if you want to be notified when I finish it. Thanks for reading!


Festivals and interesting contradictions go hand in hand, in fact, this may be critical to their fundamental appeal. Pop music festivals, from the pioneers of Woodstock, Monterey and the Isle of WIght onwards, are a uniquely modern occurrence[1]. One of their most compelling contradictions has been the endless dilemma between their undeniable environmental impact and the effect of the ‘green-tinted glasses’ through which it often seems tempting to view them. For an increasingly urban population, muddy boots, tents and campfires take on an otherworldly appeal. We romanticize the natural world, whilst still somehow managing to leave it covered in beer cans.

This echoes a wider dilemma facing most of the developed world. Put simply: can we still have a good time, keep our technology, luxuries and holidays without losing our connection to the natural world and even potentially destroying the planet? Are festivals and the ‘festivalisation’ of wider culture a positive trend towards live experience, social harmony and participation; or is It too a product of commoditisation, alienation and pacification?

The early pop music festivals have a clear place in counter-cultural legend, yet winding the clock forward only a few decades forward finds a booming festival market, arguably the very epitome of late capitalism with its glamping, sponsorship, media broadcasts and elite ‘buy in’ that ranges from tourism departments, political figures and all the way to the royal family. The music industry has convulsed in recent decades, for various reasons, particularly regarding the changing significance of live performance. Live performance is now lucrative compared to recorded sales, with the experience maintaining a cool cache as a bastion against the creeping omnipresence of mediatized, digital culture and ‘the fear of missing out’. Artists no longer have to sell out, they are often born into and sometimes directly from a heavily branded world. It is too harsh, not to mention simplistic, to claim music festivals no longer have any capacity to generate deep social, cultural or political meaning, but simultaneously, it is clear enough that many festivals and their audiences are apparently happy with mainstream legitimacy.

In terms of ethos, perhaps many festivals aren’t as ‘green’ as they once were, but in terms of hard impacts, they certainly seem to be better understood. Our understanding of environmental impact in terms of measurement, management and control has vastly increased and professionalised. Music festivals, have at the very least, listened to the concerns of their consumer base and stepped up their efforts if only to protect their market share, meet licensing obligations and reduce their own basic costs. Of course, some festivals do much more than others, to their credit and thankfully this work is increasingly being is shared, learned from and recorded.

[1] Readers may think this a bit rich from an author whose own parents were barely old enough to remember the likes of Woodstock, but take this in the context of the origins of much more historic and still running music festivals like the Three Choirs Festival (1719) or Bayreuth (1876) let alone those we could term non-music festivals like carnivals in Binche, Putignano (both 14th C) or Rio (18th C) and no doubt many, many others.

(Skipping ahead now to the section on Energy)

“They gave you butterflies at the time because they were really anarchy oriented. Whatever vibe each party took, it was definitely going there and there was nothing you could do to stop it…And sometimes that was really jubilant, and other times that was like ‘someone just shit on the windshield of my car.’ That actually happened.” – Josh Homme, Alarm Magazine, 06/26/2007

The above quote from musician Josh Homme refers to ‘generator parties’ that were associated with bands from the South California based Palm Desert Scene[1]. As the name suggests, the parties involved night-time excursions, deep into the surrounding deserts with generators providing the power for the heavy music. The droning noise of the generators and desolate landscapes are assumed to have influenced the necessarily heavy music. 30 odd years onwards from Bill Hanley’s groundbreaking work in live sound engineering at the original Woodstock, the costs, quality and reliability of technology associated with live sound have become such that just a handful of musicians, performing for free can now spontaneously create a micro-festivals in any suitably abandoned part of the world. That the humble generator can now be somewhat associated with an entire musical subgenre underlines it’s importance and, that of all temporary infrastructure to festivals as a whole. Additionally we can see the core motivation to continually break new ground, explore and find new, preferably cheap if not free sites or venues in which to perform. Burning Man in particular has spawned a number of other wilderness-based, near-zero infrastructure festivals around the world.

Greenfield festivals, like many outdoor events, rely on generators for electricity. Some may have mains grid access, either fully or in part (see Oya festival in Norway, grid powered by hydroelectricity). Even festivals in urban environments may find the local supply boxes are not of suitable capacity, reliability or physical location. Of course all electricity has to be generated somewhere, but it is estimated that a diesel generator creates approximately 50% more GHG emissions, per kilo-watt hour, compared to the equivalent from the grid, in the UK at least. Partly this can be summarized as a necessity of their temporary nature, although it is worth remembering that in other applications and in parts of the world with no grid, generators sometimes form the only, ‘permanent’ source of electrical power. In this regard, their application at a week long event (maybe up to a month, including the build) is relatively temporary – even by temporary generation standards[2]. We could also add that fossil diesel is too convenient, portable and valuable to use for power generation, compared to coal or gas. It would be better used for transport, because no one wants a coal fired car any time soon.

Despite the constant pressure to make sure ‘it just works’, and that there is sufficient backup capacity and overhead for unforeseen events, energy efficiency has been pursued for both environmental and economic reasons. So what is the scale of the problem in both cash and greenhouse gases? Due to the commercial nature of many large festivals, these can be questions only marginally easier to figure out than ‘How much did so-and-so get paid for the headline slot?’. The work of Julies Bicycle in particular has provided a great deal more data on this topic, although A: it’s a voluntary scheme, and B: festivals are not obliged to make their reports public.

First of all, let’s talk about fuel, diesel specifically as we do not seem to see much in the way of petrol or gas generators at festivals. Gas, petrol and diesel can all be distilled from crude oil so, for one thing, fluctuations in the price of oil will likely have effects on all petroleum products. Tax on fuel is a substantial part of the pump cost a consumer will pay, particularly in the UK[3], with fuel duty accounting for around 4% of all tax receipts in the UK. Diesel used for industrial purposes is dyed red (red diesel) and taxed at a much lower rate (11p a litre) than the kind of diesel (white diesel) you would buy from a filling station (58p a litre). Red diesel can only legally be used for industrial purposes, and conversely, any vehicle taxed for use on the road can only legally use white diesel. Aside from the dye and the tax, red and white diesel are essentially the same[4]. Finally, it may be worth noting that regulations regarding fossil diesel have progressively required lower levels of sulphur emissions, particularly from 2000 onwards, although we are mainly focusing on its warming potential as a greenhouse gas.

Biodiesel, in terms of its general usage, is chemically very similar[5] to fossil diesel. The technical name is Fatty Acid Methyl Esters or FAME, and is regulated by the standards in EN14214. Similar enough, that in some engines it can be used as a direct replacement for fossil diesel. Biodiesel blends are increasingly available ‘at the pump’ across Europe, with the current standards allowing blends to containing up to 5% biodiesel (E5) to be advertised simply as ‘diesel’ with a likely change to 10% (E10) coming in the near future. 1 in 3 cars in Sweden is expected to run on high proportion blends (E75) by 2030 and since 2005, Swedish filling stations above a certain size have been legally obliged to offer biofuel.

Of course, the main environmental benefit is that depending on the exact production pathway, the full life cycle emissions of biodiesel are estimated to range between 80%-95% lower compared to fossil diesel. For the purposes of estimating greenhouse gas emissions, only biodiesel from waste vegetable oil (WVO) is considered as having zero-emissions. Whether biodiesel from feedstock can be considered 100% renewable or sustainable is a complex issue[6].

In terms of tax in the UK, biodiesel is taxed at the same rate as diesel. There used to be a marginal exemption of 20p a litre but following a period of significant debate, HMRC effectively decided to scrap this ‘cash incentive’ in favour of handing out Renewable Transport Fuel Certificates to registered producers instead, which can be sold as carbon offsets. At the same time, individuals were made exempt from additional taxation providing they use or produce less than 2,500 litres of biodiesel in a year, which is thought to have helped accommodate small scale producers.

So how much diesel gets used at a festival?

(TO BE CONTINUED!) – remember to subscribe to the blog or send me an email ( if you want to be notified when I finish it. Thanks for reading!

[1] Purely for the reason of establishing the authors hip credentials, it is necessary to point out that Yawning Man were, probably, the first band of this type to be known for ‘generator parties’ in the late ‘80s.

[2] Taking a huge tangent for a minute, a coal power plant, for instance, is expected to have a lifespan of around 40 years. You could expect an extremely well maintained and well treated diesel generator to last potentially as much as 100,000 hours or about 11 years of operation. Reactor 4 at Chernobyl only lasted 3 years by the way. Anyway, tangent over, eyes back up there!

[3] As groups such as the Association for British Drivers are keen to point out, UK fuel duty is consistently the highest of all European countries and approximately seven times higher than countries like the US.

[4] White diesel must have a minimum cetane number of 51 whereas red requires 45. The energy-density of each remains essentially the same, but higher cetane numbers ignite faster and generally help engines perform more smoothly. The equivalent term for petrol is octane.

[5] The negatives are that it is more likely to ‘gel’ at lower temperatures, has a higher water content, does not store as well over the long term, is marginally less powerful at peak and is more active as a solvent potentially causing wear on some materials. The positives are that it is much less toxic, creates practically no sulphur emissions and even seems to lubricate engines a bit better than fossil diesel.

[6] Department for Transport data gives conventional diesel 82 grams of co2 produced per Mejajoule of energy produced – depending on the source and method of production (Oilseed rape, Soy, Palm Oil) virgin biodiesel ranges from as high as 73g to as low as 38g, whereas cooking oil and tallow (WVO) was 13g.



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