Bonnaroo: Creating a Sustainable City

Jason Leahey

In an age where the end of fossil fuel is firmly in sight, Bonnaroo is re-building the modern music festival, a 20th century beast fueled by the dirty technologies of that century, for the future.

How did they improve?

How did they improve? Last year, there were relatively few recycling stations when compared to the number of trash cans, and those stations consisted of three barrels saddled with a piece of plywood with three holes cut out. A sign above explained which type of trash went where. This year, trash and recycling were grouped together in much more numerous and prominent stations. Instead of the saddle with three identical holes punched out, a volunteer Trash Talker manned each station and explained the layout to Bonnaroo-ers too hyped on getting to the next stage to stop and read instructions.

Bonnaroo also saw room for improvement in its use of resources. The site’s Solar Stage, powered entirely by a photovoltaic grid, began operation three years ago and showcased mostly obscure and local artists. A memory from 2008 etched into my brain is of a guitar-drum duo playing to an empty plot of grass at the foot of the stage, the guitarist taking time between songs to yell hopeful calls to environmental action to absolutely no one. This scene was not the exception. Though 2009’s Solar Stage had its share of down moments, it also hosted intimate solo performances and Q & A’s with activists and artists from the larger stages.

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who as a leader in the National Resource Defense Council works to enact and enforce legislation protecting the environment and humans alike, talked of mountain top mining, the process by which 22-story machines called draglines literally lop the top off of mountains and root around inside for minerals and ore. This process is destroying the Appalachian Mountains, less than 150 miles from Manchester. “One of these machines costs half a billion dollars and practically dispenses with the need for human labor. Which indeed is the point,” Kennedy told a crowd of a few dozen people at the Solar Stage. At the surrounding tents where various non-profit organizations marketed their causes, people turned and listened for a minute or two before wandering off.

Will Sheff, whose band Okkervil River is working with bicycle advocacy groups and ride share sites to reduce the carbon footprint of their fans and make their tour 100% carbon neutral, played the Solar Stage and talked to a small crowd there, as did Danny Louis from Gov’t Mule, and Patterson Hood, primary frontman for the Drive-by Truckers. Earlier in the day, the Truckers had played at the 30,000-capacity Which Stage with Booker T. Jones of legendary Stax Records house band Booker T and the MGs. On his own before a small crowd, Hood ripped through the Truckers’ “Putting People on the Moon”, a bitter growl at the disinterested forces that crush a community’s spirit. “I grew up a couple of hours from where Bonnaroo takes place, on the Tennessee River, which gives our community its character and even its name,” he told me. “We have several nuclear power plants and a ton of other conglomerates emptying their waste into it. Any attempt at cleaning that up is met with resistance due to the potential loss of jobs that might result. It's a bitter cycle.”

What had in years past been something of a novelty -- a stage powered entirely by the sun -- became a useful tool both to educate and entertain. Bonnaroo-ers who loved a particular artist so much and were willing to forego a main stage performance by various big names were treated to a more personal experience. The climate crisis and the ways environmental issues intersect with quality of life issues were given personal nuance. By expanding the contributions of individual artists and deepening fans’ understanding of artists they care about, Bonnaroo itself became a more intricate web of art and education and community. When I spoke with Shonna Tucker, bassist for the Truckers, she grinned while telling me about growing an organic garden with her father, how he’ll call her on the road to discuss whether or not to use treated lumber on a particular project. “We’re learning together,” she said. As for Bonnaroo, she said, “there’s a lot of people having a good time.” She laughed. “You know what I mean? Sometimes it’s easy to be irresponsible if you don’t have an option. When I joined the band five years ago, pretty much anywhere you went there was just a big steel drum and you throw your garbage in it, and that’s it, no questions.” She gestured at one of the recycling stations. “But they give you options now. It’s easier. Every year it gets better.” If she could say one thing to all Bonnaroo-ers? “Next year bring your own water bottle.”

Twenty yards from the Solar Stage, the beginnings of a small organic garden testified to the kind of options Tucker and her dad find so rewarding. A sign posted there told passersby that Victory Gardens grown by individual families during the Second World War met forty percent of the country’s food needs.

The grid powering the Solar Stage was double the size of last year’s, and solar capability is currently being developed on a scale large enough to power the entire festival, as well as to sell during the down season to the Tennessee Valley Authority. This couldn’t be timelier. Tennessee currently generates sixty percent of its electricity through coal, and last December a leak accidentally dumped gallons of poisonous slurry across 300 acres, where it now seeps into the state’s aquifers. As the coal industry’s “clean coal” disinformation campaign spreads across the country and buys executive and legislative political capital, solar-generated electricity that is clean and locally sourced can prove to Tennesseans that they need not choose between electricity, jobs, and their health.

And it just so happens that improving the way the American populace generates its power also improves the contents of its purse. When you factor in the extreme costs of cleaning up fossil-fuel disasters and mitigating the health disasters they create in the population, not to mention the costs of extracting fossil fuels from the earth, renewables like solar are inexpensive. So that’s money saved. And about money earned?

A 2006 study by the University of California at Berkeley estimates that a state law mandating the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 24% by 2020 will boost the state’s GDP by $76 million and create 400,000 new jobs. The U.S. Conference of Mayors, the nonpartisan organization comprised of the mayors of all cities with populations over 30,000, projects that a U.S. economy generating forty percent of its electricity from renewable fuels will generate 4.2 million associated jobs by 2038, including 53,450 in Knoxville, Tennessee. A thirty-year project to retrofit existing buildings to be more energy efficient would create 81,000 jobs according to the same study. Many of these jobs will be in traditional employment sectors like manufacturing, installation, sales and marketing, and construction, thus making use of skills citizens already possess.

Manchester, Tennessee is that part of America that quietly marches forth year after year. On Saturday morning, June 20, 2009, the Lions Club defeated Fann’s Auto for the Little League championship. I read this news in The Saturday Independent, which includes a regular column titled ‘Keeping the Faith,’ written by the Religion Editor. The paper also reported that a federal budget cut was soon to reduce the workforce at the locally based Aerospace Testing Alliance, the primary contractor for the Air Force’s Arnold Engineering Development Center flight test facility. An Alliance spokesperson stated that it would follow “a consistent and equitable method” of eliminating up to 220 jobs. Median household income in Manchester is just under $32,000 and eighteen percent of residents older than 25 have a college degree. There is a Wal-Mart, many gas stations, and the Duck River, which contains the greatest variety of aquatic critters in all of North America.

On a political party’s score card, the people of Manchester are not traditionally the type to be overly concerned with the environment, yet alone welcoming to a festival that began as a playground for the Jam Band set and which this year included Snoop Dogg amongst its performers. And yet that copy of The Saturday Independent included a story on green jobs in Tennessee.

Bonnaroo precipitated the story. Until this year, the festival powered itself on generators burning bio-diesel purchased from Tennessee producers. This year they tapped into the TVA grid to support other regional companies using green methods to generate electricity. Food vendors, including nationally based companies like Whole Foods, were given a list of recommended regional food purveyors to patronize. Manchester Mayor Betty Superstein tells a story about buying fruit from a small stand off Manchester’s town square. “Bonnaroo vendors contact her husband before Bonnaroo to see what he can get for them. They keep her bought out of all the fruit she can find, out of pineapples, peaches, bananas, cherries, apples.” The festival bought and milled all of its lumber locally as well, and rented their RVs and trailers from local businesses rather than the giant companies that dominate the industry.

In an age where so many of us buy products shipped from China to our local big-box store, Bonnaroo stakes its flag in local soil. The Pew Charitable Trust estimates that there were 15,000 Tennessee jobs in the renewable energy sector in 2007, and that between that year and 1998 those jobs grew at seven times the rate of the overall job market, meaning there are more jobs to come. And then there are all those projected Knoxville jobs noted above.

This will be the most profound effect of Bonnaroo, and one that points toward a future encompassing more than just the music festival community. Bonnaroo’s economic impact on Manchester and on greater Coffee County is significant in an immediate way -- it contributed to the employment of at least 10,000 county residents in 2008 and generated $20 million for the county this year, ultimately preventing, according to County Mayor David Pennington, municipal layoffs and the cessation of a $40 million school construction program threatened by the recession -- but it also creates a long-term demand for jobs and services that meet its sustainability requirements. As JoAnne Anderson from Stanley told me, “This is a capitalist system and in order for us to make a change it has to be profitable. And it is profitable to be green.” Demand creates supply, and by demanding that it evolves within the Tennessee community in a sustainable and responsible way, Bonnaroo promotes the emergence of regionally and locally-based companies and services that meet that demand. And this, like the green policies themselves, are almost afterthoughts. “One of the cool things about Bonnaroo is we’ve just been doing this,” Sustainability Coordinator Laura Sohn told me. “We don’t have a green publicist, no green PR firm, which means sometimes we haven’t done the best job of publicizing our sustainability. But our fans get more and more educated every year. Raising awareness is working, whether because of us or someone else, it doesn’t matter at all.”

The primary focus of Bonnaroo is to make money through staging live music. As a reporter for The Washington Times told me, “Where else are you going to find a festival this diverse and this well organized? You’re not. And this isn’t Woodstock. No one is losing any money.” Bonnaroo has integrated eco-education into its music and made its policy of sustainability as much of a given as selling tickets, making T-shirts, setting up the amplifiers. In that integration, Bonnaroo is a reflection of the real world at-large and a model for the way we can best face the climate crisis. Our relationship to the world around us is fundamental to everything. Everything is an environmental issue. Everything is integrated. And that means that this nascent city in the Tennessee Mountains might not just be the model for the music festival of the future, but for the future of American cities, period.

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