As days are getting hotter – yes, it’s summer! but hotter than ever climate change is a boiling topic on the frontline. So with the rapid increasing offer of outdoor music events aimed at feeding thousands of anemic spirits in one go, festival organizers have become trailblazers of sustainable innovation. From using green energy to the launching of apps where individuals can track their personal carbon footprint, to more common ones such as reducing the use of printed pamphlets and endorsing waste collection, festivals are chanting futuristic utopias and forging temporary communities that can radically re-imagine tomorrow. But what about the impact of loud music on species other than humans?
Recently, I read an article suggesting that plants growing in noisy environments are observed to have difficulties to take in nutrients. It seems like the waves of noise disrupt the sensorial, organic communication between an organism and its immediate exterior. In the case of humans, many studies have corroborated that high levels of sound pressure is linked to chronic diseases, stress, and irreversible noise-induced-hearing-loss. Although there are regulatory policies aiming at protecting our hearing ability, the restrictions are either set right at the border of what would be already dangerous, or inexhaustive. Even the World Health Organization hasn’t figured out the right formula and provides ambiguous guidelines for long-lasting exposure to loud sounds such as music festivals.
Likewise, regulations aimed at safeguarding the wellbeing of animals have been poorly reviewed. While noise pollution distress humans and leads to severe impairments affecting their quality of life, animals rely on the use of sound to find food, spot predators, communicate, and attract mates. That said, noise pollution not only affects their quality of life but also hampers their ability to survive.
Although practices of industrialization and urbanization have injected our surroundings with noise pollution that it has almost normalized the constant roaring of the city, no species living on earth are made to withstand constant background noise nor blasting sounds. In the case of airborne animals, the most adaptable ones are still visible in the city – from the tiny house sparrows to the least charismatic pigeons. In the case of maritime life, seismic exploration, oil drilling, and vessel traffic have invaded the acoustics of the sea and interfered with the singing of whales and other signals emitted by different species.
Different from festivals and concerts that last from some hours to some days every now and then, industrial and city life noise is a constant pollutant. Experts say that noise-induced damage in humans and animals depends both on the level of sound and time of exposure. Its effect is rather cumulative. However, there are doubts as to whether blasts of music in areas close to animal habitats, even if only for some hours, may oblige some species to migrate or induce stress leading to impairments that haven’t been observed yet.
In fact, the study of noise pollution is rather underdeveloped. Only in early 2000s new findings raised concerns about the effects of anthropogenic noise in the marine life, and in 2014 regulations pressured maritime companies to implement quieter propellers. The truth is that noise is so pervasive that its effects are hard to study. But just imagine your neighbor mowing the lawn for days – wouldn’t this ransack your brain and soul regardless the countless hours invested to meditation and mindfulness practices?
Festivals are on the race to reduce their footprint with ambitious programs aimed at finding collective action. From encouraging guests to adopt ethical behaviours within the festival – and hopefully extended into their daily life too – to raise funds to run social and environmental projects outside the realm of the festival. A festival heading to become the first waste free festival is the North Side, in Copenhagen. The North Side is a three-day festival which lineup digs into indie rock, hip hop, pop – and pretty much everything that falls in between. Besides delivering a wide range of music genres, North Side places multiple trash sections for waste sorting. Six different trash sections are available for the public, and thirteen behind the stalls which, by 2017, 78% of the total waste had been recycled. North Side takes its commitment to counterbalance environmental deterioration by fundraising money “to restore the rainforest in an area corresponding to the festival site” in Nicaragua – as cited in their website. It’s not a surprise that the efforts of this eco-driven festival have won them two awards by A Greener Award Festival.
Another festival well known for its environmental commitment is today Australia’s largest music event, Splendour in the Grass, that not only uses renewable energy but also, with the help of stakeholders, funds projects that help local communities adopt quicker the use of renewable energy. Although their achievements aren’t very clear or publicly stated, as its name indicates, Splendour in the Grass renders homage to the wonders of nature and the aboriginal heritage of Australia while professing community values. “At Splendour we take our responsibility to Mother Earth seriously,” pledge the organizers – and we believe they certainly do.
Even the oldest and most celebrated festivals, slowly but surely, are working to make improvements and bring green initiatives to the forefront. Take the instance of legendary Glastonbury festival in the UK that, making headlines since the 70s, has banned the sale of single-use plastic. And how about the majestic Burning Man that is being operating on the premise of ‘leaving no trace’. Last year, Burning Man decided to keep the limit capacity up to 80.000 attendees as previous plans to expand to 100.000 guests could have severe environmental impacts.
Quite remarkable too for its efforts to reduce their footprint by all means is the Shambala festival, in England. This four-day festival, that has been highly acclaimed for gracing the stage with popular electronic and indie rock performers since 1998, has suspended single-use plastic and foods containing meat and fish, and has been propelling the whole event on 100% renewable energy. As of today, Shambala claims to have reduced their footprint over 80% showing us all the willingness that it really takes to make the environment a priority.
It is true that festivals are becoming a source of inspiration for turning the environment a beloved element to consider during the planning and praise during the execution. But as our culture is thriving on music experience and the offer of long-lasting festivals is escalating, it would be fair to consider noise pollution as important as waste and energy consumption. Earlier decades have witnessed the growth of the music scene – from an evening dancing at a high-class ball in the Edwardian time to experimenting with drugs and music for days during the sixties. The seventies and eighties gave birth to the punk and rock culture and with it, the music industry has been catering to all kinds of tastes.
Nowadays, festivals are widely popular. They have turned single music shows into mass produced concerts that welcome thousands of visitors of all ages. Nielsen reported, in 2015, that around 32 million people attended at least one festival a year, and that a third of them visit multiple festivals. As we are becoming exposed to high levels of music more frequently and for longer periods of time, there has been a substantial increasement in the number of people reporting hearing injuries. It’s not a surprise that musicians have been amongst the most affected, from Moby presenting hearing loss since his early career to Grimes having to cancel her tour due to tinnitus in 2012.
There are already quite some campaigns raising awareness about the care of our ears, and the public is notably endorsing the use earplugs and the rejection to standing close to the colossal speakers. Earplugs are nowadays widely available – some are even made-to-measure. However, at this point we also need to raise the question on how these outdoor encounters, no matter how short they may be, can affect different species other than humans.
We’re not saying we should kill the fun and go to bed early. Let’s be honest, we all take pleasure from getting our ears and brain thundered by our darlings on stage, but we need to consider noise pollution as serious form of anthropogenic pollution and environmental change driver. On the other hand, we’re hoping that innovative sustainable forms come into place to reach the maximum optimization between preserving the wellbeing of earth dwellers and music experience. So what’s the summer solution?