Yearly Archives: 2010

Code Green

A Comparative Look at Worldwide Cultural Policies for Green Events

by Sam Goldblatt

as published in the CSPA Quaterly/Fall 2009

In the Fall of 2008, London and New York, the two greatest theatre cities of the western world, simultaneously announced campaigns for reducing the negative environmental impacts of the respective   theatre industries in the West End and on Broadway In September, Mayor of London Boris Johnson revealed his 58-page, comprehensive Green Theatre plan, which was followed in November when New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg staged a press release for the Broadway Goes Green campaign, featuring green-colored characters from Broadway shows singing a newly composed show-tune for the campaign.  While they feature similar strategies of energy-efficient marquee lights, use of recycled materials in set construction, washing costumes in cold water and audience education, the two initiatives reflect the differences in the two governments.  Bloomberg’s campaign, which relies primarily on private companies and associations such as The Broadway League, serves partly as a publicity stunt to spark the stilted Broadway economy.     Johnson’s 58 pages of policy, on the other hand, which delve into far greater municipal detail in areas of carbon emissions and energy  efficiency, serve not as much to promote the West End as to regulate it.  

These twin initiatives reflect a growing trend to apply sustainable  standards, long established for the automobile and energy industries,   towards newer industries, namely those of the arts, events and tourism.  While there remains a dearth of policy regarding sustainability in the fine arts, policies concerning sustainable cultural events, such as festivals, large-scale performances and sporting events, continue to emerge    worldwide, providing a fertile area for analysis and cross-country comparison.  This article will examine the ways in which US policies toward    sustainable cultural events promote private enterprise and education, while UK policies deliver more thorough and far-reaching strategies for sustainability.

American Entrepreneurs

Bloomberg’s green Broadway initiative, with its musical celebrity launch and its website’s focus on press, bears the hallmarks of a publicity campaign designed to invigorate the Broadway (and New York) economy.  Broadway Goes Green capitalises on the “Creative Economy” trend promoted by sociologist Richard Florida, which has successfully convinced Mayors of America’s biggest cities to support major arts and cultural projects in order to drive their cities’ economic engines.  The rapidly rising trend towards green entrepreneurship promoted by President Obama in initiatives such as the Clean Energy Economy shares Florida’s emphasis on job creation and improved standards of living.  Both theories of the Creative  Economy and the Green Economy combine ethical pretenses (i.e. supporting culture and protecting the environment, respectively) with economic incentive, a strategy perfectly employed by Broadway Goes Green, which embraces both culture and the environment as tools to rebuild New York’s economy.

Independent campaigners Green Theater Initiative capture these twin trends of Florida’s Creative Economy and Obama’s Green Economy in an article bluntly titled, “Will the NEA Fund Green Arts Projects?” in which the $50   million awarded to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in a February economic stimulus bill is compared to the $100 billion reserved for environmental projects.  The article argues that:

“In this funding environment, it seems likely that any projects applying for federal funds, be they green projects or no, will be evaluated at least partly on the basis of their contribution to a new green economy, or, alternately, on their benefit to the environment or environmental education.”  (Banner 2009)

While the article eyes the new administration both optimistically and opportunistically, critics of the Creative Economy or the Green Economy theories might question why the intrinsic values of art, culture and the environment need   economic justification.  A Creative Economy, after all, reinforces the US government policy of “cultural Darwinism,” which Kevin Mulcahy argues causes harm to less lucrative but more beneficial arts institutions.  Why, for instance, has Bloomberg focused on Broadway, America’s most profitable commercial arts corridor, and not the many comparatively economically stagnant dance companies and concert halls in New York?  In the same vein, one might ask whether Broadway Goes Green seeks primarily to stimulate the economy or protect the environment.

While the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not yet generated policies toward theatre and the fine arts, they do provide guidance on Green Meetings (inclusive of cultural events), filed on their website somewhat incongruously under “Prevention, Pesticides & Toxic Substances.”  EPA guidance comes in the form of Blue Green Meetings, an interactive but simplified web-based guide to producing green events, consisting of 16 short pages, available at  Lacking mention of alternative energy, carbon offsetting and advice on implementing a green event plan, Blue Green Meetings provides modest tips which critics could easily describe as pandering to the establishment.  Hosted by Canada’s Oceans Blue Foundation and America’s Green Meetings Industry Council (GMIC), Blue Green Meetings lists nine businesses and industry associations on its Advisory Committee, plus nine other    private funders as sponsors, showing a private sector audience somewhat divorced from the US Federal Government.  Created by and for professional meeting planners, Blue Green Meetings provides basic guidance as well as a wide range of further references and resources for green events, without challenging industry practices or seeking an audience beyond industry insiders.  By sponsoring the website, the EPA supports private research and initiatives   without creating its own; the US Government continues to act as facilitator to private sector schemes.

With Bloomberg’s forward-thinking public-private partnership Broadway Goes Green as a notable exception, the most successful US initiatives in green events, and those with the greatest influence on industry policy, tend to come from the private sector.  Live Earth, founded by Former Vice President Al Gore and mega-concert producer Kevin Wall,  produced the world’s largest green event to date with a 2007 concert series spanning 24 hours and seven continents, featuring the world’s most famous musicians and reaching around 2 billion people.  A private enterprise with a public policy agenda, Live Earth not only educated its massive worldwide audience on climate change and lobbied governments for environmental regulation, it created and implemented landmark green event policies.  The Live Earth    Environmental Guidelines, which, at 73 pages, even top Johnson’s Green Theatre document, provide a comprehensive guide to green event management so meticulous and authoritative as to render the EPA’s Blue Green Meetings obsolete.

Tackling special issues such as composting, restrooms, production design and artist management and providing a comprehensive guide to planning and implementing green initiatives at events, Live Earth’s Environmental Guidelines stand as the world’s authority in green event planning.  More than any article filed on a government website, the   private organisation Live Earth stands as the world’s most visible green event role model, and Environmental Director John Rego frames the Live Earth Environmental Guidelines as supplemental public policy:

“Even without local, national or international regulations, concert and event organizers are setting their own standards.  We designed this manual to act as a companion guide to your personal or governmental standards.”

By setting standards, raising benchmarks and policing industry practices, Live Earth takes a firmer, more proactive stance on green event policy than both the EPA and Mayor Bloomberg.

One must recall, however, that these Environmental Guidelines are ancillary to Live Earth’s most visible impact as a green event: education.  The Guidelines clearly state the mission of Live Earth “to trigger a mass movement, empower individuals to change their behaviors, and urge corporations and political leaders to enact decisive measures to   combat the climate crisis,” and the website measures this mission in terms of press, publicity and outreach.  Similarly, the Guidelines, written one month before the concerts and perhaps cognisant of the herculean task before them, set modest goals, instead emphasising the greater impact in the public discourse:

“It is the goal of Live Earth not only to implement a few of the solutions presented in this manual – and be a global low-impact, carbon neutral event – but to create a legacy that starts a conversation and shares best practices, lessons learned, and sets benchmarks that enables future events to continue to achieve further sustainable progress.”

While Live Earth has certainly invigorated the global conversation on climate change, its  impact on the events    industry is less direct: its Environmental Guidelines show no distribution plan, and, indeed, were only discovered via an internet search that opened a private page of the Live Earth website.  In fairness, Live Earth’s public site provides most of the same information in an accessible, 9-page Green Events Guidelines section which still rivals Blue Green Meetings in terms of detail.  Although commercial Green Events in the US continue to focus on audience education rather than detailed green regulation, they are still broadly more successful than meager government initiatives.

Green Britain

Perhaps in recognition of Live Earth’s limitations in shaping event industry policy, Rego, in the Environmental    Guidelines, anticipates the creation by the British Standards Institute (BSI) of a “Specification for a sustainable event management system with guidance for use,” known as BS 8901.  Indeed, many event professionals expect BS 8901 to bring authority and accreditation to the field of green events, because of BSI’s reputation as Britain’s National    Standards Body and the world’s leading authority on setting industry standards based on empirical data.  

As its title suggests, BS 8901 does not dictate specific Environmentally Friendly Practices (EFPs) but rather provides the specification and methodology for creating one’s own sustainable event management system.  Although unique EFPs are highlighted in areas including biodiversity, archaeology, equal opportunity and supply chain management, BS 8901 focuses on managerial tools such as defining objectives in terms of scope, performance level, criteria and consistency, using key performance indicators (KPI) to measure progress, and documenting results.  Charts are provided, including an “Outline structure for a sustainable development maturity matrix–guidelines for continual   improvement,” which shows how progress in areas of inclusivity, integrity, stewardship and transparency can be measured from “minimum involvement” to “full engagement.”  Most importantly, although it encourages gradually increasing EFPs, BS 8901 firmly states that sustainability “should be an integral part of the event management process, and not regarded as an ‘add-on’ component,” and that “its influence should extend throughout the entire supply chain.”

Rather than provide baseline advice, available elsewhere, on EFPs, BS 8901 targets the higher goal of redefining event management altogether with a new system and a new ethos.  Although the standard, at £120 per copy, is inaccessible for grassroots events, it attracts high profile companies such as Live Nation which seek industry prestige and competitive advantage.  In presenting Live Earth at Wembley Stadium in 2007, Live Nation, the world’s biggest concert producer, became an early adopter of BS 8901.  Live Nation Production Manager Andy Pearson frames the decision in terms of savvy business advantage:

“Sustainability might not be a massive issue now but I think in the next few years it will become one. If you fail to do something now, you will find yourself in a position of scrambling to catch up, or simply out of business.”

Pearson reflects a desire to stay at the forefront of his industry and in good standing with government policy, values shared by the other high-profile implementers of BS 8901 thus far, which include professional conference organisers EC&O, sports venue the Lord’s Cricket Ground, and major arts event the Manchester International Festival.

Other major event producers, however, see BS 8901 as an opaque document typical of UK bureaucracy.  Ben Challis, lawyer for the renowned Glastonbury Festival, co-founded the organisation A Greener Festival in 2006 as an informational resource and an awards scheme to promote and validate outstanding Green Events.  He was unimpressed by an early copy of BS 8901, saying that, “It was the most appalling document I had ever seen.  Fifty pages of nonsense and a really good spreadsheet.  It was unreadable, and we knew full well that no small festival would ever use it at that stage.  It is bureaucratic.  It provides the processes, and that is what British Standards can be like.”

Going beyond a standard criticism of government bureaucracy, Challis argues that BS 8901 was created in a vacuum, without proper input from actual producers of Green Events.  While the well-documented BS 8901 Case Studies show BSI seeking practical experience to improve the standard, it remains unlikely that the document will target smaller festivals.  Instead, the document is being refined to serve a greater geopolitical purpose, what event scholars term a “mega event,” the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Developed specifically within a timeframe to provide the Olympic Games with a world-class standard for sustainable events with proven results, BS 8901 plays a critical part in London 2012’s ambitious Sustainability Plan.  This Plan, a December 2008, 36-page update of which is downloadable from the London 2012 website, begins by noting that,  “Sustainability has been a central theme of London 2012 since the beginning of the bid to host the Games.”  Thus does London 2012, and the government supporting it, position the UK in line with “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” as sustainable development was first defined in the UN document Our Common Future, or “an enduring, balanced approach to economic activity, environmental responsibility and social progress,” as it is defined by BSI.  The fact that this ethical and environmental theory takes precedence over any economic or political goal in the London 2012 plan represents a milestone for Green Events and for the Olympic Games.

London 2012 takes a broad view of sustainability, including five areas that London 2012 seeks to impact: Climate Change, Waste, Biodiversity, Inclusion and Healthy Living.  Of these initiatives, each of which is outlined in detail over several pages, only Inclusion, which focuses on regeneration and access, mentions explicit economic or political    interests.  The other initiatives, which include a carbon footprinting study, construction of new habitats for wildlife, a National Skills Academy and a free swimming initiative, are designed not for short-term economic gain but for long-term social growth.

The London 2012 Sustainability Plan constantly refers to its Legacy, the final phase of the Plan based on the concept that sustainable development should benefit future generations.  It is only here, in the UK Government’s Legacy Action Plan, that economic and political ambitions arise: in the last of five promises that otherwise cover regeneration and sustainability, the government aspires toward “Demonstrating the UK is a creative, inclusive and welcoming place to live in, visit and for business.”  Whereas political and economic ambition often rule a country’s Olympic Games    policies, it clearly takes a modest, ancillary role in London 2012.  With sustainability as a guiding priority, the long-term, government-sponsored initiatives in its Sustainability Plan, and the prodigious generation of policies such as BS 8901, London 2012, which reflects the UK government’s outstanding commitment to sustainability, aspires to become a landmark Green Event and a blueprint for others to come.

One World

If London 2012 promises a proactive approach, Beijing 2008 began on the defense, combatting the city’s reputation as a smog-infested center for polluting industries.  In “Smog and Mirrors: China’s Plan for a Green Olympics,” Spencer Reiss articulates the geopolitical and economic incentives behind Beijing’s environmental plan:

“The Olympics are China’s coming-out party, payback for smug Westerners and a victory lap for the Godzilla of the global economy. The stone-cold suits who run China Inc. don’t want the celebration spoiled by smogged-out skylines or marathoners in face masks.”

Although in many ways it serves to distract from China’s increasing role as the world’s largest polluter, the Beijing 2008 environmental plan does deliver significant green outcomes for China as well as advancements in the field of green event policy.  Beijing 2008 not only installed cutting-edge sustainable features in their spectacular new venues, such as the Bird’s Nest stadium’s “rainwater-capture system” and the Water Cube’s “high-efficiency thermal polymer skin,” they also created the “Green Olympics, Green Action” initiative to teach citizens EFPs and created greenspace on 74 Beijing rooftops.  

However, far from London 2012’s environmental legacy, which looks 150 years into the future, Beijing 2008 exploited the short-term strategies of temporarily shutting down construction and relocating factories outside the city.  While Beijing 2008’s environmental plan enhanced the Olympic Games and benefited Chinese citizens, it clearly does not reflect a long-term policy shift toward sustainability in China. 

As a point of comparison to China’s bombastic yet shallow green events policies, the Canadian government continues to produce quiet yet comprehensive, world-leading policies in green events.  Environment Canada’s 2007 Green    Meetings Guide combines the EFPs of Blue Green Meetings with BS 8901’s strategic management systems into a  comprehensive guide to managing sustainable events.  Written completely by the government and thus reflecting   Canadian policy, the Green Meetings Guide takes a practical approach to green events, defining them as those      ensuring, “that all aspects … including its location, food services, transportation and the provision of materials are  approached with pollution prevention in mind in order to reduce its environmental impact.”  Unlike London 2012, with its ambitious social agenda incorporating issues such as regeneration and healthy living, Canada focuses on the more practical, and more feasible environmental issues.


Government documents such as Environment Canada’s Green Meetings Guide provide the most accurate view of a government’s official policy and values towards green events.  Green Meetings Guide provides a complete, practical guide to all environmental issues in event management, reflecting Canada’s serious valuation of environmental protectionism.  Both the UK and US provide similar, but much simpler, publications for download on their government websites.  The UK’s Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) published a Sustainable events guide  in 2007, which takes the broad UK definition of sustainability to advise event managers on EFPs within the areas of transport, venue, catering, preparation, social wellbeing, raising awareness and evaluation.  The US EPA’s corresponding document, It’s Easy Being Green! has not been updated since 1996, and provides more basic advice on waste management, procurement and education.

Like the green theatre initiatives put forth for London and New York, these two documents reflect national values.  It’s Easy Being Green! boosters entrepreneurs with promises of cost savings and competitive advantage, while emphasising green education as a core value.  Sustainable events guide, on the other hand, lays out a more far-reaching and well-rounded set of EFPs which are advocated for their inherent ethical merits.  As all three documents from the US, UK and Canada mention their application to internal government meetings and events, they should be taken to reflect strict government policy.  

As David Hesmondhalgh notes, however, policy, especially when intertwined with terms like culture and sustainability, can be expressed in many ways, events being one of the most visible and memorable methods for communicating policy.  Live Earth reflects the American entrepreneurial approach while inspiring and anticipating Green Events as a major growth industry.  London 2012 promises to raise global standards for green events while triumphantly aligning the UK with the ethics of sustainable development.  If the US and UK governments can meaningfully interact both with each other and with the world-leading producers behind these Green Events, perhaps more effective, practical and supportive Green Event policy will emerge.

Fallen Fruit Presents EAT LACMA

February–November 2010

EAT LACMA is a year-long investigation into food, art, culture and politics. Fusing the richness of LACMA’s permanent collection with the ephemerality of food and the natural growth cycle, EAT LACMA’s projects consider food as a common ground that explores the social role of art and ritual in community and human relationships. EAT LACMA unfolds seasonally, with artist’s gardens planted and harvested on the museum campus, hands-on public events, and a concurrent exhibition, Fallen Fruit Presents The Fruit of LACMA (June 27-November 7, 2010). It culminates in a day-long event (November 7, 2010) in which over fifty artists and collectives will activate, intervene, and re-imagine the entire museum’s campus and galleries. EAT LACMA is curated by Fallen Fruit—David Burns, Matias Viegener and Austin Young—and LACMA curator Michele Urton.


Artist’s Talk by Kimberley Hart at Mixed Greens Gallery, NYC

On Saturday December 12, 2009, New York artist Kimberley Hart gave a talk about her recent exhibition Scout at Mixed Greens in Chelsea. The event was co-sponsored by ecoartspace and NYFA.

The works in Scout contemplate specific themes surrounding self-sufficiency, sustainability, observation, labor, cultivation, exploration, defense and tenacity.

Before mentioning any of the artworks in the show, Kimberley began by explaining that her new body of work came out of major life changes involving food and her interest around issues of agricultural sustainability. In the past few years, in an effort to eat healthy locally grown foods, she decided to give up all convenience foods and made a conscious effort to eat mostly organic foods. Kimberley feels that to a large part – many current environmental problems are due to our culture’s worship of convenience. To confront this dependence, Kimberley gave up packaged foods, ate strictly whole foods and eventually consumed only local and sustainably farmed food. She instituted a “no plastic” rule in her home which began with giving up bottled water and proceeded to take out containers, plastic bags and all plastic packaging.

Kimberley was influenced by reading many current popular books on the food revolution such as Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma which led her towards living a more sustainable life. She started urban homesteading, canning, composting, and cutting garbage down to one small bag a week. She joined a CSA, bought only grass fed, pastured meats and stopped eating out or ordering take-out. She is striving to have as small of a footprint as possible and is giving serious thought to starting a farm on a former cattle ranch in the South. This passion about food, sustainability, farming, and stewardship, led Kimberley to meet various people involved with permaculture and the transition movement, environmentalists and social justice advocates. She feels that as an artist she is coming from a different place but can potentially end up with similar and interrelated solutions.

In order to create this new show, Kimberley spent time contemplating a way to integrate her new outlook on life and focus on sustainability and self-sufficiency into her artwork. She decided to continue utilizing narrative and allegory as in her past bodies of work. Through drawing and sculpture, she exposes her alter ego represented as a mischievous, irreverent young girl who is self-reliant but more vulnerable and suspicious than in years past. Though noticeably absent from the work, this girl was once full of sparkles and glitter. She is no longer fantasizing about her hunting prowess or setting traps for inappropriate prey. Instead, we find her hunkered down in an austere outpost with few essentials and a concern for an unknown adversary. There are vestiges of a carefree girlhood, but the tenor has changed—a sense of uncertainty has eroded her daring as she struggles to maintain some bravery in the face of a new, foreboding reality.

The works in the exhibition reveal her alter ego’s surroundings, shelter and possessions. A “bank” holds prized, as well as scavenged, provisions and doubles as a repository for a personal currency and objects to barter in this new world. Beautifully crafted, ominous vultures skulk and spread their wings near a pivotal piece titled, The Death of Sparkle. While Kimberley’s alter ego has proven to be equally prissy and cunning in past exhibitions, she is now overwhelmed by apprehensions and threatened by the malicious marauder responsible for Sparkle’s death.

Fantasy and fine craftsmanship remain hallmarks of her work, but the tone has shifted to reflect a change—both imagined and real—in her environment. There is a marked shift in her alter ego from mischief-maker of the vernal woodlands to a menaced and solitary defender in a dystopic landscape.

“In an allegory of our shared hopes and fears, an itinerant, young heroine and an elusive, predatory force struggle for prominence. Survival for these characters is symbiotic; their lives intertwine in a closed loop of cause and effect where the lonely girl, in the face of a malicious entity and in a degrading environment, maintains an acute sense of optimism through her own perseverance. This dystopian fantasy explores an uncertain future, an existence outside of modern convenience where subsistence is the primary concern. Referencing issues ranging from institutional critique, environmental stewardship, egalitarianism and our shared literary and visual culture, this work of speculative fiction offers a potential outcome to our current socioeconomic crisis.

We are all scouts now.” Kimberley Hart, 2009

Go to EcoArtSpace

Art as warning: David Olsen’s Vulture

Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of art around these days questioning our relationship with the natural world and the creatures that live in it. Arts Catalyst’s extraordinaryInterspecies series last year contained a series of works in which artists “collaborated” with animals in disturbing ways that disrupted our conventional ideas of the co-dependency of the natural and human worlds.

As part of their excellent Flash Point series “How do arts respond to the natural world?”, art:21 blog has just published an essay by curator Nova Benway on the artist David Olsen, whose work explores the toxic impact we have on the natural world. As part of it he adopts the persona of “Vulture”, dressing in bizarre protective handmade clothing to ape the vulture’s adaptive strategy of becoming resistent to the pathogens that it finds in the decaying food that it finds. His attempts to become animal appear ridiculous.

Benway explains how Olsen then suberges pieces of work beneath the polluted waters of Benway Creek in Brooklyn:

The creek is one of the most pollutedwaterways in the country, and the sculptures are, in a certain sense, tools for healing. Made from natural materials like clay, wax, and rope, they employ humble filtration devices to purify tiny amounts of water, or crystals intended to absorb negative forces. One recent work, Witness (2008), is a seal skull with crystals embedded in the eye sockets. A rope attaches the skull to a glass buoy, so when it is lowered into the water it can float through the depths, “seeing” and collecting information or negative energy, until it is retrieved by the artist. Olsen adopts the identity of “Vulture” for these actions, wearing a handmade protective helmet and suit to mimic the bird’s heightened immune system. Of course, these activities have negligible impact on the rampant pollution of the waterway. Olsen’s deliberate mixing of pragmatic and mystical solutions to the problem further obfuscate their effectiveness, while retaining the urgent desire for change.

Its an interesting idea, and I like the idea of art-as-warning, but I confess the Mad Max apocalypticism of this work puts me off. That it revels  in the aesthetic of decay seems to dent the point it may be trying to make about the awfulness of pollution.

Read art:21 blog’s How does art respond to the natural world series of Flash Point essays.

Pictured: Above, David Olsen as “Vulture”; below, Witness (2008) by David Olsen.

Go to RSA Arts & Ecology

Design and ecology: Julia Lohmann

Design tends to think of the environment in only terms of materials and processes; how do we make things in a way that harms the environment least. So it was great to come across the work of designer Julia Lohmann. I met her about a year ago to write a piece about her in the New York Times.

Anyway. To the p0int. Lohmann is famous for her Cow Benches – uncomfortable pieces of furniture that consist of a single cow hide stretched over a skeletal frame to form a headless, legless shape that looks uncomfortably like a sitting cow. On one level it’s a kind of riposte to the DFS leather sofa, forcing us to think about the materials that the things we sit on are made of.

At first glance her use of animals appears repulsive and callous. Her graduation show at The Royal College of Art included a piece called Flock – a series of lamps made from sheep’s stomachs. She outraged fellow designers a couple of years ago with another seat shape calledThe Lasting Void, a sleek, futuristic pod that turned out to have been moulded from the inside of a slaughtered cow’s body cavity.

In fact they’re quite the opposite – a way of forcing us to think about our disconnection from the animals we slaughter. In fact there’s a tenderness about her pieces that’s more visible with the second glance. Raised in small-town Germany with a love of animals, who worked on farms in Iceland, she believes that if we kill animals we have a responsibility to know what we do, and to use every part of the carcass respectfully. As a student she had been fascinated by the reaction to Damien Hirst’s Mother and Child Divided: “You kill and cut up a cow and people are outraged,” Lohmann says. “Yet we do that every day. And what percentage of that meat is being thrown away?” Lohmann’s work is an attempt to create something useful – or at least respectful – from every piece of the dead carcass – even the cavity.

Unlike most design, Lohmann’s pieces leave you with a very clear question. If your reaction to her work is still that it is frivolous and unethical to use dead animals to make her pieces, then what else about the way we use animals is frivolous?

Julia Lohmann in the New York Times

Go to RSA Arts & Ecology

Happy New Year from ecoartspace

From Top Left to bottom Right: David Haley, Emily Brown, Samantha Fields, Christy Rupp, Sant Khalsa, Jason Middlebrook, Joy Garnett, Susan Leibovitz Steinman, and Sandy Gellis.

We are looking forward to some exciting shows and programs in 2010 as we venture into our 11th year working together as a bicoastal environmental art nonprofit. Please check out our website by mid-month to see updates and check back here on our blog for several upcoming posts on our activities in December and some exciting new artists/works we have been keeping an eye on.

Shall 2010 be a turning point for us all in our efforts to help others see the world around them with new eyes.

Tricia Watts and Amy Lipton

Go to EcoArtSpace

Is Joy a Sustainable Fuel?

By Moe Beitiks

as published in the CSPA Quarterly/Fall 2009

Creative Visions


When you see a big painted bus driving down the  highway (a BIG bus, an old school bus, not some passenger van) that says RUNS ON VEGETABLE OIL; when that bus is covered in a thousand brushstrokes of color; is filled with young folk who may or may not have dreadlocks, may or may not play drums, and may or may not flash you a peace sign, what do you do?  Do you roll your eyes?  Do you smile?  Is the joy that seems to sustain them for real?  Can it last?  Or is it the glory of youth and naïveté?

Common Vision is a hippie caravan, in the best sense of the word.  The fleet of vegetable-oil powered buses travels the country in seasonal “Fruit Tree Tours,” planting saplings, leading workshops and giving earth-celebratory performances.  Photos from the tour depict dreadlocked smiling folk beating on african drums and dancing.  It seems like a stereotypical portrait of hippie earth-worship.  Except that in addition to gleefully celebrating the earth, it’s effectively spreading sustainable strategies.

To be sure, green touring is not a foreign concept.  Artists like the Grateful Dead and Dave Matthews Band have been running on biodiesel for years.  Even Broadway shows have begun to offset their carbon footprints.  The company that provides such a service, Touring Green, is one of a number of organizations that have developed to support sustainable touring:  REVERB, Bid for Green, the list goes on.  But there’s something pure and joyful about the Common Vision celebration.  It’s a no-holds-barred earthy celebration accompanied by real, measurable action.  It almost feels like . . . cheating. 

Common Vision has been touring since 2000.  They’ve planted hundreds of fruit trees in schools and communities along the west coast and beyond.  They’ve taught workshops and inspired kids (and they’ve got the crayon-drawn thank-you notes to prove it).  “We see ourselves as what I call ‘shooting star energy,’ something that you see, recognize as beautiful and feel inspired by,” says Common Vision founder Blair  Philips. “Now is the critical time to spread the inspiration accompanied with the education to rekindle a relationship with the earth.”

Common Vision is not a lone painted hippie bus, but part of a generation of veggie buses, fueled by waste oil and uncensored joy.  “Biodiesel is the gateway drug to sustainability,” says Biodiesel Station founder Sara Hope Smith, and veggie buses have proven it in droves.  Indeed, the idea that you can fuel a car on vegetable oil is a cultural catalyst.  It’s something that makes a sustainable future seem possible and viable, even if you can’t completely replace  petroleum with waste grease. 

Though veggie oil fuels have been part of the popular lexicon for the past couple of years, there’s still some confusion about them.  Here’s the breakdown: vegetable oil behaves like a diesel fuel when thinned.  Chemically thinning the oil produces biodiesel, which can be used directly in a diesel engine without modification.  To use Straight Vegetable Oil (SVO) as a fuel, a diesel engine needs to be outfitted with a fueling system that will physically thin the oil with heat.  This often requires the installation of a second tank and fuel filter, as well as an in-line heater or two.  Both forms  reduce emissions significantly— some by seventy percent– and neither contain sulfur, which in emissions contributes to acid rain.  Plus, the exhaust smells like fried goodness.

That’s the basic spiel I gave while traveling aboard a bus called ‘Unifried, the Biofuels Bus’.  Five years ago, I lived on that converted school bus for five months, giving veggie fuel workshops by donation at farmers markets, schools and festivals across the country.  Our bus was not covered in a mural, just a few crisp, solid stripes of color, and we had our own crew of inspired and willing volunteers who had saved their cash and set aside some time to go preach the good green word.  There was a sense of irony about the whole thing; we knew we looked like evangelical hippies.  I even gave tongue-in-cheek “Grease Sermons,” touting the good-God-glory of greasy goodness.  Still, we dove into grease dumpsters with grinning joy.  We were using waste as fuel!

On the road, the eco-inspired traveled in droves.  There was the Sustainable Solutions Caravan, which made several treks between San Diego and Costa Rica, touting cobb-building and grease-gathering along the way. Julia Butterfly-Hill’s We the Planet Bus, outfitted with a bamboo interior and energy-efficient appliances, drove all over America on used vegetable oil.  The Big Tadoo Puppet Crew would put on colorful shows at festivals, celebrating farmers and permaculture ideals.  Groups of friends with no specified mission bought buses together, vacationing and celebrating in painted school buses running on restaurant waste.  There got to be so many veggie buses that for awhile they gathered themselves in a Clean Fuel Caravan Coalition, a body of alternatively fueled   vehicles supporting each others’ sustainable goals.  The buses would gather at festivals, green events, and celebratory retreats. “If it’s not fun, it’s not sustainable,” says Philips.

Still, buses cannot be fueled by waste oil and joy alone.  Though volunteers founded and continue to run many eco-educational tours, there are the costs of feeding and watering those volunteers, as well as internet access, bridge tolls, fuel filters, auto parts, and the occasionally necessary swim break.  Even the prominent Bio-Willie blend of biodiesel, backed by singer Willie Nelson, ended up tanking financially.  There’s no touring, no fueling, no sustainable future without some hefty regard for logistics.

The reality of biodiesel has also changed.  The fuel is commonly made from virgin GMO soy stock as well as from Waste Vegetable Oil.  Producers of Palm Oil in places like Indonesia are widely criticized for deforesting rainforest land in order to grow a “sustainable” feedstock.  In response, the Sustainable Biofuels Alliance emerged to develop a “green” standard for biodiesel.  It even toured with REVERB this year to spread the sustainable biodiesel message.  The supercharged, pure-white joy of a sustainable future must constantly face a slightly gray reality. 

Some of the veggie caravans evolved. Natural supermarket giant Whole Foods sponsored the Conscious Goods    Alliance, which traveled from store to store, touting fair trade goods. Parts of the Sustainable Solutions Caravan, The Big Tadoo Puppet Crew, and the Clean Fuel Caravan merged into the Sustainable Living Roadshow, a massive-volunteer-run, traveling eco-carnival. Some buses are parked and gathering dust: some are touring musicians: some are creating new caravans.

Still, whether a bus is adorned with corporate logos or earthy brush-swishes, touring sustainably can be difficult when time and energy aren’t properly managed.  A spirit of earth-devotion and self-sacrifice can lead to volunteers working themselves to exhausted extremes, or absorbing fleet costs on their personal credit cards.  This can lead to a different kind of unsustainability: one of spirit.

Recently Arcola Energy defended their future touring plans by analyzing the manner in which they tour,  asking: Can the miles involved, the size of the touring party, the negative impact of the tour be reduced?  Can the positive impact of the tour be increased?  In the context of these questions, Arcola looks at its own booking arrangements, multiple-destination tours, and staffing, rather than just the carbon footprint of the cultural endeavor.  Sustainable touring is made more so by smart and efficient planning, and requires the ability to face the inglorious realities of schedules, mileage, and budget.

Is it worth the effort?  Do veggie buses make the world a better place?  Are they, in fact, being the change? “To be honest,” says Phillips, “I don’t think that there is such a thing as touring sustainably. True sustainability starts when there’s no need to tour because the message is being heard and people start localizing food   systems and making decisions based on the recourses available to them with in 100 or so miles . . . However, when you reference people touring with a strong message and education against the making of disposable plastic toys and trucking them across the country, or flying them around the world so that they can end up in a plastic island in the middle of the ocean, touring is the lesser of two evils.”

Personally, I can say this: that while touring with the Sustainable Living Roadshow as a Road Manager, there were many, many moments when I had exhausted my glee reserves.  Our all-volunteer crew constantly worked 12 to 14-hour days, setting up and breaking down the carnival, running games, conducting workshops,  booking venues, hosting film screenings, moving gear, finding fuel, mapping routes.  Many people took on jobs they had no experience with, simply because they needed to get done.  The tour was not nearly as   efficient administratively as a more experienced or well-funded tour might have been, and we learned many lessons on the fly.  

But then someone would thank us for coming.  Someone would say, “I’ve never heard of any of this; I’ve been wanting to learn more about wind power; tell me about biodiesel; this is awesome, thank you.”  Many attendees credited us with being a catalyst for information-sharing and community networking.  All in all, the Sustainable Living Roadshow successfully reached folks at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota, and at the Tupac Shakur Foundation in Atlanta, Georgia, among many other places.

Philips believes that Common Vision’s effectiveness is evident, “When an inner city youth starts connecting the dots about where his food comes from . . . or when a student gets excited and takes ownership of the tree she planted, and exclaims that she’ll be happy when her little brother will get to eat the fruit of the tree when he makes it into 7th grade.” 

Common Vision’s accolades aren’t only from elementary school kids: a documentary made about their project for PBS’ Natural Heroes has earned them an Emmy Award. It’s an excellent representation of veggie buses at their best, working as a kind of cultural crowbar for the green meme. An accomplishment that is deserving of joy, great gleeful gobs of it, dreadlocked or otherwise.

Moe Beitiks writes about environmental art and eco-culture for and 
She can be found in the San Francisco Bay Area working in theaters or pumping biodiesel.