Rock's green days
FITCHBURG, MASS. — It's the hottest day Massachusetts has had in four years – 100 degrees F. and humid – and global warming has to be on the minds of more than a few of the 15,000 people here. It's the site of the nine-hour, 110-band, Vans Warped Tour '06. Joan Jett is on stage belting out an anthemic song from her new album, singing "Gotta change the world!"
The bands on this tour may not be changing the entire world, but they are trying to improve their little corner of it. The airport grounds where this rock 'n' roll marathon takes place are strewn with trash and plastic bottles, but a team of recyclers is constantly making the rounds, filling big plastic bags. (They filled 65.) One small stage is powered by solar energy. The caravan of tour buses runs on biodiesel fuel.
In a summer beset by bubbling thermometers and soaring gas prices, dozens of rock bands are doing more than just singing about environmental causes. Touring acts such as The Dave Matthews Band, Guster, and Pearl Jam are trying to minimize their carbon footprints as they traverse America. Their goal? Encourage concertgoers to adopt a green lifestyle.
"This tour serves as a microcosm of society," says Justin Sane, singer for punk band Anti-Flag, taking shelter in an air-conditioned bus at this Warped Tour stop. "We can set an example of how the world can be."
Musicians have long had ties to the environmental movement. There's Sting, who has been trying to save the rain forest for decades. There's Willie Nelson and his biodiesel- powered tour bus – heck, he founded the Willie Nelson Biodiesel company. There's Don Henley, relentlessly pushing to save Henry Thoreau's beloved Walden Woods from development. Earth Day concerts have been a staple of the rock world for years, with dozens of performers bonding together to promote the green way of life.
This summer the rock community is revving up its engines – powered by energy-efficient fuel, of course – with activism that's focused on changing its own lifestyle in order to lead by example.
These days, the Dave Matthews Band earns the most environmental gold stars. Over the past few years, the easygoing jam band has been working with a privately held native American energy company called NativeEnergy to offset the climate impact of emissions from touring – that includes energy-related emissions from amps on stage to accommodations associated with trucking, travel, and hotel stays.
"They purchase renewable energy credits through Clean Air–Cool Planet, a science-based nonprofit," says Billy Connelly, marketing director for the Vermont-based NativeEnergy. "They're helping build a new renewable-energy project. They're putting clean energy onto the grid and pushing dirty energy off. It's the same impact as if they were hard-wired to a wind turbine."
The Dave Matthews Band is even going so far as compensating for emissions from its tours over the past 15 years. "They've set the bar the highest," says Mr. Connelly. "It's a very big carbon footprint."
Also involved in NativeEnergy's offsetting system are artists Guster, Ray LaMontagne, Barenaked Ladies, R.E.M., the Indigo Girls, Jack Johnson, and Bon Jovi. Tennessee's multiband Bonnaroo festival has also participated during the past two years.
Kert Davies, research director at Greenpeace, says he's noticing "a cavalcade" of musicians making an effort to compensate for their energy use. (No small thing when considering the wattage devoted to amplifiers and lighting rigs.) "By making these changes, it draws awareness to it and proves it's possible," says Mr. Davies by phone.
The 51-date Warped Tour, which ends Sunday, is being transported, in part, on biodiesel fuel, a mixture of soybean oil and diesel. Last October, producer Kevin Lyman committed to running the tour's 19 trucks and 17 buses on the fuel, which, he says, "uses 20 percent less of a nonrenewable product. That's a huge start. It runs cleaner. We're finding the trucks have more horsepower and some of the bus drivers are saying they're getting a mile more per gallon."
The tour's caterers have even eschewed paper plates in favor of using real dishes and that most indispensable of recycling devices: the dishwasher, saving an estimated 81,000 paper plates.
"I'm trying to make a statement," adds Mr. Lyman. "We need to start to thinking along these paths if we're going to continue to have a livelihood. It's not going to run out overnight, but it is time for fuel alternatives."
On this hot August day, the humidity is just barely tolerable on a site that was once an airport but is now little more than dirt and clumps of dry grass. Lots of water is consumed – some vendors even offer free water to entice customers to purchase their wares. Other kids dunk their heads in tubs of iced water. There's plenty of sun, in other words, to power the tour's "green stage," which relies on solar energy to power a 40,000-watt sound system. A stage banner reads: "100% Pollution Free Music."
Marc Ross, executive director of Rock the Earth, based in Denver, founded the nonprofit in 2002 and entered the public eye two years ago. The mission: "We take the issues bands care about and do something about them, and we provide legal and technical assistance to people and do educational outreach at concerts," he says.
Mr. Ross would approve of rocker Jon Bon Jovi's idea for getting out the message: The singer was so impressed by Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" that the global-warming documentary is being screened between breaks at Bon Jovi's stadium concerts.
Put most simply, says Ross, "We're an environmental advocacy group for the music community." Rock the Earth has worked with more than 30 acts including Bonnie Raitt, the Allman Brothers Band, and Jack Johnson. It does everything from planting trees to buying emission credits on the open market, leading to a reduction in pollutants.
Simon Counsell, director of the Rainforest Foundation UK, says progress is being made, but in an e-mail cautions: "What we need is a wider mobilization that recognizes that overcoming poverty, respecting human rights, and respecting the environment are all inextricably linked." He credits Sting and Radiohead's Thom Yorke in their support of the London-based environmental advocacy group Friends of the Earth, calling them part of "a new breed of rock stars who are using their fame to promote genuine green activism."
On the smaller scale of things, the women in the folk duo Ditty Bops have been touring America by bicycle. And Red Hunter, aka Peter and the Wolf, is touring the East Coast by – this has to be a first – sailboat.