Can Festivals Save the World?

Abigail forwarded me this trailer for a web series on transformational festivals called Bloom.

It left her feeling uneasy and self critical.  She wants to support festival culture, but is concerned by what she perceives as self congratulatory and over hyped claims of saving the world.  And she is right.

I think festivals are hugely important, I have seen them change lots of peoples lives mostly in positive ways.  They can be significant models for all manner of new societies we want to create.  And you can’t just dance oppression away, you can’t party away economic injustice and you can’t vacation your way to sustainability, especially in the middle of the desert.

The Bloom Film team

Don’t get me wrong.  I am excited about Bloom.  If the trailer is any indication, these are very thoughtful funologists.  They are looking at the need for rituals in current culture, they are challenging the commercialization of daily life, they get that festivals can heal participants and catalyze personal transformations.  They understand that these festivals are a chance to model new behaviors and cultural norms.  I applaud this approach and their investigation into the power of these events, especially festivals that are cash free internally.

But there are hazards in promising too much while not significantly shifting things and even reinforcing problematic ideologies in the dominant culture, while deluding ourselves that our good time is much more than what it really is. There is a dangerous new age mix in which mostly white and mostly affluent people can think that festival culture is the key to a better world.  The message that comes through to people who are watching it casually is “hey we can solve our problems by going to festivals and dancing and making art.”  Which is not true, and feels like a dodge of the hard work which needs to be done in more hostile environments.Burning Man

These events can be escapist experiences disconnected from peoples regular lives.  Where people don’t quit their straight jobs or break out of their stuck relationships and instead save up for the year to spend a week in the wilderness having the experiences they wish they could somehow have all year.  The Bloom points out the power of co-creation at these events and that important lasting relationships are built.  But largely individuals go home alone – we have not yet successfully exported festival cooperation to the daily lives of most participants.  Important work undone.-


Also especially around gender roles, beauty standards and sexual violence.  The Bloom pitches the idea of “gender alchemy” with some wonderful words about respect, healing and understanding.  Some of these transformational festivals are doing amazing things in these areas, and it is still the exception rather than the norm. I don’t want to throw out this important tool, and i think overall with regard to sexism and reinforcing the corrupt values around objectification, these festivals are mostly setting us backwards.

Where it gets really dangerous is the novel notion of re-indigenization.  A word i had not even heard before i saw this trailer.  The theory is fantastic: “How transformational festivals honor and support a deep connection with the earth.  And the way this is catalyzing a cultural re-encounter between neo-tribal festival communities and representatives of indigenous communities in right relationship.”  But, we have to wonder, who chooses these indigenous representatives?  What about problems of cultural appropriation and on-going genocide of these indigenous people?  I have been struggling with these issues for the past year, and i am confident i am working on them harder than most festival goers and have made pathetic progress myself. So the short answer is “No. Tranformative festivals can’t save the world.”  At least not the ones of which i am aware.  The Bloom is dangerously over-promising.  Yet it still makes sense to have these festivals, to work on these issues, to recognize that we do need models and experiments and to change the lives of participants and the dominant culture.  They are important tools, but no substitute for less pleasant, more self-critical and self-sacrificing work which needs to be done in less comfortable environments.


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About paxus

a funologist, memeticist and revolutionary. Can be found in the vanity bin of Wikipedia and in locations of imminent calamity. buckle up, there is going to be some rough sledding.

31 responses to “Can Festivals Save the World?”

  1. Jack Marxer says :

    Off topic, but I think you’ll find this very interesting:

    *Wind Surpasses Nuclear in China *

    J. Matthew Roney

    Earth Policy Release Data Highlight February 19, 2013

    Wind has overtaken nuclear as an electricity source in China. In 2012, wind farms generated 2 percent more electricity than nuclear power plants did, a gap that will likely widen dramatically over the next few years as wind surges ahead. Since 2007, nuclear power generation has risen by 10 percent annually, compared with wind’s explosive growth of 80 percent per year. . . .

    • paxus says :

      Dearest Jack:

      i saw this and was going to post on it, it is significant, especially because the pro-nuke folks so often cite China as the source of wisdom in this. And China may still play a key roll in financing the new UK reactors, which are now going to be subsidized by he governent (reversing their long stand).

      We are not done with this fight by any means, but we are definitely winning much more than we ever have before. It is an extremely satisfying tie to be an international anti-nuclear activist, i promise you.

      Paxus at Acorn
      20 Early Flowers 2013

  2. Andrew says :

    I experienced the festival culture for the first time at Shangri-la, in Geneva Minnesota. I was just out of high school, and in one weekend I was introduced to permaculture, community, amazing music, great people, and it’s something I will never forget. It helped me open my eyes a little wider, and I am so grateful for the experience. We all played our parts, and we all had a blast. :]

    • paxus says :

      Dearest Andrew:

      And in this way, festival cutlure can change the wold. It opens up peoples lives dramatically and this is foundational to healing this place.

      Paxus at Acorn
      20 Early FLowers 2013

      • Mark* Pathfinder says :

        I wish that you would have clarified how you are contesting the use of “Changing the World” rather than creating doubts about Festivals being useful.

        Your last comment should have been the headline for your article. It sums up just HOW Festivals change the world by changing many peoples awareness OF the world and offering “hints” about how we can change it.

        That would be the second item I would like to have seen in your article, How do you think festivals should change to provide more solutions to the worlds problems?

        I disagree with your assessment that the Majority of folks go about their ordinary lives when not at festival. I believe Festival goers are more conscious and less world degrading than people who have never attended a festival. That alone is significant.

        I would like to hear more from you.
        Hugs will save the world if we just give enough of them! Hugs!

        Mark* Pathfinder
        20 Feb 2013

  3. Scott Busby says :

    Another similar documentary, film was just shown in my community, called “Electronic Awakening” . Same premise, that these festivals indicate a shift toward a new humanity. Electronic Awakening focuses on Rave style festivals.

  4. sweetmamasquash says :

    Oh, Paxus, what an interesting post! I struggled with this myself. It was Rainbow,more than any other experience, that opened my eyes to all things counterculture when I finished college and was disillusioned and looking for a better way to live. I don’t think I would have ever travelled, lived in community, or had the courage to find my own path if it weren’t for the living proof that there were people out there who were existing outside of the norm and succeeding. I think festival-going took away my fear. Yet, after years of festival-going, I became more and more conflicted, in my case it was primarily because of the ecological damage that was left behind, but also because of the impermanance of it all. I agree with you. Festivals are all beauty and magic and energy, but ultimately each person has to find within themselves the strength to hold that energy and bring it forward to work on the more complex, difficult and mundane tasks that still need to be done. Great work Paxus, I always enjoy reading your blog posts (even if I almost never have time to reply). 🙂


  5. Ali says :

    I like what you said, and agree that more work needs to be done. I think the trailer definitely sensationalized a lot of aspects of festivals (and the host’s narrative voice really triggered me) but i appreciate the bit about how they are potential models for the kind of world we want to live in, and perhaps the work is around making the transition from example/model to regular life, extrapolation of ideas and values.
    “i think overall with regard to sexism and reinforcing the corrupt values around objectification, these festivals are mostly setting us backwards” really? backwards? that hasn’t been my experience and I’d like to hear more about why you think this.
    I also like the re-inhabiting the village idea, and think this is a big part of why I like festivals (and twin oaks for that matter).

    • Becca says :

      I do think that the festivals reinforce stereotypes of beauty. Mixed with class. A couple of years ago, I went to Beloved, a smallish sacred music festival in the woods (less than 1000 people). This was supposedly the “best” festival to go to – smaller, more real than the others.

      What I found was competitiveness: getting the “good” spot to camp (most of it was crowded), hanging out with the “right” people, having “transformative” experiences (which mostly involved psychedelics), and wearing the latest trendy hippie chic clothing, which is not cheap, by the way.

      It was like Burning Man glam softened for the woods. And it cost about $200 to get in, just so you could compete for wretched camping spots and buy or make your own food, and be kept up all night by loud people tripping.

      Oh, and the music was pretty good. 😉

      I think that festival can be mind-blowing for new people to the alternative scene. That through them people can get a glimpse of different ideas and priorities. But they are only a way of life for people who have found a way to make money off of the other people that go there. Otherwise, you need a very good job (that both pays well and gives you lots of time off) or you need a trust fund.

      The type of event that I am interested in at this point is small (300 people or fewer), growth-centered (there are planned and unplanned connective activities), substance-free, spiritual (the needs of the whole individual are addressed), community-based (the people who are there are likely to continue working together on important projects after the festival is over), and affordable (the organizers are not looking to profit off of people who want to purchase a ticket to their kind of cool).

      I find the music festival scene in general to be a distraction more than a saving thing for most of the people who go there. It is either a full-time job (congratulations if you can make it work) or a tourist destination. It is a tourist industry that is profiting off of people’s unmet needs for tribe. I’d rather help create tribe.

  6. paxus says :

    @Mark – So what i want as a radical funologist is for the lessons from these festivals to return home with people after the event. As i commented before this happens some, but the really big lessons – non commercial life (like we largely have here on the commune and as exists at Burning Man or Rainbow style events) is not something very many festival goers build once they return home, and is (i think) a critical part of world changing which needs to happen.

    Similarly, Leave No Trace is an important camp/festival ethic but is generally not embraced in this waste generating culture that participants return to. Not to mention that what we tried to create at Villages in the Sky was something this was a step up from LNT and tried to build things – including communities, on festival sites. What i would like these festivals to do is not green field at the end of every year, but build things which are useful for future festivals and ideally seed communities to operate as caretakers between events onsite.

    We are in agreement that many festival goers come back changed and often for the better. And my experience from repeated BM events is that they are not changing folks enough. And particularly, it creates this illusion that we can be done with our political work by going to these festivals and partying hard. It is not so easy, sadly.

    Paxus at Twin Oaks
    20 Early Flowers 2013

  7. paxus says :

    Dearest Ali:

    BM especially often has a frat party feel to it. It is of course a mix and there are lots of things happening at once and different participants bring all manner of different agendas and worldviews. That said, there is lots of objectifying comments, re-enforcement of these comments, celebration of classical beauty images and what Madison Avenue is comfortable with as sexy or attractive.

    And my observations are re-enforced by many women friends who find this aspect of many festival cultures oppressive. But i would be more comfortable if other especially women participants backed me up on this one (tho there are lots of comments to this effect ont he “Dark Side of Burning Man” post which talks a bit more about the sexism of the event.

    And this does not mean we should start by scrapping them, rather we should look towards redirecting these tendencies, celebrating lots of different beauty models and calling out sexist behavior when we see it.

    Paxus at Twin Oaks
    20 Early Flowers 2013

  8. paxus says :

    Dearest Leila:

    Perhaps your experience is the best i can hope for with the current generation of festivals. You go, you have a big experience, you see things you never saw before, you take chances, you expand your self perception. And then the beauty and magic does not hold you and the sexism, or ecological damage disturbs the participant too much and they move on.

    I want these events to be more (and for some certainly they are sometimes, only a fool would generalize here – which makes me a fool). I want festivals which build communities, i want festivals which are heavy with sexy content as well as visually exciting and great dance and pick up spaces. i want people to go to these events and say “hey i do have a going nowhere job and i want to change away from it.” Or “My relationships are unhealthy or even uninspiring and i want my life to be more rich”

    • Ali says :

      so I think there is an event like you just described, or at least one brewing 😉
      and maybe Leila’s experience is exactly the role festivals that festivals fill? have an amazing time, open your eyes, go out and change your life for the better, then (necessarily disillusioned with the original life-changing event) go do something else and leave the festival to open new people’s eyes?) There are many things in my life that were life-changing/eye-opening at the time and that I no longer find valuable to do over again. Maybe more permanent intentional community (urban/rural/etc.) is the next step in a festival-goers process?

  9. bea says :

    hi pax,
    Wondering where you got the photo of the twin hippies at rainbow.Tthose are dear dear friends of mine. Ironically enough, both are big movers and shakers who are making radical and sustainable change in the world in very concrete ways. (Yoni created the greatest summer camp on earth, Eden Village Camp, which teaches farm and wilderness and community skills and humanistic spirituality. Pesach does peace work in Israel.)


    • paxus says :

      @B – How funny, the picture – which is in theme and i had never seen before yesterday, was actually selected by Kassia, who is my new shadow editors AND she tells me it is two of her friends. Small world.

      Paxus at Twin Oaks
      21 Early Flowers 2013

  10. joan says :

    i totally agree with you, pax. i consider my first witchcamp to have been my ‘festival’ experience – 80 some pagans in sacred space for an entire week trying to build the world they want. seeing what was Possible, even for a week, was a major catalyst for me in the same year that i first lived in community.

    knowing what is Possible even in the short term, i’ve spent the last 7 years re-skilling myself and moving onto 6 raw acres and living in a 3-walled shack while i build a homestead. since i’ve moved out here i have Longed for the money or means to attend a festival here or there (if it’s not money it’s the extra time that hitching/rideshare requires, which is more time needing other folks to watch my livestock)… at this point festivals would be 90% escapist for me. there is still more for me to learn, but the amount of that knowledge to be gained in a festival format is shrinking rapidly.

    what is left to me is the long, arduous, and rewarding work of building relationships with the land That I Live On, the people and creatures who live nearby, learning, working hard, failing half the time, and keeping on.

    the strange part is that so many people seem to consider it Enough to just enjoy festival culture and go back to ‘the real world’. dozens of people will call me badass and hardcore and otherwise lift me up for my choices, when it’s an inherent selfishness and arrogance that got me here – a few weekends or weeks or even Months of the year are not enough for me. this IS my life, and every moment of it is sacred, and it is exhausting and overwhelming and so full of beauty. i have it hard in ways that some cannot imagine, but i have it easy in ways they will never allow themselves to dream of.

    what is holding them back? yes it’s scary and hard and takes a while, i’ve heard all of that, i’ve heard about leaving what’s familiar and not knowing anyone… yes, yes, i know. what is holding them back? which i suppose is just a rephrasing of your own refrain – how do we export what is best from festival culture, from community, into the mainstream to effect radical change?

  11. Eric says :

    God points all around. I’ve enjoyed a couple of fests but know several people who, being well off, fly to festivals on jets and who play a lot of golf in their other spare time. Not exactly a transformative thing in and of itself. But much better than going to monster truck rallies I suppose. ;o)

  12. Seven says :

    I’ll use Eric’s last port as a jumping in point to this conversation…

    The comparison to Monster Truck Rallies is an interesting one, and it hits home for some of what sits uncomfortably inside me about the festie culture. Specifically, how does the fuel consumption of all the hippies, domestic and foreign, traveling hundreds or thousands of miles to attend festivals every year stack up against the fuel consumption of a touring monster truck rally? Both sets of participants are seeking an escape from their daily grind. But the attendees at a monster truck rally probably only drove an average of 20 min to get to there destination, and they are not potentially destroying sensitive habitats simply by being there. I’ll leave you to consider the remaining comparisons/contrastings for your self.

    That said, I do see that festivals play a roll in awakening those who are ready and able to act upon the particular type of inspiration provided by festivals. But I would argue that those folks are mostly comprised of a thin layer of the already privileged class in the U.S.

    Other than that, festivals are frequently an opportunity to get really high on the drug of your choice. So I ask this: Is there any responsibility on the hands of the informed, casual festival attendee for the repercussions of encouraging more and more people towards addictive behaviors? What about all of those folks who are in the process of wreking their lives by attending festivals all summer long? What of the young person who uses festivals as the mental “thumbs up” for a lifetime of drug abuse, finally becoming a burden on their community and never reaching their potential? Or simply the young person who gets the glamor caught in their eyes and decides being a glorified drug dealer, bringing the “medicine” to the people, is the best choice for their future? Its all happening at your local festival. Plus all of the aforementioned reinforcement of cultural gender norms and sexual objectification.

    Further, who are festivals really working for? Aren’t many of them simply money laundering schemes for drug dealers? Open your eyes, my friends. While many of us conscientious folks can show up and get something completely positive out of the experience, I would say the the average festival goer is either on the hustle or trying to escape the brutal existence that is their waking world.

    Is that much different than what is happening in our towns and cities on the daily? Not so much. So do I want to participate? Maybe surprisingly, the answer is still yes. First, because their is still a very small minority of festivals that are not wallowing in a belief system that is blurred in every way by the head-fog they create through the continuous use of cannabis and other such substances. Secondly, that the one festival I regularly attend, the Oregon Country Fair, allows me an opportunity of artistic expresion that promotes what is best about the imagined neo-tribal movement underway amongst festival goers. In other words, I get to model the best kind of behavior that a freak can exhibit, inspiring my fellows travelers towards the discipline of greater artistic expression, and hopefully, hopefully, cause the wheels of thought to turn inside the head of some visitor for middle america. And lastly, I participate exactly because of that overlap into middle U.S. culture. What other festival is so welcoming and so accesible to those who prop up the shaky U.S. economy and spend most of their dollars every year supporting corporate structures? If I can sway the future of even one person every year, young or old, to reconsider their choices based on the fun and freedom I express in our artistic interactions, I have accomplished a great thing. It might even be considered community service.

    One last thing… I am most certainly a hypocrite, and have participated in everyone of the unfortunate things I have mentioned above. And I keep stepping forward, examining my choices through what lens I can discover, reflecting information back to the world as concisely as I am able…

    • paxus says :

      Dearest Seven:

      Always happy to have your comments on my blog. Yes, the drug culture that many festivals encourage can be extremely damaging to participants and lead to addiction and lost potential. i have seen this personally, especially at Rainbow.

      Also most monster truck rallies are more fuel efficient for participating audience than certainly Burning Man is. On this we can agree. My hope is that BM (or perhaps regional lower impact events) can encourage people to radical self expression, in a way that i am skeptical Monster Truck rallies do. That there is a higher possibility for life transforming take aways. AND i have never been to a monster truck rally, dont know much about the culture and if i am wrong about this, i would love someone to challenge me here in these comments (and would even consider going to a monster truck rally if a compelling case for their social significance could be made).

      The Oregon Country Fair is one fo the best events in the US as far as i am concerned as a funologist. A big part of this is that they have well graduated from Leave No Trace. The fair grounds get improved and expanded every year. [This requires the non-trivial design element of owning the land the event is on – which is quite difficult for many events, including BM]. OCF is also largely a day visit event, only the staff stay over night, so participants go home at night, generally reducing the distance that participants come from.

      Further, OCF is highly integrated in with the local Eugene culture, with talent and vendors from the region, some of whom work for much of the year to present or market at this event.

      OCF is not commercial free, which i think is one of the most important aspects of the Rainbow Gathering/Burning Man festival schemes. And there is certainly room for it as an inspirational and pioneering festival.

      Again thanks for your thoughts.

      Paxus in Sant Cruz
      23 Early Flowers 2013

      • Adam De Gree says :

        Hey Paxus,
        I’m a UCSB student embarking on an independent study of cultural appropriation issues and transformational festivals. You touch on some of these issues. Can you point me in the direction of some pertinent sources/ideas? Thanks!

  13. Rosie Lila says :

    Thanks for a good conversation starter. I wrote a rebuttal to your arguments here:

    • Abigail says :

      Hi Rosie. Since you said you are curious, Id be happy to share what was challenging to me about the video and my relationship to festival culture. Of course there is always something to learn from our reaction to things. And my feelings about festival culture and the Bloom series are mixed, as it seems is true for many of us who have had wonderful festival experiences and work actively to create and live alternatively.

      I sent the video to Pax in hopes that he could help me sort out my feelings, and I have had many great conversations about the topic since. I wont go into all of it here, and I think a number of my concerns were addressed in Pax’s blog. Where it feels the juiciest and scariest to me are the places where I feel critical of some of the behavior of people I love and am in community with. Places where as an expressive artist myself I know the transformative power and catalystic creativity of large groups, and yet I feel concerned by an exclusive, self aggrandizing air of superiority that I perceive in some environments. Personally I have chosen to take the creative play I have been inspired by in alternative spaces into mainstream institutions to challenge larger social structures and some times I feel isolated and disconnected from the “party”. It can be hard work and much less glamorous than a short term gathering of people that look and think very similarly.

      I certainly do not contest that Burning Man and other festivals have had an impact and are changing culture, and yet the level of hype I perceived in the video left me unsettled.

      Ironically, I find myself curious about your curiosity about me. It seems that sometimes any criticism in “festival culture” (I am using this term very broadly) gets turned around to “oh it must be that that person just has a personal issue”, and not a valid critique. I had an emotional response, and am enjoying seeing what is there for me, and yet I don’t want to dismiss my concerns as only my issue. Because, as I found, bringing it to Pax, and the discussions on and off line make me realize I am not the only one with similar concerns.

  14. Julian Keyframe says :

    Can Festivals Save the World?

    Can ANY one thing “Save the world”?
    Probably not.

    Do Transformational Festivals enhance the living experience and also create an environment where people learn, create, share, thrive, love, and experience the much needed ingredients to make this world a better place?

    I would like to share information that may offer specific context:

    1. “Festivals” and “Transformational Festivals” are two separate things.

    2. Here is what the Bloom Series website states about Transformational Festivals:

    Transformational Festivals (tend to) combine the following elements in the container created for participants:

    -Co-Creation of an Immersive, Participant-Driven Reality
    -Ecstatic Core Ritual provided through Electronic Dance Music
    -Visionary Art & Performance (also Art Installations, Live Art)
    -Workshop Curriculum covering spectrum of New Paradigm subjects
    -Creation & Honoring of Sacred Space, Ceremony & Ritual
    -Social Economy of Artisans & Vendors (or, Alternative Gift Economy)
    -Takes place in a Natural, Outdoor setting (Honoring of the Earth)
    -Occurs over multiple (typically 3-7) days

    In addition to these elements, Transformational Festivals tend to exhibit these additional characteristics:

    -Conscious Intention to Support Personal and Social Transformation
    -Implements Practices for Sustainability and Minimal Environmental
    -Maintains Safe, Respectful Container to permit Maximum Compatible
    -Supports Participants in Healing Processes (eg. sanctuary, peer
    support, psy-crisis, healing spaces)
    -Organizational Infrastucture & Collaborative Synergy of Production
    Team sufficient to successfully implement Intentions in Operation

    3. Here is the Episode guide for your reference:

    And this is the claim that the Bloom makes:
    “THE BLOOM, a ground-breaking new documentary webseries, illuminates the blossoming phenomenon of Transformational Festivals, immersive participatory realities that are having profound life-changing effects on hundreds of thousands of lives.”

    Thanks all for the discussion, I hope the above helps in reference to The Bloom.

    Julian / Keyframe-Entertainment

  15. Jan Haverkamp says :

    Catching up with old emails… Where does Ecotopia stand in this for you, Paxus? (I read in one of the reactions that less than 1000 is small… Ecotopia had an average of around 300 people on site, with Estonia (800) being the biggest – maybe the size puts it out of the the festival discussion? For me any festival larger than a few hundred is megalomanian – choice is important, but human perspective also allows us only so much focus… spending time with a few hundred people is already challenging enough to get your experiences in my experience). Ecotopia was also far from perfect, but….

    … I am still working with people that started out there – even with the generation that went there after i stopped going… they are changing the world – on the ground.

    … The small anti-nuclear camp in Poland last year has inspired a group of about a dozen young activists who are now involved directly in the local opposition against the Polish nuclear plans – quite a radical step for this country.

    Is there something about size that would help people making a difference afterwards? I had never expected more than a dozen people coming out as willing to take big risks for this area. Simply because only a smaller group can directly personally interact with the people living here without skewing the local culture. That personal interaction with the local rooted population is, I think, at least for me important to break out of the trod i was moving into (EU level work) back towards the local work.

    Or am i now just looking with too European eyes to a discussion which is primarily US-american?

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