Interview: The Greening Of Rothbury


By Richard Gehr

As the Rothbury Festival cranks up for its second year at the JJ Ranch in Rothbury, Michigan, this weekend, festival founders Jeremy Stein and Don Strasburg discuss how Rothbury represents the cutting edge of large-event environmentalism, and what this can mean for society as a whole.

How is Rothbury greener than any other festival this summer?

Jeremy Stein: We're not in competition with anyone. But when this was coming together about three years ago, we were looking at a lot of pieces, like biodiesel on tour buses or whatever, and noticed that no one had put them all together in one place yet. We asked ourselves, how can we get it all in one place and maybe create a new paradigm for large-scale events? The technology's changing so fast that what we did last year is already outdated, so we have to stay in front of the wave.

What's changed most since last year?

Jeremy: Some of it's the non-glory stuff, like composting. It's nice to say you're composting, but a lot of waste-management companies and municipalities don't have the facilities to handle any compost. We almost had to create our own system. But now there are a lot of companies working around here that can come out and help us.

Don Strasburg: One of the coolest things I saw last year was the giant shredder that reduced the amount of compost we generate. We had a vision that if our community can't get out front and center and say that our lives are interwoven with nature and the fabric of the environment, do you think Rush Limbaugh and those people are gonna do it? Absolutely not! Rothbury's goal is to set an example and have a great time while being better stewards for the planet.

What's the hardest part of trying to get thousands of festivalgoers to think green?

Jeremy: The good thing is, it's starting to happen in our culture and society. But you have to get down to the nuances. For example, we had 500 people on our green team last year. Many of them are at these recycling stations where there are three different cans: a landfill can, a compost can, and a recycling can. So when people walk over, rather than just not knowing where to throw something, they can ask a question. "Where should this plate go?" "Oh that goes in compost, it's made of sugarcane." "Wow, I didn't know that." It sparks a discussion, and education, and people start to figure out what's up and what's down with this stuff. There's a lot of great intention out there, and we're in a phase where education is most important with the whole greening issue.

Don: Our goal has been to show how environmentalism weaves through the fabric of our lives. It's not some separate element. The concept behind Rothbury is that you can have a huge party and great time while still being a good member of your community. Five years from now, our perfect scenario would be that you wouldn't have to ask us about this because it's no longer important. Last night I was with this guy who sells carbon credits. He said, "Do we ever think about taking our trash out?" No, you put in a bag, put in a dumpster, and a company comes and takes it away. It's part of the fabric of how we live. We don't just dump the trash in the middle of the road. Twenty years ago we needed commercials of Indians crying on the side of the road to remind us not to litter. But it slowly weaved its way into the culture. Now we have to go that much further. I hope that in five years we won't be a front-runner and that everyone will be doing this, whether it's Wal-Mart, Rothbury, or Joe Blow the Plummer.

Jeremy: We already have large-scale event operators and stadium operators coming to us, saying they really want do something and how do we do it? They're looking at the waste streams that come out of large events, like college football games or baseball games at Shea Stadium. And they're toxic waste streams, which means they're not divided into recycling or compost or what not. You can make some very easy changes and make huge differences. They're not even recycling beer cups at football stadiums. But I feel that in another year or two, it's really going to turn the corner pretty hard across the board.

imagesTell me about the Think Tank.

Jeremy: Well, there's a big-picture side to it all, too. On the operative side, there's bio-diesel and the waste stream and how we produce energy onsite. The other side of it is the Think Tank, where you can hear some of the most advanced minds in the world talk about where they're at with this subject. And you get their thoughts directly without the media or political filter. Our speakers include scientists and CEOs. They're not the talking heads you see all the time, they're the real doers. I think that resonates a lot, especially with the younger crowd. They don't want marketing spewed at them. They want to hear what the real guys are doing. And there's a reverse effect. All the scientists were coming up to me and saying, "This is unbelievable. I teach a class at Yale or Stanford, and there's no way I can get in front of thousands of kids. It turns us into rock stars. People are coming up and asking about internships. 'How do I get a job? How do I get involved?'" Kids can start to see a future and connect with the folks who really make a difference.

How many attendees donate to the carbon-balancing effort?

Jeremy: A large percentage, actually. A lot of them contribute $3 and $7 from their tickets because they're both offsetting their own footprint and contributing to our sustainable schools program. Thanks to their contributions, we installed a $70,000 solar system in the local high school last year.

What are your biggest community-outreach efforts?

Jeremy: Sustainable schools is a huge one. There's also music in schools, which has had a big effect locally. We gave about $25,000 worth of instruments to music classes. Michigan's the same as everywhere else: When education funding gets cut, the arts are usually first in line. So we're trying to lend some support there. We also support a farmer's market. There's both a farmers market available onsite to everyone, but also the backstage catering and everywhere else.

What else makes Rothbury different from all the other summer festivals out there?

Don: Besides the environmental stuff, the show, and the party, the site drives everything. It's like going away to summer camp for a long weekend. The site itself is simply a fun place to be. You can go swimming. You have a whole forest where you can hang in hammocks all afternoon. It's just a pretty area to be, a nice environment. And at night all the art and nuances of the experience are really amplified. When we decided to do Rothbury, we said, "If we don't do something completely different, there's no reason to do it." And I feel we've delivered really nicely on that front so far.

Jeremy: It's all about the venue, the venue, the venue. Most festivals are just on one big flat piece of land. This one has a fourteen-acre forest in the middle that everyone has to go through, and lakes to swim in. It's just a grand old place. Last year it was 78 degrees every day and not very humid because of the lake breeze.

Don: It's nice to wake up in your tent at eight in the morning and not be sweating in a hundred degrees. I really have to give kudos to Jeremy. He worked with local people to move some dirt around to create excellent sites to watch music. It's imperceptible at first, but there's about a 4% grade in front of the main stage. You can sit in the back and still get a beautiful view of the stage. That's always our experiment: What would be the coolest thing we could do?