Is this California’s Most Sustainable Festival?

Juliana Bernstein

From curating educational speakers to picking up more than their share of trash, Kern County’s Lightning in a Bottle goes the extra mile with their sustainability efforts.

Wrapping up its 26th edition of Lightning in a Bottle Arts and Music Festival over Memorial Day Weekend, California’s renegade turned pro party-throwing arts collective, The Do Lab, celebrated some of the finest victories at the festival yet. This year, they assembled a bigger collection of tremendous art, with signature pieces from Daniel Popper, Matt Elson, and many others. They also held a multitude of workshops and classes on topics like healthy cuisine, indigenous rights, and enthusiastic consent. Perhaps the biggest splash the festival makes, apart from those taking place along the shoreline of the Buena Vista Lake are those made in the realm of sustainability, which for those who know LIB has been a hallmark of the event since it’s inception more than two and half decades ago. 

This year was no exception either. They’ve increased sustainability efforts with bigger investments in renewable energy. They’ve advanced their toted practice to encourage attendees at the event to “leave it better”, as a way of taking the National Park Services philosophy of “leave no trace” a step further. They’ve even paid teams to lay out wood chips throughout the site to protect tree roots and enrich the soil long after they’re gone. And, according to the leaders at the event, that’s just the beginning.

Walking the walk in creative ways

“We’re continually cleaning up and always leaving the park cleaner than when we arrived simply because we have more manpower and can clean up whatever trash was left behind by us as well as what may have already been in the park.” Says Dede Flemming, a co-founder at The Do Lab. “We’re working on park improvements like erecting two permanent yurts that the park will be able to use on a day to day basis [too]. Additionally we work with the park teams to fix and strengthen park infrastructure like their irrigation system so when we leave it’s in better shape than when we arrived.” 

In an instagram post that further emphasized the sustainable efforts of the festival, Josh Flemming, one of The Do Lab’s co-founders, said “When we are done with the Lightning stage we store half the festival inside of it. It’s just a bunch of boxes.”

Scaling Clean Up Efforts

Interdepartmental collaboration has been key to their growth and evolution as LIB has scaled out their clean up efforts at the festival. From working with food vendors to keeping their strong and steady waste streams clean of contaminants, to playing the Clean Up Song while the sound crews come to shut down each stage at the end of the night — The Do Lab takes it on together. 

At the helm of one major effort which connects almost all the others is Moon Mandel, who serves at LIB as the Waste Operations Night Crew Coordinator. To her, it starts with implementing protocols before, during, and after the event. Then, it becomes a team effort via working with “ticket-holders, artists, vendors, and more”. 

“Our streams include commingled recycling, compost, scrap metal, wood scraps and food recovery,” She explains. “[That entails] working hand-in-hand with a local non-profit [known as Laborers of the Harvest] to redistribute tens of thousands of pounds of food to those in need” which keeps it out of landfills in the process.

Eventually, seeing all the small efforts combined one has to wonder if this is California’s most sustainable festival. It’s impossible to say for sure, (at least in the given length of this article) but with all these people working together and badass do-gooders like Mandel ever-working behind the scenes it’s easy to see how Lightning in a Bottle is one that comes first to mind when people talk about sustainability in the business of these events.

Jamal Eid

Educating the Masses

When it comes to elevating the environmental impact of a music festival, producers can only get so far before they’ve got to educate people. At LIB this is achieved via workshops, panel discussions, seminars and more. These cover a range of topics and draw out patron curiosity by bridging sustainability with timely activism, indigenous cultural teachings, modern innovations and more. In fact, according to Isis Indriya, who curates public speakers for Lightning in a Bottle, it’s all about offering individuals signposts that can lead them towards a larger change. Get enough individuals on the path together and culture starts to shift. At LIB, the compass is a vortex dedicated to those learning, growing, changing efforts.

“Education is a primary focus of the Compass.” Says Indriya of the cultural hub of Lightning in a Bottle. “We really feel that education and communion is a large part of how we can return to a sacred way of life… A lot of the people who come to the compass are looking for ways to bring concepts like sustainability into their daily lives. That’s why we really want to provide education and speakers that take that mission to the next level.”

One example of such a speaker can be found in Ramsay Taum, a Hawaiian elder. “Not only does he represent the spiritual side of things but he’s also dedicated to regenerative culture.” Indriya explained. “Having him was particularly special because there just aren’t many people who understand how to be in communion with the elements of life.” But Taum bridges those worlds to demonstrate an eco-leaning mindset that has been a part of humanity since the time when families grew to be tribes.

Jamal Eid

Putting Money Where Mouths Are

For Keshava Rossi, who vends high-quality, gluten-free, vegan comfort foods with a Caribbean flair at Lightning in a Bottle and about 60 other festivals each year through his booth Notcho Fish Taco, the fact that LIB organizers curate food options like his to nourish upwards of 20,000 people is further proof that LIB sees identical problems in the world. It also demonstrates they both aim to solve those problems in similar ways. 

“From my experience working with them over the last several years they prioritize sustainability and they share a view that it’s harder for meat to be sourced sustainably, which is true.” explains Rossi. “That’s why they prioritize meat less. Also they prefer the veggies to be organic”, so their efforts are broader in scope than simply offering alternatives to meat. 

“Conscious consumption is my model.” Rossi explains. “I really believe that knowing where your food comes from and choosing it with care, diligence, and intention is the best thing you can do towards making a difference both in the environment and in your own body.”

Measure all the factors that would allow us to say concretely whether or not LIB is the most sustainable event out there may be impossible, but when all is said and done the multi-pronged approach seems indispensable. Is it enough to turn the tide though? Will bigger festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo and Electric Daisy Carnival follow suit or is this the best the music scene can offer today? 

Like so many things in humanity’s grand drive towards a more sustainable future, we’ll just have to wait and see. 

To learn more about sustainability at Lightning in a Bottle peruse the info on their website here.

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