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U2 And The Feast Of Enoughness

October 4th, 2009 | 11 Comments | Categories: New Music Strategies · Rant - Politics, Spirituality, etc. · tips for musicians |

In response to This article about the scale of U2’s current tour, I posted this on twitter and facebook:

U2, knocking years of the length of time earth can sustain human life, one gig at a time

The discussion on Facebook then got as far as one friend suggesting that people who objected to the planet-trashing excesses of U2’s tour wanted us to “email [all the gig-goers] to stay home and make organic muffins…..” – the kind of Richard Littlejohn-esque reductionist, lazy thinking that leads someone to say such things, often stems from the feeling that something they value highly has been questioned – in this case, it was a friend who was deeply moved by the U2 gig he went to, so any attempt to frame them as irresponsible needs refuting and debunking.

The problem with this is that the alternative to planning a tour of such a bloated and frankly ludicrous scale is not to ‘not tour’, it’s to plan your tour with some concern for the impact it’ll have. And to resolutely NOT rely on the kind of bullshit pseudo-science that sees ‘carbon offsetting’ as a credible alternative to actually limiting the degree to which you eff up the planet.

The actual rational argument here is a far more nuanced one, that starts with issues of power:

If you are a small band starting out, have signed an old school record deal (even worse, a 360) and are being promoted by people paid to do that, you have little or no say in how that takes place:

  • You don’t book the venues
  • you probably don’t plan the stage set
  • you certainly don’t get any say in your lighting design

You are there to play music, while the machine of the industry rolls on around you. If you question the validity (or environmental impact) of the way things are done, you’re putting yourself in direct conflict with the people running the show.

U2 are NOT in that position. U2 are actually in the same position that I’m in. They are entirely free agents, able to decide how when and WHY they tour, and to weigh up the value of that tour happening against the negative impact on the planet that tour will have. They are in a position to minimise that impact, to plan around it, and perhaps even more importantly, to INNOVATE for other bands in how that works.

But instead of behaving like an independent, free thinking, spiritually minded group of individuals who happen to have 50 million fans worldwide, they behave like a multinational corporation. They put on a tour of the most enormous scale, they use 200 trucks – TWO HUNDRED FUCKING TRUCKS – to cart their stuff around. And then think it’s OK because they plant trees. And their 200 trucks doesn’t even begin to take into account the impact of audiences getting to their shows.

So what are they to do? Well, given that it’s U2, let’s get all spiritual for a moment. Our vicar, Dave – top bloke – contributed to a Church of England paper on a “a Christian vision for a sustainable future” – in it, they describe “the feast of enoughness”. Here’s an extract:

“The Sabbath is an occasion of thanksgiving, a feast of contentment and ‘enoughness’. In the Sabbath rhythm of days and yeras, passing time is given a measure and the earth is given a rest. The fallow season constrains human activity and limits human exploitation of both the natural order and of the poor. Leaving land fallow and forgiving debts are part of the Jubilee call to justice and peace.”

One of the features of modern corporations – and the laws that govern their behaviour – is that they have no concept of ‘enough’. None at all. The failure of the banks was that they had no restraint, and still aren’t repentant. They just want to go back to hitting the limits of ‘growth’ – getting as big as possible, just without bursting this time.

U2 are doing that. They dress it up in the language of responsibility, but are using discredited measures to try and mitigate the impact they have, rather than understanding ‘enoughness’.

So what’s the alternative?

Well, we can discuss that in the comments, but one idea I just had is for ‘open source touring’ – there are loads of pieces of equipment around the world that are considered ‘standard issue’ in music. Pretty much all rental companies have them. What if you designed a stage set that used just those elements. I don’t mean just dropping a load of parcans onto a lighting beam and playing straight rock ‘n’ roll (though obviously that is also an option – back to basics – it works…) but instead, a bespoke, clever, Willie Williams production that just uses locally available elements. There are other industries with familiar elements – construction, DIY, Theatre, industry… they could be brought into play too.

  • It would be utterly media-friendly (they love this shit),
  • it would acknowledge that there are limits.
  • It would be the Tour Of Enoughness.

Right now, the world needs a fallow decade. Perhaps a fallow 50 years. It needs to be left alone to recouperate. We need industry rotation the same way fields are preserved by crop rotation. And touring on the scale of the current U2 tour is utterly and unforgivably irresponsible given the scale of the catastrophe we’re facing. Not just for what it is, but what what it says about limits.

This tour says there are none.

It lies.

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11 Comments so far ↓

  • Mike R

    Can I recommend an excellent book on the subject of carbon offsetting?

    It’s called “How We Can Save The Planet” by a chap called Meyer Hillman. Eco-books do tend to have dreadful titles, but don’t let that put you off this one.

    He basically gives some very real figures and solutions, which puts a name to the carbon offsetting idea, and showing exactly how and why its doesn’t work – but with some very good and practical solutions as to how to deal with the carbon problem.

    It gets a bit technical, but not so much that you can’t follow (hell, I’m an artist! I don’t do maths, but even I could follow it!)

    Meyer Hillman is a great chap – quite old now. He has a knack of thinking up ideas that, in 20 years time, we will all be doing. I saw him interviewed on TV once – live by satellite from round the corner from his home in North London. He wouldn’t even travel across London for the interview – went to a TV studio right near his house! Top bloke.

  • Foo Bear

    Er, Steve, didn’t you go to the tour? If you were really so concerned maybe you should’ve stayed at home.

  • Daryl Shawn

    Radiohead is showing us another way to do a big-ass, over-the-top rock show, but with a mindfulness towards consumption. A few examples: choosing to only play shows in urban centers w/public transport, issuing reusable aluminum water bottles to crew, converting all tour trucks to biofuel, eliminating all incandescent light sources in favor of low-draw LED’s.

    Here’s a (very!) in-depth article detailing what they’re doing.

    http://www.tpimagazine.com/production-profiles/83031/radiohead.html

    Daryl Shawn

  • Jim

    The public transit only option sucks though for cities like Nashville that have horrendous transportation. I agree that it is nice environmentally, but you are basically punishing your fans because their local Government sucks at environmental issues. On this logic, no one should ever tour the South United States of America (seriously, I am not a big environmentalist, but it is so hard to even recycle in Tennessee).

    U2 in my opinion is quickly turning into a joke (see SNL performance), and honestly, I think it will catch up with them. They can only charge mega $$$ for the same live over the top concert so many times. Unless you are Trans-Siberian Orchestra (which is also still too expensive and overrated), charging that much for a show that happens every year or so is a bit annoying. The result? Concert going is now a once a year outing for average people, instead of a more consistent thing. So even if U2 wins, they hurt everyone else touring.

  • Mike R

    I dunno – you just can’t get past the flying issue though.

    Sadly I think flying has had it’s day. I mean, from my point of view it has, anyway. People will probably still do it even when our noses are finally melting off our faces with the heat from global warming. It’s just too damaging to the environment.

    We’re talking SO many tons of carbon it’s just bonkers. And all in the upper atmosphere, where it does more damage (which is also conveniently not accounted for in most people’s figures).

  • light-headed

    U2 is not in the same position as any individual working musician. They are a corporation whose employees have families with mortgages. Their mandate is to maximize profits and keep their entity growing at all costs. I’m sure the bands social concerns are valid and they donate lots of money around, but that is all secondary to the health of their business.
    Also, even if U2 didn’t tour at all, it would have zero impact on climate/greenhouse gas problems.
    Similar to a situation a few years back where there were complaints about tourists flying all over on eco-vacations. The argument was that tourism was killing the spots being visited because of the jet fuel and exhaust. Some scientists ran the numbers and concluded that flying tourists had virtually no impact on the environment compared to manufacturing plants and everyday car traffic, and that the ec0-sites would suffer more from lack of tourism because no one would pay attention and the source of income keeping them protected would dry up.
    No simple or pretty solutions spring to mind.

  • steve

    Well, I wouldn’t have bought a ticket, but that wasn’t to do with the environmental concern, more to do with the idea that no gig – least of all one with a corporate sponsor – is worth what they were charging for tickets. the bigger the gig, the smaller the ticket price should be, methinks.

    But as it was, I didn’t know anything about the tour before I went – I was phoned by a friend 2 days before the gig, and asked to go with him. So I went. I didn’t particularly enjoy it, but that’s neither here nor there.

    As Mike R demonstrates, it’s possible to understand the environmental irresponsibility without suddenly hating them. He’s a huge fan.

    I hope that when I make mistakes my fans don’t suddenly start hating me – that’s not what this is about. Whether people should refuse to go to this particular tour is another question. Perhaps people will choose to chip in on that here. :)

  • steve

    Daryl, thanks for that – those are all great concerns to have. The public transport one is a real winner too. Good on ’em.

    A friend just posted this link over on Facebook to a load of other examples of ‘green’ thinking in music – (I’ve started it at no. 9, cos no. 10 was Dave Matthews, and that’s just a joke… more off-setting BS.

    The rest of the list is worth reading.

  • steve

    …one option for a band like U2 would be to innovate with local governments in sorting out Park and Ride options, that use out of town parking, and then co-ordinated buses. Given the amount they’ll save on infrastructural costs when they do something clever with the on-stage stuff, they could invest a whole lot into subsidising electric or LPG bus services from key points round a particular city…

    I’m reminded of when Inxs did a tour for their ‘Welcome To Wherever You Are’ album, they played LOADS of dates in tiny places. would be great to see more bands do that, play smaller shows, make the event more special, outsource the promo of it to social media (so save on print/broadcast costs, as well as the environmental footprint of posters/flyers etc.)

    all it takes is a little tangential thinking about what matters most beyond giantism…

  • steve

    You’re right, Mike – flying does seem to be the one thing we need to reduce more than any other. Why flights inside the UK are even legal is beyond me. They should at least be taxed to the point of making it prohibitively expensive, in line with the impact they have.

    But if you HAVE to fly, at least get a normal flight. Bono’s too posh for first class? sweet jesus. Chris Martin’s another one – giving it large about the environment then swanning around in a private jet. Inexcusable.

    It’ll be interesting to see what happens in 2012 when European governments have to start counting aviation in their carbon figures. (bafflingly, they don’t at the moment – aviation gets a free pass… WTF?)

  • steve

    Pat,

    I would argue that they are functionally self determining due to the MASSIVE financial headroom within which they operate. Their revenue streams are manifold, and their personal fortunes are more than enough to cover any shortfall. I’m also not suggesting they shouldn’t tour. I think they should, but do so with a lower impact on the planet, acknowledging the limits we all face. Just because that isn’t the way most corporate entities work, that’s no reason for them not to innovate.
    You say:

    Also, even if U2 didn’t tour at all, it would have zero impact on climate/greenhouse gas problems.

    Where do you get that from? If the pollutants caused directly by them touring weren’t kicked out into the atmosphere, that’s a reduction in pollutants. I’m not looking for a direct observable change thanks to just their behaviour. I’m looking at their contribution to a worldwide problem. We all need to cut back drastically on our energy usage. If there are two ways of doing a *thing*, one is low energy, one is high, we have to come up with some pretty outstanding arguments to ever justify the high energy one anymore. And U2’s aspirations towards giantism do not pass the muster.

    Tourist flying is a massive environmental issue. Planes kick out a measurable amount of pollutants known to mess up the planet. Airlines cancel flight routes that don’t have enough passengers. Ergo, if people stop flying, those pollutants from those planes stop being pumped out. Yes, there are loads of factors that play into this, to do with what people do *instead*, what benefits tourists bring to an area, but the equations are nowhere near as simple as ‘tourism does more good than flying does bad’.

    So in the same way that making trains easier and cheaper than planes would be one great fix for people who fly to places where they could quite conceivably get a train, for U2 to do a tour that acknowledges the limits that ALL of us have to operate under – given the scale of the problem with incremental global temperature increase due to man-made activity – by looking at lighter ways of touring, lower energy options for lighting, better venues for transport links, would be a massive step in the right direction.