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Two Steps Forward

From Woodstock to sustainability — a journey

It's been 50 years since the iconic music festival, which took place on the cusp of the first Earth Day. What's the connection?

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I’m having a Woodstock moment this summer. And no, I wasn’t in Max Yasgur’s alfalfa field in the summer of 1969. At least, I don’t remember being there.

But I have my own special connection to the Woodstock Music & Art Fair, as it is officially known. In 1988, in the run-up to the event’s 20th anniversary, I conducted an oral history of the festival, interviewing dozens of the people who made Woodstock happen: producers; performers; doctors; cops; neighbors; shopkeepers; carpenters; electricians; lawyers; journalists; filmmakers; and an assortment of just plain folks who, by design or circumstance, became part of the event.

The interviews were the basis of a book and audio documentary, published in 1989 for the 20th anniversary. Both were re-released in 2009 for the 40th. And this year, they were key ingredients of a PBS documentary, airing this month. The original audio interviews reside in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Library and Archives in Cleveland.

This week marks Woodstock’s 50th anniversary, and it’s full of reflections on the event, what it meant to the young generation of the time and its implications for today. I just had to weigh in, so I hope you'll indulge me.

Moreover, I’m often asked how my interest in Woodstock relates to the work I do now. After all, Woodstock happened just eight months before the first Earth Day, in 1970, marking the dawn of the modern environmental movement. There must be some connection.

The Woodstock story is a remarkable one, and much of it has little to do with the music, and some of it indeed connects with sustainability and the quest for a better world during challenging times. More on that in a minute.

A disaster?

By all measures, Woodstock should have been a disaster. Legally barred from its planned location just a month before its scheduled date, the promoters had to quickly regroup and relocate — to Max and Miriam Yasgur's dairy farm in upstate New York. In haste to build the festival site, there was little time for planning certain facilities and amenities, some of which fell by the wayside. Among the missing items were fences and gates, which never materialized satisfactorily, and tens of thosuands who showed up were admitted for free.

The crowds caused traffic jams that paralyzed miles of highways, rendering them useless and requiring alternative measures to bring in food,  medicine and supplies, and to evacuate the injured and ill. The National Guard and the U.S. Army got involved, as did a wide range of community, business and religious organizations, from church groups to the nearby Catskill resorts. The radical left tried to turn the whole shebang into a political protest against the Vietnam War, something the festival promoters were hellbent to thwart. It was, after all, 1969.

And then it rained. The grounds, already muddy from weeks of summer showers, turned to muck as the skies opened repeatedly, often violently, during the festival weekend. Few who came to Woodstock were adequately prepared to camp out for three days even in comfortable climes, let alone in the hot, humid, intensely overcrowded and soggy conditions of that East Coast summer. The fierce storms also put the infrastructure — electricity, water, sewerage, the stage, the sound system, light towers — in jeopardy, along with thousands in harm’s way.

Needless to say, none of this aided the well-being of the countless individuals who had drunk, smoked or ingested ungodly amounts of licit and illicit substances, many of whom had to be ministered to, one of whom died. (But, contrary to the Woodstock myth, no babies were born there, as I’ve previously noted.)

It is ironic, albeit not surprising, that many liken being at Woodstock to having been through a war.

Think of it as a dry run for a dystopian climate-change future, but with a rousing soundtrack.
And yet Woodstock was not a disaster. Far from it. There was much joy and humanity, and heroics galore. Starting with a rag-tag crew of idealistic and energetic youth — Woodstock essentially was financed and produced by those in their mid- to late 20s — the festival’s staff mushroomed into hundreds of hippies, hucksters, handymen and hangers-on. As the festival unfolded, these people met the troubles they encountered — the weather, drugs, radical politicos, demanding musicians, irate neighbors, even fake news — with high levels of ingenuity and integrity.

Resilience and self-reliance

Indeed, Woodstock was a prime exercise in resilience and self-reliance, and in the ability to adapt in real time to a broad range of challenging circumstances, including extreme weather, food and water shortages, overcrowding and the potential for social and political unrest. Think of it as a dry run for a dystopian climate-change future, but with a rousing soundtrack.

As I said, the 400,000 or so participants came through it relatively unscathed. Why? It was definitely a reflection of the times, notably the peace-and-love hippie culture of the era. But it was also the beginning of a generation’s sense of self-reliance — that we could survive, even thrive, on our own terms, rooted in collaboration, sharing, adaptation and innovation.

So, what did we learn? I’m hardly the first to offer lessons from Woodstock, but here are seven that have direct implications for sustainability:  

1. There’s incredible power in community. When like-minded people come together to share and solve problems, the sky’s the limit. And when the problems are big and complex — think climate change — collaboration is the only viable path forward.

2. Reflect the behavior you want to propagate. The Woodstock producers needed to calm massive crowds that were at times anxious, impatient and excited (not to mention stoned). Creating and modeling the right vibe would ensure the audience’s cooperation during challenging moments, of which there were several.

3. Critical moments need out-of-the-box ideas. As I said, ingenuity was rampant. One small example, of many I could share: When Woodstock’s security chief learned that the Hell’s Angels were coming en masse to the festival, an ominous sign with vast potential for trouble, he hired them individually as messengers, sending them off in multiple directions, to be swallowed up and effectively neutralized by the crowd.

4. Create a positive echo chamber. As the news media reported that Woodstock was a disaster — that tens of thousands of hungry hippies were stranded and starving — the organizers fed the audience those headlines and stories from the stage, making it clear to the attendees that the world was watching. That helped bring people together to prove the media, and the world, wrong.   

5. Scarcity can engender generosity. The lack of food helped create a spirit of sharing — again, encouraged from the festival stage. What could have been a mad stampede to grab available burgers and sandwiches turned out to be a communal experience in which attendees shared what they had with others. Nobody starved.

6. Adaptivity and resilience are critical. The situation at the festival site kept changing, as hordes poured in, supplies ran low, lawyers filed lawsuits and the weather kept shifting. It was one long fire drill, a series of rolling disasters in the making. It required constant pivoting and triage, but also the ability to roll with the moment.

7. You can survive adversity with humor and humanity. At Woodstock, much credit goes to the Hog Farm, a New Mexico commune hired to help in a number of ways. They created a free kitchen that fed tens of thousands, assisted city dwellers unaccustomed to sleeping under the stars, ministered to drug-addled attendees and generally engendered a spirit of humor and light-heartedness that was critical in getting through challenging moments.

(See also the reflections of my friend Bob Langert, former sustainability chief at McDonald’s, about his learnings from Woodstock.)

Of course, Woodstock was a reflection of the times, which, suffice to say, have changed. But those were turbulent times, too — civil rights, the Vietnam War, divisive politics, rampant drug abuse, generational clashes and more. Nineteen sixty-nine was, among other things, the peak year for troops deployed in Southeast Asia, many of them conscripted involuntarily. It was a society in conflict. And yet.

Woodstock reminds us that as we lean into some of the critical environmental and social challenges in today's divisive times, that there’s a spirit that says, "We can get through anything if we pull together with humanity, generosity and grace."

We’ve done it before.

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