The forgotten victim of Fyre Festival

Photo: Fyre Media

Last week, two new films documented the rise and fall of the now-infamous Fyre Festival, a failed attempt by entrepreneur Billy McFarland and rapper Ja Rule to host a luxury music festival in the Bahamas. And while the films make it clear that locals and other employees are now feeling the pain of McFarland and Ja Rule’s ineptitude, there is one victim of the debacle who goes unnoticed in the newly engaged public conversation: nature.

Paradise is more than palm trees

Initially, the creators of Fyre Festival envisioned the bash would take place on a small, private island in the Bahamas. It quickly became clear the lack of infrastructure on this remote island couldn’t support the kind of event these two had dreamed up; it would prove a logistical and infrastructural nightmare to support 5,000 guests eating, drinking, and digesting on a small plot of land. So McFarland and Ja Rule decided to re-locate to a different island in the Bahamas— Great Exuma. While much larger than the original private island, Great Exuma is still a small island, and one that is part of an incredibly fragile ecosystem on which an array of human and non-human life depends.

Fyre’s location from above. Courtesy photo.

Over 700 islands make up the Bahamian archipelago, providing a home for countless marine and terrestrial species and nearly 400,000 people. Already, these islands feel the pressure of a growing human population and the often- damaging activities that come along with it. Water pollution, air pollution, and climate change are perhaps the nation’s greatest environmental threats, each of which compromises the ability of the islands’ natural resources to sustain life. And while the Fyre Festival was proud to market the benefits it would bring local employees (spoiler alert: it was actually a disaster for most of them), among the long list of things it never considered were the detriments it would bring to an environment that supports those same people.

Toilets, trash, and terrible planning

Part of the Fyre Festival’s appeal was its emphasis on luxury; that everything you ate, drank, or stepped into would be of the highest standard. But luxury comes at more than a monetary expense. The lack of logistical planning would prove detrimental to not only McFarland and Ja Rule’s reputation, but also to the host island itself, which had already been significantly altered by unfinished development. Even on the more connected island of Great Exuma, the Fyre Festival spelled an enormous environmental ask. Impacts included:

  • Food waste: Globally, somewhere between 1/4 and 1/3 of all food produced goes to waste, and Fyre was not immune to this. When food is lost, it represents not just wasted meals but wasted resources — the land, water, and energy required to grow and distribute that food are essentially used in vain. The festival also promised “luxury” meals to guests which, had this promise been fulfilled (guests were actually given paltry cheese sandwhiches), would have had its own consequences. If the meals featured local fare, they would likely rely on seafood from the country’s heavily-depleted fish stocks. If the food was not going to be local, it would have to be flown or shipped in from the mainland. In either case, getting food to that many people on the island when much of it is likely to go to waste has serious consequences for the climate and the local waste system.
  • Biological waste: 5,000 people on an island. They’ve got eat. And they’ve got to digest. Not only would running water be required to set up toilets on the island (a tall order when freshwater scarcity already plagues residents), but a waste management system would need to ensure no biological waste ends up in the ocean where it can affect marine ecosystems.
  • Material waste: Thousands of bottles of water were shipped in to Great Exuma in preparation for Fyre. Without proper recycling facilities in place, these plastic bottles most likely ended up going to landfills, which have their own environmental and health consequences like air pollution. Throw in the fact that many guests were inebriated, and you’ve got a formula for those bottles ending up in the ocean where they kill marine life. On top of this, the Fyre Festival summoned a ridiculous amount of materials that would ultimately go to waste — tents, mattresses, tables, chairs, Styrofoam containers for food. And judging by the festival’s track record of not caring about anything beyond money, it seems unlikely they would go out of their way to make sure trash was handled responsibly.
  • Carbon emissions: The problem with remote islands is that they’re, well, remote. In the case of the Bahamas, that means most people had to fly there, and as they were promised a private jet experience, efficient flight routing was not a priority. Plan B would be to take a cruise ship, a mode of transportation known to be responsible for its fair share of marine degradation.
Discarded mattresses. Photo: Associated Press.

All of these impacts represent bad news for the planet. But concern for the environment is about more than nature and wildlife; it’s also about people.

Healthy planet, healthy people

Bahamians, like many of people in coastal communities, directly depend on the surrounding natural resources for their livelihoods and wellbeing. The bountiful biodiversity and ecosystem services provided by habitats like coral reefs support tourism (the country’s lifeblood), medicine, and food, among other things. In a nation already grappling with the impacts of climate change on limited resources, is it really ethical to hold a luxury music festival without considering how it might compound existing pressures?

A lack of environmental awareness is not unique to the Fyre Festival. Many music festivals around the world have been chastised for their environmental impact, particularly waste generation. But Fyre represents a unique case: it produced the usual damages of music festivals, exacerbated by the fragility of its island host and the fact that every single bit of energy put into it went to waste.

Trash left after the Glastonbury music festival. Photo: EPA

Looking ahead: what future festivals can learn from Fyre

McFarland and Ja Rule made colossal mistakes, but most of them won’t serve as lessons for future festival holders and goers, mostly because they’re things other planners have already got figured out (e.g. making sure there is enough room for guests or coordinating food services). That’s part of what made the failure so laughable.

A lesson that can be gleaned, however, is the notion that musical festivals need to consider what trace their presence will leave on their local environments and how those impacts can affect the people who live there. And festival goers ought to consider the same before attending.

Everyone deserves the chance to have fun and enjoy life, but nature — and the lives of those who depend on it — should not suffer as a result. In congruence with the woman who tapped into her savings to feed guests, the workers who build tents and never got paid, the home owners who left their houses to make room for rentals who never arrived, the Bahamas themselves proved another, forgotten, victim of the Fyre Festival.