Pagan Leadership: Community Building, Facilitation, and Personal Growth

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Pagan Events, Trash, and Environmentalism

I just posted a bit about Pagan environmentalism and the connection to Pagan leadership. It was a bit philosophical, so I thought I'd follow up with a more concrete post on specific things you can do as a Pagan leader and event organizer to reduce your use of resources and reduce environmental destruction.

Have you ever been to a Pagan festival or other event where there was a ton of trash left behind at the end? Have you ever been to a Pagan ritual where people were using styrofoam cups, or using plastic plates that just got thrown out? Have you ever been to a Pagan event where the land was left in a far worse condition than when you arrived? Or where there weren't recycling options, or where, despite there being a recycling dumpster, Pagans failed to sort their trash? 

Now, I want to make an obvious point--Pagans recycling at events isn't going to save the planet. 

However, I'll make another point. If we Pagans cannot even handle sorting our trash at a week-long festival, and we are supposedly Earth-centered (or at least, a majority of us identify that way), how can we possibly expect to make any lasting environmental change in the rest of our lives, much less in the world around us?

There are ways that environmentalism can simplify your life, and bring more joy into your life. And, there are ways that environmentalism can be a hassle, or even cost money.

If you run Pagan events, you might only be thinking of environmentalism as a hassle and a cost.

However, think about it this way; by building environmental awareness you can not only reduce people's use of resources, but you can also make it easier to clean up at the end of your event. In fact, you may be able to reduce some of your festival costs, though usually you'll first have to do some up front work. The challenge with that is that Pagan events are almost exclusively done on volunteer time and a shoestring budget. I've planned a lot of events, and there's never enough people to do everything needed, never enough time, never enough money. 

A Tale of Two Festivals

A caveat. I'm not here to slam anyone's festival, I'm just here to speak to what I've seen. I've been a guest presenter at a lot of fests, and I've seen lots of different events run in different ways, and all of them on different festival grounds with different capacities for dealing with trash and recycling and other waste.

Let's again be clear--running a Pagan festival is hard work, and everyone doing it has a lot on their plate. Most Pagan events are organized by people who aren't being paid to do it, so I try to balance my feedback on events like this. Feedback is useful; armchair quarterbacking is not.

Pagan Spirit Gathering is one of the largest (and oldest) Pagan festivals. In the past years, PSG has been held at a number of different venues moving from Wisteria to Camp Zoe, and then to Stonehouse in Illinois. Stonehouse changed ownership two years ago as well. If you've ever run any kind of an event, you know that changing up your venue adds a host of complexities, and one of those complexities as "simple" as how to deal with the trash can greatly change from venue to venue.

The past few years at PSG, I've found myself packing up at the very end when many have already left. Stonehouse Farm (formerly Stonehouse Park) is located pretty close to me, so I don't have to pull up stakes early in the morning to get home before the sun sets. As I drove around the grounds, I saw trash. Everywhere. Piles of trash. Recycling clearly bagged with garbage, dead air mattresses, collapsed tents, metal frames for camp kitchens, propane tanks, propane stoves. Cardboard boxes from newly-purchased tents. Trash overflowing the dumpsters. 

I was bagging up my trash and separating out my recyclables when I was told not to bother, that the recycling wouldn't be separated out anyways. One person had told me that it was because we didn't do a good enough job during the week sorting out the recycling, but it turned out that the venue hadn't arranged for the right kind of recycling pickup. It's an honest mistake for people who just purchased a venue and didn't know the local ordinances about recycling dumpsters/pickup, but it was exacerbated by how many festival-goers had left just piles of their trash behind.

At the time, I did the little that I could. Though my van was already packed pretty full, I packed all the recyclables I could into my car to take them home with me and recycle them there. 

In the past couple of years, a number of environmentally-minded folks have posted on the PSG Facebook group talking about ways that we can stop that massive trash load from happening on the final day, including encouraging people to pack out what they pack in, even if it's busted equipment. We've also talked about what factors have contributed to such wasteful disrespect of the property. I suspect that one factor is that in recent years PSG has seen a tremendous influx of new participants, but that's just a guess. 

I'm really glad to see a bunch of folks at PSG volunteering to try and help shift this unfortunate trend, and though I won't be at PSG this year, I look forward to hearing their results after the fest.

In contrast to Pagan Spirit Gathering, the somewhat smaller Pagan Unity Festival in Tennessee has been doing a great job with not only sorting recyclables, but also encouraging people to "leave no trace behind." I have hung out with the staff on the closing day of the PUF festival and I don't know that I saw any major piles of trash left anywhere on the festival grounds. 

PUF was kind enough to send along some numbers to me. In 2014 they had 7 full trucks of recycling (the Rangers picked it up, in years past the PUF staff drove it out). It looks that on average they collect about a ton of recycling in paper, plastic, aluminum, and glass. And every year, the amount of recycling picked up has increased.

PUF staff told me that one of the great successes is that they had clearly marked recycling bins, and they have increased the number of recycling bins because people were using the bins and filling them up. PUF credits some of that to the fact that the campers are aware that the staff absolutely demands that people recycle.

Different Events, Different Constraints

It's worth pointing out some apples and oranges; PUF is a smaller event, and PUF has numerous cabins available for people to sleep in whereas PSG is almost all camping, which requires people to pack far more equipment. PUF also offers a meal plan and requires you to bring your own fest gear (washable plate, fork, spoon, etc) so there's a significant amount of trash reduction right there because PUF is doing all the cooking (and thus, staff are handling all that recyclable and nonrecyclable waste) and participants don't need to bring in their own food, camp kitchens, etc. 

Depending on local laws, and local services, you may have to pay extra to have a recycling dumpster picked up. I'm pretty sure that's the case with Pagan Spirit Gathering. I'm unsure if PUF pays for the recycling or if they can dump their recycling for free.

A long time ago, I remember reading about Heartland Pagan Festival near Kansas City engaging in a massive program to sort recyclables and reduce their trash load. If memory serves, they also started selling reusable bottles to reduce the number of water bottles used on site, and that had a staggering impact in reducing water bottles in the trash.

I know that Paganicon (a hotel conference in Minneapolis) also sold metal water bottles to reduce the use of bottled water, but I'm not sure if they have any information on whether or not this reduced water bottle use or trash filling up with water bottles. 

In general, there's an event organizing axiom that the bigger your event is, and the more people you have at your event, the harder it is to change your process or system. So I offer this--it's both important to bring up environmental impacts of the festivals we attend, and it's also important to have compassion for the event organizers who are doing their best. It's also important that we volunteer to help if we want to see things change.

Events and Volunteers

A while ago I had posted a blog about styrofoam cups in rituals, and I specifically exhorted Pagans to ask their local festival coordinators to ban disposable cups at events, or at least to try and get their local events to recycle. And I heard back from some event coordinators who were frustrated with that. They said, "I don't have enough volunteers to run my event as it stands, and I can't spare anyone to organize a recycling effort. Our park doesn't have recycling bins so we'd have to sort all that trash on our own and truck it out of there, and we don't have the volunteers for that."

And that's a valid point. I've run events (or supported events) that were held at venues that didn't recycle. I remember back in 2008, hauling trash into my van to sort it out and recycle it. That lasted for a while, but over time it wasn't sustainable for me as an event organizer, and nobody else sure wanted to do it. And my van really didn't smell good.

I also used to run a Green Dish Station (real plates and silverware that people would wash themselves instead of using disposables) at several events, but when I started running events in Chicago, I couldn't both run the event and the ritual, and manage the Green Dish Station and keep the water clean. 

And it wasn't something I was ever able to successfully delegate, because nobody on my team was ever willing to do it. Nor could I get someone to take responsibility for "homing" the Green Dish Station in their car and setting it up at events; I had to haul all the plates and tubs in myself, along with the other event supplies.

Heck, there are events where I've had a hard time getting people to just bring potluck. And that's where we come around to leadership, community building, and environmental efforts. This post got long enough that I'll post the rest as a separate article here:

I again suggest signing "A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment" as an act of magic. It's an act of setting an intention. Instead of just pixels on a screen...think of it as joining with other Pagans to say, "Yes, I will commit to being part of the change." Which is setting a magical intention. 


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An artist, author, ritualist, presenter, and spiritual seeker, Shauna travels nationally offering intensive education in the transformative arts of ritual, community leadership, and personal growth. She is the author of The Leader Within, Ritual Facilitation, and Dreamwork for the Initiate’s Path. She’s a columnist on ritual techniques for Circle Magazine, and her writing also appears in several anthologies. She’s also the author of several fantasy and paranormal romance novels. Her mythic artwork and designs are used for magazine covers, book covers, and illustrations, as well as decorating many walls, shrines, and other spaces. Shauna is passionate about creating rituals, experiences, spaces, stories, and artwork to awaken mythic imagination.  


  • Diotima
    Diotima Saturday, 30 May 2015

    Thanks for bringing this important subject up again, Shauna. From my own experiences and others I have spoken with, I've come to believe strong environmental awareness has to be built in from the ground up. The question should not be "how can we put on a great Pagan festival?" but "how can we put on the most environmentally-aware great Pagan festival?" and that ethic needs to be communicated from the start. Full community involvement, from the most casual day-tripper right up to the main organizers, is the only way to make sure what needs to happen, does. I think an insistence on some volunteer work by each attendee (with some carefully-considered exceptions) as a non-negotiable part of the entrance fee is a good way to make sure there ARE enough volunteers. Yes, there are challenges to that approach as well, but festivals are supposed to be about community anyway, so it's a challenge worth taking on.

  • Linda Margaretha OReilly
    Linda Margaretha OReilly Wednesday, 03 June 2015

    Each one of us is renting space here on earth. We are responsible for carrying our load while we are here...should not expect others to clean up after ourselves. The burdens in life are heavy enough as it is.

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