Photo: Claudio Toledo
Last summer, I went to fifteen different music festivals, from Glastonbury in England to Sziget in Budapest. The story was always the same, stumbling out with a headache bigger than the main stage. I’d walk past tattered tents and piles of garbage spilling from their vessels onto what used to be grass, before it was trampled to death by 20,000 revelers. Two shirtless teenagers with dirt-stained skin and ratty shorts would kick an empty Gatorade bottle past the derelict Greenpeace/WaterAid tent, laughing when one of them fell into the pile and sent it scattering to the wind.
Festival-goers nowadays want to pretend they’re counter-cultural rebels, embracing futuristic ideals of camaraderie and environmentalism, but when the lights go down and the bass stops thumping, so many fail to live up to their own weekend-warrior ideals.
Stephen Brooks doesn’t want to fail his own ideals.
When Brooks was 21 years old, he watched a passing Chiquita Banana crop duster spray a playground full of indigenous Costa Rican children as it flew over the nearby fields. He could only watch as they sputtered and coughed against the toxic pesticides, the image burned into his brain.
“I was horrified,” he says, “I was disgusted that we were still doing things like that in the 21st century. It was just a failure of design that nobody seemed to care about fixing.”
That failure of design, of lifestyle, sat with him for the rest of his trip. It was this experience that drove the next two decades of Brooks’ life, and in doing so, changed the lives of the more than 70 families now living on the 46-acre permaculture settlement Brooks went on to found in the jungle four hours outside of San Jose, Costa Rica.
Growing up amid the floundering social structure of Miami in the ‘80s, Brooks has always been interested in the concept of community. He spent his youth searching for some magical panacea that could create the society he envisioned–experiences in the sacred temples of Bali and the siesta culture of Spain. He sought a sustainable community that contributed to the environment in which it was built, while fostering a sense of interpersonal responsibility and an emphasis on relationships and fulfillment over profit.
Stephen Brooks would go on to found the Punta Mona Center for Sustainable Living and Education. It began as a small farm, a 25-minute boat ride (or two-hour hike; there are no roads leading there) from the nearest town. Buildings were crafted from the fallen trees and bamboo found on the property. The paths were paved with recycled plastic grating. Brooks built the largest clean septic system in Central America, repurposing the methane produced to fuel the kitchen burners.
Brooks created his dream: The farm grew into a completely self-sustaining location with permanent residents.
But Brooks wasn’t trying to create a commune. He didn’t want to be isolated, and he always desired to share this lifestyle with others and encourage its further adoption. He began to run tours, bringing eco-conscious people (over 10,000 so far) out from all over the world to learn about how they can enact the lessons of Punta Mona in their own lives.
Then, after a week of attending Burning Man – Brooks attends every year with his father in tow – plus his own wedding in 2010, he realized that what he had previously restricted to small groups could expand into a full-scale festival, based simultaneously in the splendor of the modern music festival (a commodity not seen in Costa Rica) and the environmental ideals he espouses.
But how would the idea scale? What would happen to the small community he had grown if he were to invite anybody in?
It’s easy enough (relatively speaking, anyway) to organize a small gathering with minimal impact, but Brooks’ new festival, which he christened “Envision” for the act he ultimately hoped to inspire in its attendants, would be bringing in tens of thousands of party-goers to the fragile landscape of the Costa Rican rainforest. These partiers would need to be trained within a day to operate under the new laws of the jungle, and even a small percentage of punters misbehaving (as is likely given any population greater than, say, four people) would ruin it for the whole lot, a spanner in the works that disproves an entire concept. It was a risky proposition.
But Stephen is lackadaisical when I ask him about it. “Honestly, everybody’s pretty good down here,” he says, “there are a million festivals out there to go to if you only want to party. The people that come all the way to Costa Rica for Envision are looking for something more.”
They get it. While the festival itself is only three days of music, the entire project takes nearly a month, and features everything from lessons in permaculture to crash courses in emergency bush first aid (led by 7Song, the people in charge of first aid at the Rainbow Gathering). There are homeopathic remedies led by the Village Witches. There are five “Give Back” days, in which festival-goers volunteer in the nearby town of Utiva to build schools and fix up infrastructure and other indigenous projects. The festival is 100% renewable, down to the plastic plates each visitor will reuse numerous times over their stay, and it’s the only festival in Central or South America that runs entirely on biodiesel fuel. For four years now, Envision has stood the test of scale, and Brooks couldn’t be more proud.
That’s not to say the event is without its challenges. Costa Rican culture is wildly different from both the new community Brooks has founded and the cultures from which many of its visitors arrive. Many in the country are unable to afford the festival even if they wanted to attend (Brooks estimates that only 35% of the Envision attendees are local, though he also blames this on the Costa Rican custom of buying tickets last minute, despite the fast selling rate). Many are uncomfortable with the culture of debauchery and drugs a music festival often encapsulates, no matter how different in operation Envision may be. The organizers must work closely with the local authorities to ensure that the cultural impact will be as minimal as the environmental one. As a show of good faith, Envision donates to the police and the public works of the nearby town to ensure a smooth event.
However, the end result is worth the challenges.
Although Envision takes place in a remote area of the world and draws a specific kind of visitor, the festival stands as a proof of concept that a gathering of that magnitude can, in fact, live up to the kind of ideals that the attendees, so often clad in their native American headdresses and hippie aesthetics, claim to espouse. It’s a pilot festival for a lifestyle that, more and more, is being accepted as possible and mainstream. Since Envision’s founding, more and more festivals in America, including Pickathon, Lightning in a Bottle, and Bonnaroo, are going Zero Waste. These festivals are themselves intentional communities as Stephen Brooks envisioned them more than 20 years ago, and are living proof that with the right design, society can be better.