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Sunrise's Permaculture Principles

This article was first written for ‘Rising’ Magazine in 2011.

Sunrise’s Permaculture Principles

Does Sunrise walk its talk when it comes to its environmental and social record? How closely does the festival follow the guidelines of permaculture? And what exactly is permaculture anyway? Organiser Dan Hurring reports.

Permaculture is a word bandied around a lot these days in green circles, but what does it actually mean? Probably best to refer to the definition put forward by David Holmgren, co-originator of permaculture with Bill Mollison back in the ‘70s: “Permaculture is a design system based on ecological principles which provides the framework for organising a permanent or sustainable culture. It draws together the diverse skills and ways of living which need to be rediscovered and developed to empower us to move from being dependent consumers to responsible producers. In this sense, permaculture is not the landscape, or even the skills of organic gardening, sustainable farming, energy-efficient building or eco-village development as such, but can be used to design, establish, manage and improve these and all other efforts made by individuals, households and communities towards a sustainable future.”

Although at one time permaculture referred solely to (perma)nent agri(culture), it has now come to stand for permanent culture, having been broadened to include aspects as diverse as settlement design, business management and now, for the first time, festival production – which is where we come in. Since 2009, Sunrise has been committed to developing its structure and organisation along the principles of Rob Hopkins’ transition movement which is itself rooted firmly in the fertile soil of permaculture.

Permaculture is about looking at the whole picture, not just a part of it. Since the beginning Sunrise has included a permaculture area and garden where people can learn about this fascinating topic but the real challenge is to apply permaculture design to the whole festival. So let’s look at some of the key guidelines – taken from David Holmgren’s Permaculture Principles –and how they relate to Sunrise and other festivals.

  1. Observe and Interact

In designing the principles of Sunrise, we observe and decide upon what we think is really important rather than buying into the prescribed views of the mainstream or even the green scene. We do not blindly follow social trends but question them at every opportunity. If beliefs do not stand true for us, we will not represent them.

In addition, we love to interact personally with festival-goers through forums, phone calls and onsite meetings and are working to improve our audience feedback systems. Similarly, we like to meet up with our crew as often as possible so that we all get to know each other and create an opportunity for feedback.


  1. Catch and Store Energy

This applies directly to our energy policies but also to the way finances are managed and the provision and acquisition of festival infrastructure such as fences, water pipes etc.

Sunrise has a 100% renewable energy policy. We currently rely heavily on used cooking oil, which we believe is a necessary, but imperfect, compromise. Yes, it’s a waste product and repository of relatively recent sunlight but our preference is for non-consumptive renewable energy sources: our longer-term aim is to install permanent renewable energy systems onsite to harness natural energy sources year-round.

It is said by some economists that this is no time to be perpetuating a debt-financed model of business. Unfortunately festivals still depend on a model where ticket income is borrowed to fund the festival, thus becoming reliant on successful sales and the willingness of ticket agents to assist. This is unsustainable and we are seeking alternatives. Most productive would be the development of other areas of our business, including renewable energy generation and sustainable land management. Sunrise has no liabilities to banks or other lending organisations.

Sunrise aims to own/manage a permanent festival site which can be kitted out with permanent infrastructure, rather than the current transient system of installing and removing fences, water pipes, lighting, toilets etc. We purchase infrastructure for long-term use where possible.

On an altogether different level, festivals naturally hold energy thanks to the creative input of their makers and participants. Events such as Sunrise, however temporary, are receptacles of love and good vibrations which all present can draw upon and which – according to some cosmologies – are radiated out to the wider world.


  1. Obtain a Yield

Corporate interests have become experts at obtaining a yield but in a way that is grossly out of balance with natural systems and with the needs of human culture. Sunrise is run by a social enterprise, Natural Communities CIC (Community Interest Company), in aid of the charity the Natural Communities Foundation, and is committed to both making a financial profit and to using it for the creation of a more sustainable world.

We are currently collecting donations for the creation of a Sunrise community woodland close to the festival site. This woodland will be planted with permaculture in mind, with the intention of securing a productive community resource. Our Off-Grid event successfully raised funds for the installation of a solar thermal system at its venue, the eco-progressive Fernhill Farm in the Mendips.

As well as measurable financial profit, Sunrise also believes equally – if not more – in valuing other forms of yield, even the unmeasurable kind. This includes the notion that attending a festival creates happiness in its participants or has the potential to inspire them to become more creative or take up new skills.


  1. Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback

Sunrise believes in community self-responsibility above the imposition of the Law. We believe that staff, crew and and festival-goers need to work together to ensure the festival environment is safe and enjoyable for everyone, rather than relying upon the police, licensing authorities, security teams or stewarding companies to do this for us. Ideally, an anarchic community would work on the principles of self-regulation, in the same way that a fully functional permaculture ecosystem requires no weeding, fertiliser or pest control!

By demonstrating to the authorities that we necessarily come into contact with our desire to self-regulate, we avoid the need for strict imposition of conditions and measures such as police presence.

We also self-regulate regarding the size of the festival. Early mistakes led us to learn this lesson the hard way and in 2009 we took the decision to reduce our size in order to recalibrate the event and restore its sustainable principles.

It is essential that as organisers we consider and respond (graciously!) to feedback both negative and positive, and from all sources. Every voice is important. We must also continue to acknowledge our mistakes – and learn from them.

Ultimately, for festivals, the best kind of feedback is given by the continued purchase of tickets and the building of a dedicated community that comes back year after year.


  1. Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services

Sunrise strives to comply with its own substantial sustainability policies; part of this is the value placed on renewable energy resources. We also seek to apply this principle to other areas such as the hugely successful compost toilets. Over the years we have improved these to a high-quality level which ensures that human waste produced onsite is used for sustainable purposes down the line. We visualise a future system where the sustainable disposal of grey water and liquid human waste is also possible onsite, using a wetland water system, as it was at Off-Grid in 2010.

However, there are many areas where we have not yet come close to achieving the goal of reliance upon primarily renewable resources.

Where we have struggled most of all is in the wider site infrastructure at Sunrise, which tends to be fairly industrial in nature and is dictated by licensing and health & safety legislation. The need for the transportation and erection of temporary fencing, water distribution system, festoon lighting and other large-scale infrastructure is both unecological and unsustainable, but can only be truly tackled once a permanent festival site is obtained.

Compare this to our experience of launching Off-Grid at Fernhill Farm in 2010, where we built much of the festival from reclaimed material from around the farm, much of which was the leftover traces of another event. We were also able to integrate with the existing facilities onsite, including large barns acting as venues, a reedbed water system, woodfuelled hot water and a permaculture garden.

On the positive side, for Sunrise we have installed over 2km of permanent trackway in the past two years, made with stone found onsite.

Festivals tend to be afflicted by high rates of consumption and waste. Whilst Sunrise is better than most, with a site-wide local and organic food and drink policy, as well as compostable disposables (cups, plates etc) and a strong recycling policy, there is still the issue of transportation of supplies. The best way to combat this is by the production of food onsite and the use of suitably treated human waste as fertiliser. Again, on the positive, all meat and dairy at Sunrise is produced onsite.

Further to this, Rob Hopkins writes: “We can also broaden the concept of renewable resources to include things like goodwill and trust, things which a business can rebuild with good husbandry.” Having let people down in the past, over money in particular, Sunrise knows how important the husbandry of trust is and its value in ensuring the success of the festival! We measure some of our success by the willingness of our crew to return year on year (and go the extra mile), and the willingness of festival-goers to keep coming back. People themselves are renewable resources, if you nurture them in the right way!


  1. Produce No Waste

Sunrise believes wholeheartedly in the idea of ‘cradle to cradle’ closed-cycle production (ie. one in which there is no waste) – but we still have a way to go. In fact, we would say that without a permanent festival site this goal is unachievable in the near-term future.

Our greatest triumph in this area has been the continued provision of compost toilets (something we pioneered on a mass scale in 2006) from which human waste can be used as compost. Ideally this compost would be used for our intended community woodland; a perfect example of closed-cycle production.

Currently, all waste is taken offsite, including water, landfill, recycling and compost (including human waste). Clearly this is not sustainable, so this year, as a step forward, we have arranged for all liquid human waste and grey water to be taken to a WET system which naturally cleans water for re-use.


7.Design from Patterns to Details

Festival design is a long process, usually beginning the moment one event finishes, or even during the event, as we look around and see how things could be done better.

We design with many things in mind – what festival-goers want to see, what message we want to convey, what’s going on nationally and globally, financial realities etc. Strategy is hugely important for us as every action we take must bring us closer to the change we want to be in this world, and the change we want to see happen.

We try to incorporate, where possible, natural design into our productions. We work to the remit the natural environment presents to us: the hills, the hedgerows, the flora and the fauna. We also work to natural cycles where possible, incorporating the lunar cycle in, for instance, site lighting design, and also laying out aspects of the event in harmony with the four directions or other sacred systems.

We also see that the patterns of society are reflected in the creation of a festival. Each festival is a temporary settlement, and has to be designed to the same principles, with an eye to food and water supply, energy, waste, entertainment, habitation, space to play, space to learn etc. We can learn from well-designed communities how to function in our own artificially created environment.


  1. Integrate rather than Segregate

One of the key lessons of festival production is that you can’t just go into a local area and do what you want, without regards to the sensibilities, needs and desires of the local community. It’s this kind of behaviour that has led to residents fearing festivals as having a detrimental effect on their lives, and which creates the NIMBY effect.

Sunrise always approaches the local community leaders and closest residents to discuss its plans and work through issues that come up. Taking action to reassure from the off, and actually acting on people’s concerns, saves a lot of energy in the long run – and fosters goodwill.

We also try to involve local people and organisations with our events. It’s important to show benefit to the local economy and give a reason for your event to be there, in that part of the world, both for you and for the local community. Ideally, any festival needs to aim to leave a positive footprint on any land or area it takes place within.

Another demonstration of this principle is the way the lifestyles of its participants are aligned with the ethos of the event. Sunrise is not a festival where crew turn up, build the event, then leave. Contributors at Sunrise often live the lifestyle of festivals year-round, many being mobile, living off-grid or in non bricks-and-mortar homes. It is integral to the atmosphere of the event that the crew stay and add to the flavour of the festival throughout.

  1. Use Small and Slow Solutions

Small is Beautiful. Sunrise does not seek to grow and grow, as we feel this could ultimately damage the very ideas we are trying to promote. Small means greater opportunity to meet and share, small means a slower pace of life, more time to listen and learn, small means that you stay within the bounds of what is possible with sustainable technology.

The one thing small does not always achieve is reaching a vast audience with ideas and inspirations. Nonetheless, what can be achieved is a better quality of information-sharing and a greater sense of connection.

Lastly, Sunrise also relies a lot upon small providers of infrastructure and content, rather than big ‘industry’ suppliers. Small providers are often local, more flexible, and have a better understanding of your needs and the needs of the local area.

  1. Use and Value Diversity

Rob Hopkins states that “it is key that the business identifies its main input sources such as energy supplies, and seek to diversify the base from which it obtains them.’ Sunrise aims to diversify many of its input sources, from finance and energy to the venue providers and food supplies.

In terms of energy, Sunrise always works with a multitude of solar providers and is constantly seeking to develop new relationships with micro-generators as well as larger firms. Similarly, whilst we have some core creative partners such as Chai Wallahs, we vary our offerings from year to year, bringing in fresh faces to ensure that creative diversity flourishes and that we are always representing emergent areas of culture.

  1. Use Edges and Value the Marginal

Well, I think it’s fair to say that Sunrise has always been on the ‘fringes’ of the festival scene (we like it here) and has valued the ‘fringes’ of society in a way most festivals can no longer claim to do. We also try to position ourselves at the cutting-edge of contemporary culture – exploring ideas that others may stray away from, some of which would definitely be considered ‘marginal’ opinions.

We believe Sunrise acts as a bridge between mainstream and alternative cultures. In the same way that the meeting place between two ecosystems is the area of greatest productivity, so it is with the overlapping edges of two cultures; in the intersection is an abundance of inspiration, creative thought and business development.

In Rob Hopkins’ words: “This is about recognising that innovation doesn’t come from the centre but from the fringe thinkers.” Sunrise shares that belief 100%.

12.Creatively Use and Respond to Change

Change is inevitable, sometimes called for, and sometimes forced upon us by unforeseeable circumstances: the best festivals are resilient despite trials and tribulations.

During our own epic catastrophe in 2008 (when torrential rain and flooding forced us to cancel the festival), our optimism was dashed and for a time there seemed only a dark tunnel ahead. Thanks to the care and dedication of all involved, we made it through, and learnt some important lessons in the process: that change can be hard but rewarding; that if you ignore the need to change it will inevitably be forced on you; and finally, to trust in Allah but tie up your camel (get cancellation insurance)! In the end, we were grateful for what happened and the opportunities it presented us.

Sunrise looks to the future with a smile. Our eyes and imaginations are always turned towards the times that lie ahead, knowing that our models must work in the recumbent paradigm, but also in all our desired future ones. We know that we are going through a time of transition, and that this is only likely to hasten in the coming years, but we believe in our ability to adapt to these changes and evolve through them. We trust that as we journey forwards, the community that has gathered around Sunrise will come with us and that together we will forge a way into a new world. Change on the personal and planetary scale, for us, is what it’s all about!



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