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Can a new kind of festival inspire us to live greener lives?

Words: Anne-Marie Hoeve

Photos: Ken Hermann

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From what we eat to how we get around, the choices we make every day have an impact on the world we live in. And these are choices we can change. A new festival in Denmark aims to help people do exactly that.

It’s not yet noon, but already there’s a growing queue forming in a park on the edge of Copenhagen. This is Tomorrow Festival, and visitors are in luck. Not only is this one of the first festivals possible since Covid restrictions began to be relaxed – the sun is also shining.

But this two-day event isn’t like festivals you’ve been to before. It’s focused completely on living more sustainably, with the aim that by the time the festivalgoers leave, they won’t be the same.

“A woman reads aloud from a book, describing the sound and smell of meat cooking in explicit detail”
A scene from the food experience, featuring actress Ellen Hillingsø, and a puppet butcher.

The programme looks as promising as the weather, with talks covering everything from climate equality to why nature needs rights. Keynote speakers appearing in the giant red circus tent include impact investment pioneer Sir Ronald Cohen and former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard. There’s also music, vegetarian and vegan food, and, for the adventurous, deep-fried crickets (coated in salt and spices, they’re surprisingly good).

But visitors to this festival aren’t just here to eat, drink and listen. As a large sign proclaims, they’re here to “change”. The event is host to three “immersive experiences” on the themes of food, transport and home. Each is designed to make us rethink our behaviour, in the hope of changing it for the better – which is notoriously difficult.

Food theatre and a veggie pledge

Personally I’m not the best at putting good intentions into practice when it comes to choosing what to eat, so the food experience feels like a good one to start with. Judging by the number of others outside the tent, I’m not the only one eager for an extra nudge.

It all kicks off with a question: what kind of consumer are you when it comes to your daily groceries? You can choose between three types. Are you an impulse buyer? Driven by discounts? Or perhaps you’re that enviable kind that makes a shopping list and sticks to it? It sparks a lively debate as people discuss which type they are. Coloured string tied around people’s wrists reveal who is who. It looks like a slim majority for impulse buyers.

“Here you see that you’re not the only one who cares. You’re part of something bigger and are taking care of it together”

Thit Ditzel, visitor to the festival

Then it’s off into the darkness of the tent and the sound of a rooster crowing along with a host of other farmyard animals. Grain falls from the ceiling from a pipe high above, collecting in a giant pile beside a seated woman. She’s reading aloud from a book, describing the sound and smell of meat cooking in explicit detail. Beside her a butcher – part puppet and part person, with a stark white mask for a face and a big leather apron – is sharpening knives. You’d think twice before buying meat from him.

The woman gets up and takes her time filling eight small metal buckets with grain. With a single bucket swinging from her fingers, she addresses the audience: “This is enough to feed one person for one day.” Then she places it among the rest and points to the row of eight buckets: “This is the amount a cow needs to eat in one day.” She lets her words and the sight of the buckets sink into the silence.

In the adjoining tent there’s a display piled high with fresh produce: from shiny aubergines to voluptuous pumpkins. But all is not what it seems. These have been grown in greenhouses and flown in from afar, we are told. The eco-footprint is not planet-friendly just because we’re dealing with vegetables. So local and seasonal are the two takeaways here.

Then, as plates of spicy grilled celeriac straight from the grill are handed out to enjoy, an unusual relationship therapy session unfolds on stage. A young woman admits to leading a double life as a secret vegetarian, eating meat with her boyfriend by day, but googling broccoli smoothies and veggie fare by night. Finally, the audience is invited to discuss their favourite vegetarian dishes with the person sitting beside them. People swap recipe ideas and are invited to take a pledge to eat one vegetarian dish per week. More string is handed out to seal the deal, this time in a different colour: a lasting visual reminder of your new commitment wrapped around your wrist.

“My boyfriend eats a lot of meat”

Talking to the visitors, it’s clear that many are very conscious of making planet-friendly choices. So what do they get out of an experience like this? “I already eat quite sustainably (except when I go out for dinner), so for me this was more of a reminder to keep doing what I’m doing,” says Andrea Breum. Her friend, Annabel Rijding, found the therapy session highly recognisable: “My boyfriend likes to eat a lot of meat and so sometimes I’ll just cook something else for myself. And when it’s my turn to cook, I’ll make something without meat for both of us,” she smiles.

“Visitors aren’t just here to eat, drink and listen. They’re here to change”

Thit Ditzel appreciates the tangible sense of a shared goal: “Sometimes you can feel alone in your everyday life, choosing not to eat meat or thinking about what you buy. Here you see that you’re not the only one who cares. That you’re part of something bigger and that you’re taking care of it together.”

Designed with behaviour in mind

The creative force behind the experience is chef and “food theatre” artist Mette Martinussen. “Our diet, everything we eat and drink and throw away, accounts for 18% of total CO2 emissions,” Martinussen told 5. “So we, as consumers, can make a big difference if we give some thought to that. The challenge was, how can we get across the complexity of what it means to try to be a more sustainable consumer? How can we create a sensory experience that sticks with people, and that they might remember better than something they just read on a poster?”

Visitors have fun steering remote-controlled cars up a track in the transport experience.

It’s not necessarily about telling people something they don’t know, she says, but about bringing it to life. It’s the difference between knowing a cow needs a lot of food, and seeing it with your own eyes. “Many people said to me, and to the actress in the room, that that had a real impact on them,” said Martinussen.

Karin Gottlieb, who designed the festival’s two other experiences with the help of a number of behavioural scientists, agrees. “It can get quite didactic,” she says, “but the trick is to make it an immersive experience that talks to the senses rather than the mind”. 

“The challenge is to create a sensory experience that people might remember better than something they read on a poster”

Mette Martinussen

At the transport experience, that means steering remote-controlled race cars up a miniature ramp, and outside, having a go as a rider or passenger in a cargo bike. In the home experience, people take turns aiming a light at a poster of the sun in a game about solar power before piecing together a giant puzzle filled with sustainable insulation alternatives to form the shape of a house. “These are activities that easily engage us, while live hosts introduce the topics we’re trying to address, asking questions that spark a conversation,” says Gottlieb. The idea is not to overburden people with knowledge, she stresses. The aim instead is “to use symbolic actions and conversations about different opinions to help people bring the possibilities of life-changing habits home with them”. Change takes time, she emphasises. “You need to attract people, make a strong before, during and after experience. You need to get people’s attention and engage them.”

Visitors exit the transport experience – how else – by sliding down a slide. Outside, the afternoon is drawing to a close but people are still piling into the cargo bikes, taking them for a spin on a short grassy track. There’s lot’s of shared laughter, especially when entire vehicles, complete with kids and pets, go careening off in unexpected directions. Such scenes are proof of something we tend to forget: change can be fun.

5 is a media partner of Tomorrow Festival