environmental sustainability in sport and culture and events: another tragedy of the common

Nested sustainability

With this year’s group of students, I have been exploring in depth again, what it means to be sustainable in Sport, Culture or Event Management. My course was based on the idea of nested sustainability. This idea, which is also illustrated in the graphic on the left, is having the assumption, that there are three layers to be observed: (1) nature or the environment, (2) society and (3) economy. Each one is embedded in the underlying one. So economy is part of society and society in turn is part of nature. To be truly sustainable, any human activity (including Sport, Culture and Events) should therefore firstly operate within the natural resource limits (Daly has already proclaimed this in the 1990ties): so not consume more energy and resources (and not create more waste) per day as can be replenished by nature within one day. In doing so, values of social cohesion: human dignity, transparency, solidarity and participation should be fosters (or at least not harmed). Last but not least, hat operation should be economically long lasting: so revenue should be able to cover the cost on the long run.

This year in addition to using the common good matrix we have been doing quite some systems analysis. This blog post should summarize some of the main insights from those exercises.

Reinforcing Loops

Reinforcing loops are one of the most basic pattern in systems thinking. In short, they do strengthen (reinforce) any behaviour over time and do normally result in an (exponential) growth if not stopped by a balancing loop. They are quite numerous in our daily life and can hence be found in sport and culture as well. A musician, who gets played on the radio will be heard by more people, so more people buy an mp3 or visit a concert so the artist will become more popular and eventually will be played more often on the radio would be such kind of reinforcing loop (at least from old times, where people still bought CDs or mp3s 😉 ) So reinforcing loops are neither positive nor negative per se, yet do only describe, that certain patters will strengthen itself and therefore automatically reoccur.

Case Study Snow Canons in Skiing

Yet, if we look at the environmental aspect of culture and sport activities, such reinforcing patters can have a negative impact on nature as well.

Skiing has change vastly over time. In the 1940ties  / 1950ties when my father had his first experiments with skiing, skiing barely had any impact on nature: young man would carry wooden skis up the mountain on their back and ride back down in the “Powder”.  So skiing itself is actually a very low impact activity. What causes the huge impact is all the surrounding infrastructure and activities: travel, ski-lifts, preparing the slopes, operating the alpine huts, etc.

This system pattern above is incomplete and should only serve to illustrate the basic idea. On the one hand climate change is by far not the only problem we have (key word planetary boundaries) and on the other hand of course climate change is influence by other factors as well, yet traveling does make a big share. So let’s start from there. The more people travel long distance, the more they cause environmental degradation which in turn causes climate change. With the climate change snowing pattern do become more unpredictable: we do have higher fluctuations in the Alps or probably even an above average warming which reduces the availability of natural snow. The less natural snow there is the more skiing lifts have to invest in technical equipment (here we would have also a direct link to climate change again). This further equipment increased the price level of the skiing tickets, which in turn reduces the group of people, who can afford to go skiing, which in turn again causes skiing areas to reach out to an ever broader international audience, which in turn increased the average travel distance of a skier to reach the skiing lift.

This is only one small aspect of the environmental impact skiing has. Other more local aspects would deal with the use of (drinking) water for creating artificial snow, erosion of the soil below the slopes and the consumption of unsustainable (conventional) food and beverages in huge quantities on the alpine huts.

The tragedy of the commons

Austrian footprint calculator grey footprint

On the footprint calculator of the Austrian Ministry of Sustainability and Tourism, one can clearly see how 1.5 gha (in grey) are the share we always have.

We all have heard about the ecological footprint (if you have not, I highly recommend you to check out that website, before you continue reading). Simplified said, there is an environmental footprint from consumption and one from production. While the first one is something which is largely under a person’s control (at least on the long run), the latter one is the sum of the total footprint created by production of goods and service in a society. By logic, the latter one is bigger than the first one: there is streets which are built and street lights which are operated, community halls built and classroom equipment bought. All these activities do also create a footprint but only very little of it would be “consumed” by us. While most footprint calculators in the Anglo-Saxon area do simple allocate that extra amounts in the consumption footprint, the footprint calculator form the Austrian Ministry of sustainability does explicitly show this share of joint footprint. For Austria this is 1.5 gha. In comparison if we consider the concept of fair earth share each one of us would have around 1.9 gha for all his or her needs.

So more than 75 % of every Austrian’s earth share is already used up just by providing the infrastructure, which surrounds us. While I think everyone would agree to contribute his fair share to a functioning society, we have to seriously question the ratio this contribution has at the moment. No one would accept a 75 % tax on his income: so why should we accept 75 % contribution of our fair earth share without participatory decisions?

I would like to put a strong hypothesis forward here: In this number we also can see a phenomenon of the tragedy of the commons. The tragedy of the commons happens if many individual actors (in this case citizens) do compete for the same scarce resource (in that case the bio capacity). In our case, many actors have been competing for the resources in the last decades: municipalities, hospitals, educational institutions, private economy, national parks and also sport and cultural institutions.

There is not sector, which has not experienced a growth in (material and economic) size over the last decades, and at a certain point in time, we have increased the total impact to that unfortunate level it is now. I shall illustrate with two case studies below what that means in practical terms.

Case Study football’s CO2

Let us switch for a moment the perspective and look at the perspective of an football club and its fan (you can easily replace it also with an opera house its regular visitor of or electronic music festival). While the environmental impact human activities have do reach way beyond CO2 emission and do include also other very harmful practices for the planet such as the loss of biodiversity, deforestation, etc. climate change I did choose CO2 for this article as it provides an easier mathematical ground and is central in societal and political discussion currently too.

If we come back to the idea of the fair earth share, According to MyClimate.org in simplified words that would mean that every individual all of us have a “budget” of 600 kg of CO2 per person per year or around 1,64 kg of CO2 per day.  They don’t give a rational how they derive on that number (and a while ago I think to have noted, that they had 2 tons per person per year), 600 kg serves as good as 2 tons to illustrate the tragedy of the commons. Also that budget is taken from the assumption (underlying narrative), that we as humans do have the right to exploit even the last meter of this planet for the purpose of fulfilling our basic as well as luxury needs (I highly recommend to follow Charles Eisenstein if you are interested in this moral / philosophical question). While I do fully agree with Charles Eisenstein on his warning, that we should stop counting CO2 beans and start to look at our negative impact and relation with Nature from a broader perspective, I still chose 600 kg of CO2 for the purpose of illustrating the tragedy of the commons we do face in that context. Changing the number to 1000 kg or 1.5 tons would only change the dimensions but not really the basic tragedy of the commons.

In any case: this so called budget does however not include any societal overhead: be it building roads, running street lights or operating cultural or sport venues.  All CO2 created by all these common buildings and activities, would by logic needed to be reduced from all our individual “CO2-budgets”.

Let’s have an example on that. VFL Wolfsburg is one of the most environmentally conscious football clubs of Germany currently. They do publish a CSR report frequently and spend time on reviewing their business process and calculating their impact. With 12000 registered fans, they can be considered one of the bigger football clubs in Germany. They have calculated that the total emission from their operation is currently 18679.569 tons of CO2 annually. 75.9 % of the emissions are caused by fans traveling. The remaining 24.1 % is including things such as food in their canteen (1.1 %), business travel of managers (2.7 %) and the players (4.9 %) or the heating of the stadium (10.5 %). Their target was to reduce the CO2 footprint by 25  % (2011 – 2017/18) yet till now it they have recoded an increase of 31 % among the emissions which are under their direct control (which are 12.2 % according to their report).

In their report they write: we wanted to reduce the emission by 25 % but unfortunately we have built a second stadium and also we are now part of UEFA. It further more states, that if that would not have happened, the reduction would have been 34 %, but now it is unfortunately (as if this was not in their hand) increased. This excuse and growth in consumption if the efficiency gets less is a phenomenon called the Jevson paradox, which in simple terms is the paradox, that with an increased efficiency the consumption increases too keeping the total impact stable or even more. Paired with the above described tragedy of the commons an explosive combination.

But back now to our calculation. If we assume, that for every registered fan there is one unregistered fan would make 24000 unofficial fans who do cause the CO2 from fan mobility which in total is around 14 000 tons (or 590 kg per fan per year). So every fan would use more than 90 % of his “annual budget of sustainable CO2 emission” (600 kg) for traveling to the matches. Let’s assume now that every registered fan is asked to contribute his fair share to all the remaining 24 % of CO2 emission as a solidarity contribution: that would mean that another 30 % of their annual budget would be gone for that purpose. Which wold leave them with debt left for everything else in their life, including heating their own homes, commuting to work and their basic nutrition.

Just to re-emphasize on what has been said above already: CO2 emissions are by far not the only problem we do have on the environmental level of sustainability, neither do I really believe, that we do have a something like an annual budget for pollution. Yet, this idea can help understand our problem from the current narrative we are in. There are many other natural flows and resources to be considered (i.e. water, phosphorous, nitrogen) and for all of them the same logic needs to apply if we are to be truly sustainable:  here is actually no way to measure and distribute the shared burden of destroying bio-diversity. It simply has to become a no-go or as Kathrin Hartmann said in The Green Lie: there is no human right on sweet candy, which does not even make you saturated if somewhere else people and planet have to die for it. Equally I would claim, that there is no human right to entertainment which inhibits future generations from inheriting a healthy planet.

Mapping the sector

With my student this year, I have tried to map, on which we tried to get an overview on the sustainability of different activities in Sport, Culture and Event management. We created the following map of environmental and social sustainability (I will write about social sustainability of SCEM in a separate article) of different sport and cultural organizations and events as you can see from the graphic below.

teh map shows, that almost all activities and organzations in sport, culture or event manageme are acting unsustainable in the actual meaning of the world. While there are serveral which act above average even above average is not truely sustainable at the moment.

this schematic sketch was developed with my group of students on the last day of the lecture summarizing our findings in class

The schematic map was the result of a group based exercise in which pairs of students sat down and assessed various organizations or events they were familiar with using this document. True sustainability in this exercise has been defined as not using more resources as per person per day is the fair earth share, while for social sustainability different indicators for fair treatment of suppliers, employees, volunteers, customers and other stakeholders have been checked for.

Of course such a one-hour exercise does not do justice to a critical scientific scrutiny, but the tendency of the current trend in sport, culture and events can be seen: a bunch of profitable activities can be seen in the socially and environmentally unsustainable corner, while the closer it comes to sustainability, the less profitable events have been identified. The majority of organizations and evets are furthermore in an unsustainable midfield while there is very few ones being socially as well as environmentally truly sustainable.

Tragedy of the commons continued

Every sector in sport and culture respectively is having its own loop of a tragedy of the commons. The competition of i.e. museum for visitors, artists and sponsorship and governmental subsidies is increasing and the expectations of the members and clients are too. So every single museum has to increase the service it offers for visitors, the comfort, the turnover of exhibitions, the visibility in form of PR campaigns, etc. to have enough visitors to ensure the next round of funding, which leads to an upward spiral in the requirements but also resource consumption, which in turn again leads to a tragedy of the commons within the museum scene.

Yet there is a second tragedy of the common in place. A competition for the natural resources between all the different activities in sport and culture (and many other societal organizations). When it comes to distributing financial resources, all countries in the world do have any allocation process beyond the free market in place (in more democratic countries the budget negotiations of the ministries and in corrupt countries a power-structure, which channels those sources). Yet for the natural resources, no such process is in place. Everyone who has access or financial mean can use natural resources or pollute them.

So all the sectors (skiing arenas, tennis clubs, concert halls, opera houses, etc.) do simply taken and increase their share of negative environmental impact. Without seeing how in total that contributes to a degrading natural base on which the whole society operates. As the delay loops caused by this overuse of resources are of very long nature, till now, they have not driven anyone at risk of operation. Yet, it is systemically seen an interwoven net of tragedies of the common, which is highly relevant for all the public funded artistic or sport oriented organization and events.

What could be the way out?

What could be the way out now? A very popular approach is to hope for more efficient technologies to solve the problem for us. Yet as the above example showed, the Jevson Paradox is making this a very unlikely that that (alone) would be sufficient. According to this paradox, more efficient use of resources is outweighed by an increase in consumption leading either to an overall increase or in best case a stability.

So the “simple way out” is blocked, which leaves basically two ways open: the break down, which we have very good reasons to avoid or the transformative pathway (on the notion of transformative change I highly recommend the latest study of the Stockholm Resilience Center). While I do not have the answer (and actually hope for a vivid discussion on that topic), on how exactly the transformation of sport and cultural management can look like, yet I am convinced, that in a truly sustainable and resilient future, both have returned somewhat to their origins. Or better a rooted version 2.0 in which in the center of the activities of a sport club or cultural institution is people practising art, playing sport and enjoying the team or creativity spirit again rather than being a consumer in a unsustainable market which turned the essence of sport and culture in a mere commodity.