Ben Harper: The Earth Day Advocate’s Plastic-Free Future

Ben Harper
– Ben Harper

Ben Harper, a touring mainstay as a solo artist as well as leader of the Innocent Criminals, is no stranger to Earth Day and its causes. 

The prolific artist performed as leader of former band Relentless7 as part of a 2009 Earth Day celebration at Piazza del Popolo in Rome for Nat Geo Music and has long advocated for and directly supported environmental causes including Living Lands And Waters, which works to protect, preserve and restore major rivers and watersheds in the U.S., as well as the Plastic Pollution Coalition, which aims to end plastic pollution and its impact on humans, animals and the environment.
Having been part of the Plastic Pollution Coalition as one of the very first to reach out to CEO Dianna Cohen when it launched around 10 years ago, Harper sees much improvement in sustainable concerts in recent years. 
“In all of my time, and it’s going on 27 years in rock ‘n’ roll now, and being part of festivals from Day 1, the most recent Byron Bay Bluesfest in Australia for its 30th year anniversary, there was an excess of 100,000 people in attendance throughout the weekend, and it was the first festival I’ve ever seen with a no-plastic policy,” says Harper, commending the efforts of Cohen, artists including Jack Johnson, and Bluesfest festival director Peter Noble. “There was not a piece of plastic on site. I walked around that festival – there were water stations every 10 feet with reusable water bottles, where people could bring their own. There was no plastic. I said, ‘This is doable! It’s a workable model for the entire industry.’ When I saw that, I said that’s the future. It was wildly cool.”
Cohen pointed to other major events making strides toward reducing waste and improving sustainability, notably with the program supported by events like Bonnaroo, Coachella and Lollapalooza and dozens of artists including Johnson, Harper, Nathaniel Rateliff, Dead & Company, Maroon 5, Jason Mraz, Steven Van Zandt, Wilco and many others. With just three years of the “Refill Revolution” initiative at Bonnaroo, about 2 million plastic cups and bottles have been diverted from landfills.
Further, artists themselves can lead the charge on their tours with riders specifying requirements for more sustainable concerts.
“Over the last five years or so we’ve been making a point of not having, or allowing, any plastic on stage at all,” Harper says, adding that fans are happy to partake. “I’ve found nothing but happy faces of people proud to take part in contributing and having a positive impact on the environment.” 

Byron Bay Bluesfest
Courtesy Byron Bay Bluesfest
– Byron Bay Bluesfest
Byron Bay Blues Fest, one of Australia’s premier live events, last year for its 30th anniversary was completely plastic-free, as noted first-hand by performer Ben Harper.
While artists are able to use their platforms to make a positive impact on the environment, Harper is modest regarding his own activism.
“I strive to always be a positive agent of change, and while as a musician I have a platform from which to support certain beliefs in a certain way, there are people like Dianna on the front lines of this movement, who are really in the trenches doing this work,” he says, also admiring the work of Chad Pregracke at Living Lands And Waters.
Harper, Cohen and other environmentalists have marveled at the suddenly crystal clear, shelter-in-place Los Angeles currently resembling its somewhat pre-traffic days of the 1970s – “on a Saturday,” Harper adds, laughing. But both have been impacted more personally, with immediate family contracting the virus, including Cohen’s partner Jackson Browne. The situation has been serious on a personal economic level as well, including Harper’s road crew of about 20.
“I think this is the planet taking a breather,” Cohen says. “And it is giving us an opportunity to slow down. While it’s a very scary time and a very real health crisis, it also gives an opportunity to be particularly creative.
“If the world goes back to normal –  what is normal anyway? – do we have a possibility now to transform the systems that are broken, based on everything from fossil fuel dependency and the oil industry to colonialism and social justice?” Cohen asks. “I think we are in a transformative time right now.”
“See how excited she is? That’s what I love about Dianna’s work,” Harper says. “If we humans are the cause, not of the virus but of pollution, we have no choice but to be the solution.”
Harper, who has just launched his own Mad Bunny record label with venture partner Elizabeth Freund, with its first release by singer-songwriter Birdthrower, says it will be increasingly important for artists to keep score of their own footprint and work to improve.
“The future of touring is probably keeping a balance sheet, an environmental report card,” Harper says, admitting he can surely improve, too. “It’s not just about a festival for me, but a daily reality of how one goes about touring.”