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Dave Matthews on Changing the Way Musicians Tour to Help the Environment

Earlier this year, the United Nations named the Dave Matthews Band a Goodwill Ambassador for its Environment Program, and it’s hard to imagine a group of more action-oriented musicians in terms of environmental advocacy and fan engagement.

Since 2005, the rock band has partnered with the nonprofit organization Reverb on the BamaGreen Project, an ambitious program to lessen the group’s environmental impact, and potentially a model for touring artists everywhere: The plans include using biodiesel for buses, sourcing local farms for catering, recycling and composting backstage waste and funding solar and wind energy projects. Over the course of 15 years and 578 concerts, the band has recycled 338,000 gallons of waste, composted 138,000 pounds of food, supported 2,100 family farms and clocked 24,500 volunteer hours. Every concert venue also features the BamaGreen Eco-Village, a station that encourages fans to participate in the environmental initiative and reduce their carbon footprint. Variety caught up with Matthews, via phone from one of those biodiesel-fueled tour buses, to discuss the group’s progress, and how much is still to be done. — As told to Jem Aswad

Part of the inspiration [for the band’s environmental efforts] comes from when I was a kid — we spent a lot of time exploring the wilderness with my parents, so we grew up with an awareness and appreciation for the balance of nature.

When the band started to become successful, I’d leave a concert venue and see the amount of garbage left behind, and I realized that we had to do something or we wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. I can’t in good conscience tell anyone the planet is in peril and that they should do something about it — unless I’m doing everything I think is possible. Part of that is trying to change the model of how musicians tour. It’s my version of thinking globally and acting locally, and it’s not just touring: When I stay in hotels I think, “How can I convince these hotels to start recycling and initiate a program where they will separate their garbage?” So that’s the next place where I might be able to make a difference. I’m certainly not the biggest guest a lot of these hotels have, but I have a loud enough voice that I can be somewhat irritating. (Laughs) I think being irritating is a high-quality political tool.

It was a great honor to be recognized by the United Nations, but I don’t know if it’s changed anything in terms of how much I despair over the state of the world. There’s always the feeling that it’s never enough. I use my platform to be able to speak to people about the environment and how small changes can really have an effect, and we’ve had thousands of people get involved in environmental activism because of our initiatives, but at the same time I’m traveling around in a bus! We use biodiesel fuels in our buses, but as soon as biodiesel started getting a foothold in the U.S., then we’d hear that gas and oil companies are cutting down forests so they can grow corn to get into the biodiesel market. [Sighs] You try to do the right thing, and then someone sees a quick buck.

I suppose I’m comforted by the fact that I’m making an effort, but I can’t say 100% if I’m making the right effort. And sometimes you find yourself cornered by a frustrated environmentalist who says “Don’t you realize that recycling plastics is worse than anything?” [which some observers argue, because of the energy it consumes]. But I do get excited when I hear things like Coca-Cola is going to stop using plastic bottles. I wish they would start doing it tomorrow, but it does give me hope.

The way that we talk about this is important. For example, my wife and I and some friends tried to clean up the watershed of a small river in Virginia by getting the farmers to keep their cattle out of the rivers; the bacteria from their [feces] is very unhealthy. But we found that if you send a well-meaning college student to talk to a farmer, even if that student tells them the government and the Wilderness Society will pay for the fencing and a new water source for the cattle — and even if it will cost the farmer nothing more than a little time — often he will say, “I’m not interested, get off my land.” But if you send in a farmer who has the same view as the college student and says the same things, they’re much more receptive.

Nobody wants to live in the world that’s dying, nobody wants to damage the planet — although sometimes when I hear the president speak I think maybe there’s some exceptions! And I believe that given the right information, people will do the right thing. But how do we get them the right information? Maybe that’s the biggest challenge we face: How do we tell this story? Maybe if we make it about human survival rather than the survival of the trees or the ocean, or if we can say it in less of a doomsday or judgmental way, people will be willing to listen — although as climate change gets more and more severe, the message certainly will get across that way.

Everyone can make a difference. There are always the obvious little things: Ride your bike if you don’t need to take a car; turn lights off if you’re not in the room; don’t sit in your car with the air-conditioning on when you’re eating your lunch — that one’s aimed at Texas! [Laughs] And don’t disbelieve what you hear about climate change. There’s tons of information out there — go to the Wilderness Society and Reverb and see what they’re doing. Saying you don’t think you can make a difference is akin to the person who says their vote doesn’t count. Imagine that you are the balance, and if you don’t do something, it will fall the wrong way — and if you do, it will fall the right way. Every little bit we do can change the world.

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