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Who will count the fish?

Guest Column
Sunday, February 17, 2019

In a recent article published by the Texas State University Star on Float Fest, I was a bit confused. The article seemed a shallow assessment on the issue facing Martindale and the prospect of either denying or approving the permit for Float Fest. But then, it’s an opinion article which is constitutionally rife with confirmation bias, and true to that format it introduces info-data supporting the author’s views and rejects anything contrary, so it can be and should be read as such without harm. The author goes on to posture the rights and privileges of those who would benefit from FloatFest, and I expect she may reap the benefits of sticking to one safe moral absolute, maybe even benefiting by popularity and perhaps a free ticket to Float Fest?

In the article the author cites the event as a “rite of passage” by students and locals, and “persnickety residents” who she characterized as non-essential and don’t really have the right to say anything. Then there was her assessments “One of the complainants, Tom Goynes, co-owner of San Marcos River Retreat in Caldwell, opposes the festival because he claims it hurts his business. Hurting one business, however, is a small price to pay for the $12.3 million generated.” What I find unsettling is that the author’s scepticism lays a very mutated version of Consequentialist morality; you know, the killing of one person to save ten people argument. So in this scenario, who is the greater good? It’s clearly not the community at large, but instead a narrowly focused group of people profiting while taking advantage of very few regulations to limit their options in making that profit. There are volumes of legal precedent that would suggest sacrificing a long standing individual’s business is not a risk you’d want to take.

This was the first time I had any insight into how much this festival actually earned. I didn’t realize we’re talking millions, wow, so what’s the problem? An event that spans a single weekend and pulls in $12M is struggling with trash?  

Maybe it’s worthwhile to look outside of San Marcos for examples that are more successful. Have you ever heard of Burning Man? It’s a the globally recognized icon of unbridled and unhinged radical free expression, music, art, and ridiculousness. Each year 60k people gather in the Nevada Desert for three weeks running around naked, massive art installations from all over the world, burning multi-story wooden effigies and partying like aliens from another world. However, when they’re gone, you can’t even tell they were there. It’s because they take their environmentalism seriously. They even have a special word for trash, it’s called “MOOP” (matter out of place). Anything, folks, not just cans, jello shot cups, or punctured tubes. If a human brought it in, it goes out with them.

Look, if the Black Rock, LLC who established and ran Burning Man Festivals from 1998 until 2013 when it went non-profit, and all of the regional non-profit Burning Man events such as Austin’s Flip Side, or Freezer Burn can instill a sense of genuine civic duty in their participants, then why so tough for Float Fest?  As an event, Burning Man didn’t rest on their laurels, but instead created a set of principles that all participants fully understood. You can look them up on BurningMan.org. Those principles were not crafted as a dictate of how people should be and act, but as a reflection of the community’s ethos and culture as it had organically developed since the event’s inception. For example, “Civic Responsibility —  We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.” Or as in the case of Float Fest and the contention around pollution, and environmental such as noise, traffic, trash, trespassing, and overcrowding of the river, what about Burning Man’s principle “Leaving No Trace — Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.”

It’s ironic that today within our own backyard you can find a comparable situation of the demeaning and disenfranchising effect on local citizens who live along the bank of the San Marcos River, to the people along the beaches of Mexico, where vacationers show little respect for those who live and work there, and perpetuate the general disregard for environmental values. Wildly successful beach events and parties commence without any apparent interest on the impact that thousands of people have on the coral reefs. In the wake of them you see the floating evidence of human indifference and two day old live coral broken and laid out on the beach in 3 foot tall letters spelling, “HELP - NEED BEER!” For many of the locals, they relent to the onslaught of money, some join the ranks, others simply stay silent and remain powerless over the destruction of their own resources right in front of their eyes.

How would Float Fest turn the corner into the successful, fun, and responsible event it could be without beating up the landowners, stifling small businesses, and leaving a mark on the environment that takes months to cover up? How will landowners, Caldwell County, and adjoining areas consider a supportive position if they desire to benefit from the tax revenue (assuming it actually stays in Caldwell County)? And what is the short term and long term effect of chronic overcrowding and littering on the river, and who will count the fish?

And has anyone asked that one business owner if he doesn’t mind if we sacrifice his livelihood, family, well-being, and 30+ year claim to his riverside property and environmental stewardship so that Texas State Bobcats and traveling party goers can keep their four-year-old rite of passage?

Huffaker is a resident of San Marcos