Woodstock 99: A Lesson in Preventing Civilizational Collapse

By Cameron English — Sep 12, 2022
Some 400,000 people attended Woodstock 99 in Rome, New York. The weekend-long music festival ended in preventable disaster, and it offers an important lesson to policymakers and activists eager to ban important technologies.
Image by thekaleidoscope via Pixabay

Woodstock 99 is remembered as one of the most disastrous events in music history. The three-day music festival was billed as a reboot of the original hippie-inspired Woodstock held in 1969, though it rapidly devolved into chaos. Ignited by price gouging, water and food shortages, insufficient security and sanitation services, rioting brought the concern to a tragic end.

Trash littered the festival grounds; vendor stalls and trailers were set ablaze; 1,200 attendees sustained injuries requiring medical treatment, including trench mouth caused by consumption of sewage-contaminated drinking water. At least five cases of rape and other sexual assaults were reported, and three concertgoers died. “It was gonna be the biggest party on the planet,” one MTV correspondent recalled, “but that's not what any of us remember it for.” The tragic events of the festival were captured in the new Netflix documentary Train Wreck:


Any number of important lessons can be drawn out of Woodstock 99, the most significant being that civilization is fragile. We like to think of ourselves as sensible creatures willing to work together for the good of humanity, but that sentiment evaporates when our basic needs go unmet.

One of our best hedges against societal collapse is technological innovation that sustainably provides essentials such as energy, food, water, and shelter. Unfortunately, that progress is threatened by artificial scarcity: usually in service to some grand ideological goal, governments routinely restrict access to the goods and services people need to escape grinding poverty. We've seen many recent examples of this policy in action, and in each case the result is unecessary suffering. 

Woodstock 99: coming to a city near you?

We're quite good at devising solutions to our ecological and public health threats: our air is getting cleaner; we produce an abundance of food; diseases that used to kill millions of people are now prevented with vaccines or treated with safe, effective medications. Deaths and damage caused by natural disasters have decreased as the global temperature has increased. Before anyone calls us Big Oil shills, NPR agrees with this assessment, reporting in June, "As weather disasters increase, deaths from them have actually fallen."

In sum, the classical environmental horror story is a lie. Humans are remarkably resourceful, as the economist Julian Simon nicely illustrated in his bet with Population Bomb author and biologist Paul Ehrlich. A growing global population didn't throw us into poverty and famine, as Ehrlich warned it would because we innovated our way out of the predicted crisis. If we come up against a civilization-ending threat in the years ahead, I'm betting it'll be a hellscape of our own making. Consider the following examples.

California's water crisis

My native California is facing a severe drought. [1] Is the state incapable of providing its 40 million residents with fresh water? Do we use an inordinate share of the water we have access to? No and no. Almost half the fresh water in California is reserved for “environmental uses,” which include “water for 'wild and scenic' rivers, required Delta outflow, instream flows, and managed wetlands,” according to the Public Policy Institute of California. The institute has also reported that the state's agricultural and urban water use has fallen over the past two decades, despite population increases.

State regulators have also expressed hostility to developing privately financed desalination plants, which pump salt water out of the pacific ocean and convert it into usable fresh water. Other feasible water-storage proposals have been rejected based on dubious environmental concerns. The drought is real, but the ultimate problem is California's unwillingness to address it.

Artificial food and energy scarcity

California's water problem is just one example of widespread artificial scarcity. As I've discussed recently, Sri Lanka descended into rioting following food shortages created largely by a ban on imports of “synthetic” pesticides and fertilizers. The government, in opposition to its agricultural scientists, followed the advice of organic-food activists, who stood to gain financially from the policy. Hungry, enraged citizens have since deposed that administration. The Netherlands is trying to force similar, though slightly less severe, policies on its farmers; this is occurring even though the country's agricultural sector is one of the most sustainable and productive in the world. Farmers have driven their tractors to parliament in protest.

Zooming out to the European Union (EU) reveals even more troubling developments. The EU has shown signs of shedding some of its decades-old phobia of genetically engineered crops. However, it remains unnecessarily hostile to nuclear energy, synthetic pesticides, and the cultivation of GE crops many nations grow without incident.

Scientists have warned European politicians about these risky policies for decades, “and it just took one crisis in the Ukraine to bring European economies to their knees,” risk expert Dr. David Zaruk explained recently. The situation is predicted to worsen, as PBS reported on September 6: “Europe is struggling to contain an energy crisis that could lead to rolling blackouts, shuttered factories and a deep recession.”


Woodstock 99 ended in preventable tragedy, but it was just one weekend, and less than half a million people were involved. What happens when many millions of people lose long-term access to electricity or affordable food because dumb politicians were eager to virtue signal their "green" bona fides? Hopefully, we never have to find out. But the question invites Zaruk's very important observation: "Western affluence and prosperity can disappear in a heartbeat through irrational policies."



[1] Veteran journalist Steven Greenhut has covered California's water crisis well in recent years. I highly recommend his reporting.